Though Walter Lord has gone, he will never be forgotten. His peerless chronicles, couched in the literate, gripping reportage that he so painstakingly devised, will be with us forever; his private persona deserves equal remembrance.
He and I became friends in the winter of 1968. A neophyte maritime historian, I wrote to inquire if I might use his library to research my first book, The Only Way to Cross.
He responded cordially, typically kind to every novice writer who approached him. There was only one ironclad stipulation: No volume could venture beyond the apartment. His disinclination to let books be borrowed apparently dated from a never-forgiven transgression on the part of his mother, who had once either lent or misplaced his rare history of the Russian icebreaker Krassin.
When my manuscript was completed, I had the temerity to ask Walter if he would consider writing a foreword. He was kind enough to consent. For a maiden venture, no more sterling imprimatur could be imagined. Moreover, it marked the beginning of a close friendship that spanned the next three decades.
Walter shared several pieces of advice, one of them sartorial. The success of A Night to Remember had enabled him to abandon his job at J. Walter Thompson. Yet regardless, though working alone at home, he donned jacket and tie every day, as though still office-bound, buttressing that sober dedication to his craft.
Tread carefully in book shops, Walter cautioned. When A Night to Remember was new, he used to haunt Brentano’s. One day, shadowing a potential buyer who had been studying its pages, he summoned up the courage to inquire if he proposed buying the book. “No, thank you,” the man replied, dropping it like a hot potato. Then he added before vanishing: “The author’s actually a close personal friend and has promised to sign it for me later.”
He wrote in longhand on yellow legal pads and, always cautiously acquisitive, retained their leftover backs. In fact, fabricated of thin cardboard stock, they were patently useless. Nevertheless, all were scrupulously preserved. Walter showed me hundreds of them, stacked in his closet, retained against the possibility of useful purpose someday.
Like all writers, he dreaded deadlines and occasionally drifted past them. Once, with a manuscript overdue, Walter tried placating his editor at Holt, one Howard Cady, with a mollifying lunch at the Century Club.
But his purpose was ill-served when the club servant taking drink orders in the East Room asked: “The usual, Mr. Lord?”---- as though for the delinquent author, midday cocktails were a daily indulgence.
When he was due to hand in Lonely Vigil, I recall his agonizing words, familiar to all of us faced with relentless editorial countdowns: “I cannot bear the idea of giving up this manuscript!” But of course he did and the results were inevitably flawless.
Walter had just turned fifty when we met, the Parkinson’s that plagued him barely incipient. I never knew him without that cumulatively cruel disease. Earlier days were unknown to me---the vigorous Princetonian (“Wild Wal” one classmate dubbed him), the wartime OSS officer, the Yale Law graduate and the buoyant young historian whose masterful re-creation of Titanic’s tragedy took the world by storm. Hundreds of our conversations dwelt on some aspect of that doomed vessel, an unending source of conjecture and deduction. I once crossed town with a new theory, anxious to verify it against one of his photographs. Walter, preoccupied with yet another deadline, refused to discuss it. But I persevered and when he finally took my point, his face lit up and he apologized for being, as he put it, “such an old grump,” commending me for my patience in pursuing and sharing the hypothesis.
He became increasingly incapacitated within a body that no longer worked. One recurring ordeal was the demanding, two-step level separating his desk from much of his library, an obstacle that was to assume Matterhorn-like proportions, involving falls and injuries. Later, merely opening an envelope consumed painstaking minutes. Yet throughout those tortuous years, Walter's gallantry and serene grace remained undimmed. I never once heard him complain.
I am comforted to think that, released from his affliction, rejuvenated Walter Lord has set sail across a boundless celestial ocean. The name of his White Star vessel is quite clear to me---neither lost Titanic nor her sister Olympic, on which he had crossed as an adventurous 9-year-old Baltimorean. I am utterly convinced that Walter is contentedly embarked aboard Homeric. He told me once that since she was so historically neglected, she remained without question his favorite ocean liner. Godspeed, dear Walter, we shall miss you terribly.