In April 1912, six notable people were among those privileged to experience the height of luxury—first class passage on “the ship of dreams,” the RMS Titanic: Lucy Leslie, Countess of Rothes; son of the British Empire Tommy Andrews; American captain of industry John Thayer and his son Jack; Jewish-American immigrant Ida Straus; and American model and movie star Dorothy Gibson. Within a week of setting sail, they were all caught up in the horrifying disaster of the Titanic’s sinking, one of the biggest news stories of the century. Today, we can see their stories and the Titanic’s voyage as the beginning of the end of the established hierarchy of the Edwardian era.
Writing in his signature elegant prose and using previously unpublished sources, deck plans, journal entries, and surviving artifacts, Gareth Russell peers through the portholes of these first-class travelers to immerse us in a time of unprecedented change in British and American history. Through their intertwining lives, he examines social, technological, political, and economic forces such as the nuances of the British class system, the explosion of competition in the shipping trade, the birth of the movie industry, the Irish Home Rule Crisis, and the Jewish-American immigrant experience while also recounting their intimate stories of bravery, tragedy, and selflessness.
Lavishly illustrated with color and black and white photographs, this is “a beautiful requiem” (The Wall Street Journal) in which “readers get the story of this particular floating Tower of Babel in riveting detail, and with all the wider context they could want” (Christian Science Monitor).
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Chapter 1: The Lords Act CHAPTER 1 The Lords Act
In a dream I saw territories,
So broad, so rich and handsome,
Lapped by the blue sea,
Rimmed by mountains’ crest.
And at the centre of the territories
Stood a tall oak tree,
Of venerable appearance,
Almost as old as its country.
Storms and weather
Had already taken their toll;
Almost bare of leaves it was,
Its bark rough and shaggy.
Only its crown on high
Had not been blown away,
Woven of parched twigs,
Skeleton of former splendour...
Elisabeth of Bavaria (1837–1898), Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, “Neujahrsnacht 1887”
FLOWING IN FROM NORTH AND west, weaving past Roman and Celtic monuments of obscure purpose, two streams joined with the river Leven to ring the “magnificently wooded gardens” of Leslie House, the thirty-seven-bedroom country seat of Norman Leslie, 19th Earl of Rothes.I Nestling in ten thousand acres of “excellent arable land,” in 1911 Leslie House dominated the encircling parish, as it had for centuries. The minister of the local Church of Scotland drew his salary from the Earl’s coffers. So complete was the Leslie family’s influence in this part of eastern Scotland that the parish’s ancient recorded name of Fetkill had faded to become the parish of Leslie.
It had been predominantly a benign local absolutism. When an amateur historian arrived in Leslie in the 1830s, in the hope of unearthing grisly anecdotes from the village archives, he was, in his own words, distressed to find “nothing generally interesting in them,” with no perceptible drama having occurred in Leslie over the course of the last three hundred years. The eight-hundred-seat chapel was built; the flax mills spun; whiskey houses and inns were opened, closed, and renamed; and local legend had it that King James V had written his poem “Christ’s Kirk on the Green,” in celebration of a Caledonian pastoral idyll, after his hunting trip near the village in the 1530s.1
As the Edwardian era drew to its close, the then Countess of Rothes, Lucy Noëlle Martha Leslie, had busied herself with the renovation and preservation of Leslie House. Given the spiraling cost of maintaining a stately home, expansion, in the hope of restoring the house to what it had been in the previous centuries, would have been financially lunatic, although even at that the young Countess had sunk nearly £11,000 of her natal family’s money into the preservation and beautification of her husband’s ancestral home.2 She had married into the Leslie family on a “delightfully bright and genial” day in 1900, with a service at St. Mary Abbots Church in Kensington, near the London townhouse of her parents where the future countess had been born on Christmas Day twenty-two years earlier.3 Christ’s Nativity gave Lucy Dyer-Edwardes the first of her two middle names, Noël (the spelling on her birth certificate, but commonly spelled in Society columns and by various relatives as Noëlle); the other was Martha. These names and spellings were used variably throughout her life, although by adulthood she increasingly seemed to prefer her middle name of Noëlle. Her education had been entrusted to governesses and tutors who moved with the family as they oscillated between the Kensington house, their château in Normandy, and their favorite home, Prinknash Park, the Dyer-Edwardeses’ country seat in Gloucestershire. Prinknash, pronounced “Prinnage” as one of the thousands of anti-phonetic nomenclatures that form the pleasurable minefield of English place-names, was originally a Benedictine monastery founded, with spectacularly poor luck on the order’s part, only thirteen years before England’s break with Rome. Secularized and sold by the Tudors, Prinknash Park had become a beautiful stately pile in idyllic countryside, where Noëlle’s father, Thomas, was free to pursue his fascination with his home’s long-dead original owners and, bit by bit, their Catholic faith, to the distress of his wife, who regarded the Church of Rome as a foreigner’s creed.4
An only child and thus sole heiress to a substantial fortune, Noëlle also had the added benefit of blossoming into what one family member called “a true English rose beauty” by the time she turned eighteen and could be launched into the ballrooms and on to the marriage market of the upper classes as part of the debutante Season. After a formal presentation at Buckingham Palace, which marked their “coming out” into Society, the debutantes were, in the words of an Irish peer’s daughter, paraded “to shooting and tennis parties, polo matches, tea with the Viceroy in Dublin,” or, in Noëlle’s case, with the who’s who of the London beau monde.5 The ultimate goal of this whirlwind of merrymaking was a wedding announcement in The Times, but although Noëlle was a popular “deb,” she resisted many of the offers of marriage that came her way until she met Norman Leslie, 19th Earl of Rothes, an infantry officer with a “pleasant face and manners,” who proposed to her in 1899.6
The Countess of Rothes, shortly after her marriage.
