Titanic Library Memories

LJ Book Review senior editor, Margaret Heilbrun, and LJ reviewer Megan Hahn Fraser met as colleagues in the manuscript department at the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) library. Now they work together again, with Megan contributing book reviews to LJ, including her recent roundup of books published to mark the centennial of the sinking of Titanic (click here to read it). Here, they chat about Titanic library memories.



Margaret: So, Megan, the centennial of Titanic‘s sinking approaches. It’s one of those historical episodes that has long fascinated you. Remember when I toasted you at your wedding and said that you were the only person I knew who, if you could go back in time, would choose historic events that you might not survive?

Megan: I do vividly remember that because it was so true!

Margaret: What will you be doing over Saturday-to-Sunday night to mark the precise centennial of Titanic‘s sinking?

Megan: Turner Classic Movies is showing A Night To Remember, the finest of all Titanic movies, Saturday night, and though I’ve seen it a dozen times, chances are good I’ll be watching it again.

Margaret: This is all bringing back to me some of our times together as N-YHS manuscript librarians in the 1990s.

Megan: Me, too, since almost from the start there was a Titanic thread through our work there. Remember that letter I proposed for exhibit‚ the year-by-year chronological display‚ to represent the year 1912?

Margaret: Yes! With the Titanic provenance. Wasn’t it partly typewritten? I can see it now‚Ķ

Megan: It was a letter sent to Archibald Gracie, just a congratulatory letter to him about a book he’d written, but Gracie had penciled a note onto it later, saying “This paper was in my pocket the fateful night I went down with Titanic.”

Titanic's Collapsible B lifeboat, overturned. Photo courtesy Independence Seaport Museum.

Margaret: Except he didn’t “go down,” did he? Or at least he bobbed back up to the surface and found a lifeboat.

Megan: Right. He nearly drowned when the ship went down but managed to haul himself aboard an overturned lifeboat and survived the night. I loved the drama of Gracie using the word fateful. When the exhibit opened, Walter Lord (A Night To Remember), who had been on the N-YHS board, came, and I asked him if he’d seen that letter on display. He asked how I’d found it. And I had to say, well, it was cataloged, so it wasn’t hard to find.

Margaret: The joys of item-level cataloging! A moment of silence for item-level cataloging!

Megan: It didn’t take the years of research of his Titanic detective work! And of course his own collection included Lightoller’s whistle, Edith Russell’s lucky pig, and so forth. For me, meeting Walter Lord was like meeting a Beatle or something!

Margaret: Little did we know our Titanic work was not done.

Megan: Then you got that fax…

Margaret: Someone was to be in a big-budget movie and was seeking information on various details of the era.

Megan: You came into the reading room with the fax from England (remember faxes?) and you were trying to be nonchalant, as if we got faxes like that everyday.

Margaret: We wondered what kind of a movie the guy who made the Terminator films would make.

Megan: We photocopied so many sources and took notes on relevant details‚

Margaret: It ended up being so many pages that it came to just under $100 to fax the stuff by phone line to the UK‚ which I had to do at a Mailboxes store on my own nickel because the work fax machine kept breaking from the challenge.

Megan: That huge-budget film never reimbursed you, right?

Margaret: I submitted the bill to the actor’s assistant who’d approached us. Just for the faxing cost, not our research time. We didn’t charge for the research!

Megan: Librarians are altruistic!

Margaret: And they never paid the bill.

Megan: Maybe they didn’t know how to pay such a small amount! What has that film grossed by now? Almost $2 billion?

Margaret: Just under two billion, owing to that hundred bucks they owe me!

Megan: We did get a nice thank you, remember? An autographed photo for each of us.

Margaret: Mine must still be at N-YHS….And you went on to another repository with Titanic-related material.

Titanic's "List of First Class Passengers." Courtesy of Independence Seaport Museum.

Megan: The Independence Seaport Museum in Philly has the Thayer Collection which includes one of the only extant copies of the first-class passenger list (see right), a statement by Jack Thayer about how he survived the sinking, and a handwritten list of his purchases made on board Titanic.

Margaret: I wonder how many repositories have some pieces preserved in their collections simply because of their Titanic association value. Any Titanic items at your current place of work?

Megan:Yes, in UCLA Library Special Collections there’s a lovely collection of fashion designs by Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon for her company, Lucile. Her clothing was very popular in the early 20th century, and she designed costumes for British stage productions and the Ziegfeld Follies in America. She and her husband both survived the sinking‚ they were two of 12 on a lifeboat that could have held 40 people.

The drawings in UCLA’s collection date from after Titanic through the early 1920s, and many have poetic names such as “Dry Those Tears” and “A Fateful Moment.” The one at left is called “C’est Pour Vous!!” It’s been a real privilege to work with these collections, and it is funny how Titanic stuff seems to find me.

Margaret: It’s fate! You get to go back in time and prosper! Cheers!

Megan: Right! And without having to worry about a lifeboat! Cheers!


Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.


  1. susan heath says:

    Margaret and Megan: I particularly admire the way you’ve managed to cover a large amount of information in such a delightful fashion ‚Äì it’s deeply enjoyable to be present as you reminisce about your passion and meanwhile educate us so elegantly. Cheers to you both! Susan Heath

  2. Ray Hahn says:

    Megan and Margaret,
    It goes without saying that her mother and I are proud of Megan, and we are pleased to have an acquaintance with Margaret. Megan’s choice of career was certainly serendipitous, but I had hoped that she would find a way to make her mark on American history. That said, I am pleased that she has been successful in making so many American stories known to others, including the work she has done on American icons like Bunche, Earp, and many more.

  3. Susan K. says:

    We are all in your debt–not just the folks in the big-budget film! Thanks for the great memories, Susan K