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Unraveling the Myth
Copyright © 1999 Kristen Iversen
All right reserved.
A Bump in the Night
April 14, 1912
On the bright spring morning of Sunday, April 14, 1912, Mrs. James Joseph Brown was walking the deck. The day had dawned clear, the early-morning sun streaming through the promenade decks with just a hint of the icy sea breeze that could send deck chairs scuttling. She had risen early for her walk, part of a daily ritual that sometimes included twenty minutes on the stationary horse or a half-hour of boxing in the gymnasium just down from her cabin on Deck B. Back home in Denver she had a firm leather pouch hanging in the carriage house; boxing, a new trend for women, not only firmed the upper arms and waist but made a corset unnecessary. However, Mr. T.W. McCawley, the gymnastics instructor on board, recommended the mechanical camel for the good it did the liver. She liked Mr. McCawley, with his short, bowed legs, muscled as a mountain climber's, and his trim black mustache. At the age of forty-four she had never felt better, still proud of her firm chin and slender hands but nevertheless a little concerned about her spreading middle. To the dismay of her dinner companions she had given up butter, salt, bread, and sugar and dropped five pounds. Next it wascream, and then coffee altogether, which seemed to help her sleep. Sleep, however, had never been a high priority. She was the sort of person who liked to keep herself busy.
The deck had already been scraped and sanded, and except for two men in sleeveless shirts polishing the brightwork, Margaret was alone. On the heels of a good Saturday night, many first-class passengers wouldn't have retired until after midnight, and few would likely make it to the Divine Service at ten-thirty. She walked briskly, looking out at water smooth as the mirror that lay on the pecan table in her stateroom. If she fixed her eye on a single point on the horizon, it felt almost as if the ship were standing still. Later she would hear a crewman cry that twenty-four of the twenty-nine boilers had been fired; despite the illusion of stillness, the ship was traveling at a high rate of speed.
It was her third day at sea, and she was trying not to worry. In Paris she had received word that her first grandson was ill. The news had caused her to shorten her trip considerably and book the next liner—which, to her great anticipation, had been the maiden voyage of the Titanic. But the thought of little Lawrence Jr. lying in his crib fretting with fever, sent a slice of fear through her chest. Her son had taken a job on a ranch in Oregon and left Eileen and the baby with Eileen's mother in Kansas City. Margaret had long anticipated the arrival of a grandchild but had yet to lay eyes on him. A photo of the baby, bright-eyed and wrapped in bunting, was tucked in her satchel. Surely God would see fit to keep this child healthy and earthbound.
She wasn't sorry to leave Paris, and not just because the spring exodus of New York's elite had begun. Like many who could afford to travel, Margaret often ventured to faraway countries in the spring. Summers were spent at her forty-three-room cottage, Mon Etui, in Newport, Rhode Island, but Margaret made a point of visiting family and friends in Denver and Leadville several times a year. With her daughter, Helen, she had spent several weeks traveling, including a treasured few days in Cairo with John Jacob Astor and his new wife, Madeleine, before they all left for Cherbourg. The Astors were enjoying the last few days of a secluded honeymoon away from the vicious sniping of the New York newspapers after Astor's very public divorce and quick remarriage to young Madeleine. Together they walked through the labyrinth of streets and alleyways of an Egyptian bazaar in the very heart of the city, where for fun Margaret sought the counsel of a palm reader. The dark Egyptian man traced the lines in her palm and shook his head forebodingly, muttering, "Water, water, water." In halting English, he spoke of a sinking ship surrounded by bodies. Margaret brushed it off, although she usually enjoyed the game of prophesy; she had often hired fortunetellers for fun at parties. But this man knew she was an American and naturally would have to cross the water. She wasn't going to give him a single penny more.
Helen was twenty-three, a natural beauty with soft eyes and long, reddish hair. She had been educated at private schools in Europe and at the Sorbonne and enjoyed the attentions of ardent beaus on both sides of the ocean. Her plan to accompany her mother on the Titanic had been changed at the last minute when friends in London begged Helen to stay a few weeks longer for the spring social season and Margaret reluctantly conceded. In two more months Helen would come home for the summer, although she would split her time between her mother's home in Newport and her father's hacienda in Tads, New Mexico. The family home on Pennsylvania Street in Denver was no longer a hub of the Denver business or social scenes; tenants and a caretaker now watched over the art, the furniture, and the infamous statuary. Sometimes Margaret mused that the two stone lions guarding their little-worn steps on Pennsylvania Avenue could be J.J. and herself. The legal separation three years ago had eased some of the turmoil in her life, but the thought of him could still make her blood boil. Or her heart ache, depending on her mood.
She was anxious to get back to Denver. Somewhere m the bowels of the ship, tidily packed in sawdust and pine crates, were three crates of models of the ruins of Rome that she was bringing back for the Denver Art Museum. The acquisition was a marvelous coup; her friends in Denver would be thrilled. In her pocket she carried a small Egyptian talisman she had bought for herself as a good-luck charm. Just before she had boarded the tender at Cherbourg, a man had tried to sell her insurance. She had turned him away. One couldn't put a price on antiquity.
