A Titanic Century

I listened to the message — left on my office voice mail — early on a Monday morning last month. It proved to be the best start to a week I’ve enjoyed in some time.

“Hi Frank. This is a voice from your past.”

The cheery greeting came from M.P. Wilkerson, a friend I knew — more than a decade ago — during her days as a writer from Montgomery, Alabama. As nice as it was to hear her voice after several years, the kicker was the reason for her call.

“I wonder . . . do you happen to recall the name of the Titanic survivor we met on our trip?”

“Our trip.” M.P. and I actually took several trips together, to various corners of the globe, each of them press junkets for Wonders: The Memphis International Cultural Series. For those too young or new to Memphis, Wonders presented a series of blockbuster exhibitions, starting with Ramesses the Great in 1987 (the 28-foot-tall statue from the exhibition stands in front of The Pyramid to this day). Later Wonders shows spotlighted Catherine the Great (1991), Napoleon (1993), and Imperial China (1995). And yes, in 1997, The Pyramid became home to more than 300 objects salvaged from the 20th century’s most famous shipwreck. A few months before Leonardo DiCaprio reshaped the way the world remembers April 15, 1912, tourists could see a jar of olives in Memphis that once occupied a shelf on the Titanic.

The “trip” M.P. alluded to on her message was a journey in December 1996 from Memphis to France, from France to England, from England to Northern Ireland and, finally, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Each destination represented a distinct piece of Titanic history, from Southampton, England (where the ship departed for her maiden voyage on April 10, 1912) to Halifax, where nearly 150 Titanic victims lay buried in three cemeteries.

Unlike journeys M.P. and I shared to China and Peru to report on other Wonders exhibitions, the Titanic trip was spawned entirely from tragedy. This tempered discussion among journalists and, at times, dampened the typical jovial spirit of such ocean-hopping adventures. The Titanic may be a great story. But great only in terms of magnitude. More than 1,500 people, after all, died with the ship.

One person who did not die was Edith Haisman, the survivor M.P. and I met in Southampton 16 years ago. Haisman (her maiden name was Brown) was 15 when she boarded the Titanic with her parents. Traveling as second-class passengers, the Browns were below decks (Edith was asleep) when the ship struck history’s most notorious iceberg late on the night of April 14th. Edith and her mom were directed to lifeboat 13 where another passenger gave Edith a fur coat to stay warm. The last words Edith heard her father speak were, “I’ll see you both in New York.”

Edith Haisman lived to celebrate her 100th birthday and was the oldest living Titanic survivor at the time of her death in January 1997, less than three months before the Wonders exhibition opened in Memphis. One of the best lines from that trip came from Ian Adamson, at the time Lord Mayor of Belfast: “Not along ago, I approached an old lady, and I asked her what the secret to old age is. She responded, ‘Getting off the Titanic.’”

Sunday, of course, marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s demise. Thanks especially to my long-overdue chat with M.P. Wilkerson, I’ll be thinking of Edith Haisman, and how unlikely it is for a person in 2012 to receive a call asking about the Titanic survivor he once met. Edith was a sweet lady. I actually poured a glass of orange juice for her, a simple request she made while surrounded by curious media types and their equipment.

I’m grateful for friends like M.P. Wilkerson. And I’m grateful for those fortunate souls like Edith Haisman who realized full lives despite facing one of the darkest, coldest hours in human history.

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“901” is the current affairs blog compiled by the staff of Memphis magazine, where readers can find breaking-news tidbits relating to all facets of life in the Bluff City. 

Edited by Shara Clark, Memphis magazine’s associate editor, this blog’s regular participants include long-time Memphis editors such as Michael Finger, Jackson Baker, Frank Murtaugh, and Kenneth Neill. “901” also includes regular contributions from Inside Memphis Business staffers Richard Alley and Eileen Townsend, as well as the staff of the Memphis Flyer.

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