It started simply, as a group of journalists who donned tuxedos and sipped champagne in honor of the men who went down with the Titanic so that women and children would live. For the past thirty-four years, the Men’s Titanic Society has met at the base of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Titanic Memorial on the anniversary of the ship’s infamous sinking. Each member gives a toast to those 1339 men who perished in the tragedy. The whole group cheers, “to those brave men!” The toasts can include diary entries of survivors, a recitation of names, or a reflection on male chivalry in today’s society. Typically, some residents of Southwest D.C. observe the ceremony, many choosing to participate with their own sparkling cider.
On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I convinced some friends to venture down to the corner of P and Water Streets SW to experience the ceremony. Thankfully, the weather was lovely, with the exception of a couple of raindrops. We arrived at midnight and joined about a hundred others waiting for the Men’s Titanic Society to arrive. They began by standing in a circle for a private moment between themselves. Then, a ringing bell silenced the crowd and the men stood around the base beside one another. A server passed around a tray of champagne coupes and they began their speeches.
Some of the men stated that “nobody knows how they will react in a terrible situation,” but that they hoped they would be inspired by the men aboard the Titanic. Particularly, I was moved by one Society member who reminded the crowd that those men chose an icy death rather than being disgraced.
After learning more about the artist Francis Davis Millet, I wanted to give my own silent toast. According to Titanic lore, Millet helped women and children into lifeboats and calmly accepted his fate aboard the ship. Algernon S. Frissell wrote to Millet’s widow Lilly on April 19, 1912:
While we all hoped to the last that Frank might have been rescued, we knew that his mind would be occupied with rescuing others rather than with saving himself.
I have no doubt Millet is worthy of such an annual showing of respect as he acted with that bravery and honor. For these acts, I raise my glass:
To Francis Davis Millet, a father and husband. A man who brought beauty to the world and served his country in war and public service. A man who gave his life so that others could live. To those brave men!
To Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Natalie Hammond and the Women’s “Titanic” Memorial Committee. Women who were so moved by the sacrifice of the men of the Titanic. For organizing and building a permanent memorial. To those brave women!
To the Men’s Titanic Society. For remembering a great sacrifice and a previously forgotten monument, and inviting the rest of us to remember as well. To those brave men!
Jayna Hanson is a processing archivist at the Archives of the American Art.