Reviewed by Randy Bryan Bigham
Starboard at Midnight, the story of survivors Karl Behr and Helen Newsom, penned by their granddaughter, stands out as a literary treat in the rising tide of books about the century-old disaster.
With the centenary of the Titanic’s demise looming the anticipated stream of books about the catastrophe has begun to flow. On the way are insightful tomes like Hugh Brewster’s Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, placing in historical perspective the rich and famous aboard the legendary liner, and Andrew Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic, tracing the lives of survivors after the sinking and interpreting their legacy. Revised releases of classic accounts are on tap -- Triumph and Tragedy by John Eaton and Charles Haas, and Titanic: The Canadian Story by Alan Hustak. George Behe’s On Board RMS Titanic, an extraordinary collection of previously unpublished letters and other rare, first-hand documents, led the pack this year and is already an essential resource. Other titles coming out look less than promising, and rehashed, rush-to-print jobs will likely make up the majority of what’s available for readers as the April 15, 2012 anniversary approaches.
Yet amid the hubbub of glossy pictorials, in-depth chronicles and pure junk has emerged an intimate literary gem, Starboard at Midnight (Darwin Press/$24), a novelized treatment of the lives of Titanic survivors Karl Behr (1885-1949) and Helen Newsom (1892-1965). Behr was a 27-year-old tennis star and Helen, still in her teens, was the hometown girl he had fallen in love with and pursued for months, hoping to ask her to marry him. Helen’s mother disapproved of the older man’s attentions and whisked her daughter off on a European vacation to shake him. Karl feigned a business trip to Paris to trail her, and the lovelorn pair finally met up on the Titanic’s maiden voyage to New York. The stuff of fiction? Yes and no. Authored by the couple’s granddaughter, Helen Behr Sanford, the book isn’t the hagiographical muss of sentiment one expects from a family memoir. Although dotted with flash-forwards that complicate rather than enrich the narrative, and drawing on some invented characters that fail to enhance the story, Starboard at Midnight is the shrewd analysis of a love story. With all the drama and intrigue that charges a spy thriller, and punctuated by bursts of eloquent prose, Sanford’s well-woven tale fleshes out the grandmother she cherished and reclaims an elusive grandfather she never knew but felt compelled to discover.
The romance of Behr and Newsom is familiar to Titanic aficionados but its retelling from such close quarters offers fresh nuance. Based on Karl’s unpublished autobiography, family albums, scrapbooks, and a little imagination, his granddaughter charts his rise to international prominence as an athlete, adventurer, businessman and political activist. The Yale-educated lawn tennis champ who ranked in the Top 10 for eight years was a Davis Cup doubles finalist at Wimbledon in 1907 and a member of the American team that won the challenge round in the 1914 Davis Cup; among Behr’s other victories was defeating top-ranked Maurice McLoughlin for the 1915 Achelis Cup. Remaining an influence on the sport after his career ended, he led a campaign that was instrumental in securing the US Open’s move from Newport to New York. In addition to his prowess on the courts, Karl Behr was a successful attorney and a savvy investor before turning to banking as his chief profession. Along the way he mixed it up with world travel, including a daring stint mining for silver in Mexico, and dabbled in national politics, serving as an advisor to Theodore Roosevelt in his Presidential bid for re-election.
One of Karl’s proudest achievements was organizing the Preparedness Parade down Fifth Avenue in 1916, an event the New York Times called “the greatest civilian marching demonstration in the world.” The procession of over 135,000 men and women inspired an “expansive and energetic movement for defense” that ultimately led to America’s entry into World War I. Despite his patriotism, as a German-American Behr fought prejudice during the war. Anti-German feeling was so high by 1917 that when he sought appointment to the Aviation Service, a commission was denied him owing to his German parentage. “I have come to understand that when a person is subjected to aspersions,” he wrote, “the only recourse he has is to stand tall.”