She was warm now, despite the cool air, and thought she might dip down to her stateroom to change before the service. She hoped to see Emma Bucknell, her good friend and widow of the founder of Bucknell University, who had also taken the nine-forty transatlantic train from Paris. They had boarded the Titanic together at Cherbourg the previous Friday. The ship was late, not arriving until nearly nightfall. Two separate tenders, the Nomadic and the Traffic, brought them out into the channel, one tug for first-class passengers, the other for additional passengers, mail, and baggage. They waited nearly an hour in the cold, gray mist before the last bags of mail were carried from tender to liner and the shrill whistle warned shore visitors to return. Margaret watched as the gangways were raised and the anchor hove and felt the engines throb to life. All seemed brisk and efficient. "I have a premonition about this ship," Emma Bucknell said. She stood shivering in the cold, well dressed but rather prim in her pearls, tight curls, and wire-framed glasses. She planned to skip dinner and go straight to her stateroom.
"Nonsense," Margaret said. The Egyptian's words had been forgotten. "You're just anxious to see your family." Emma had four children and several grandchildren eagerly awaiting her return.
"I suppose it's just nerves," Emma replied, and laughed nervously. She wasn't quite as stout-hearted as Margaret, who enjoyed booking the maiden voyage of a liner whenever possible, but Emma was accustomed to traveling alone. As the second wife of William Bucknell, she had been left with not only loving children but a substantial inheritance at his death. First-class passengers on steamers often recognized each other from social circles in London or New York, and both Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Bucknell had sought out the pleasant company of Dr. Arthur Jackson Brewe, a Philadelphia physician who traveled often but was now eager to return home to his new wife. During the embarkation, he stood solemnly at their side.
"I always feel a little trepidation at the beginning of a journey," Dr. Brewe said. "Not to worry. No other ship in the world is built like this one." They watched the shadowy shore of Cape de la Hogue disappear into the darkness. Since that evening, several days of smooth sailing had proved his point.
* * *
On that cold April night, Margaret's stateroom hummed with warmth. She switched off the small electric heater at the foot of her bed, a decidedly useful benefit of traveling first class. She wasn't sure how anyone managed without one; except for a few brief hours in the afternoon, the sea air was bitter. She was glad she had brought the high-necked fleece nightgown with the long bishop sleeves, even though her daughter had said she looked old-fashioned. Last night she had even slept in her slippers, a pair of satin mules Lawrence had given her last Christmas. Her feet were always cold, a throwback to her Leadville days, she thought. One good frostbite in a pair of solid leather boots and her feet had never completely recovered. Before leaving her cabin she folded the Atlantic Daily Bulletin and left it on the bed for close reading later. Each morning before the bugle call, the steward slipped it under her door. Thanks to the new wireless technology and a small on-board printing press, passengers were kept up-to-date on news and stock-market quotations.
When she came back up on deck, a small crowd had gathered in front of the first-class dining saloon. Captain Edward Smith, a stout, white-whiskered man whose every word seemed both paternal and polite, greeted each first-class passenger with a nod. He held his hat in his hand; on each sleeve glistened the four gold rings of his rank. "Mrs. Brown," he murmured, and dipped his head. She extended a gloved hand. Twice before she had crossed the ocean with Captain Smith, most recently just three months ago on the Titanic's sister ship Olympic, when he and she had shared the same dinner table. Many first-class passengers based their travel plans on whether a particular captain or steward was on a certain ship; Margaret, like many of her friends, had been glad to see Captain Smith's familiar white whiskers. She had also recognized one of the stewardesses, a young woman with auburn hair and a brisk Irish accent, who had also been on the Olympic.
Once inside she saw that the tables had been removed and the chairs lined up like pews in front of a small podium, with a small cortege of the ship's orchestra seated to the side. Margaret was surprised to see a good show of first-class passengers in the front rows; glancing behind her, she saw passengers from second and third class quietly perched in the back. It wasn't the same as the towering Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, which Brown money had helped build, or the quaint Annunciation Church of Leadville, where she and J.J. had been married. But the spirit felt just as strong. Captain Smith tucked a well-worn copy of the company's prayer book, which he preferred to the Book of Common Prayer, beneath his arm and closed the doors. An audience of various ranks, classes, and religions meant that he had to tread a fine line between inspiration and indignation; his words would only gently hearten. There had been no daily inspection of the ship, the usual early-morning parade of the captain, the chief officer, the chief engineer, the purser, the chief steward, and the senior surgeon, all dressed in their best. The service would suffice instead.
Just before the captain reached the podium, he fingered a triangle of white paper inside his breast pocket that had been handed to him just as he left the bridge. The tight, cramped handwriting of Harold Bride, a curly-headed twenty-two-year-old from Bromley, Kent, who didn't seem to mind spending long hours bent over an endless stream of static, stated that a wireless had been received from the Caronia, an eastbound ship traveling from New York to Liverpool. Smith squinted again at the words: "Bergs, growlers, and field ice." Nothing new, he thought, and tucked it back inside. After a half-hour of general confession and a prayer for those at sea, the congregation concluded with a rousing rendition of "O God Our Help in Ages Past," and the passengers politely filed out into the crisp morning air. Captain Smith went up to the bridge. Margaret Tobin Brown returned to her stateroom. The Titanic continued her smooth and effortless speed run to New York, where she was to arrive Tuesday night with as much pomp and glory as when she first pushed off from the dock.