Married the following spring in “a pretty gown of white satin covered with exquisite Brussels lace” and carrying a bouquet of carnations and white heather, Noëlle honeymooned on the Isle of Wight, before returning to London for her first audience at Court as the new Countess of Rothes.7 A young, wealthy, and good-looking couple, who were clearly very much in love, the Rotheses became a fixture in Society columns. The aristocracy were obsessive points of interest for the British, and certain sections of the American, press—the “beautiful people” of the era, according to a critical study of their long decline.8 It made the press’s job easier when, like Noëlle, the subject actually was physically beautiful, with even the Washington Post informing its readers, three thousand miles away, that on her second trip to Buckingham Palace, when she curtseyed to the Princess of Wales for the first time as a countess, Noëlle was, by general agreement, “one of the most beautiful young women seen at the Court this season.”9
After their honeymoon, the newlyweds had spent most of their time at the Rotheses’ country house in Devonshire and their mansion in Chelsea, where their first son, Malcolm, was born on February 8, 1902, and the couple attended King Edward VII’s coronation in the capital on August 9 of that year. By the time their second son, John, was born in December 1909, the death of Norman’s great-uncle had freed up Leslie House for their use and Noëlle was enraptured with her husband’s fiefdom. With the piqued pride of a jilted friend who cannot quite believe the world exists beyond the sparkle of London, the Bystander reported that the Countess of Rothes, who had been the toast of the capital at the time of Edward VII’s accession, was now “so devoted to her Scottish home, Leslie House, that neither she nor Lord Rothes are often to be seen in London or anywhere else [where] the world of amusement foregathers.”10 A journalist from the Scotsman observed that within a few years of her residency at Leslie House “not a Christmastide passed but the Countess celebrated her birthday, Dec. 25, by treating all the children in the parish to an entertainment in Leslie Town Hall, and presenting each with a Christmas gift.”11 Convinced of the benefits created by clean air, Noëlle organized trips for young women employed in local factories to visit the beach or the countryside. She funded the creation of Fife’s first ambulance corps, the Countess of Rothes Voluntary Aid Detachment, she paid for the neighboring parish of Kinglassie’s first clinic, organized parties to raise money for veterans from her husband’s regiment, and two years after John’s birth she began training with the Red Cross as a nurse.
Despite the Bystander’s gripes, London was not quite abandoned by the Rotheses and Noëlle often returned for the Season. She joined the committee that organized the Royal Caledonian Ball, an annual highlight for the capital’s socialites with its insistence on proper Highland attire and music. The funds raised were channeled to the Royal Caledonian Educational Trust’s care for Scottish orphanages.12 She worked for the YMCA Bazaar and the Children’s Guild; she sat on the foundation boards for the Randolph Wemyss Memorial Hospital and the Queen Victoria School near Edinburgh, which taught the sons of Scottish military personnel, and her passion for preserving a rural way of life in Britain brought her to serve the Village Clubs Association. The young Countess’s charitable activities were a mixture of the more glittering variety of philanthropy and intense hands-on work, and the former solidified many of her relationships with fellow like-minded aristocrats—Evelyn Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire; Consuelo Spencer-Churchill (née Vanderbilt), Duchess of Marlborough; Kathleen Wellesley, Duchess of Wellington; and Constance Sackville, the Dowager Countess De La Warr, became close friends. With Millicent Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland, Noëlle helped raise a substantial amount of money for the National Milk Hostels’ quest to provide “wholesome milk for poor families,” through a series of Society masquerade balls and garden parties, at which tickets were costly and donations firmly encouraged.13
One of Noëlle’s philanthropic connections was Louise, Duchess of Fife, who alone of King Edward VII’s daughters had married into the native aristocracy.14 Through her, Noëlle met, and was sincerely liked by, King Edward’s daughter-in-law Mary, Princess of Wales. Her friendships within the Royal Family added a personal affection to the feudal obligations that brought Norman and Noëlle to most major state occasions, including the funeral of Edward VII, after his death at Buckingham Palace was announced on May 6, 1910. Over the course of the next three days, a quarter of a million people filed past the royal coffin to pay their respects. Despite a reign of only nine years, Edward VII had, in his Foreign Secretary’s observation, grown “intensely and increasingly popular,” and grief at his passing was judged stronger than the mourning surrounding Queen Victoria’s death nine years earlier.15 The first people in the queue to pass King Edward’s bier, “guarded by household cavalry, soldiers of the line and men from Indian and Colonial contingents, all in the characteristic pose of mourning, that is with bowed heads with their hands crossed over rifle butts and the hilts of their swords,” had been “three women of the seamstress class: very poorly dressed and very reverent.”16 When the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, was caught leaning against a pillar during the lying in state, courtiers judged “his attitude and general demeanour rather offensive” and concluded that he must have been tipsy to behave so atrociously or, as one of them put it with leaden subtext, “I fear he had dined well.”17
