Thursday, May 7, 2015

One Hundred Years On...: Erik Larson's Dead Wake and Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Lusitania

RMS Lusitania coming into port (1907-13).

It may never have attained the fame of the Titanic but the Lusitania, the massive British cruise ship sunk by a German U-boat one hundred years ago today, on May 7, 1915, still had the makings of a terrible, lasting tragedy. Two new books, Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Crown) and Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age by Greg King and Penny Wilson (St. Martin’s Press), both delve into the sinking. But neither is a fully satisfying read.

The facts surrounding the sinking are not in dispute. On its second to last day of its New York to Liverpool run, the Lusitania, which upon its launch in 1907 had been the largest ocean liner in the world, was sunk by a German U-boat (U- 20), under the command of Walther Schwieger, with the attendant loss of 1,198 of its passengers, including three German stowaways locked in the ship’s brig. The sinking of the large ship, and the loss of some famous people aboard, shocked the world and prompted many cries for the then-neutral U.S., which lost 128 of its citizens in the sinking, to declare war on Germany, something that did not happen for another two years.

Outside of those facts, however, there are any number of interpretations, and the two books bear that out, as to how and why the Lusitania was allowed to sink, considering it was entering a declared (by Germany) war zone and had, obliquely, been warned that it could be targeted, in an ad, put into various New York newspapers just before the Lusitania sailed, by the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.. Why did it not receive a British military escort, as other civilian liners had in the past and as its passengers generally believed it would, to help protect it from U-boat torpedoes? Why was the actual danger it was in, as the British intelligence services knew U-20 was very near its route, not properly transmitted to its captain? There’s also the question of how much the Germans were to blame; were they at heart, vicious murderers with no compunction in taking civilian lives or were they provoked by the British who allowed munitions, that could be used against German troops, to be carried by these liners, as the Lusitania did, and who often pretended that British ships were actually neutral ones? Dead Wake, takes the former view, one of many approaches to the tragedy in which Larson differs from King and Wilson.

Actually, reading the two non-fiction accounts books back to back, as I did, is quite astounding;  there are so many pertinent facts, left out of one or the other book and each with a decidedly oppositional look at the background of the tale. Erik Larson, who is a master at adapting history to exciting non-fiction that happens to read like the best suspense fiction (The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts) takes a hard tack against the Germans, who, he stresses, at the end of the day, did, after all, sink civilian liners when the British merely boarded them and confiscated their materials, often reimbursing the enemy vessels for their losses. Larson also vigorously defends the veteran Lusitania captain, William Thomas Turner, who, he feels, was basically scapegoated by the Cunard Line (which owned the ship), the British Admiralty (which could have defended it), and by others, such as First Lord Winston Churchill, who essentially threw Turner to the wolves and lied about there being a second torpedo. A second explosion that occurred after the torpedo hit the Lusitania was likely mechanical in nature, but it behooved Churchill and the other members of the Admiralty to pretend the Germans had launched a second torpedo, just in case the explosion, which was never conclusively explained, came from the munitions aboard the ship. (This was not Winnie’s finest hour!) King and Wilson, by contrast, paint Turner as a sheer incompetent and liar, who ignored the instructions he was given as to how to run the ship safely through the war zone. Larson’s sympathetic take on Turner – and it’s in the minority one among all the writers who have written on the tragedy – is that the telegrams sent to Turner by the Admiralty, who were the only ones allowed to communicate with the Lusitania so telegrams could not be intercepted by the enemy, contradicted each other as to where he should steer the ship and were vague, besides, about the actual threat to the ship’s safety. Larson’s point of view seems more readily acceptable to me, but he’s also the better writer so that might be a factor in my belief. Larson, more so than Wilson and King, also implicates the British Admiralty in likely putting Lusitania in danger in the quiet hope that an attack on it might bring the United States into the war. If true, and I suspect there’s at least some veracity in this, that’s cynical and disturbing in equal measure.

With its cast of varied and, often eccentric, characters, not least, the Errol Flynn-like dashing man about town and very wealthy Alfred Vanderbilt, who behaves like he’s actually starring in a movie, and George Kessler, the brash newly rich ‘Champagne King’, and so many political eddies flowing around the Lusitania, it’s not surprising that Dead Wake would attract the interest of Larson. This particular and momentous tragedy would seem tailor-made for his literary talents and, in so many ways Dead Wake certainly fits the bill. But the contrived structure of the book and, to my mind, a rushing of it to print, left me cold. For the most part, Larson’s chapters alternate between the Lusitania, the U-20 and Room 40, the ultra secret headquarters of an English intelligence unit few knew anything about but which also happened to have deciphered the coded German communications. As with Enigma, circa World War Two, subject of the masterful movie The Imitation Game, the British had to be careful how they used the information they had, lest they give that fact of its discovery away to the Germans. Larson also devotes considerable ink to President Woodrow Wilson, whom King and Wilson barely touch upon in their book. Wilson, as portrayed by Larson, reminded me of none other than current U.S. President Barack Obama: both decent men determined to avoid hasty military actions or retaliation at all costs, a generally laudable aim but one that becomes galling when a ‘red line’ is crossed and a now necessary military action is still not taken. (Unlike Bashar al-Assad’s gassing of his own citizens in Syria, Schwieger’s sinking of the Lusitania cost many American lives.) Larson’s depiction of a lovelorn, sensitive Wilson, still reeling from the sudden recent death of his wife but now in love with another woman who is not initially receptive to his profuse declarations of passion, is a moving portrait, a reminder of how good Larson is at laying out the inner lives of real people so they practically leap from the page.