* * *
Lunch at the Veranda Cafe was always pleasant, even when one lunched alone. Margaret ordered corned beef, vegetables, and dumplings—not too many dumplings—and gazed out the high bronze windows at the sea, flat and smooth and brilliant in the sun. The illusion of warmth was shattered whenever the door to the deck was opened, however, and few passengers ventured outside. The steward brought a small plate of cheshire and gorgonzola, which she allowed herself, cheese being an occasional indulgence. She planned her afternoon, not unlike yesterday or the day before: a bracing walk on the deck, two hours in the library, a cup of tea and dry toast in her room before dressing for dinner. Her favorite spot to sit and read was just in front of the great bow window at the forward end of the writing room. She loved walking from one end of the ship to the other. The broad corridors, winding companionways, and grand staircase made her feel as if she were in a palace, not on a ship. The White Star Line had given all the first-class passengers a little guidebook to help them find their way around the ship, but she still couldn't quite determine the shortest, most direct route from one end to the other. Much was made of the fact that there were numerous honeymooning couples strolling about, from first class to steerage, her friends John Jacob and Madeleine generating the most gossip. She tried not to think of J.J.
She thought instead of her mother, now dead, who would have relished musing in a deck chair, watching people walk up and down, looking to see who was who and what was what. Tiny as a bantam hen but with enough opinions to fill a newspaper. There were many things she missed about her mother, who could be just as prim as any Victorian matron but wasn't above a pipeful of tobacco when left to her own devices. Ten times a day Margaret could tell her to smoke only in the kitchen, but as soon as she left the house in Denver her mother smoked wherever she pleased. The brocade curtains still held the pungent smell.
She thought of what she might wear to dinner. Just before leaving Paris she and Helen had spent an afternoon browsing in galleries and shops, and she had many new gowns—twenty-five, in fact, not including capes and overcoats, with fourteen matching hats. She was eager to get to New York, where there would be talk of the stock market and the theater and the glory, however short-lived, of being the first passengers on the much-touted Titanic. But time was of the essence. She had planned to stay a few nights at her usual room at the Ritz-Carlton before taking the train to Hannibal to visit family, but now her only goal was her grandson.
A dark moment of concern crossed her mind as she thought of the baby. She hadn't heard a word since the telegram in Paris.
* * *
At six p.m. Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller assumed his watch at the bridge. He was what sailors often called a "hard case." At the ripe age of twenty-six, he had a long list of sea adventures, including a shipwreck, a cyclone, a cargo fire, and a severe bout of malaria. Back in Lancashire, his sister had begged him to consider another career. "Don't you bother about me," he had retorted. "The sea is not wet enough to drown me. I'll never be drowned!" He was proud to be on the Titanic, one of many voyages he had made with Captain Smith.
On his way to join Lightoller, Captain Smith passed White Star Line Managing Director J. Bruce Ismay on the promenade deck, where he stood talking to George and Eleanor Widener. As the son of P.A.B. Widener, who served on the board of the bank that had financed the Titanic, George Widener shared a congenial relationship with Ismay. Without comment, Captain Smith handed Ismay the brief note from the wireless. Ismay glanced at it, put it in his pocket, and resumed his conversation. Later, on his way down to dinner, Captain Smith saw the three still deep in conversation. He asked for the message back. Ismay retrieved it from his pocket, and before joining the Wideners and a few select guests in the À la Carte Restaurant, Captain Smith took the note up to the bridge, posted it, and entered it into the log. The dinner was in honor of Smith; this was his last voyage on a White Star vessel. After thirty-eight years he was finally ready to retire.
At seven thirty-five, Second Officer Lightoller prepared to go down to his own dinner. He remarked to his colleagues how quickly the temperature had dropped now that the sun had set.
* * *
In her stateroom, Margaret finished tying her long brown hair into a tidy coiffure and checked her gown in the mirror. She wore a longer gown, suitable for dinner but not for dancing, although she loved to dance. The dip, the waltz, even the tango. Back in Denver, at the Casanova Room in the Brown Palace Hotel, she might not be the best dancer on the floor, but she laid claim to being the most energetic. She looked forward to joining Dr. Brewe and Emma Bucknell, among others, for a glass of champagne and filet mignon Lili, with just a taste of dessert, which she would justify by another stroll around the deck before retiring. Exercise, exercise! Mr. McCawley admonished, although privately she felt that an occasional nip of sherry or crème fraîche was good for the character.
Just below, in cabin C-62, John Jacob Astor called to his manservant, Victor Robbins, to brush his suit, a dark blue serge of worsted wool that sometimes scratched at the neck. He usually dined with the wealthier first-class passengers, although he counted many others among his circle of friends. His young wife, Madeleine Force Astor, not yet twenty, hadn't decided whether to go to dinner, given the unstable state of her stomach. It was more than just the motion of the ship, although few people knew that beyond John and herself. The press was an unwelcome intrusion into their happiness; New York newspapers had not yet forgiven John for divorcing his first wife and marrying Madeleine on September 9, 1911. Their lives were filled with eager anticipation, as soon there would be a new heir to the Astor fortune.
