Ninety-eight years ago, the luxury ocean liner Titanic hit an iceberg just before midnight. Soon after, on April 15, 1912, the great ship sank in the frigid waters of the Atlantic. More than 1,500 people died.
The occasion is marked every year in Washington, D.C. by an unlikely group: the Men’s Titanic Society.
Just before midnight on the D.C. waterfront, several dozen people stand near the ghostly statue of a man in angelic robes. His arms are outstretched, his face turned to the heavens.
The stone fabric seems to ripple from his shoulders in the breeze. He looks a bit like Kate Winslet leaning off the bow of the Titanic.
There’s an inscription: “To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic, April 15, 1912. They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.”
Former Altadena resident John Labrecque holds a glass of champagne, waiting. "I lived here for about six years," he says, "and I’ve missed it each and every year, so this year I vowed I would not miss it. I don’t know. It’s folklore, you know."
Not folklore, fact, says Dudley Brown, who has witnessed the annual ceremony of the Men’s Titanic Society. "A limousine or a long bus will be appearing," he says, "and out of it will emerge, and I think it’s 15 journalists – all in black tie. And they have a butler here. And the butler will serve champagne. And each of these journalists will present a really eloquent – brief but eloquent – toast. It’s very impressive."
The spirit that formed the Men’s Titanic Society began with the courage of those men on the Titanic who gave up their lives so women and children could survive. In 1931, a group of society women – led by the widow of President Taft – unveiled the Titanic statue on the banks of the Potomac, near Georgetown. When the Kennedy center was built on that site in 1966, the Titanic statue went into storage. Two years later, it was later quietly relocated to a different site. No one in Washington seemed to know, or care, where it was.
TV cameraman Jimmy Silman says more than a dozen years later, a news assignment turned into a quest.
"My dad and two other producers at NBC were doing a story on little-known sites in Washington." He says they were "looking for this statue and couldn’t find it. This statue was erected by the women to the men that gave up their lives. They decided that the women forgot."
Forgot to keep honoring the men they’d honored years before with the statue. That’s how the Men’s Titanic Society began – with a handful of male journalists carrying flowers snatched from a TV station garden and a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck champagne, the kind served on the Titanic. They stood by the river and drank a toast to the selfless men of the Titanic.
The annual event grew into a fancy black tie dinner and an elaborate ceremony. No women are allowed – and no on-camera types, either. The Men’s Titanic Society honors not the rich and famous, but those who worked behind the scenes on the ill-fated ocean liner.
It’s almost 1 when the bus arrives. A troupe of slightly tipsy men in tuxedos marches to the statue. They set down a red wreath at the base – and the toasts begin.
"Tonight, we pay tribute to some of the people on that fabled ship," one man says, "people who acted with grace under pressure, people who kept the lights running, people who kept music playing, and people who gave up their seats so that women and children might be saved. To those brave men!"
The flock of tuxedoed men shout "hear, hear!" and the crowd echoes in response. The toasts continue into the night. Spectators like Pomona College grad John Bennison lift their glasses in solidarity. "I think the chivalry was pretty amazing when you think about it," he says. "That the band continued to play as the ship went down."
When the speeches and the champagne are finished, the members of the Titanic Men's Society pose for pictures, shake hands, and disappear quietly into the night, like the brave and selfless men they honor each year.