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Jack Zaleski, Published April 14 2012

Zaleski: Walter Lord wrote the best Titanic book

Of the hundreds of books that have been written about the sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago today, I think the best is still Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember,” which was published in 1955. Lord’s book had the benefit of having been written and researched (for some 10 years) when many of the disaster’s survivors were still alive. That’s its best feature.

Of course, Lord did not have access to the incredible information that has been generated about the wreck since it was discovered on the bottom of the north Atlantic and subsequently visited by scientists and artifact hunters. The new science and engineering data generated in the past decade was only possible because of technology that did not exist in Lord’s time. For example, Lord’s book could not report that the great ship actually broke in two before going down. Or that rivets in the hull plates were forged of inferior steel.

The great appeal of Lord’s book is the eyewitness accounts he recorded from interviews with survivors. Some of the memorable phrases that have become iconic in the ship’s story were first written in his book. Among them: “God himself could not sink this ship,” attributed to a deckhand in answer to the question, “Is this ship really nonsinkable?” from second-class passenger Mrs. Albert Caldwell. She, her husband and son survived.

And “It’s all right, little girl. You go, and I’ll stay awhile,” said first-class passenger Dan Marvin to his new bride as she got into a lifeboat. She survived. He did not.

The scenes of luxury and the class system aboard the great liner that are so familiar in Titanic lore first came alive in Lord’s treatment. His book was the basis for arguably the best Titanic movie, 1958’s British film, “A Night to Remember,” starring Kenneth More, David McCallum and Honor Blackman.

The first Hollywood version was 1953’s “Titanic,” with a lineup of stars, including Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwick, Richard Basehart, Thelma Ritter and a young Robert Wagner. Not bad, but the story is told better in the 1958 film.

Find a copy of Lord’s “A Night to Remember.” The book might not be technically complete, but as insight into the people on the great ship and the heady times prior to World War I, there is no better work.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.

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