Further down in the depths of the ship, the third-class passengers were also preparing for dinner. Herr Muller, the ship's interpreter, was exhausted after a long day of trying to find common ground for communication between so many different languages. Emigrants on board included people from many different countries—Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Romania—and even a few Chinese traveling to America to work as crewmen on the ship Anetta. After they spent a few tense hours eyeing each other with blunt curiosity and distrust, the general mood was one of congeniality and even celebration. For many this was the first time they had ever seen, let alone actually occupied, an ocean liner. The biting air had forced people to come in from the deck; men gathered in the smoking room and two bars, and the women and children filled the noisy general room. The smell of supper filled the air.
Even further below, deep down in the stokehold, the stokers (or "black gang," as they were called) stooped shirtless in front of the deafening furnaces, shoveling coal into the ravenous fires. The air was thick with coal dust, the heat sometimes unbearable, the constant clang of metal doors deafening. Trimmers trundled back and forth with wheelbarrows, dumping each load of coal at the feet of the stokers, who then shoveled it into the furnaces. During a single watch, the Titanic would consume close to a hundred tons of coal. The black gang was invisible and anonymous, totaling 177 firemen and 82 trimmers.
High above in the crow's nest, George Symons and Archie Jewel strained their eyes into the darkness. Their job, two hours on, four hours off, was only to look, to report to the bridge the slightest blip on the seascape, whether it be a light, a derelict, a piece of wreckage, even a wisp of smoke. They had been warned to watch particularly for ice. At the beginning of their shift, their eyes burned from the glare on the water, and when they weren't braced against the breeze they felt the wrath of the sun. Now it was cold and dark, and their job was to listen for the quartermaster's bell and check the navigation lights. After they answered with their own bell, they called out together, "All's well and lights burning brightly!" Their watch was almost over.
Someone had forgotten to equip the crow's nest with binoculars, or misplaced them, but no matter; many a sailor had remarked that the best tool at sea was the naked eye.
* * *
The Titanic's À la Carte Restaurant was an enormously successful innovation. First-class passengers, mostly prominent American businessmen, tended to prefer private dining room service and food served at odd hours. This approach wreaked havoc with the tight schedule necessary for a small kitchen to provide meals for a large ship; Ismay's solution had been to provide a private room with a staff of French waiters, open at all hours of the day and well into the night. Passengers could plan private engagements and request specific dishes at a moment's notice; the ship's printing office produced menus and, if necessary, invitations. The pressure on the kitchen staff was relieved, and prominent passengers enjoyed the same service as they would at a first-class hotel in London or New York. All the waiters were male, but two young Englishwomen, Miss Martin and Miss Bowker, served as cashiers and hostesses. They sometimes hid in the kitchen to gossip about who sat with whom and at what table.
At seven-thirty P.M., Captain Smith entered the À la Carte and briefly adjusted his sleeves before advancing to the long table where he was due to dine with Harry Widener and his parents, George and Eleanor; Maj. Archibald Willingham Butt, assistant to President William Taft; John and Marion Thayer; and William and Lucile Carter. Miss Martin, blushing slightly, led him to the table. Heads turned as they passed.
At a nearby table Emma Bucknell turned to Margaret and whispered, "Shouldn't he be on the bridge? I've heard rumors of icebergs and such."
"Nonsense." Margaret privately suspected Emma of a fearful imagination. Since their departure from Cherbourg, Emma had scarcely slept. "He often dines with first-class passengers."
"It does seem that the ship is moving more southwest than due west," Dr. Brewe commented. "Although that may be due to fog. In any case, Captain Smith is the best captain we have. He's never encountered a problem at sea. They always assign him to the maiden voyage of a new ship."
They had a leisurely dinner, Emma sipping a bit more wine than usual, and afterward retired to the Palm Court, a long, narrow room with upholstered chairs. The women wrapped heavy furs over their gowns and Dr. Brewe wore a long coat over his tuxedo as they sat at a small table under leafy fronds and listened to the Titanic's band play ragtime. The setting reminded Margaret of Newport, where she would soon be summering once again. A steward brought a tray carrying a silver pot of coffee and fresh cream, which Margaret declined.
In his cabin, Quartermaster Robert Hichens prepared for his watch on the poop. His job was to note the reading on the dial of the patent log fixed to the taffrail, telephone it to the bridge, and enter it into his logbook. He also ran messages, trimmed the lamps in the standard compass, read the thermometer and barometer, checked the water temperature, and sounded the bells every half-hour for the men in the crow's nest. His first duty this evening was to advise the carpenter to check the fresh water before it began to freeze, and to turn on the heaters in the officers' quarters.
