April 15 marks 100 years since the sinking of the Titanic, so you can bet on everything from restaurants to Hollywood to free newspapers cashing in on a little nostalgia. But the Rosenbach Museum & Library has an actual connection to the doomed passenger liner: Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach got his big break as a rare books dealer when Harry Elkins Widener — a 27-year-old Philadelphian and book collector — was among the 1,517 who never made it ashore. As a trusted family friend, Rosenbach was called in to finish a collection that Widener had begun for Harvard University.
Now on view, “Titanic: Rise of Rosenbach” chronicles Rosenbach’s work with the Widener collection through items from the archive and correspondences, including a brief telegram from London announcing Widener’s passing.
According to legends circulating in the rare books world, Widener made an ominous prediction about the Titanic shortly before boarding. After purchasing his last book, a particularly elusive copy of essays by Francis Bacon published in 1598, he told the dealer, according to exhibit co-curator and Rosenbach librarian Elizabeth E. Fuller, “I’ve put Bacon in my pocket — if I’m shipwrecked, it will go down with me.”
While a good anecdote, it’s not quite as sensational as the one that would later be recounted, where he declared his allegiance to the book on the decks as the ship was going under.
Rosenbach told both versions, although Fuller tends to believe the first account. “He was a great storyteller,” she says, “but we like to tell true stories when we can.”
On the anniversary
On April 15, the Rosenbach, along with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, will host an anniversary reading of Titanic survivor accounts. That we’re still fascinated by the tragedy 100 years later doesn’t come as a surprise to Fuller. “Any story that touches such deep issues of life and death and tragedy and heroism, of what might have been, will capture people’s attention and imagination,” she says.