Who is this woman? Her features are so classically well-proportioned that she doesn't seem to be a portrait; besides, portraits usually wear period costume to help the viewer identify them. Is she a mythological figure? Probably not, since she has no helmet, aegis, bow and arrow or other identifying feature. By elimination, then, she must be an allegorical or symbolic figure–but of what? Let's gather clues from the details.
Based on her body language, she is meditative, rather than (for example) distraught with grief or struggling to solve an algebra problem. She's reclining, relaxed, one foot dangling. Her eyelids are lowered, her head rests on one hand and the other hand is at her chin. She looks down into a reflecting pool, rather than at a busy street or the pages of a book. She seems, then, to be thinking of someone or something she remembers, not about what she can see right now.
Simple as it is, that's the identity of this figure: she is Memory. The gilt inscription on the curved bench (exedra) behind the figure confirms this: "In memory of Isidor and Ida Straus, who were lost at sea in the Titanic disaster April 15, 1912. Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in their death they were not divided. II Samuel 1:23." The inscription tells us whom the monument honors, but the sculpture's dominant idea—that calm remembrance is a good and important activity—would be clear without the inscription.
One of the great pleasures of searching for the theme in a work such as this one is that it allows you to spend more time with the sculpture. To spend even more time with Memory, take a few minutes to study details such as the way the drapery flows along her figure. The folds of the thin fabric outline her hips and legs, emphasizing the body beneath the fabric. Many of the sculptures in this book have been portraits of nineteenth-century gentlemen in business attire. For such models of decorum, it would be inappropriate to reveal too much of the figure beneath the clothing. This sculpture is a reminder of how beautiful an inanimate figure can be.
Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, under clear skies and on a sea smooth as glass, the largest ship afloat was racing to set a speed record on her maiden voyage. Four hours later, after striking an iceberg, the luxury liner Titanic was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and 1,522 of her passengers and crew were dead.
Among those who perished were Isidor and Ida Straus, two of New York's wealthiest and most beloved philanthropists. With a conviction that recalls Shakespeare (see below), Ida refused to board a lifeboat without her husband of forty-one years. Isidor refused to board until the last of the women and children had been taken off. Survivors reported seeing the pair on deck, arms around each others' waists, in the hours before the Titanic went down. Isidor's body was recovered and buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Ida's remained lost at sea.
Isidor Straus was a classic example of a poor immigrant succeeding spectacularly, through intelligence and sheer hard work. In 1902 he and brother Nathan moved the department store they had recently purchased from Union Square up to Sixth Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street, next door to the new home of Bennett's Herald. At first they had to offer customers free transportation to persuade them to venture to such an unfashionable neighborhood. A few years later, when Pennsylvania Station opened at Seventh Avenue and Thirty-Third Street, thousands of commuters and visitors suddenly found shopping there marvelously convenient. Isidor's most spectacular and enduring monument is seventy-two blocks south of the Straus Memorial: Macy's Herald Square, "the largest department store in the world."