* * *
At eight-fifty p.m., Captain Smith rejoined Lightoller on the bridge. The sea was astonishingly calm and flat, with no sign of a moon but brilliant, piercing stars. "The air is quite brisk," Captain Smith remarked, and Lightoller agreed. "The stars are so bright that we'd likely see the reflection of an iceberg, he replied.
"Yes," mused Captain Smith, who felt full and tired and was looking forward to his bunk. "But if you are the slightest degree doubtful, let me know."
"I will, sir." Lightoller had little reason to worry. Only one ice warning had been posted, although, unbeknownst to him or any of the other officers, numerous warnings had been received from four other passing ships.
* * *
Frederick Fleet was an ambitious man and a good sailor. In 1888 his mother had left England for a better life in America, leaving behind her infant son. Years spent in orphanages had made him nothing if not resourceful, and after being commissioned to a training ship at age twelve, Fleet, now in his midtwenties, had worked his way up from deck boy to able seaman.
Just before ten P.M. he took a cup of strong coffee to brace himself and climbed the ladder to assume his watch in the crow's nest. The ship was moving swiftly at 22.5 knots, the air temperature near freezing, growing cooler as the Titanic began to enter the influence of a large Arctic high moving in a southwestward direction. The brisk north wind had diminished. The night was clear, although tiny splinters of ice caught the lights off the deck and glittered in the air like confetti. Fleet solemnly stood his post in front of the long brass bell, nearly two feet in length, that hung just above his head. In a moment Reginald Lee, an older fellow from Threefield Lane, Southampton, joined him. At her cabin, Margaret unlocked the door and reached in to switch on the light. She could remember a time when she had to fumble in the dark to light a single lamp, never mind all the lights that burned brightly now just for her. One could stay up as late as one wanted. She sat on the brass bed and unbuttoned her shoes, then pulled her gown up over her head and hung it smoothly in the wardrobe. She put on her fleece gown and brought a book to bed, first checking for the roll of crackers she kept in the mesh netting hanging on the wall, a convenient spot for her books, handkerchief, and the small tin of balm she kept for her hands. Sometimes she woke up hungry in the middle of the night but rarely indulged in more than a few crackers or, when home in Denver, a bowl of cold porridge. She loved her cozy stateroom; it was almost as nice as staying at the Ritz-Carlton.
Her room swayed ever so slightly. Tonight the vibration of the engines seemed stronger than usual; the Titanic was steaming faster than at any other time since they had sailed from Southampton.
Up in the wireless room, operator John ("Jack") Phillips jerked the headset from his ears. The static was nearly deafening; after ten hours on the job his energy had waned and his patience was thin. The ship was passing Cape Race, and he still had hours to go before transmitting all the messages that lay piled before him, most of them from first-class passengers eager to check on news from home or simply to relay a message to friends using the marvelous new technology. A ship less than twenty miles away, the Californian, sent a curt message: We are stopped and surrounded by ice.
"Shut up, I am busy," Phillips furiously typed back. "I am working Cape Race." He returned to the pile of scribbled notes. The Titanic continued on at 22.5 knots, the highest speed she had ever achieved.
The steady pull of the engine was just enough to make it difficult for Margaret to keep her eyelids from dropping. In a cabin just down the corridor, Emma Bucknell, despite her frightening dreams, was sound asleep. In third class, where the victualing crew was housed, Miss Martin was still whispering with Miss Bowker. It had been a most interesting evening, and both agreed that young Harry Widener sounded exceedingly well read, in addition to being rich and handsome.
At eleven-forty P.M., just after seven bells, Frederick Fleet continued to peer ahead. The heavens were bright with stars, but everything below the horizon was liquid black. Suddenly he tensed. The air changed; the moist, clammy smell that filled his nostrils reminded him of a cave, deep and dark, filled with rock and ice. He strained to see into the black. A hole appeared in the space ahead, at first small, then looming, an empty black void against the thickly studded sky. He reached forward and rang the bell thrice, then lifted the phone and called the bridge.
A calm voice answered. "What did you see?"
"Iceberg right ahead."
"Thank you." The line went still.
Down below, in the wheelhouse, young Cornishman Robert Hichens stood at the wheel, twenty minutes away from the end of his shift. He nearly leaped out of his boots when the officer of the watch barked, "Hard-a-starboard!" The engines stopped and the order was given to reverse them. Hichens put the helm hard over, his heart pounding.
Thirty-seven seconds stretched into eternity. Fleet gripped the rail and watched in grim horror as she sluggishly turned and shouldered her side up against the dark wall. Chunks of ice crashed and splintered onto the forward well deck and slid across the floor, scattering like shards of broken glass. The smell of ice was acrid and ancient. As if propelled by its own power, the dark bulk bumped and scraped along the length of the ship. Then it was gone.
Fleet and Lee stood in disbelief.
* * *
Most Titanic passengers felt little more than a bump or heard a faint grinding noise. Margaret Brown, deep in a book in her cabin on Deck B, felt a crash overhead and was knocked to the floor. Numerous ocean journeys had made her a seasoned traveler; she was startled but not frightened. She rose, put on her dressing gown, and ventured out into the corridor. Earlier she had heard several men enter their staterooms, saying that the cold night air had forced them to retire early from the smoking rooms. Now these same men stood in the gangway in their pajamas, and a few women in kimonos poked their heads out from behind their stateroom doors. "Are you prepared to swim in those things?" joked one man, jostling another in the side.
