Titanicmania has swept the nation. With 14 Oscar nominations and $427 million in box-office receipts, James Cameron’s shipboard epic is poised to become the biggest-grossing film of all timespurring book sales, turn-of-the-century retrospectives, and all manner of fascination with a lost ship and a lost age.
The fascination hasn’t yet washed up in a small slice of the southwest D.C. waterfront. Along a picturesque strip of the Washington Channel across from East Potomac Park, America’s own memorial to the doomed luxury liner idles like a North Atlantic iceberg, forgotten by all but a handful of neighbors. According to Shallah Weiss, who works with the Committee to Promote Washington D.C., the monument doesn’t appear on either of the maps the city’s tourist agency uses.
“People don’t know about it,” explains Diana Mayhew, president of the Washington Waterfront Association. As sun shines off the water on a springlike February afternoon, the handful of folks who walk past the statue without looking up proves her point. So does the trio of maintenance guys blowing off an afternoon of work. For them, the statue provides some cover so they can smoke a joint without getting noticed by the old folks and joggers ambling by in the sunshine. “The Titanic?” asks one. “Is that what it’s about? I saw that movie and I must say I was quite touched.”
The memorial, in fact, looks quite a bit like an Oscar trophy. A soaring art deco Adonis, the statue was conceived as a tribute to the men who gallantly went down with the ship while saving Titanic’s womenfolk. Completed in 1931, it actually spent its first few decades a bit farther up the Potomac, but was moved to Southwest during the construction of the Kennedy Center in the 1960s. And then, like so many other things in the tiniest quadrant, it disappeared from the D.C. radar screen.
Of course, Cameron’s Titanic also does a bit of detracting from the memorial’s message. The movie’s depiction of greedy first-class passengers locking steerage passengers in the hold might make the inscription”They gave their lives that women and children might be saved”look just a wee bit self-serving. Years ago, similar problems dogged the A-list widows who raised money for the statue but had the misfortune of inaugurating it after the Great Depression made sympathy for the rich a lot harder to cultivate.
Mayhew, however, remains optimistic about the memorial, saying she’s planning to work on raising its low profilea task no doubt made far easier by the onscreen travails of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. “It’s a tremendous opportunity,” says Mayhew. “I’m going to work with the city and see what they can do.”CP