In 1935 at Baltimore's Gilman School, senior Walter Lord won the Princeton-Gilman Alumni Cup for his speech about the Titanic. Nineteen years later, he published A Night to Remember, the most famous and widely read account of that ill-fated ship.
Despite the fact that he'd grown up on his mother's stories of ocean liners, including the Titanic's slightly older sister ship Olympic on which she traveled several times, Lord claimed he didn't know how he got interested in the Titanic. "I think small boys get interested in things the way they catch colds or get chicken pox," he said to a Baltimore Sun reporter in 1957. "Nobody knows why or how they do it...I suppose if there is anything more exciting to a young boy than an ocean liner, it is an ocean liner sinking."
Book World writer Edward L Beach said that before A Night to Remember, writers of books about historical events "had attempted to separate the chaff from wheat in order to tell a coherent story. [Lord's book] gave chaff and wheat together, and the result was unforgettable."
Baltimore attorney Harry Turner remembers a summer afternoon in the early 1960s, when he and a friend walked back and forth behind Morgan Millard's in Baltimore's Roland Park neighborhood with his godfather, Walter Lord, "searching for evidence of that prehistoric creature, the Number 11 streetcar." When they discovered a small piece of track protruding slightly from a worn, hot patch of asphalt, Lord posed the boys, "raised his ever-present camera, and directed that there must be a picture for the history books." The expedition ended with ice cream cones, followed by Walter's telling them about "the most important thing in Baltimore's history-the Lakeside Streetcar Line!"
Until he hit it big with A Night to Remember, Walter Lord spent his adult life in New York, by day an editor and copy supervisor for J. Walter Thompson advertising agency; by night, researcher, interviewer, and compiler of facts and impressions of historical events. The book's success allowed him to devote all his time to his research and writing, out of which came books on the Alamo (A Time to Stand), the War of 1812 (The Dawn's Early Light), Pearl Harbor (Day of Infamy), and others.
"Basically," Lord once said, "I am interested in the people who are caught in great events more than the events themselves."
Eric Seright-Payne said of his colleague, "[Walter's] blend of journalism, along with cinematic style in revealing history, was a talent much copied, but seldom achieved. And I think that's because of the love Walter had for his subject matter...[He] took his readers one step further because Walter, himself, wanted to know just that little bit more."Walter Lord died of Parkinson's Disease in New York in 2002. His ashes are buried next to his parents in Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery.
Places of interest:
- 4314 Roland Ave, where Walter Lord lived until he went away to college in 1935.
- Gilman School, Walter Lord's alma mater, barely a mile up the road, at 5407 Roland Ave. The middle school library, named for him in 1995, has a collection of pencil stubs that he purportedly used up writing A Night to Remember.
- Greenmount Cemetery, where Walter Lord's ashes are buried.
- Contemporary Authors Online
- Time, August 11, 1967
- Baltimore Sun, November 6, 1955 and May 26, 1957