Nothing seemed amiss, although she noticed that the engines had stopped. For the first time the ship was truly silent. Margaret returned to her room and began reading again, the lamp at her shoulder burning steadily. Through the wall next to her she heard someone say, "We will go up on deck and see what has happened." Again she rose, donned her dressing gown, and poked her nose out into the corridor. An officer and several stewards stood quietly conversing. The situation seemed well under control. Once again she returned to her warm bed.
Abruptly she was startled by a pounding noise. The curtains at her small window moved slightly, and a face appeared. She sat up straight—it was Mr. McGough from Philadelphia, a Gimbels buyer she had met earlier on deck. His face was blanched, eyes protruding like those of a fish, and he seemed out of breath. He looks absolutely haunted, she thought. "Get your life preserver!" he gasped.
Second Officer Lightoller had been roused from a heavy, exhausted sleep, not by a jolt but by a grinding vibration that could have been a thousand different things. He waited tensely in his room—his orders were to stay put until called for duty—but finally pulled a sweater and trousers over his pajamas and bounded to the bridge. Captain Smith stood grimly giving orders to his officers, his breath hanging in brief clouds of steam. "Uncover the lifeboats!" he bellowed. Lightoller glanced at his watch. It was twelve midnight, sharp.
Margaret Brown was filled not with fear but with practicality. She laid her nightgown across the bed and quickly dressed in a black velvet two-piece suit with black-and-white silk lapels, one she'd scarcely worn. She had been saving it for New York. But warmth, not style, was foremost in her mind, and this was her warmest piece of clothing. Over her sturdy legs she pulled seven pairs of woolen stockings, one over the other. She put on the sable stole J.J. had given her years ago, wrapped a silk capote around her head, and glanced quickly around her cabin. Her clothes, her books, her favorite Parisian shoes (thirteen pairs total, including slippers)—all would be left behind. From her room safe she quickly took $500 in bills and folded them into a small wallet she carried around her neck under her clothing. She strapped on her lifebelt, the cork stiff and straps awkward and difficult to fasten, and took the blanket from the bed. At the last moment she seized the three-inch turquoise-colored Egyptian statue she had bought in Cairo and slipped it into her pocket for good luck.
Just as she emerged from her cabin, an officer strode by, followed by the young steward who rapped on her cabin door each morning to wake her at six. "Good evening, Mrs. Brown," he said, standing politely in his black suit and boots. "I'm sorry to inform you that the captain has ordered everyone to go to the boat deck."
"I'm ready." she said. She climbed the stairs to Deck A, where about fifty passengers were strapping on lifebelts. Emma Bucknell joined her immediately. "Didn't I tell you something was going to happen?" she whispered. They watched in horror as the crewmen struggled with the lifeboats, and an officer ordered the group to descend to the deck below. There a lifeboat had been lowered flush with the deck, and another officer began helping passengers step across the gap into the unsteady craft.
Down below in the gymnasium, the floor was beginning to list decidedly. Mr. McCawley had secured his equipment as best he could; he now stood at the door with a young man from first class whose lifebelt was so tight that his suit was bunched like crepe paper. "No, not for me," Mr. McCawley declared. "I won't wear a lifebelt. It will only slow me down as I swim."
John Jacob Astor sat on an exercise horse next to Madeleine, her maid, Rosalie, hovering nervously nearby. With a pocketknife he deftly cut open a lifebelt to prove how sturdy it was, how solidly designed, and held out the pieces in his hands like fine porcelain. "But we'll stay here for now," he said. "With all the watertight compartments, there is no chance this ship can sink. It's perfectly safe."
In cabin C-104, Maj. Arthur Godfrey Peuchen of Montreal, the president of Standard Chemical Company, at first thought a strong wave had struck the boat. He was a military man, having long served with the Queen's Own Rifles, and didn't mind a little excitement. His steward, James Johnson, found him down in the dining saloon. "Sir!" he cried. "We have struck an iceberg!" Peuchen needed no further encouragement; he bounded up the grand staircase to his cabin, pulled on warm clothes, and placed his yachtsman pin prominently on his lapel. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a closely cropped handlebar mustache, he felt ready to meet whatever fate might deliver.
In their cabin, Miss Martin and Miss Bowker were interrupted by a knock on the door. "Women up on the boat deck!' the voice cried. "Get your lifebelts!" There was no time to change clothes; each girl grabbed a wrapper and cloak. As they dashed down the passageway they looked back to their colleagues, all male: the French waiters, chef, chef's assistants, bakers, sauce makers, fish cooks, wine butlers, barmen, coffeemen, soup cook, and sculleryman. Sixty-four men total, not allowed to leave the corridor.
After roving the decks and seeing a few young cutups from third class playfully kicking and throwing the snow and ice that had landed on the lower deck, Major Peuchen decided the situation was rather more serious than he had thought. He returned to his stateroom. While fastening his lifebelt, he looked down at a tin box on the table filled with $200,000 in bonds and $100,000 in preferred stock. What to do? He slammed out of the room, only to return a moment later to take a good-luck pin and stuff three oranges into his pockets. He left the box on the table.
