William Baird MacQuitty, producer of A Night to Remember, died February 5, 2004, at his home in London. He was 98 years old.
For many Titanic historians, his 1958 film about the Titanic was their introduction to the subject.
MacQuitty had a unique perspective on the Titanic story, having attended the ship’s launch in May 1911 with his father, James, managing director of The Belfast Telegraph. He was a boy of six at the time. Seeing the great ship made an impression on him, which he described in his 1991 autobiography, A Life To Remember. “Slowly gathering speed, the Titanic moved smoothly down the ways, and a minute later was plunging into the water and raising a huge wave. I felt a great lump in my throat and an enormous pride in being an Ulsterman,” MacQuitty wrote.
He was born May 15, 1905 and grew up in Belfast. He was educated at Campbell College. Instead of his father’s career of journalism, he pursued a banking career, working in London, New York, India, Ceylon, Thailand, Malaysia and China. He went back to England in 1939 and became an underwriter at Lloyds and a farmer. During World War II, he produced films for the Ministry of Information.
Besides A Night to Remember, he also made other feature films which included The Black Tent, Above Us The Waves, Beachcomber and The Happy Family. From films he moved into television and was a founder of Ulster Television, serving as its first managing director and later deputy chairman.
TIS members who took part in the 1996 Research and Recovery Expedition had a chance to get to know the man who put Walter Lord’s classic book on film. “For almost all of us, Bill MacQuitty’s A Night to Remember was the means by which we first learned of Titanic, and it literally rescued the ship from being forgotten at a time when few would even touch the subject,” said Charles Haas, TIS co-founder and Voyage editor. “Its faithfulness to history has not been surpassed. Those of us privileged to sail with Bill and his wife Betty aboard Island Breeze during the 1996 Research and Recovery Expedition marveled at the most amazing 91-year-old we’d ever met. His vibrancy, his insatiable curiosity about the world, his cinematic legacy – all are signs of a remarkable presence. He will be very much missed.”
MacQuitty was the author of many books, including his recent memoir, Titanic Memories: The Making of A Night to Remember (2000) and Survival Kit: How To Reach Ninety And Make The Most Of It, published in 1996. He wrote books on a variety of subjects, including gardening. His most successful book was Tutankhamun: The Last Journey, which sold half a million copies. His Night to Remember fans may not know that his photo of King Tut’s funerary mask was used as the poster for the 1972 British Museum exhibition.
James Cameron, director of the 1997 film Titanic, wrote to MacQuitty to thank him for creating A Night to Remember, which he said caused a “ripple effect through modern culture,” partly inspiring his own film.
MacQuitty was still working until just before his death, writing and taking photographs. In 2002 the Royal Photographic Society called him “a phenomenon in film,” honoring him with the Lumiere Award for distinction in film and photography. He was also given an honorary degree by Queen’s University in Belfast.
Services were private, but a memorial celebration is planned for May. MacQuitty is survived by his wife, Betty, and three children, Jonathan, Jane and Miranda.
© Charles Haas, This article originally appeared in Voyage 47, Journal of the Titanic International Society.