Book, inn remember the Titanic
Updated 12:58 pm, Monday, April 9, 2012
The Titanic hit that fateful iceberg on the Atlantic Ocean on April 14, 1912, and more than 1,510 lives were lost. However, author Helen Behr Sanford, known as Lynn, wanted to focus on two of the 711 survivors in her new book, "Starboard at Midnight." The two survivors? Her grandparents.
"It was a labor of love to present the story of my grandparents to the world as I know it," Sanford said.
The stories behind the history is what Sanford discusses in her book. She never knew her grandfather, Karl H. Behr, who died the year she was born, but she was close with her grandmother, Helen Newsom, and knew very little about their Titanic story.
"When I was growing up as a child I knew that both of my grandparents survived. When I gradually learned about the significance of the Titanic event, my curiosity grew. What happened on that ship?" Sanford said. "I was 12 years old when I finally got the courage to ask my grandmother. She went into silence for a while before kindly saying it was not something she could talk about."
Sanford knew it was a sensitive subject. Her own father would not talk about what occurred that day when people called their home to ask about the Titanic story. It was not until Sanford was in her mid 20s that she discovered a chest full of old photos, articles and letters about her grandfather.
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"My grandfather had a very interesting life," Sanford said. "After surviving the Titanic he met Theodore Roosevelt and became one of his close friends."
Beyond that, Behr was also a very gifted tennis player who was ranked third in the country at one time. But the story Sanford really wanted to share was one of his survival.
It is well documented, in Sanford's book and other publications, that the lifeboats were mainly for the women and children.
"There were 38 first-class men who got off on the starboard side of the ship," Sanford said. "And many of them hid their identities from the world."
As a result of their survival, many of those men were looked at as cowards for not giving up their seats for women and children. Sanford said it was not as simple as that. After much research, Sanford discovered how her grandparents were able to survive that night. It had to do with luck and timing, more than anything else.
Behr gathered his future wife, Helen Newsom, and her parents to the boat deck approximately 45 minutes after the ship had struck the iceberg. Standing beside the lifeboats was Joseph Bruce Ismay, chairman and managing director of the White Star Line of steamships, Sanford said. Behr and Newsom were in line waiting for the second lifeboat to leave from the starboard side.
"So they happened to be standing on the boat deck when the lowering of lifeboats was ordered. Ismay was seen as having the authority of those people on the starboard side," Sanford said.
So when Newsom asked Ismay if Behr could enter the lifeboat, with approximately 40 people, to help row, he replied yes.
"There was a very subtle sense of urgency. However, it was without any kind of alarmist airs at all. It was just a matter of amazing timing for him to get there to help row it," Sanford said.
Sanford said her grandfather wanted to turn the boat around to help the others but their boat had no food, no light and 6 inches of water gathering on the floor with 40 people awaiting rescue. The ship that eventually rescued them was the Carpathia. It was aboard that ship that Behr helped to organize a committee to honor the captain and help survivors.
"So many of them didn't think the ship would actually sink," Sanford said. "That fact cannot be overstated."
New Canaan residents will have an opportunity to become acquainted with the story of Sanford's paternal grandparents, as well as other stories aboard the ship, exactly 100 years to the day of its sinking. The Roger Sherman Inn is recreating the final dinner served aboard the Titanic on April 14 at 6 p.m. Guests will enjoy a the same first-class dinner Sanford's grandparents had that night while also stepping into the shoes of some of the other passengers who were on the ship. Each guest will receive a "boarding pass" which will include the story of a Titanic passenger.
"There is a romance to the story of the Titanic," Nes Jaffre, owner of the Roger Sherman Inn, said. "It is incredibly tragic and elicits such strong feelings from people and I think the inn is just the ideal spot to commemorate the 100th anniversary. I think the feel here is very grand and we're all very excited about it. But what we're most excited about is that the American Red Cross has teamed up with us and we want to really raise a lot of money for them."
The inn chose to partner with the American Red Cross because it was the original organization to help in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster.
"We're really excited it's coming together like this," Jaffre said. "It should be a great night of remembrance and history."
Sanford said she was struck by a line at the end of James Cameron's film about the Titanic which really inspired her to finish the book for her grandfather.
"Survivors waited and waited for absolution that would never come," the narrator said in the film.
The search for absolution, for a grandfather she only knew in pictures and stories, was what drove her work.
"I felt I needed to be in that boat with my grandfather and then give him my gift of absolution, which I worked on for 10 years."
"Starboard at Midnight" is published by Darwin Press.
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