Lightoller had been ordered to take charge of the even-numbered boats on the port side. Following orders wasn't easy. The air was filled with the blast of steam; every safety valve had been lifted, and the noise was deafening. He shouted at the top of his lungs and attracted the attention of no one. Finally, using hand signals, he began loading Lifeboat Four. Almost immediately he ran out of passengers; no one seemed to be taking the situation seriously. In frustration he raised his fist to the sky; the windows on Deck A were locked, requiring the passengers, some terrified, some nonchalant, to go back down one deck and come up the stairs. There had been no rehearsal with the new equipment, and each minute seemed to stretch into an hour as passengers were coaxed or coerced into their seats and the lifeboats were lowered. The din and confusion were unbearable; he had little idea what his colleagues on the other side of the ship were doing. Lifeboat Six hung ready to go: more passengers appeared, and he began to order them into the boat. "Women and children only!" he cried. The women hung back, unwilling to leave their husbands or the ship itself, or convinced that the whole thing was unnecessary.
Margaret Brown stood amidst the din and thanked God that Helen had decided to stay in Paris. Suddenly her acquaintance Madame de Villiers appeared, wearing nothing but a short nightdress, slippers, and a long motorcoat over her bare, shivering legs. Abruptly the safety valves closed and the air was still. "Into the boat!" Lightoller called, his voice suddenly crystal clear.
"No!" Madame de Villiers cried in her thick French-Canadian accent. "I have to go back to my cabin!" She turned back to the stairs.
"Get into the lifeboat, Madame," Margaret cried, and grabbed her arm. "You should do what the officer says."
"But my money and jewelry! I haven't even locked the door!"
"It's only a precaution, dear. In a few minutes we'll all be able to return to the steamer." Margaret pulled the other woman toward Lightoller, who stood drenched in sweat and steam despite the cold air and his unconventional dress. "Your steward will lock your door. Don't worry."
"No!" Madame de Villiers cried, seeming not to comprehend what was happening. Margaret pressed her forward. "It's going to be fine," she said.
"Get into the boat," Lightoller growled, and Madame de Villiers stumbled, sobbing, over the edge. At the last moment, Margaret held back: perhaps what John Jacob Astor had said was true. The Titanic itself was probably much safer. And even if it wasn't, she was quite a fair swimmer.
* * *
At twelve forty-five a.m., the first of eight distress rockets was fired from the starboard side of the bridge. Five minutes later another was fired, then another, a thunderous shot high in the dark that sent sparkling white stars cascading over the black sea. Ten miles away, two separate members of the crew of the Californian took brief note but decided it was probably nothing important.
* * *
Helen Churchill Candee, like Margaret Brown, was traveling alone. Nevertheless, she had made many new friends, among them Edward Kent, fifty-eight, an architect from Buffalo, New York, and Col. Archibald Gracie IV, fifty-four, a writer and historian. Many on board knew her name; she was the author of several books, including the controversial 1900 volume titled How Women May Earn a Living. With Gracie, Kent, and several others she had formed an informal writers' group for the duration of the Titanic's journey. The news of her son's accident in an airplane—and certainly very few people could boast of a son who piloted an airplane—had unexpectedly put her on the ship. When she heard the order to go to the boat deck, she ran to her room to retrieve an ivory miniature of her mother, which she gave to Mr. Kent for safekeeping.
"Surely you will be much safer here than I will be out there!" she declared almost gaily, the situation for the moment seeming almost surreal. After some discussion he finally agreed to accept the portrait; surely the matter was academic, he said, as the crisis would clearly pass. He kept his true thoughts to himself; privately, he doubted whether he would survive.
The steward came by, helped Mrs. Candee don her lifebelt, and securely locked her cabin. "And now," she said to the ruddy-faced young man, "it is time for you to look out for yourself."
"Oh, there's plenty of time for that, madam," he said. "Plenty of time for that!" He watched her climb the steps to the deck and then disappeared down the corridor. She never saw him again.
Just as Mrs. Candee came up to the deck, a throng of men blackened with soot and coal dust emerged from the other side, dunnage in hand. A fine mist rose from their bodies as they hit the bitter air. Stokers and trimmers, she thought, and nearly a hundred of them! As a group they moved toward a lifeboat, and immediately an officer appeared. "Go back!" he shouted. "Go back down!" Like a military unit they turned on their heels and marched back down the steps. Surely there are special lifeboats for them, Mrs. Candee thought, further down below.
Just behind Lightoller, who could barely contain his frustration with the reluctance of the people whose lives he was trying to save, stood Julia and Tyrell Cavendish, an English couple in their midthirties. Julia wore only a wrapper, her husband's long overcoat, and a pair of thin shoes. They had barely spoken to each other since the first order to come up on deck; there seemed nothing to say. Their lives appeared suddenly truncated. Finally Lightoller turned to them; Mrs. Cavendish gazed for a moment into her husband's eyes and then took Lightoller's hand. When she had precariously found a seat in the lifeboat, she turned to look for Tyrell; he was gone. A sense of urgency now gripped the crowd.