And he did just that, no more so than five years earlier when he suffered survivor’s guilt after the Titanic disaster, a pain surpassed only by the sting of gossip that plagued almost every man who managed to escape the sinking. “Women and children first” had been the rule the night the Titanic sank but to the public the order meant “Women and children only,” and the few men lucky to save their lives, no matter how distinguished, were suspected of cowardice. The book’s chapters on the Titanic are comparatively slim and don’t come until halfway through its 308 pages but they are well paced and packed with names familiar to Titanic fans: from stewardess Violet Jessop to Captain Smith to Wallace Hartley and his band, the roll is called and historical figures spring to life. Tennis fan Kate Buss, travelling second class, sneaks into the first class lounge to meet Karl. Unassuming Alexander Compton is rumored to be a card-shark. In the dining room on the fatal last night, Dorothy Gibson turns heads, Lady Duff Gordon makes a stylishly late entrance, the Astors and Ben Guggenheim sup nearby, and William T. Stead barely looks up from his meal. The only personality missing from the lineup is Richard Norris (“Dick”) Williams, an emerging amateur tennis player whom Karl didn’t meet until after their rescue. The racquet-wielding survivors would become good friends, partnering in doubles matches for the coveted Davis Cup.
Sanford paints a vivid picture of Karl and Helen aboard ship. Not unlike cinematic lovers Jack and Rose, they hold hands and embrace, making the most of time away from the censuring eyes of Helen’s mother and stepfather, Sallie and Richard Beckwith. But after a fumbled erotic encounter in Karl’s cabin on the fateful Sunday, a nervous Helen flees topside, standing by the rail to contemplate her future in the few minutes before an iceberg changes history. Her granddaughter’s poetry makes this interval one of the book’s most memorable passages: “It was bitter cold but she welcomed the invigorating chill. The sky was a teeming dome of stars that glistened as though still wet from having been lifted out of the sea. She leaned forward against the rail, wondering how to convince her mother that she was sure of herself and her feelings for Karl. She felt the wind river through her hair and across her face. She shivered, then tilted her head back to listen to the night, as though a voice might speak through the space of it. At once the darkness seemed an unfathomable abyss, then close and protective, wrapping a flinted cloak around her, making her invisible. The stars presented myriad possibilities, gold flecked and scattered. Damp air, enhanced by the smell of the sea and mystery, overwhelmed her with a sense of how small she was within the vastness of it.”
After the collision with the berg and orders were issued to abandon ship, Karl and Helen were among several couples allowed to enter the first lifeboats together. They escaped in Boat 5 with the Beckwiths. The experience of survival bonded the pair completely and brought Helen’s mother around, too. They were married in March 1913, occasioning much publicity about Titanic survivors finding love at sea, an irresistible angle if not quite true.
While the Titanic episode in Karl and Helen’s lives isn’t the prime focus of Sanford’s salute to her love-bug grandparents, there’s much to recommend it to the Titanic reader. Apart from outlining her relatives’ experiences in the sinking she recounts Karl’s role on the seven-member Titanic Survivors Committee which conferred a loving cup and medals of valor on the rescue ship Carpathia’s Captain Rostron and his crew. And she sniffs out important details about Karl’s testimony before the Limitation of Liability trial three years after the tragedy when the Titanic’s owners, the White Star Line, tried to sidestep their responsibility to satisfy passengers’ damage claims. The book’s 38 illustrations are in themselves worth its purchase price. Along with photos of the couple, their family and friends, there’s a full color reproduction of a letter to Behr from Rostron, together with an autographed photo of the heroic captain. A well-known scene on the Carpathia of women sewing clothes out of blankets for steerage children identifies Helen among the group, seated Indian-style on the deck, petting a dog. Also reproduced are pages from Behr family scrapbooks, full of glowing press cuttings of the couple’s romance and sea adventure.
Perhaps the most poignant image included in Starboard at Midnightis of a menu from the Titanic’s last night afloat. Karl had saved it as a souvenir, sticking it in a pocket of his dinner jacket. For the tennis star poised to win the love match of his career, the menu was more than a record of the richness of Edwardian fare but a memento of the heart he had finally conquered and hoped to savor.
Starboard at Midnight : A Story of Destiny and Devotion by Helen Behr Sanford is published by Darwin Press and is available in hardback and paperback.
38 plates; 8 photographs, 308 pagess
ISBN 978–0–87850–200–4 (hardback)
ISBN 978–0–87850–201–1 (paperback)