The Carpathia herself barely avoided hitting an iceberg. “Her captain came close to having his own disaster. He wrote a book, and the fact that he didn’t mention too much about the Titanic’s passengers, plus the way he handled the chapters on the general subject, gave me the impression he was deeply traumatized by the whole affair. I mean, you’re looking at a guy who had a reputation for being extremely competent, who really hazarded his ship while trying to get to the rescue at sea. He pushed the ship to 17 knots, when the maximum it had ever done was 14. He doubled and tripled the watches and avoided his own disaster. But when he got there all he found was partially loaded lifeboats.”
Near-misses are a favorite theme of DeRosset’s. A door-sized piece in the collection of Scott Chapin of La Mesa shows one that involved the Titanic, the Oceanic, and the American liner New York. It occurred near Pier 38 in Southampton. In the picture there is also a little tugboat. DeRosset’s commentary on the event goes like this:
“The Oceanic is inboard, and the New York had just come in from a transatlantic voyage. So she tied up next to the Oceanic. What happened was that the Titanic got underway from the shipping dock. Then she turned in to the River Test, and in the process, she went all back with her port propeller wheel. Between that and the two-knot outward current from the River Test, the back thrust from the port wheel, plus the displacement of her hull — the Titanic displaced a lot of water — swells came up between the hulls of the Oceanic and the New York, pushed the stern out, and, when the mooring line snapped, she kept on swinging out. The little tug, which was part of the Southampton Red Funnel Fleet, was in the process of starting to take workers out of an access door aft on the port side, and she got underway and was trying to pull back alongside the Oceanic. Meanwhile, the Titanic went straight. And most descriptions say it was one single event, but it was actually two separate events. The Titanic came within 12 feet of smashing the bow of the tug. The near collision proves that the handling characteristics of the vessel were really quite good. The idea that the rudder was too small is total nonsense. I’ve done a number of tugs for the Foss tugboat company for its calendar. Tugs are fun, because they’re in the same category as trash trucks. They’re the type of vessel that people like to make fun of. And yet they’re very romantic.…”
What to make of DeRosset’s obsessions? Such things are not unusual among artists and their psychic kin, collectors. But something else about DeRosset deepens their mystery. “One of two things can happen when you meet him,” I was told by the same friend who commented on his garrulousness. “He’ll either scare you away or take you into his world.” The friend is David Brown, editor and publisher of the Veterans Journal, whose office is in the basement of the Veterans Memorial Center in Balboa Park. “Richard is an outrageously good artist, but he’s also outrageous as a person,” said Brown. “Everybody acquiesces to his knowledge. The paintings are absolutely right, down to the rivets. His eye for detail is annoying, it’s so precise. But people steer clear of him, because of his ‘temperament.’”
Brown asked me if I’d heard about the incident on the Berkeley, the steam ferryboat that is part of the floating San Diego Maritime Museum. DeRosset’s publicity says he is the museum’s “official artist.” Again, that’s not exactly the case. Mark Allen, the museum’s special exhibits curator, wrote me in a letter (sent at DeRosset’s request), “For some years now, Richard had ably performed the services of a sort of ‘house’ maritime artist.” I wondered what “sort of” meant. Joseph Ditler, then director of communications, clarified: “We wanted to make him ‘official painter,’ something he had been wanting us to do for years. When we finally drew up the papers, his agent canned the deal.” At any rate, his paintings hang on the museum’s walls, and reproductions are for sale in the gift shop. And the captions on some greeting cards do refer to him as “official artist.” But one day a few years ago he got insulted. “He was supposed to be given a ceremonial dinner at the museum,” Brown told me. “Instead, it was given to another artist. When Richard found out, he threw some of his paintings into the harbor. They’re still down there.”
Upstairs from Brown’s office at the Veterans Memorial Center, in the former chapel of the old Naval Hospital, DeRosset has painted the first in a series of six planned murals. The finished one is a surrealistic collage of the attack on Pearl Harbor — or, as DeRosset prefers to call it, the Battle of Oahu, since more than Pearl Harbor was bombed. It shows not only exploded battleships and burning oil but Mount Fuji and the Japanese rising sun. “I was amazed at the number of brushes he wore out on that wall,” said Brown. “Pockets full of brushes.” For Brown, waiting for DeRosset to complete the piece was like “watching the calendar, like waiting for spring.” It took three years. During that time, while DeRosset did his research — in order to discover, for example, the exact formations of the dozen B-17s involved in the combat and the exact look of the U.S. Army mobile SCR270 radar antennae, with its 150-mile range — he also managed to alienate many members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. They found DeRosset to be abrasive, abusive, and crass. (“Voting in the last presidential election was like bobbing for turds in the toilet.” — Richard DeRosset.) Since the first mural was completed, the survivors applaud the artist when he enters the room, according to Brown, whose father-in-law is in the survivors’ group. In fact, they have made the artist an honorary member.