The 'Titanic Fanatic' tells his tales of the unsinkable ship
May 25, 2018
On March 28, 1956, nine-year-old Steven Mattis sat mesmerized in his living room in Philadelphia as Kraft Theater's adaptation of "A Night to Remember" unfolded. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Walter Lord, the one-hour television production told the story of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. At first enthralled by the beautiful ship, the glamour of the first-class passengers, and the contrast to the third-class passengers' circumstances, Mattis' fascination turned to horror as he viewed the shocking climax: Three hours after hitting an iceberg, the British ocean liner sank into the North Atlantic Ocean. Over 1500 men, women, and children perished.
It was a life-changing event. That night, Mattis cried himself to sleep. "I realized that my parents could not save me from all of life's dangers," he remembered.
In the years that followed, Mattis spent much of his spare time reading and researching everything he could learn about the doomed voyage. His interest in the supposedly "unsinkable ship" has expanded over six decades. More recently, Mattis has thrilled innumerable people who have listened to his lectures on the subject.
The Titanic did not play into his professional career. For 37 years, Mattis taught Spanish, first in Philadelphia and then for seven years in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In 2005, Mattis moved to Solivita, an active 55+ community in Kissimmee. A seasoned traveler-he has been on 117 cruises so far-he joined Solivita travel club and spent the next 12 years organizing and leading trips for its members. His travels have taken him and the travel club groups to China, Tahiti, Antarctica, Alaska, Hawaii, the Mediterranian, and safaris in Africa.
In April 2012, Mattis participated in the 100th Anniversary Titanic Memorial Cruise. The MS Balmoral, which sailed out of Southhampton, England, retraced the doomed liner's fateful journey. For Mattis and many of its 1308 other passengers-70 relatives of people who had died onboard or who had survived-the highlight was the moving memorial service. The ship sailed to the site of the sinking to be there exactly 100 years to the hour. The commemorative ceremonies began at 11:40 p.m. on April 14 when Titanic struck the iceberg and ended at 2:20 a.m., April 15, when she sank under the sea.
The following fall, Mattis presented a talk with accompanying slides on his "trip of a lifetime" to Solivita's Travel Club. Before embarking on a cruise on the Amazon the following year, Mattis posted a question to fellow cruisers: "Would any of you be interested in hearing my Titanic lecture?" The response was overwhelmingly favorable. Over 40 people showed up at that first lecture. The cruise director, impressed with the depth of knowledge and passion Mattis conveyed, encouraged the "Titanic fanatic" to add additional lectures to his repertoire and offer the package on future cruises. Mattis and his best friend, Andy Miller, complied, adding three more lectures. The rest, as Mattis says, was history.
Starting with groups in Solivita and local libraries, Mattis expanded his audience to multiple cruise lines, including Azamara, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Princess and Celebrity. His audiences have been as large as 600 people, often growing over the length of the cruise as favorite word of mouth reviews spread throughout the ship.
Mattis' lectures are (no pun intended) a tip of the iceberg regarding people's interest in the ill-fated voyage. Traveling expeditions, numerous museums, special events, television shows, and eight movies still draws crowds. (Mattis himself has seen "A Night to Remember" 15 times and James Camerons' "Titanic" close to 50.)
What brings people to Mattis' lectures on a cruise ship when they could be sunning by the pool or learning how to fold napkins? Mattis believes that this is a story into which people can put themselves. Mattis said that the fact that the Titanic took close to three hours to go down puts people into the story. "'Who would I have been in the Titanic?' people ask," Mattis said. "Would I have been a hero? A villain? A first-class passenger steeped in elegance? A third class immigrant in steerage?"
The irony-the pure tragedy-also sparks peoples interest. "There was great hubris by both the designers and the captain in thinking that a ship-with a shortage of lifeboats for partly esthetic reasons-could be unsinkable and could run at full speed at night through ice fields after warning after warning of the danger."
Mattis often tailors his lectures to his audiences, as he did in 2015 when he gave a lecture on Jews on the Titanic for Solivita's Shalom Club. Mattis, whose family belonged to Brith Israel, a conservative synagogue in Philadelphia, takes pride in the way prominent Jews handled their fate on the ship.
As did many passengers, Benjamin Guggenheim, the fifth of seven sons of the wealthy mining magnate Meyer Guggenheim, initially did not realize the fatal consequences that would result from the ship's collision with the iceberg. "We will soon see each other again! It's just a repair," he said to the women and children he and his valet were helping into lifeboats. Once he realized that he and many others would not survive, he returned to his cabin and donned his evening wear. "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen," said Guggenheim. Mattis said later accounts described the billionaire and his valet as last seen seated in chairs in the foyer of the Grand Staircase sipping brandy and smoking cigars, ready to accept their fate without fear or hesitation. Their bodies were never recovered.
Two other Jews who lost their lives on April 15, 1912, were German-born Isador Strauss, politician and the owner of Macy's Department Store, and his wife Ida Strauss. The couple was on the Titanic traveling back from a winter in Europe. Once it was clear the Titanic was sinking, Isador refused to get into a lifeboat, stating firmly, "I will not go before the other men." Ida handed her fur coat to her maid, Ellen Bird, as she left the lifeboat, said, "As we have lived, so will we die, together." In what eyewitnesses later described as a "most remarkable exhibition of love and devotion," Isidor and Ida were last seen on deck arm in arm.
Broadway producer Henry Birkhardt Harris was more successful in convincing his wife, actress Renee Harris to board a lifeboat without him. Earlier that day, Renee had broken her arm in a fall on the Grand Staircase. Convincing her that he could not save himself as well as his disabled wife, Henry refused a seat and also perished. His widow, who became New York City's first woman theatrical producer, remarried three times and lived until 93.
Not all Jews were first-class passengers. Leah Rosen Aks, emigrating to America from London, was on the Titanic with her infant son Phillip. Leah and her son were separated in the confusion when they were being loaded on the lifeboats. "Filly" was thrown into a lifeboat; the inconsolable Leah was soon placed on Lifeboat 13. Soon after Carpathia rescued the survivors, Leah was walking on the deck when she recognized her son's cry. However, the woman who had caught Phillip, regarding the baby as a "gift from God," claimed it to be her own. In a scenario rivaling King Solomon, Leah pleaded her case to the Carpathia's captain. Only when Leah was able to identify a distinguishable birthmark on his breastbone was Phillip returned to his birth mother. Leah and Phillip were reunited with her husband Sam in New York. They later had a second son, Harry, and a daughter, Sarah Carpathia-named after the rescue ship.
Mattis also related another note of Jewish interest: The Titanic had a kosher kitchen. On board was a "Hebrew" chef, a non-Jew from South Africa, who had trained with a rabbi in Southhampton on previous White Line cruises. A kosher option was available to all passengers, including those in third class.
Over 100 years later, all the passengers are gone, not only those that died but those who survived. Millvina Dean, who was two months old when the vessel hit the iceberg, died in 2009 at the age of 97.
Mattis regards the time he spends sharing the Titanic's stories as his contribution to the legacy of the ship. "The fact that this story stays alive and is of interest to so many brings me joy," says Solivita's own Titanic Fanatic.
Marilyn Shapiro lives in Kissimmee. She writes regularly for the Jewish World in Schenectady, and published her book "There Goes My Heart," which is available on Amazon. You may also follow her on her blog, theregoesmyheart.me.