Yet in jumping from the massive ship to the cramped U-boat and to the shadowy figures in British intelligence, and occasionally to the President, Dead Wake, admittedly, builds suspense but in a way I felt was too obvious – as if the Lusitania was fatefully meant to be sunk when in fact, any number of different outcomes, large and small, could have seen this tragedy or act of murder averted. Larson suggests as much but his cinematic stylized back and forth between the two ‘opposing’ sides smacks of literary manipulation and heavy-handed plotting, which is so unlike his previous work.

Larson’s also atypically sloppy in following up on what happened to some of the passengers he writes about in the book – i.e., did they survive? – though some of his provocative facts, like the ironic deaths of the three German stowaways, inadvertently killed by their countrymen, is one fascinating incident entirely missing in Wilson and King’s Lusitania. On the other hand, the two writers offer information that Larson should have inserted in Dead Wake, such as the fact that Edwin Friend, a companion to spiritualist/architect Theodate Pope, was a married man with a pregnant wife left behind in New York. Larson omits that pertinent fact in favour of coy declarations that Pope and Friend were not lovers. Knowing about Friend’s pregnant wife would have made that a tad more believable as in those conservative times an affair of that sort would have been highly unlikely; as Larson writes it, it seems he doth protest too much.

Larson also omits an important point about Pope’s sexuality which would have added something to her travails as a woman working in a male-dominated and highly sexist architectural world and made her life experiences even more poignant. (Hers is one of the more provocative and fascinating personages popping up in both books.) Larson, on the other hand, properly makes much of the rare Thackery and Dickens’ manuscripts – and their fates – that Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat was carrying on his person aboard the ship. Wilson and King quote him a couple of times but only mention his profession. Considering that Lauriat was one of the Americans who later sued Cunard for loss of their property aboard ship means that King and Wilson had to have known what he carried onto the Lusitania. But why did Larson, for his part, completely miss the boat on not mentioning one of the most intriguing elements of passenger Albert Bilicke's interesting life? (You can look that one up online.)

Each book periodically leaves out details the other does not or leaves a name anonymous in one book when the same incident or comment in the other book has a name attached. Why those omissions if the research can verify who said or did what? It’s very odd. This consistent eliding of information the reader should have, in both books, is quite galling, perhaps a factor of an imposed and too strict deadline in getting them published before the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania’s sinking. I wonder, too, how much the writers knew of what the others were up to, in putting their books together and thus chose the different emphases that they did?

Captain Turner aboard the Aquitania, 1914.
What the books share in common is their critical take on the ship’s dire deficiencies – from lifeboats so neglected and left to rot that they were unusable, to a lack of drills, which many passengers clamoured for in vain to have take place, ones that could, no doubt, have saved many more lives. Neither book, really, brings the day to day life aboard the Lusitania to the vivid life they could have, though King and Wilson spend more pages detailing the bric-à-brac aboard the ship and what was worn and eaten. (It’s not as interesting as you might think. Their bits about the criminal and sexual shenanigans that could occur aboard liners like the Lusitania are compelling though, as are the comments etiquette expert Emily Post makes on how to properly behave aboard ships of this rarified sort.) The writing duo also chose to depict the First and Second Class passengers and their plights exclusively on the grounds that there was more research information available and better records kept on behalf of the well-heeled aboard. I prefer Larson’s’ democratic interest in people from all three classes on the ship. (There is more Canadian content in Lusitania as Wilson and King spend more time on the Lusitania’s high society passengers from Toronto and Montreal.) One significant different in approach to the tragedy can be found in Lusitania’s full title. Wilson and King see it as the final nail in the coffin of the genteel, civilized Edwardian Age, already brought low by the gruesome horrors of The Great War, not yet a year old, and such innovations as the German-introduced lethal poison gas on the battlefield. (That horrific detail alone makes me more amenable to the anti-German tone of Larson’s book and more suspicious of Wilson and King’s more accepting take on U-20’s actions. The U-boat in general was a new, disturbing wrinkle in modern warfare, one not dealt with before and therefore uderestimated by the British and Americans.) Larson sees the Lusitania as more of a human-interest tale with the politics an important component of the story but the plight of the passengers the dominant strain running throughout.

Given my druthers, and if you can only find the time to read one of the books, I’d suggest Dead Wake. It’s so much better written then the pedestrian, flat and unimaginative Lusitania, which does provide more comprehensive listings of its ‘cast of characters’. But as Dead Wake is still a creative drop by Larson’s high standards, I recommend it with serious reservations.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be starting a new course beginning May 1 entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course will look at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating essay/review. Thank you, Mr. Schwartzberg.