The Answers Issue: What's up with D.C.'s Titanic memorial?

I’ve heard that there’s a monument in D.C. near the Potomac River to the men and boys who gave their lives on the Titanic so that women and girls could board the boats.

According to the research I’ve found, they had a black-tie event every year commemorating the sinking with a champagne toast. Where is it? Who paid for it, when was it built, and was it adopted by the society for their purposes, or did someone else underwrite the effort?

The Women’s Titanic Memorial, a 13-foot-high statue carved from a single piece of red granite, is located in Washington Channel Park at 4th and P streets SW. It does indeed commemorate “the brave men who perish in the wreck of the Titanic,” who “gave their lives that women and children might be saved.” More than 25,000 women contributed small donations, most of them $1, to the Women’s Titanic Memorial Association for the memorial.

The resemblance of the statue to the much-imitated pose Kate Winslet struck at the helm of the ship in the 1997 film Titanic (“I’m flying Jack,” etc.) is purely coincidental, as the memorial was dedicated decades earlier, in 1931. It was moved from its original location along the Potomac River to accommodate the Kennedy Center in 1966.

Though this memorial is the best-known public nod to the Titanic in D.C., it is not the only. The Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain, on the Ellipse across from the south lawn of the White House, honors two men, Major Archibald Butt (military aide to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft) and his friend Francis Davis Millet (a decorative artist whose murals can be seen in various federal buildings across the country), who went down with the ship. A memorial plaque mounted on a wall in the gift shop in the National Cathedral pays additional tribute to Butt. The Postal Museum also commemorates the five mail clerks aboard the ship, who were last seen in waist-deep freezing water trying to drag 200 sacks of registered mail to the upper decks.

As for the black-tie event, the Men’s Titanic Society (no affiliation with the Women’s Titanic Memorial Association) holds a private memorial ceremony after midnight on April 15 every year. Society founder Jim Silman, a former TV news producer, says he started the group in 1978 after producing a show for NBC on unknown places in D.C.

“Four guys, we went down there and decided to do this,” Silman says. “We took some daffodils that we stole from NBC, and we laid them down and drank some champagne.”

The group has grown to 22 members, almost all of whom gather in April for a black-tie reception, dinner, and post-midnight wreath-laying and toast at the memorial. Dinner’s usually at the National Press Club, and it always adheres to the menu served to first-class passengers on the Titanic the night it sank: filet mignon served over potatoes, a vegetable, salad, oysters on the half shell, and ice cream with berries. Champagne used for toasting must come from a vineyard that was operating when the ship went down.

Neither Silman nor any member of the society has any familial connection to the Titanic, but all the men worked in TV news, as either as agents, writers, directors, or producers. The group, which skews a bit older, has lost a few members, who are replaced from the current members’ social networks. “We don’t advertise,” Silman explains.

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