Titanic Memorial

Sculptor  Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney   Architect  Henry Bacon

Dedicated 1931

This extraordinary memorial is quite unlike the majority of Washington’s many monumentalized objects.  Appropriately enough, it is now even physically located far from them.  Yet this memorial also says much about American monuments, even though it is in many ways distinct.   After all, it does not refer to any action of American government or commerce or even any event that took place on American soil.  The RMS Titanic was a British ocean liner that sailed from Southampton in 1912 en route to New York with well over 2,000 people on board.   Only four days out of port it struck an iceberg and sank.  More than half of all aboard perished, largely due to inadequate lifeboat capacity.  In personal terms, the tragedy of the Titanic mostly befell British nationals: especially its crew of over 800, almost half from Southampton itself.  The most numerous of its passengers were the more than 700 in steerage (“third class”), who beside UK nationalities were largely from Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia (particularly Hong Kong).  It is only the Titanic’s 300-some First-Class passengers—mingled British aristocrats, international glitterati, and American social and economic elite—that allow Americans to share in the tragedy.

Most of the many memorials to the Titanic victims are based on identity, either individual or in small groups.  There are those to the engineers of the ship in 1914, or the victims from Belfast in 1920, for instance. In fact, Washington also has a memorial of this sort in the Butt-Millet memorial fountain erected by federal decree on the Ellipse in 1913.  It is dedicated to two Americans, Army Captain Archibald Butt and his companion Francis Davis Millet, a political operative involved in the Taft administration. They were last seen playing cards in the first-class cabin.  This monument, to a closeted gay couple, is a good example of how queer sexuality is normalized in the monumental landscape.

But the Titanic Memorial vividly demonstrates how events are remade over time, not least in terms of reinforcing gender roles.  By 1931, in the height of the Great Depression, this event from before the Great War began to take on the mystique it still holds, token of an earlier, romantic, and doomed world.  It was funded by a nationwide campaign led by a handful of wealthy socialites, and indeed designed by one of their own, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, remembered today most of all for her patronage of the arts.  Whitney’s monument is not dedicated to the victims as a whole (both male and female) in remembrance.  Instead, its inscriptions speak for “the women of America” in gratitude to “the brave men” who “gave their lives that women and children might be saved.”  These American women give their thanks to men everywhere, “the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the ignorant and the learned, all who gave their lives nobly to save women and children.”  Whatever differences of means or culture or age may divide men throughout the world (and on the microcosm that was the Titanic) are minimized in the face of the larger imperative that all men recognize a common, implicitly heterosexual, attitude and duty toward women and family.

Whitney’s monument, perhaps her masterpiece of public art, is simple and moving.  Above a white stone exedra, a nude male stands in a cruciform position, covered in long, flowing folds of drapery.  His eyes are closed and head tilted back.  The posture suggests standing stalwart in a strong wind, while the composition connects to Christian allegories of sacrifice and resurrection.  It’s an image and an ideal for more recent times. This very posture, struck by Kate Winslet, serves as very emblem of the experience of the Titanic in James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. It testifies also to the continued, almost archetypal, appeal of the Titanic as nostalgia site.  Indeed, even before the film came out, a group of swells, the Men’s Titanic Association, aspire to Leonardo di Caprio-ness by meeting in black tie every April 15th (the night of the disaster) for a dinner consisting of the first-class menu on the ship, with champagne from a vineyard operating at the time.   Afterward there is midnight wreath-laying at the monument, as the guys revel in the praise the monument offers up.

A classically-trained sculptor, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had more success in shaping public sculpture in Washington than any other city, culminating in the Titanic monument.  Scion of the highly-prosperous Vanderbilt family, she married in 1896 the perhaps even more prosperous investor and speculator Harry Whitney.  While the campaign for the monument had gone on for more than a decade, it saw fruition at the moment of Harry’s death in 1930 and Gertrude’s inheritance of 72 million dollars, immense for its time. The following year saw not just the dedication of the Titanic memorial but also the opening of Gertrude’s path-breaking museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Thus private capital most shines its power out, for better or worse, at a moment of inequality like that of the Great Depression.

The Titanic Memorial was originally located at the very end of New Hampshire Ave. by the Potomac river, the closest DC gets to a roiling ocean.  In fact, in 1936 the entire monument was submerged in water as the river spectacularly overflowed its banks, a sort of symbolic reenactment of its origin.  This is also a reminder that its original Washington neighborhood bears the mariner-unfriendly name of Foggy Bottom. In 1966 it was removed when the Kennedy Center was to be located on the same spot and soon relocated to its current higher ground, where it continues to exert its obscure but palpable influence.