Monday, May 21, 2012

D&C's DC: The Two Titanic Memorials

About a month ago I attended a picnic sponsored by SASI (The Society for the Advancement of the Steamtopian Ideal), which was fairly steampunk/Victorian/jazz age gathering. It was honoring the sinking of the Titanic, and we actually had a brief memorial ceremony that included dropping flowers in the channel. It was actually a very nice time; the folks were very friendly and charming, and I can't wait to have another opportunity for a get-together.

But the main thing for this blog was that the picnic was held at the Women's Titanic Memorial, located along DC's waterfront. It's something not a lot of people are aware of; a number of locals I've spoken to were unaware there was a Titanic memorial.

Designed by Gertrude Vanderbilt Witney, it was funded by $1 donations from over 25,000 women in America. Authorized by Congress in 1917 and completed in 1918, it was actually mothballed for a while because of delays in developing the location. It was finally erected in 1931 at the foot of New Hampshire Ave, along the Potomac River, but was dismantled and moved 35 years later to make room for the Kennedy Center. It ended up where it is now, at one end of Washington Channel Park.

It was specifically meant as a memorial to the men who gave their lives so the women and children could get in the lifeboats, and funded and designed by women in a gesture of thanks to their memory. It's actually quite lovely, and as is obvious, James Cameron used the pose in the movie.

I heard comments from another attendee about another memorial that was on the Ellipse, so I decided to do some detective work and track it down. And last weekend, I found it.

Behold the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain! Located on the northern part of the Ellipse, near the South Lawn of the White House, this is easily a very overlooked memorial that I think most folks don't even know is there, or if they do notice it, think it's just a decorative fountain with no real meaning. But there's a lot more going on here than meets the eye.

Designed by sculptor Daniel Chester French, it memorializes two men, Maj. Archibald Butt and Francis Davis Millet.

Archie Butt, seen above, was a former journalist who joined the Army and became a distinguished soldier, fighting valiantly in the Spanish-American War and becoming a top military aide to Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. He wrote several novels and was a popular figure in Washington government and social circles. By all reports he was an affable, polite man, overflowing with charm and personality, and who won friends easily. I've read that he was something of a dandy, with a keen appreciation for art and antiques.

This is Francis Davis Millet, who was a noted artist and muralist. He did many murals in public buildings around the country, and was also the superintendent of decoration at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He is credited with inventing the first form of spray paint, and was involved in a number of world's fairs. He was also a writer and journalist.

This martial figure honors Butt....

...and this sombre muse honors Millet.

Butt and Millet were, at the very least, best friends and roommates. They lived together (in a mansion at 2000 G St NW), entertained together, traveled together. Butt was a lifelong bachelor; from what I was able to find out, Millet was married, but it was in name only and the two lived apart.

I know what some of you are, were they?

It's hard to be 100% sure, but the considered opinion of many modern historians is that Butt and Millet were lovers. Millet was known to have had affairs with other men; Butt had something of a reputation for being popular with the ladies but it turns out that he was just polite and charming and not a lothario by any means. One website I found said that maybe they weren't actually a couple, but the historian was satisfied that both men were gay.

But still, they were very popular in DC, which may have had a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" attitude toward bachelor gentlemen who lived and went about together. Popular enough to have friends finance this memorial and petition Congress to have it erected on the Ellipse in 1913.

Butt had been caught between Roosevelt and Taft in political and personal issues, and his health had suffered as a result. His trip to Europe with Millet was meant as a recuperative holiday with a quick side trip to Rome, where Butt delivered a letter from Taft to the pope. They were on their return voyage on the Titanic when...well, you know what happened. Millet was last seen helping women and children aboard the lifeboats; his body was recovered and he was buried in East Bridgewater, MA. Stories differ on Maj. Butt; some say he was heroically loading the women and children as well, but more authoritative sources say that he merely sat in the smoking lounge, calmly watching everything, and making no move to save himself. His body was never recovered; in DC there's a cenotaph for him in Arlington National Cemetery and a plaque in the National Cathedral, and a bridge is named after him in Augusta, GA.

When I visited the fountain, tourists were passing it by, not even noticing it. The men's names and dates are carved on it; the Titanic is not mentioned. I snapped my photos, laughing at the birds splashing in the water. I knew nothing of their personal lives until I researched them later that night. Then I was shaking my head sadly at the a time when same-sex marriage is a huge debate, when mere acknowledgement of a gay relationship is cause for controversy, there's been a fountain bubbling quietly for almost a century that honors at least one gay man, and perhaps even a gay couple, who died heroes.

When you visit DC, find time to stop by, reflect on how far we have and haven't come as a culture, maybe leave some flowers, and go home to think.

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