There were no comparable faux pas at the funeral procession three days later. Many of the mourners had camped out overnight to vouchsafe their place in the crowds, which in places stood one hundred yards deep, to watch Edward VII’s body being conducted from Westminster Hall to Windsor. As the catafalque passed Hyde Park, where nearly three hundred thousand had congregated, cigarettes were stubbed out and a forest of caps rose into the air. After the body, the first being to receive these gestures of deference was Caesar, Edward VII’s white terrier, who with the Queen Mother’s permission trotted by his dead master’s side.18 Caesar was followed by nine monarchs on horseback, leading perhaps the largest gathering of royalty in history, with one of the emperors joking that this was the first time in his life he had yielded precedence to a canine.19 Monarchy, the cause in which Edward VII had been such a devout believer, had come to inter “the uncle of Europe.” His son and heir, now George V, rode with two of the late King’s brothers-in-law, Denmark’s Frederick VIII and Greece’s George I, with one of his sons-in-law, King Haakon VII of Norway, and with two of his nephews—one by birth, the other by marriage, both heroically mustached—the German Kaiser Wilhelm II and King Alfonso XIII of Spain. They and their glinting medals were joined by the young Portuguese and Belgian sovereigns, Manuel II and Albert I, both on their respective thrones for less than two years. If Prime Minister Asquith’s slouching had been noted at the lying in state, so too were other things that mattered deeply to the Edwardian upper classes—it was observed by one courtier that the rotund Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria had the worst seat on a horse of any royal present; the phrase “like a sack” was tossed around with uncharitable accuracy.20
Affection rippled through the crowd as the fantastic spectacle of the Golden State Coach trundled into view, carrying four women transformed into black pillars by clouds of mourning lace and veil. Edward VII’s sixty-five-year-old widow, Alexandra of Denmark, one of the most consistently popular members of the British Royal Family since her arrival in 1863, had borne five children and buried two, but she retained the slender beauty of a person twenty or thirty years her junior. The Prime Minister’s daughter-in-law, who watched as Alexandra went by and saw her later at the interment, wrote in her diary that evening, “She has the finest carriage and walks better than anyone of our time and not only has she grace, charm and real beauty but all the atmosphere of a fascinating female queen for whom men and women die.”21 Joined in the coach by her younger sister the Dowager Empress of Russia, her daughter Queen Maud of Norway, and her daughter-in-law the new Queen Consort, Alexandra was so moved by the sight of the crowds that at Hyde Park she broke with protocol by lifting her veil to bow her head to them, at which point hundreds of people began shouting variations of “God bless you!”22 Most unusually in a country that still prided itself on its proverbial stiff upper lip when in public, the Queen Mother’s gesture produced sobbing from dozens, if not hundreds, of people.23 Behind her carriage came coaches attended by scarlet-liveried footmen and transporting the men who were one day expected to inherit the thrones of Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Greece, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro. They were followed by representatives from the reigning houses of Russia, China, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia, and Siam. With this dynastic confraternity sat members of the deposed royal houses of France and Brazil, as proudly and conspicuously as if their families still reigned from the Tuileries and São Cristóvão—as though nothing had ever really changed and the republics that had toppled them were an aberration, a nightmarish blip from which the world might soon recover. Noëlle’s husband marched with the dukes, marquesses, and earls of Edward’s nobilities, custodians of the hereditary compact that stretched back to before the three British kingdoms and one principality had been ruled by a single house.II Far behind these princes and potentates, America’s President Theodore Roosevelt rode with delegates sent by other republics, in a horse-drawn carriage without gilding and manned by footmen in a duller color of livery. The French republic’s Foreign Minister was incandescent at the slight; Roosevelt, at least publicly, insisted that he did not care.24
After the funeral: the monarchs who gathered to mourn Edward VII, standing from left to right, are King Haakon VII of Norway, Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria, King Manuel II of Portugal, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, Greece’s King George I, and King Albert I of the Belgians. Sitting from left to right are kings Alfonso XIII of Spain, George V of the United Kingdom, and Frederick VIII of Denmark.
