The champagne-popping black-tie tradition of the Men’s Titanic Society began as an act of whimsy on Easter 1979.
With handfuls of daffodils and a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck, a group of television producers and directors ambled down to the Titanic Memorial here on April 15, 1979, to commemorate the anniversary of the fabled ship’s sinking. Standing by the lapping water of the Washington Channel, they offered a toast “to those brave men” who gave up their seats on lifeboats to save women and children.
“We left feeling really good about it,” said Don Elder, 66, a founding member.
So group members, now grayer of hair and rounder of paunch, have been coming back every year. Around 11:30 Saturday night, the 20 members of the Men’s Titanic Society will gather at the memorial near Fourth and P streets SW for a midnight toast to the men who died 100 years ago. “What those men did that night has been recognized as probably the greatest act of chivalry in history,” said founding member Jim Silman, 85.
In the late 1970s, Silman was a producer for the WRC-TV show “Washington Odyssey,” which highlighted obscure memorials and monuments across the city. One of the them was the Titanic Memorial, which almost never came to be.
Shortly after the Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean, some of the country’s most prominent women started an effort to honor the disaster’s victims. Of the 1,500 people who died that night, most were men.
The charity’s first donation came from first lady Helen Taft. Other women who helped fund the memorial included Carnegies, Rockefellers, Harrimans and Hearsts. In all, more than 25,000 contributed to the cause.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney designed the memorial, which portrays a male figure with arms outstretched. She once described the statue’s face, with eyes closed, as possessing “an expression of sublime sacrifice.” Its base was designed by Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial.
The 18-foot statue and pedestal were sculpted by John Horrigan from a 20-ton block of granite in a shed in Quincy, Mass. The project was completed in 1918 but languished in storage for more than a decade until a location could be agreed upon.
Finally, with the help of Lt. Col. Ulysses S. Grant III, an Army engineer and the president’s grandson, the memorial was placed on the banks of the Potomac River.
On May 26, 1931, the Titanic Memorial was unveiled by President Herbert Hoover and the first lady. For many years, hundreds of women returned to the memorial on the tragedy’s anniversary to honor the men who had died.
In 1966, the memorial was removed to make way for the Kennedy Center. Two years later, it was relocated to its current site near Fort McNair. The tradition started by the women soon ended.
In 1979, Silman told some television colleagues about the “hidden” memorial his program had featured.
“So we said, ‘Why don’t we remember those brave men even if the women have forgotten them?' “ said Max Schindler, a retired NBC News director for “Meet the Press” and the “Today” show.
This year, group members will meet at the National Press Club for a dinner inspired by the cuisine of the Titanic. They don tuxedos because many of the men on the Titanic spent their last moments in formal evening wear to “die like gentlemen.”
After dinner, they will go down to the memorial, where a liveried waiter will serve them bubbly in custom-made Orrefors crystal flutes. A bell will ring three times to open the solemn ceremony.
“We do this because we want to honor those brave men who laid down their lives so that women and children could live,” Schindler said.
The ritual of the Men’s Titanic Society embodies the spirit of the words spoken by Rep. Robert Luce, R-Mass., at the memorial’s dedication in 1931.
“With no hesitation, no demur, men to whom life was as precious as to you or to me accepted the likelihood of a speedy death. All the vain distinction of class and creed and race were forgotten. Magnate and deckhand, millionaire and stoker, railway executive and steward, capitalist and cabin boy alike conquered the primitive instinct to fight for life and joined in sacrifice,” Luce said. “Insofar as the sacrifice of the men we here commemorate shall have lessened the perils of the sea, they will not have died in vain. Nobler will be their reward if they have helped to teach us how to live and how to die.”