Other than fictional Rose and Jack, probably the most famous “character” in the sinking of the Titanic would be the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Not only is she a real person, she was a colorful American, widow of a mining baron and had a Broadway musical and a movie made just about her (“The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” 1964, with Debbie Reynolds).
The IMDb blurb about that movie sums up how most people think of Molly: “…uneducated, poor, mountain girl who leaves her mountain cabin in search of a wealthy husband, respect and a better life.”
Except….no. Her real name was Margaret Brown and she never went by Molly. The Broadway producers decided Molly was an easier name to work into songs. She did tag herself with the nickname “Unsinkable”, telling reporters “The ship can sink but I can’t; I’m unsinkable”.
Daughter of immigrants, born in Missouri close to the Mississippi, later in life she enrolled at the Carnegie Institute and studied literature, drama and languages – she spoke French, Russian and German, which enabled her to communicate with and translate for the Steerage class survivors who spoke no English on board the rescue ship Carpathia.
At age 18 she and her married sister moved to Leadville, CO, getting a job in a department store, working in the Carpets & Draperies department. She met and married J. J. Brown, who was not rich at the time. Here’s what she said:
I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown. I thought about how I wanted comfort for my father and how I had determined to stay single until a man presented himself who could give to the tired old man the things I longed for him. Jim was as poor as we were, and had no better chance in life. I struggled hard with myself in those days. I loved Jim, but he was poor. Finally, I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than with a wealthy one whose money had attracted me. So I married Jim Brown.
They did become rich later, through her husband’s work for a mining company. Eventually they moved to Denver, where Maggie (as she was known) became quite the society lady. Sadly the couple separated in 1909, although they never actually divorced. Prior to sailing on the Titanic she had spent the winter in Egypt with the Astors, who were about as high society and rich as it got in that era. She was returning to America on the Titanic because her grandson was ill.
During the sinking, she was credited with encouraging many people to get into the lifeboats before she herself was convinced to get into Lifeboat #6. She and the sailor in charge of that boat had a quarrel as she wanted to row back and pick up survivors, while he was terrified that the suction from the sinking ship would take their lifeboat under.
While still on the Carpathia steaming for New York, she established a Survivor’s Fund and raised $10,000 (about $250,000 in today’s dollars). She refused to leave the ship until all the survivors had somewhere to go. She arranged for a silver cup and medals for the Carpathia’s captain and crew in honor of their heroic rescue work.
According to the Encyclopedia-Titanica.org, here’s what she wrote to her lawyer after returning to New York:
“Thanks for the kind thoughts. Water was fine and swimming good. Neptune was exceedingly kind to me and I am now high and dry.”
From Wikipedia, here are the actresses who have portrayed this amazing woman:
- Thelma Ritter (1953) (Titanic) Margaret Brown’s name was changed to Maude Young, and her Colorado silver mining fortune became a Montana lead mining fortune.
- Cloris Leachman (1957) (Telephone Time) (“The Unsinkable Molly Brown”)
- Tucker McGuire (1958) (A Night to Remember)
- Tammy Grimes (1960) (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) (Broadway musical) Grimes won a Tony Award for her performance.
- Debbie Reynolds (1964) (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) Reynolds received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
- Cloris Leachman (1979) (S.O.S. Titanic) (TV movie)
- Fionnula Flanagan (1983) (Voyagers!) (“Voyagers of the Titanic”)
- Marilu Henner (1996) (Titanic) (TV miniseries)
- Kathy Bates (1997) (Titanic)
- Morgan Hill (1998) (Titanic: Secrets Revealed) (TV documentary)
- Judy Prestininzi (2003) (Ghosts of the Abyss) (Documentary)
- Judy Prestininzi (2005) (Last Mysteries of the Titanic) (TV documentary)
- Linda Kash (2012) (Titanic) (TV series/2 episodes)
- Rosalind Blessed (2012) (Iceberg – Right Ahead!) (London Stageplay)
I don’t have an Unsinkable Maggie Brown type character in my novel SFR Wreck of the Nebula Dream but I like to think my characters share her kind of determination and will to survive, and to help others escape the disaster as well.