With the benefit of hindsight, Edward VII’s funeral took on the appearance of an entire world gathering to bury itself alongside the man whose name had been given to their era, but at the time it appeared instead as the appropriate grief of an immutable order. When a nobleman who had taken his little daughter to watch the royal funeral asked her to say her prayers before bedtime, she replied, “It won’t be any use. God will be too busy unpacking King Edward.”25
Nonetheless, Edward VII’s death heightened the general sense of unease in his country. The King’s passing could not have come at a more politically delicate moment for the British Empire, one that Edward’s subtle influence and considerable experience had, rightly or wrongly, been trusted by many to ameliorate. Seven months before bronchitis took Edward VII, the United Kingdom had collided with a constitutional crisis through the deployment of their veto by the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament consisting of the Lords Spiritual, the bishops of the devolved branches of the Anglican churches in England, Scotland, and Wales, and the Lords Temporal, the hereditary peers. The Lords’ use of the veto was well within their constitutional rights, but their decision to wield it against the Liberal government’s budget was vibrant testament to the difference between the permissible and the sensible. The House of Lords had not vetoed any financial bill sent to them by the elected House of Commons since the seventeenth century, and so their decision to do so in the winter of 1909 focused attention on whether the veto should have survived into the twentieth.
The new budget raised taxes substantially on the wealthiest of King Edward’s subjects, ostensibly in furtherance of the aim of providing funds for old age pensions and to meet the cost of naval rearmament. The surtax of 2.5 percent on the amount by which all incomes of £5,000 or more exceeded £3,000 might seem laughably low today, but the four new kinds of tax levied on land struck the peers as a deliberate piece of class warfare, with the majority of the shrapnel aimed squarely at those whose ancient privileges were tied to their positions as landowners. That taxes were not being raised as significantly on those made rich by the factories of the Industrial Revolution did not go unnoticed; likewise invoked were dark mutterings that the budget represented a grossly untenable expansion of the state’s powers. The upper chamber’s rejection of the budget forced the King to call another election at which, incredibly, the Lords seemed to receive some limited form of popular approval when the Conservatives, who dominated the hereditary Lords but had lost their majority in the elected Commons, won back one hundred of the seats they had lost in the 1906 election. The Liberals had, however, still won enough to be returned to office, and they immediately allied themselves with two smaller parties, Labour and the Irish Parliamentary Party, to outnumber the Tories decisively in the House of Commons. In a victorious mood, the Liberal coalition tabled three resolutions to prevent a repeat of 1909—firstly, the Lords would lose the right to amend or reject a financial bill; secondly, the life span of a Parliament was decreased from seven years to five, thus enabling more frequent elections; and, finally, the Lords’ veto was to vanish, to be replaced by the right to delay by a maximum of twenty-five months any piece of legislation passed in the Commons.
It was as this dilemma over the greatest change to the British Constitution in centuries accelerated that Edward VII died. Expectations that his reactionary son would lend royal support to the nobility were crushed when George V made it clear that he saw his job as brokering a peaceful settlement rather than favoring one side against the other, whatever his personal opinions might be. Lord Haldane, the Liberal government’s Secretary of State for War, who had initially expected subtle Tory politicking from the new monarch, was touched and impressed by how George V walked the tightrope of his first few steps as monarch: “I have in these days come to greatly admire the King. He has shown himself to have far more of his father’s qualities of tact and judgement than I supposed. He is being bombarded by Tory extremists with all sorts of suggestions.”26 The proposal that George V should withhold the Royal Assent, something which had not been done since the reign of his distant predecessor Queen Anne, was shot down by the King, who rightly predicted it would divide the nation even further.27
Noëlle’s husband, Norman, threw himself into working with the bloc in the Lords who opposed the impending Parliament Bill, or the “Lords Act,” as it was more generally known.28 At first, cold logic dictated that the House of Lords had one immeasurable advantage in their favor: to pass this bill neutering them, Prime Minister Asquith needed the victims’ acquiescence. They, fairly obviously, were expected to veto the Parliament Bill with savage alacrity, piously arguing that not to do so would ensure that their legacies “would be degraded by our failure to be faithful to our trust.”29 Asquith and his allies threatened to pull the monarchy into the maelstrom by pressuring the King, who was, after all, the hereditary guardian of the elected government; they wanted him to flood the House of Lords with an unprecedented number of newly created peerages, all awarded to prominent Liberal sympathizers. Privately, George V regarded Asquith’s plan as “a dirty, low-down trick,” but practically he had no intention of seeing the Crown dragged into the mire of an ugly political quarrel, particularly after one fraught prime ministerial audience at the Palace, during which Asquith reiterated that, if his demands were not met, “I should immediately resign and at the next election should make the cry, ‘The King and the Peers against the people.’?”30 This threat to the monarchy reawakened feelings of chivalric loyalty in a sufficient number of peers, including Noëlle’s husband and her friend’s husband, the Duke of Sutherland, who fell on their swords for their King by agreeing either to abstain or vote for the bill that would castrate them. A less charitable interpretation of their actions might be that they chose to surrender decorously only once they realized they could not win at anything but the most pyrrhic of costs.
