Backstory: Authors lecture students on author Walter Lord

Two New York authors, Jenny Lawrence and John Maxtone-Graham, shook off the rain and chill of a dreary fall Thursday in Baltimore and quietly stood in the well of the Gilman School auditorium waiting for 255 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students to take their seats.

They were there to tell the students about one of their own: Walter Lord, the noted historian and writer who graduated from Gilman in 1935.

Christopher Lee, founding partner, director and CEO of AIG Highstar, and his wife, Susan Ginkel, who is a member of the Gilman board, have two sons at the school and endowed a scholarship in Walter Lord's name. They were responsible for bringing the two authors to Baltimore.

During his student days at the Roland Park private school, Lord had fallen under the spell of the Titanic, the huge White Star liner that plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage in 1912 after colliding with an iceberg off the Grand Banks.

It is part of Gilman legend that Lord had so honed his skills in telling the story of the ill-fated Titanic's last moments for his senior speech that parents called the school to complain that he had been responsible for giving their children nightmares.

Lawrence and Maxtone-Graham, who were both longtime intimates of Lord, gave flawless presentations, holding their youthful audience's rapt attention for almost an hour.

Lord had attended Princeton and Yale Law School with Lawrence's father and spent every Christmas with her family at their home in Washington, as well as leading them on informed tours of nearby Civil War battlefields.

Lawrence is the author of "The Way It Was: Walter Lord on His Life and Books," a memoir she assembled from Lord's unpublished material and tape-recorded interviews she had made in the 1980s. The book was published last year.

Maxtone-Graham, an author, marine historian and chronicler of the lost age of the great trans-Atlantic liners, told The Baltimore Sun at Lord's death in 2002 that "Walter was a giant, there is no other way to describe him. He single-handedly revived interest in the Titanic after it went underground, so to speak, with 'A Night to Remember,' which was an electrifying book."

Both lectures were illustrated with slides of vintage pictures and maps. Lawrence, who spoke first, told the students that Lord was 10 years old when he wrote his first account of the loss of the Titanic.

She included a very fine slide of an eerily and remarkably accurate crayon-colored drawing that Lord had made to accompany his report, showing the Titanic going down by the head with all of her lights ablaze.

Lord's book, "A Night to Remember," was published in 1955 and was subsequently made into a full-length motion picture, as well as being the inspiration for numerous TV specials and documentaries.

Each of Lord's books, Lawrence told the students, was "built around great historic events and the firsthand experience of its participants."

In order to get vivid firsthand accounts, Lord printed up forms that he asked participants to fill out and return to him.

His working method for his books, she explained, was what Lord called the "Mrs. Murphy chowder approach, where everything went into it."

"He'd read newspapers, diaries, reports, court documents, official and personal accounts, which he used," Lawrence said.

Lawrence said that by the time Lord died at 83, he had written 12 books, many of which had been best-sellers.

She said Lord described his last book, "The Night Lives On," as being "very much beloved by the author," because in her words, "he was brought back to the story that had gripped his imagination since childhood, that he had never, ever let go."

Much of his last book speculated on the role of the nearby liner Californian and its master, Capt. Stanley Lord, which was stopped in the ice some 10 miles from the Titanic, and why the ship's officers ignored the Titanic's emergency flares, which rose high into the night sky. (The two Lords were not related.)

"If Walter could go back in time," she said, "it was to be on the bridge of the Californian to see what happened that night."

Maxtone-Graham was next, his mission being to tell the students about the Titanic.

Maxtone-Graham explained that the Titanic was an Olympic-class liner, the second vessel of three. The Olympic, the Titanic's sister, was the first vessel, hence the Olympic-class designation, which was followed by the Britannic.

The ships were defined by their four massive buff-and-black painted funnels.

The three vessels were built and launched at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Maxtone-Graham said, pointing out a subtle difference between the Olympic and Titanic.

He noted in two pictures that the promenade deck on the Titanic was enclosed by glass while the Olympic's remained open, and it was a way to tell the liners apart.

"After Titanic sank, unscrupulous newspapers were peddling pictures of Titanic which were actually the Olympic," he said.

After observing passengers getting wet on the Olympic, J. Bruce Ismay, who was chairman of the White Star Line, ordered them glassed-in on the Titanic and Britannic.

Maxtone-Graham also dispelled a long-held belief that the White Star Liners were a powerful competitor on the North Atlantic run.

"The Cunarders — Lusitania, Mauretania and Aquitania — were five-day ships, while the White Star vessels were six-day ships," he said. "They got around it by saying you had a sixth day at sea with which to relax."

A slide of a picture of an iceberg flashed on the screen with red paint along its base, purported to be the one that sank the Titanic. He then explained the concept of an iceberg, and why they are so dangerous when they wander into the sea lanes.

"Icebergs are hideously dangerous," he said. "It's like an ice cube in a glass: Most of its mass is below the surface." This is what resulted in the 300-foot-long gash from an underwater sliver of ice along the Titanic's superstructure that caused its sinking.

He also interjected a little humor when showing a slide of the Titanic's grand first-class staircase.

"This is where a rather wooden detective fired five times at Leonardo DiCaprio and missed," he said, referring to the 1997 movie.

Maxtone-Graham, whose latest book, "France/Norway," about the former glamorous French Line ship, is being published this month, showed a slide of a 9-year-old Walter Lord on the deck of the Olympic on his first voyage to Europe in 1926.

He concluded his talk with a photo showing the Titanic's crumpled bow resting some two miles below the surface.

"She is still on course headed toward New York," he said. "And her two capstans are kept polished by the current."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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