In 1909, John Jacob Astor IV, known to intimates as the Colonel, divorced his wife Ava in a clandestine proceeding in Poughkeepsie, New York. The secrecy of the action enraged the newspapers, which were cheated of a front-page sensation, and scandalized New York society. Astor soon appeased the former and sent the latter into further paroxysms when, in September 1911, he married Madeleine Force, a woman who, at 18, was a year younger than his son, Vincent. Shunned by people of fashion, the Colonel whisked his bride to Europe, but the trip was cut short in the spring of 1912, when she became pregnant. Anxious to return to New York as quickly as possible, Astor booked passage on the White Star Line’s newest and largest transatlantic luxury liner.
The Titanic captured headlines in large part because of its vaunted invulnerability and the sheer number of lives lost, rather than for its impressive passenger manifest or the rarity of its fate. Robber barons and royalty, after all, regularly enjoyed the palatial accommodations and sumptuous service to be found aboard these massive ships during the heyday of the ocean liner, as Gérard Piouffre observes in his recently published book, First Class: Legendary Ocean Liner Voyages Around the World (The Vendome Press), a colorful and delightfully detailed celebration of a vanished era of romantic voyages and engineering innovation. Moreover, the loss of transatlantic liners during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was not uncommon. Piouffre cites a passage from Henry James’ A Small Boy and Others, in which the author recalls a tense evening at the theater several days after the Collins Line’s Atlantic failed to arrive in New York. During the performance, one of the actors suddenly came out on stage to inform the well-heeled audience that the vessel was safe. “The house broke into such plaudits, as I had never heard the like of,” writes James. “[It was] but a snatch of elation, since the wretched Arctic had gone down in mortal woe and her companion the Pacific leaving England a few months later . . . was never heard of more.”
A disproportionately greater number of catastrophes occurred in the North Atlantic during this golden age of sea travel. Although rough weather and arctic ice were partly responsible for this actuarial anomaly, the architects of disaster were often the ships’ owners themselves. From the moment, in 1838, that the S.S. Sirius first crossed the Atlantic entirely on steam power, “the North Atlantic crossing was to be the scene of epic struggles between maritime companies and the countries they represented, with ocean liners of herculean [sic] proportions unleashed at top speed,” writes Piouffre. “Whenever a ship set a new record, a whole country celebrated in jubilation, while the victorious shipping company would see its bookings soar—until another great liner arrived to steal the record.”
This honor was recognized in the form of the Blue Riband—a pennant flown from the mast of the prevailing vessel—and the lengths to which captains would go to capture this prize were, at times, alarming. Passengers who booked themselves aboard a contender sometimes did not survive to regret the choice. In 1898, the French liner La Bourgogne, while vying for the trophy, struck a smaller ship off the coast of Newfoundland, drowning more than 500 people.
Many accounts maintain that the Titanic and its sister ships in the White Star Line, Olympic and Gigantic (later renamed Britannic), were designed with the coveted Blue Riband in mind—and that Titanic was racing to victory the night that she sank, killing Astor and more than 1,500 others. According to Piouffre, these are among the many myths associated with the fabled vessel, though the tragedy did prompt an international commission to establish new guidelines for safety.
Still, the quest for the Blue Riband continued. In 1933, the Italian liner Rex plowed across the Atlantic at a top speed of 30 knots through a dangerously thick fog, radioing warnings of its approach all the while to vessels in its path. This reckless disregard for safety successfully captured the Riband for Benito Mussolini’s regime. The glory, however, was short-lived. World War II and the advent of air travel soon put an end to the Riband rivalry—and to the romantic notion that the true adventure of travel lies in the journey.