The Lords Act was a critical moment in the decline of the British aristocracy, indeed arguably its most significant single event. Their power had been waning since 1832, thanks to a series of prerogative-clipping Reform Acts, while a sustained period of agricultural recession, beginning in the 1870s, had caused irreparable damage to a caste that still generally drew most of its income from the rural economies. There was also a sense of malaise and victimhood within the aristocracy that accelerated, and perhaps secured, their decline, while the rise of capitalism had left many of them confused and, for the first time, familiar with the uncomfortable sensation of not being the chief beneficiaries of the passing of the ages. Noëlle Rothes had a political mind which, like her husband’s, leaned strongly towards Toryism. She was also a supporter of the suffragettes, a cause she shared with her friend Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Viscountess Castlereagh, whose husband, Charles, was heir to the marquessate of Londonderry, one of the most prestigious peerages in Ireland. Edith, like Noëlle, was aghast at the Lords Act, not just because it was their class’s legislative equivalent of seppuku, but also for what it meant to the other great crisis of Edwardian Britain—Irish Home Rule, the movement born in the nineteenth century that sought some form of governmental independence for Ireland. Initially, the proposal had called for a Dublin Parliament that had jurisdiction over local matters, within a system that remained tied to Britain through foreign policy, which was to be left to the London Parliament at Westminster, and through the Crown, with the King and his heirs remaining kings and queens of Ireland.
Lady Rothes in the outfit she wore to George V’s coronation.
This seemingly mild proposal was hugely popular in Ireland’s southern three provinces and intensely feared in most of Ulster, Ireland’s northern segment. The Irish branch of the aristocracy, often referred to as the Ascendancy, were similarly alarmed, seeing in the Home Rule movement the first whisper of their requiem; as a result, the House of Lords had twice vetoed Home Rule Bills. Now, with that power of destruction softened simply to one of delay, Asquith had promised his Irish nationalist allies a Third Home Rule Bill which this time would almost certainly pass. Plans to prevent Home Rule being granted to any part of Ireland now looked hopeless, resulting in Ulster unionists adjusting their focus to populist agitation in the north of Ireland and, if necessary, arming their supporters as part of the new “Save Ulster” campaign, the de facto headquarters of which were to be the north’s industrial center, the city of Belfast.
The Parliament Bill was reintroduced to the House of Commons on February 21, 1911, and it had passed all its necessary stages there by May 15. A brief lull in proceedings ensued, generated by cross-party deference for the kaleidoscope of patriotic festivities surrounding the opening of the Festival of Empire in London and George V’s coronation at Westminster Abbey five weeks later, alongside his Anglo-German wife, Mary of Teck, the first British queen consort to be born in the country since Katherine Parr, four centuries earlier.31 As the morning of the coronation dawned, with his typical pragmatism the King noted in his diary that it was “overcast and cloudy, with some showers and a strongish cool breeze, but better for the people than great heat.”32 By the time Noëlle and her husband boarded the train to return north to Leslie House for the start of the grouse-shooting season on August 12, the King had signed the bill, the Home Rule crisis was one step closer, and the British aristocracy’s greatest remaining form of tangible political clout was dead.
