Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Yet another winter project: properly reading autobiographies by relatives

Captain Of The QueensCaptain Of The Queens by Captain Harry Grattridge

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Captain Harry Grattidge is my first cousin three times removed. I mean, he really is deceased; he died in 1979, but blood relations are forever, even if you never knew them. You don't stop being your parents' children; your grandmother is still your grandmother after she's popped her clogs. So even this long-dead distant cousin whom I never met remains connected to me.

I first encountered Harry Grattidge about seven years ago while embarking on my umpteenth viewing of the classic Titanic flick A Night to Remember when I suddenly noticed his name in the opening credits. "Special thanks to Commodore Harry Grattidge, OBE...."

Grattidge? Wait a minute, that's a family name. And it's not a common one...

Some quick googling led me to a couple of Grattidge family web sites and I started to learn about Harry, not to mention a host of other members of my great-great-grandmother's family. I am now in touch with Grattidge cousins across the world.

Harry is one of the closest things I have to a celebrity in my family tree (although I do have a noted designer and a few people in line for the British throne). During his long career at sea, which started when sailing ships still had actual sails, he managed to knock up against history several times: at Yalta as master of the Franconia, aboard the doomed Lancastria, and, as the title of his autobiography tells us, as the captain of the huge liners the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary. He even claimed to be the officer who unwittingly ferried three assassins ashore just before they murdered Arch-Duke Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914. He was, in many ways, the ideal consultant for the making of A Night to Remember in 1957: not only had he served on the Carpathia (sometime after her rescue of the Titanic survivors), he knew Carpathia's captain Arthur Rostron, and of course was utterly familiar with everything to do with a luxury ocean liner. In this shot, he's chatting with Joseph Boxhall, the Fourth Officer of the Titanic while actor Kenneth More, who portrayed Second Officer Lightoller in the film, listens in with William MacQuitty, the producer of the film who erroneously identifies Harry as "Commodore of the White Star Line". (He was Commodore of Cunard, of course.)

The term "autobiography" may be a misnomer. It was "as told to" one Richard Collier in 1956, three years after Harry's retirement and became popular enough to become one of those Reader's Digest's Condensed Books. The trouble is, I'm not sure how much is Harry's voice and how much that of his ghost writer. I imagine the more lyrical passages are the work of Collier and I suspect something like the following is pure Harry:

I asked Lana Turner [on a cruise for her fourth honeymoon] how she was enjoying the trip.
"Very much," she said coyly "but being a bride seems -- well, a little new and strange."
I thought that was one of the most feminine things I've ever heard a woman say.

I rather think Harry deserved a swift kick to the shins for that gratuitous remark.

His own marriage was, from those in a better position to know, an unqualified disaster. He mentions neither his estranged wife nor his two sons.

He doesn't say a great deal about his parents or siblings either, so as a family historian, I have to be grateful for a thumbnail portrait of his father, my great-great-great-uncle, in which I learn that he loved bridge at his club and reading Sherlock Holmes, while leaving family disciplinary matters to his wife. Harry also only makes passing references to his brother and sister, failing to tell us that his brother died in service during the First World War.

He does, however (or rather, the ghost writer does) paint a delightfully detailed portrait of what it was like for a boy to grow up in the Stafford of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

Mostly, though, Grattidge's audience would have been eager for the details of his brushes with the famous and powerful, so Harry lets loose with stories about Ivor Novello, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Winston Churchill and many others who would have been more familiar to 1950s readers. Here he is with Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery:

Captain of the Queens is an enjoyable, if dated, read, and as a family historian, I'm delighted to own a copy (which I obtained easily and cheaply from either AbeBooks or Alibris). I am lucky enough to be related to at least half a dozen people who got around to getting their lives into a book. Up until now, I've treated these autobiographies as text books, merely paying attention to the passages that aid me in my family history research, but this winter I am determined to settle down and read these books properly.

As a sort of postscript, I meant to post this yesterday, so imagine my surprise when checking in at John Reid's informative genealogy blog Anglo-Celtic Connections and discovering he's posted a link to a podcast about the Lancastria this morning! There's serendipity! The lecture doesn't mention Harry, but I see The Lancastria Association of Scotland has posted Harry's account of the worst British maritime disaster ever (far worse than the Titanic) online.

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SOL's view said...

Interesting! I am not aware of any stars or interesting characters in my heritage. Any that anyone owns up to that is.

Can you please explain to me the phrase 'first cousin three times removed'? I've never been able to fathom the logistics of that phrase. I'm more of the uncle's brother's cousin's second child kinda girl....


Persephone said...

Okay, SOL, you know what a first cousin is, right? A first cousin shares a set of grandparents with you, so a second cousin shares a set of great-grandparents with you and a third cousin shares a set of great-great-grand-parents with you. Right? Okay, the "removed" indicates that you and a cousin are not in the same generation. So your first cousin's child is your first cousin once removed and your first cousin's grandchild is your first cousin twice removed.

Harry Grattidge shares a set of direct ancestors with me who happen to be his grandparents, which is where we get the "first" from. His grandparents are my 3xgreat-grandparents, which is where we get the "three times removed". In other words, Harry is removed from me by three generations, being the nephew of my great-great-grandmother. (I do say later in the post that his dad is my great-great-great-uncle; he was the youngest and my gg-grandmother was the eldest of a large family.)

The Prince and the late Princess of Wales were said to be something like seventh cousins once removed. That lets us know immediately that we would have to go back seven generations to find the set of ancestors they shared, and also that Charles and Diana were separated by a generation.

Does that make any sense?

SOL's view said...

Thank you Persephone. That makes a great deal of sense. :)