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Walter Lord -- the man who revived the Titanic's tale

NEW YORK (Reuters) - For Walter Lord, keeper of the Titanic flame for more than four decades, it has truly been a year to remember. The 80-year-old Lord is the world's foremost Titanic expert. His 1955 book "A Night to Remember" helped bring the memory of the great ship back from its watery grave and pave the way for James Cameron's Oscar-winning film "Titanic." "A Night to Remember" is one of two books Lord about the disaster that claimed more than 1,500 lives when the "unsinkable" liner struck an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage on the night of April 14/15, 1912. Riding on the coattails of the success of Cameron's film, "A Night to Remember" is back on the New York Times bestseller list for the first time since its release in 1955, along with Lord's other book on the disaster, "The Night Lives On," published in 1986 after the wreck was found.

"It is indeed an unusual and gratifying experience to have two books on that list," Lord told Reuters in an interview. He calls the Titanic "an unsinkable subject." It was the ultimate shipwreck, taking the lives of many of the era's best-known celebrities and leaving a wealth of legends for historians. But until Lord's work, his first book, the public had been fickle and fame elusive for the Titanic. From 1913 to 1955, not one book was published about the doomed liner. "A Night to Remember" awakened curiosity but the 1958 film based on the book foundered in North America, Lord said, because a New York newspaper strike stifled reviews.

The wreck's discovery in 1985 sparked renewed interest, but nothing like today, in the wake of the film -- the highest- grossing motion picture ever made. Lord said Titanic was largely a subject for buffs like the 5,000-member Titanic Historical Society until a fictional romance between actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet took it mainstream. "It's ironic," he said not long after "Titanic" won 11 Oscars, including best picture. "I thought the love story interfered a little with the story and I discussed that with Cameron. He said he hadn't wanted to do just another documentary about the Titanic. He was right. The love story has made it a cult film with teen-agers." Lord was Cameron's guest at the London premier. He has seen the film twice since then and calls it "terrific," adding, "The special effects are the best I've seen." He said he was not too bothered by the fictional plot because the film is otherwise realistic, authentic on ship design and costumes, and spotlights human behavior with all its warts. His only disappointment was that 87-year-old Gloria Stuart did not win best supporting actress for her role. Lord was interviewed at his upper East Side apartment and subsequent telephone conversations. At 80, he is semi-retired but still writes and produced the foreword for a 1997 book about a former Titanic stewardess. He also keeps in touch with other Titanic scholars and during one interview fielded a call from a man researching lifeboat safety.

Lord is more than merely the father of Titanic scholarship; he is the respected author of 10 other books on subjects that include the Civil War, Arctic explorer Robert Peary's conquest of the North Pole and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His epic of the Alamo, "A Time to Stand," earned him an award from the Sons of the Republic of Texas in 1962 despite his being the first modern author to claim that American hero Davy Crockett surrendered. This is now the accepted version, although "surrendered" has been changed to "captured." Eclectic subjects but with a common thread, each of Lord's books is the story of ordinary people struggling amidst extraordinary circumstances. "Events alone rarely provide much guide to the future. You have to study the people and the ones that measure up are not always the ones you expect. The Alamo showed that, as Pearl Harbor did and 'A Night to Remember."' Lord was born on Oct. 8, 1917, in Baltimore, took a B.A. in American History at Princeton in 1939 and a law degree from Yale. During the Second World War, he was attached to the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA. After the war, he became the editor of a newsletter and wrote advertising copy for the J. Walter Thompson agency.

"I never earned a dollar that was not somehow through writing," he said.

His fascination with the Titanic also began early. In 1926, when he was 9, he crossed the Atlantic with his mother on the Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic. He spent the voyage "driving people crazy" with questions about the lost liner. "I don't remember exactly when the lightning bolt struck but by the time I was 12 I was deeply into scrapbooks and magazine clippings about the Titanic," he said. He was one of the first to utilize a "you-are-there" style -- describing an event in one place, then flashing to a concurrent scene elsewhere, over and over -- to present exhaustive research in a suspenseful, arresting narrative. Book World reviewer Edward Beach wrote that, before Lord, books on historical subjects had to separate "wheat from chaff" to tell a coherent story. "'A Night to Remember' changed all this. It gave chaff and wheat together and the result was unforgettable."



-- Dan Draghici (, April 13, 1998


Dan, do you have a URL for this story? I'd love to get it.



-- Kip Henry (, April 13, 1998.

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