Between the Festival of Empire and the coronation, Belfast, the nexus of the coming crisis, celebrated the launch of a ship. Two minutes before she slid into the Lagan River for the first time, the Titanic claimed her sixth victim.33 As workers wove in and out beneath the 26,000-ton hull, knocking away the massive timber supports which had cradled the Titanic’s belly during her construction, one collapsed onto James Dobbin, shattering his pelvis. The forty-three-year-old shipwright had worked at the Harland and Wolff shipyards for nearly two decades; he was carried to the company car, which rushed him to the Royal Victoria Hospital, recently completed thanks to the fund-raising of Harland and Wolff’s owner William, Lord Pirrie.34 Pirrie himself, unaware that one of his employees was fatally hemorrhaging, remained in the specially erected stands with the 100,000-strong crowd, an extraordinary turnout considering it was nearly one-third the size of the total population of Belfast; they had gathered to watch the launching ceremony of what would, within a year, become the largest moving object in human history.35 Flags spelling out the word SUCCESS fluttered from the grandstand.36 Proceeds from ticket sales for the launch would be gifted to the hospital where James Dobbin was now fighting for his life.37 Within twenty-four hours, Dobbin was another subject for the grim joke that did the rounds at Harland and Wolff when a colleague perished on the job: “He’s gone to another yard.”38
Joining Pirrie at the launch were his wife, Margaret; his nephew Thomas Andrews, the yard’s managing director and a man largely responsible for designing the ship; the slender Joseph Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, the new vessel’s operators; Ismay’s New York–born wife, Florence, who had never quite accustomed herself to giving up a life spent shuttling pleasurably between homes on Madison Avenue and in Tuxedo Park for residency in the Ismays’ faux-baronial pile outside Liverpool; and the Titanic’s de facto owner, the imposing American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, in declining health and painfully conscious of the inflammation of his nose caused by rhinophyma.39 Morgan’s cabal of shipping companies, the International Mercantile Marine, had bought the White Star Line as the jewel in its crown in 1903, after several years of bumper revenue for the transatlantic passenger trade.40 Eight years on, Morgan’s capital had created the Titanic, the second in a three-ship design that would give IMM the largest and most luxurious vessels in the world, operating a weekly run between Britain and America. Her elder sister, the Olympic, would be handed over from builders to owners that same afternoon, in preparation for her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York two weeks later.41
“Down to the river with a grace and dignity”: the launch of the Titanic.
Despite their American ownership, White Star ships were still built by a British firm, were staffed predominantly by British crews, and flew the British flag. The Titanic was thus the most recent child of Anglo-American cooperation, a product of British sensibilities and American money or, as the Belfast News-Letter put it, a demonstration of how the empire and “the mighty Republic in the West” had produced a “pre-eminent example of the vitality and the progressive instincts of the Anglo-Saxon race.”42 Keeping with White Star tradition of no inaugural speech or shattering-on-the-bow champagne, at 12:13 p.m. a firework streaked into “the glow of the turquoise sky, from which the piercing rays of the sun descended, making the heat exceedingly trying.”43 With the signal given, two foremen turned the release valve. It took sixty-two seconds for the Titanic’s 882-foot hull to move through twenty-one tons of lubricating tallow as she “glided down to the river with a grace and dignity which for the moment gave one the impression that she was conscious of her own strength and beauty.”44
Cheers erupted from the onlookers; hats and handkerchiefs were waved in the air; small river craft sounded their sirens, as chains created enough drag to stop the Titanic slamming into the other side of the river.45 With no funnels or masts and empty interiors, she came to a gentle stop in the water, and attention turned to the completed Olympic, which the Titanic would one day closely resemble. A journalist from the Shipbuilder, the industry’s most respected trade journal, waxed lyrical about White Star’s new flagship, half as heavy again as the previous record holder, the Cunard Line’s Mauretania:
The Olympic is the most beautiful boat ever built on Queen’s Island. The grace and harmony of her lines were admired by the thousands of enthusiasts who saw her on the day of her launch, but since then the work on her has been advanced, and her four massive funnels seem to add immeasurably to her splendour and dignity. Her majestic proportions and her unparalleled dimensions tend to enhance her picturesqueness and power, and one can well understand the interest with which the builders and owners are anticipating her maiden voyage.... In her equipment she possesses features that are not to be found on any other boat.46
Among the new features celebrated in the press, the Olympic offered the first elevator for second-class passengers and the first swimming pool at sea, in First Class.47 Three weeks later, she arrived to a rapturous welcome in New York, returning eastward on June 28 with a record-breaking number of first-class passengers.48 Both the Olympic and the Titanic had nearly as many berths for first-class travelers as for third, a reflection of the growing number of wealthy people traveling across the North Atlantic on a regular basis, apparently justifying the White Star Line’s investment in the future earning potential of the privileged. For all the talk of an assault on the established order, the world spun onwards, simultaneously contented in the accumulated treasures of a century of economic progress and tense at the uncertainty of what lay ahead. When the grouse-shooting season was over, the King and Queen sailed to India for a theatrical and manufactured ceremony at which they were crowned emperor and empress of India. A viscount’s daughter in attendance marveled at the maharajahs’ jewels as “a thing to dream of—great ropes of pearls and emeralds as large as pigeon eggs such as I have never seen before,” though she thought it “so strange to see them adorning men.”49 The old boys’ network flourished in the King’s absence when, to the surprise of many, including himself, the recently elected MP Sir Robert Sanders was invited to become one of the Conservative and Unionist whips. In his diary, he stated with crushing self-honesty, “I believe I owe it mainly to the fact that I was a successful Master of the Devon and Somerset [Staghounds].”50
In Russia, the Tsar’s eldest daughter, the Grand Duchess Olga, made her debut into Society with a 140-guest candlelight supper at her family’s Crimean summer palace. At the ball that followed, wearing her first floor-length evening gown, its sash pinned by roses, the Grand Duchess was partnered in the opening waltz by her father. The sixteen-year-old had her first sip of champagne and one of her mother’s ladies-in-waiting rhapsodized over “the music of the unseen orchestra floating in from the rose garden like a breath of its own wondrous fragrance. It was a perfect night, clear and warm, and the gowns and jewels of the women and the brilliant uniforms of the men made a striking spectacle under the blaze of the electric lights.”51
In Austria, hat-wear changed as usual with the Vienna Derby marking the point at which it became de rigueur for gentlemen to switch from derbies to summer boaters, while later in the Season the country’s octogenarian emperor, Franz Josef, was seen in a rare public good mood when he visited the village of Schwarzau for the wedding of his great-nephew, the twenty-four-year-old Archduke Karl, to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma.52 That evening, cheering villagers processed in torchlight celebration past the imperial couple as a prelude to a fireworks display over the castle.53 Born in Italy to a French family, educated at a Catholic boarding school in Britain, fluent in six languages, walked down the aisle by the Duke of Madrid, married by the Pope’s personal representative, granddaughter of a king of Portugal, great-great-granddaughter of the last Bourbon king of France, first cousin of the Queen Consort of the Belgians and sister-in-law of the Bulgarian Tsar, the new Archduchess Zita was a reassuring return to marital form for a Habsburg heir, after the first in line had caused collective palpitations a decade earlier by proposing to a commoner.54 She had been a countess, but to the Habsburgs he might as well have walked up the aisle with Rosa Luxemburg.
