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REMEMBERING WALTER LORD, CHRONICLER OF THE TITANIC

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The phone rang the other day, and it was Jenny Lawrence calling from her home in New York City.

"Walter would have been 92 this week," she said.

The Walter she was referring to was Walter Lord, more formally John Walter Lord Jr., the author born and raised in Baltimore who sparked the Titanic craze with the publication in 1955 of his book, "A Night to Remember."

Lawrence, an author and editor, recently published "The Way It Was: Walter Lord on His Life and Books," a memoir she assembled from unpublished autobiographical material he had left behind after his death in 2002, and tape-recorded sessions she had made and transcribed in the mid-1980s.

Lawrence, who has a bachelor's degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley and a master's in journalism from New York University, conducted extensive interviews with Lord in his apartment at 116 E. 68th St. in New York City, over lunch during the winter of 1987 and spring of 1988.

This was no ordinary interview because she had been intimately acquainted with the celebrated author since childhood.

Lord was an honorary uncle who had been a familiar and close member of her Washington family when Lawrence was growing up. Lord spent every Christmas with her family from the late 1940s to 2000.

"My father and Walter were friends at Princeton and Yale Law School, plus both shared an interest in the Civil War," she said.

Readers and fans of Lord will find much revelatory and heretofore unknown biographical material in Lawrence's book.

Baltimoreans will also find much that is interesting about his time here and especially his somewhat awkward family life, which was marked by the early deaths of a father he never really knew and a sister of whom he wrote, "I don't remember a single conversation with her."

His maternal grandfather, Richard Curzon Hoffman, who became president of the Seaboard Airline Railroad, was something of a bearded, cigar-smoking ogre who was a "terrifying figure" to his grandson.

"I can't remember his ever saying a word to me," Lord recalled.

When his grandfather died in 1925, he wrote, "His obituary in the Baltimore Sun noted an impressive number of clubs he belonged to and a remarkable absence of charities."

Lord, who was born Oct. 8, 1917, was the son of John Walterhouse Lord, a Baltimore attorney, and Henrietta M. Hoffman, a self-absorbed socialite who reveled in being the center of attention at salons she held Sunday afternoons in her Roland Park home. Lord was 3 years old when his father died at 46, leaving behind young Walter, his mother and an older sister, Henrietta Hoffman "Muffie" Lord, who was 19 when she died of scarlet fever in 1929.

After his father's death, which was accompanied by a sudden evaporation of a steady income, they left their former home and took up residence in a three-story brick house at 4314 Roland Ave., near the Roland Park water tower, where young Walter could lie in bed at night listening to the squealing streetcars as they made their way in and out of the nearby loop and then out onto Roland Avenue and University Parkway.

Enrolled at Gilman School from which he would graduate in 1935, Lord proved to be a bookish student. By the time he was 9, he had developed an interest in ships, particularly the Titanic, which sank in 1912.

Lord, who had been exiled to his Aunt Dorothea's library in her farm near Towson, made a startling discovery one hot, rainy summer afternoon.

There on the shelf was a thin, black volume. It was Lawrence Beesley's eyewitness account of the sinking of the Titanic. He had been a second-class passenger aboard the doomed liner.

"I was overwhelmed by this account - as indeed I am whenever I reread it today," he wrote.

In 1926, Lord, his mother and sister, sailed from New York to Southampton aboard the Olympic, the Titanic's sister ship, which became a living stage for the impressionable child. While at sea, he played the Titanic story over and over again in his mind.

When he was 10, Lord had written his first dramatic account of the Titanic disaster. When read before his Gilman classmates, it resulted in a rash of nightmares, or so complained nervous parents in calls to the school's headmaster.

Lord, who had kept his original account, showed it to Lawrence in 1988. After his death, she helped close down his apartment and inventory his papers.

"It is my regret that I never could find it," she lamented the other day.

Even though Lord spent his adult life in New York City, Baltimore, the Orioles and Gilman remained lifelong serious interests.

Since June 2002, Lord's ashes have rested in his family plot near his father, mother and sister in the Yew Section of Baltimore's Green Mount Cemetery.

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