The next woman into the boat was Mrs. Candee. She arrived with an encouraging word and a vigorous hoist from Lightoller and happened to land on the oars lying lengthwise in the black depths of the boat. She mentioned to no one the fact that she had fallen heavily and injured both of her legs.
Lightoller ordered as many women as he could find into the boat. Just as the lashings of the mast were cut and the boat began to lower, Margaret Brown, who had decided to walk around and see how things were going on the other side of the deck, was grabbed from behind by two determined men and unceremoniously dropped four feet down into the boat. "You are going, too!" one growled. She scrambled for a seat and tucked the extra stole she had brought behind her feet. Confusion swirled in the darkness as people called back and forth to one another, trying to ascertain who was in the lifeboats and who was still on the ship. The boat rocked wildly.
"We've only one man in this boat!" cried Helen Candee to Lightoller. "Only one man!" Hichens, the quartermaster, sat silent at the lifeboat's prow.
Major Peuchen stood at the rail. He had been helping unravel the tackle of the lifeboats, which seemed hopelessly difficult, and was waiting for just this opportunity. "If you like, I will go," he said.
"Are you a seaman?" Lightoller called back.
"I am a yachtsman." Although it was almost impossible to see in the dark, he pointed to his pin. He wasn't vice-commodore of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto for nothing.
"If you are sailor enough to get out on that fall—a difficult thing, for you must get over the ship's side, eight feet away, and make a long swing on a dark night—if you are sailor enough to get out there, you can go down," Lightoller answered.
Peuchen was sailor enough. He swung wide and landed heavily in the boat, quickly tallying the occupants. "We need more seamen!" he yelled.
Captain Smith appeared at the rail next to Lightoller. "Here's one," he called, and lifted out a boy of twelve or fourteen. For a moment it seemed he might fall into the sea. The boy Crumpled into the bottom of the lifeboat. He was lucky; most male children over ten were considered man enough to stay with the ship.
"We're listing!" cried Helen Candee as the bow of the boat swung crazily, high in the air. Margaret clung tightly, fury expecting to greet the icy water face first. Abruptly the bow dropped and the boat jerked down, and now the opposite end hung precariously high. "The other side! The other side!" cried Helen. By a series of jerks and pulls they came down beside Deck D, and Margaret noted with horror a gush of water spouting from an opening on the side of the ship. She slid an oar out from the bottom of the boat and braced it against the shell of the ship, holding the side of the lifeboat out and away. They dropped into the water with a splash, nearly capsizing. The black air was perfectly silent except for the shouting above. Margaret looked up to the deck rail, where a small group of stewards stood smoking as if basking in the sun of a warm afternoon. She saw for a moment, in the odd brightness of the light, the stoic face of Captain Smith in his whiskers, jacket, and cap. He gestured out toward the sea and bellowed, "Row to the light! Row to the light! And keep all the boats together!"
As the boat pulled away, shots were heard. Later Margaret would be told that it was the sound of officers shooting to prevent people from the lower decks from jumping into the lifeboats. At the time it sounded as if the boilers were exploding in a series of pops. She looked out to the smooth ocean surface, almost indistinguishable from the black horizon. There was no light.
Excerpted from Molly Brown by Kristen Iversen Copyright © 1999 by Kristen Iversen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|Foreword: Unraveling the Myth||ix|
|A Note on Sources||xxiii|
|A Bump in the Night April 14, 1912||1|
|A Legend Born April 1912, and Aftermath||31|
|Raised on the Milk of a Nanny Goat 1867-1886||63|
|Better Off with a Poor Man 1886-1894||79|
|An Unfortunate Disposition 1894-1906||107|
|Why Be Mildewed at Forty? 1906-1912||149|
|Drum Major of an Imperial Band 1913-1922||179|
|In the Spirit of Sarah Bernhardt 1922-1932||219|
|Envoi April 18, 1912||251|
Posted June 22, 2013
In real life, there really wasn't a "Molly" Brown, but when did truth ever get in the way of telling a good story?
Margaret Tobin Brown's real life story is much more fascinating that the myths and legends that sprang up around her, and this book does a wonderful job 1) telling the real story, 2) explaining how and why we've come to think these things about a woman who lived not so very long ago, and 3) sheds light on what life was like for a (relatively) wealthy American feminist in the days before American women could vote.
Far from being crude or uneducated, Margaret (and JJ) hired tutors not only for their children, but for themselves. She spoke five languages and among other things, took yodeling lessons for two years.
She loved to travel - and she wrote travel articles. She ran for political office. She was a staunch friend of workers' rights, children's welfare, a mother, a mother-surrogate for her widowed brother's daughters.
By her own account, Margaret was in bed reading when Titanic struck the iceberg. That alone makes her a woman after my own heart.
The book is meticulously researched, full of detail but not dry, and also contains many wonderful photographs. Great read for anyone who is interested in Titanic, women's history, and life in Colorado at the turn of the 20th century.