As summer bled into autumn and winter, the great migrations began. After “two terrible years” watching her marriage disintegrate under the strain of her husband’s mental ill-health, the American novelist Edith Wharton went skiing in St. Moritz, where she was joined by her friend the Italian nobleman Prince Alfonso Doria-Pamphilj.55 The new American ambassador to Germany, a former vice president of Carnegie Steel, invited the second vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and his wife to visit him and the Consul General in Berlin. Crossing the Atlantic not long after them was the co-owner of Macy’s department store and his wife, fleeing the Manhattan blizzards for the restorative warmth of Cannes. They arrived in France as another of their compatriots was leaving it: the London dinner-party circuit had it that the American socialite Gladys Deacon had quit Paris to rent an apartment at 11 Savile Row in London, above Huntsman the Tailor, fueling rumors of a reconciliation with her unhappily married lover, the Duke of Marlborough.56
Noëlle and Lord Rothes spent a week as guests at a hunting party given by their friend the Marquess of Bute, and they hosted their own autumnal shooting weekends at Leslie House, as usual.57 It was a splendid home for entertaining, and despite the recent financial and political pressures on the aristocracy, to outward appearances it remained as majestic and tranquil as it had been for centuries. Leslie House had, within a generation of its construction in the seventeenth century, been referred to as a palace by visitors, who favorably compared it to William III’s residence at Kensington Palace and his controversial imitation of Versailles, for which he had ordered the demolition of half of the original Tudor wings at Hampton Court Palace.58 Leslie House had boasted two courtyards, an entrance hall “pav’d with black and white Marble,” and one of the finest private libraries in Great Britain. Then, early in the reign of George III, much of that splendor went up in flames.59 Snow was falling as three-quarters of Leslie House burned in the night air, immolating one of the courtyards and the entirety of the library. Some sources give the date of the fire as Christmas Day 1763; others say it was three days later, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Either way, there is a general agreement of a Yuletide conflagration.
One feature that survived the 1763 Leslie House fire was a magnificent gallery, three feet longer than its counterpart at Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Royal Family’s official residence in Scotland. There, in paint and tapestry and silver, unfurled the genealogical and political history of the Leslies. Like most ancient aristocratic families, the Leslies have their own contested origin myth in the mist-shrouded centuries of document-deficient antiquity. In their case, that a Flemish or Hungarian baron called Bartholomew arrived in Scotland in the entourage of Margaret of Wessex, an eleventh-century English princess and subsequent saint, who had been raised in exile in Hungary before her marriage to King Malcolm III, and a series of legends arose about his subsequent career in Scotland.III Much of the more lovely nonsense associated with Bartholomew’s life was politely disbelieved by many of the later Leslies themselves who, in 1910, submitted evidence to The Scots Peerage that their first recorded grant of land had arrived at some respectably distant juncture in the 1170s, when a Malcolm Leslie, traditionally described as Bartholomew’s son, had been a recipient of royal largesse from William the Lion, King of Scots.60
From there, a fusion of family legend and historical evidence placed a Leslie on the Crusades, another pledging allegiance to Robert the Bruce in his quarrel with England’s Edward Longshanks, and others representing Scotland on diplomatic missions to the courts of Pope John XXII and King Edward III of England. A spirit of ferocious devotion to the Crown, seemingly equally nurtured by loyalty and ambition, had pushed the Leslies upwards as the centuries wore on. The first recorded mention of them in possession of the earldom of Rothes dates from March 1458, after they supported King James II in his torturous dispute over the earldom of Mar. In the next generation, they continued to aid the consolidation of royal authority under the Stewart monarchs, who ruled Scotland from 1371 to 1714. The 3rd Earl of Rothes fell in combat at the Battle of Flodden, while supporting James IV’s failed invasion of England; his son, the 4th Earl, also tussled unsuccessfully with Henry VIII’s armies, this time at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542, but survived to attend James V at his deathbed, and later represented his kingdom at the Parisian wedding of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the future King François II of France. That earl’s death, on his way home, from food poisoning, was, probably erroneously, attributed to the French family of Scotland’s Queen Mother, Marie de Guise, in retribution for the Leslies’ vigorous involvement in the assassination of her adviser, Cardinal Beaton. The dagger used to stab His Eminence was still, in 1911, mounted in the Leslie House gallery, next to a portrait of the accidentally poisoned Earl’s son, the 5th Earl of Rothes, who had ended the family’s brief flirtation with disloyalty by holding his allegiance to Mary, Queen of Scots, long after her deposition and despite finding themselves on different sides of the confessional aisle created by the Protestant Reformation.
