Imagine you’re on a sinking ship. What would you do? Charlotte Pye freaked out (understandably). She grabbed her baby and ran to the deck, where she observed “women shouting and screaming and praying to be saved.”
“Don’t cry. It’s quite all right,” a man told her.
“No, it isn’t,” Charlotte replied.
The man promised to find her a life jacket, but unable to find one, he removed his own to give her. As he tied it around her, she realized this was the same man who’d given her five dollars the night before for a charity concert. This same man, the American millionaire sportsman named Alfred Vanderbilt, helped Charlotte and her child to a lifeboat.
Another woman on the ship, a nurse named Alice witnessed Alfred Vanderbilt saying to his valet, “Find all the kiddies you can, boy.” The valet rushed off to collect the children and brought them to Vanderbilt who “dashed to the boats with two little ones in his arms at a time.”
The ship’s barber, Lott Gadd saw Alfred Vanderbilt “trying to put life jackets on women and children. The ship was going down fast. When the sea reached them, they were washed away. I never saw Vanderbilt after that. All I saw in the water was children everywhere.”
The year was 1915. The ship was the Lusitania, hit and sunk by a German torpedo just off the coast of Ireland. Over 1,200 of the 1,962 passengers died, including Alfred Vanderbilt.
Unfortunately, this devastating tragedy was not one of a kind. Three years earlier, in 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk. Equipped with life-vessels for half the number of passengers, over 1,500 people died. Men gave their lives to save women and children. ¼ of the ship’s children died, ½ of the women and ¾ of all men on board.
Soon thereafter, a committee of women in DC began raising funds to build a memorial in honor of the brave men who gave their lives for others on the Titanic. Eight professional artists submitted designs into a competition. In 1914, the committee chose the winning design, by Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
Gertrude must have been thrilled to win the competition. The committee chose Gertrude’s design because it “showed the figure of Heroism, a man of noble proportions, fifteen feet high, the face, arms, and whole posture of the body exemplifying a willing sacrifice, a smiling welcome to death.”
Mrs. Whitney fell in love with art on a trip to Paris in 1901. She studied sculpture in New York and Paris and opened a studio in Greenwich Village where she worked on her sculpture and became a patron to other artists. As an heiress to the Vanderbilt railroad and shipping fortune and married into the Standard Oil wealth of the Whitney family, she had more than enough money to pursue her artistic passions.
One biographer described Gertrude as “existing in two worlds. In one, she was the perfect, icy formal uptown matron… in the other she was a passionate bohemian who took lover after lover; a lady bountiful to impoverished American artists with who she shared a riotous life in Greenwich Village.”
And in 1915, the year she began bronze studies for the Titanic memorial, her brother, Alfred, boarded another ship called the Lusitania. The rest is history.
I can’t imagine what went through Gertrude’s mind as she worked on a memorial to commemorate the bravery of men giving their lives to save others on a sinking ship. People say the sculpture’s face closely resembles her brother. In 1912, the project was important. In 1915, it became personal.
John Harrigan in Quincy, MA sculpted the final 13 foot figure from one piece of red granite. The Titanic Memorial was unveiled in a prominent location on the banks of the Potomac in Rock Creek Park in 1931.
That same year, Gertrude founded the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. Originally, she’d offered her American modern art collection to the Met. When the Met refused, the Whitney was born. Gertrude is best remembered as a patron to the arts. Her own artistry has been forgotten.
In 1966, the Titanic Memorial was removed to make room for the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Art. The memorial remained in storage for two years before being re-located to it’s current location in 1968.
I saw a black and white photograph of the Women’s Titanic Memorial and was hypnotized. It festered in me a few days until one evening, after yoga class, I decided to go for it.
The southwest waterfront is far off the typical DC tourist’s march. Unfamiliar with the area, I wasn’t sure it would be easy to find. Daylight faded quickly and exploring after dark wouldn’t be safe.
Once nearby, I saw the sculpture in the distance, swimming in pink clouds. I grabbed my camera and started running towards it. A few men cast fishing poles into the Potomac. A woman leaned against the sculpture’s marble base. I snapped photos frantically. No one seemed to notice me or the 13-foot half-naked man bearing his soul on the water’s edge. I returned home, more intrigued than ever.
I have no personal connection to the Titanic. Of course I adored the movie and saw it in the theater three times (an all-time record for me). The sculpture’s similarity to the ”I’m flying” scene is striking, but it isn’t Kate and Leo tugging at my heart.
Why do I love the sculpture so much? This question agitated me while out on a run recently. For fun, I assumed the figure’s pose – opening my arms, closing my eyes and tilting my head towards the sky.
I thought this may feel morbid, like a crucifixion, but it was actually quite the opposite. Instead of a surrender to death, for me – it was a surrender to life. My heart lifted and stress melted away. I was more present and alive than ever.
The magic’s in the pose. It was there all along, right before my eyes, yet I’d overlooked it.
Try it yourself: Open your arms. Close your eyes. Tilt your head back. In a way, we’re all on a sinking ship. Let go; give in; surrender.
“Torpedoed!” by Diana Preston, Smithsonian magazine, May 2002.
“The Women’s Titanic Memorial,” The GangPlank Newsletter, Jan 2008.