A generation later, when Mary’s son, James VI, inherited the English and Irish thrones as their King James I, the Leslies’ fidelity to the reigning house eventually catapulted them into the national trauma that English histories refer to as “the English Civil War,” but which might more properly be remembered by its British name of “the War of the Three Kingdoms,” given its appalling impacts on all the constituent parts of what later became the United Kingdom. The Leslies supported King Charles I even as the monarchy entered free fall. Also mounted on their gallery walls was the Sword of State carried by the 7th Earl at the first coronation of King Charles II at Scone in 1651, after Scotland had refused to accept the legality of Charles I’s execution or the English republican regime that had arisen in its wake. Ruinously fined for their loyalty to the deposed royals, the Leslies were brought back into the sunlight of governmental favor by the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Next to the portrait of the 7th Earl and his monarchy-affirming sword, the gallery boasted, near one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, a likeness of Mary of Modena, the last Catholic queen consort in Britain.61 In recognition of their steadfastness to the royalist cause, Charles II had granted the “able and magnificent” 7th Earl of Rothes the unusual honor of allowing his title to descend through or to the female line. This royal gratitude had prevented the Leslies from stuttering into oblivion thanks to the lack of a Y-chromosome, on which rock so many other noble families had perished. Through the 7th Earl’s overzealous defense of royal-led Anglicanism in Scotland in the seventeenth century, his immediate descendants’ refusal to support either of the Jacobite rebellions in the eighteenth, or the service of the 10th Earl—rendered for the gallery’s posterity by the brush of Joshua Reynolds—who had accompanied George II as one of his generals to the Battle of Dettingen, the Leslies had remained conspicuously loyal to the British monarchy, regardless of the head of the family’s gender. Also in their gallery was a beautiful old tapestry that depicted the mythical, fatal voyage of Leander, crossing a darkened, storm-struck stretch of sea in pursuit of Hero.62
Clan Leslie and the Rothes earldom had a history that tied them to the developments of the Scottish kingdom, then Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and its empire. They had faced many obstacles over the centuries, and it was clear that after 1911 they would face more. To maintain Leslie House, not only had Noëlle invested a substantial amount of her own inheritance but Norman had sold various parcels of land and considered other income-generating projects. After the frantic social whirl surrounding the coronation, Norman planned to skip the next London Season with a prolonged trip to America, where he would undertake a fact-finding mission for the British government and also explore the possibility of investing in the New World.
I. Pronounced “Rothiz.” Each time a peerage is created, the incumbents are numbered. If the title falls into disuse and is subsequently revived, the numbering starts anew.
II. The three kingdoms were England, Ireland, and Scotland. Wales was a principality, the importance of which is reflected in the bestowal of the title of Prince of Wales on the heir-designate to the throne of the others.
III. Malcolm III (c.1031–1093) was the historical inspiration for the prince whose military victory provides the denouement in Macbeth.
Table of Contents
Dramatis Personae xi
Author's Note xv
1 The Lords Act 1
2 The Sash My Father Wore 23
3 Southampton 44
4 A Contest of Sea Giants 60
5 A Safe Harbor for Ships 77
6 The Lucky Holdup 86
7 A Decent Wee Man 100
8 A Kind of Hieroglyphic World 115
9 Its Own Appointed Limits Keep 138
10 Two More Boilers 164
11 A Thousand Uneasy Sparks of Light 175
12 Going Up to See the Fun 195
13 Music in the First-Class Lounge 204
14 Vox faucibus haesit 214
15 Be British 232
16 Over the Top Together 244
17 The Awful Spectacle 250
18 Grip Fast 257
19 Where's Daddy? 262
20 Extend Heartfelt Sympathy to All 280
21 The Spinner of the Years 300
Image Credits 395