Dorothy Gibson: Model, Actress
Already famous as a model, singer and dancer before she set sail on the Titanic, Dorothy Gibson was rapidly becoming one of the first “stars” in the fledgling movie industry. Her most famous role was as herself, in herself in Saved From the Titanic, based on her experiences in the disaster. The movie was released 29 days after the sinking, was the first of many films about the sinking.
The Titanic is the best known aspect of Gibson’s life. After a six-week vacation in Italy with her mother, she was returning aboard Titanic to make a new series of pictures. The women had been playing cards with friends in the lounge on the night of the ship’s fatal collision with the iceberg. With two of their game partners they escaped in the first lifeboat launched, Lifeboat #7.
Gibson wrote and starred in the one-reel drama, fictionalizing the plot a bit, to include a nonexistent fiancee. She even appeared in the very same clothing she had worn aboard the Titanic that night –– a white silk evening dress topped with a cardigan and polo coat. The movie was a tremendous success, despite some criticism for sensationalizing the tragedy, but the only known prints were destroyed in a 1914 fire.
Lucy Noël Martha Leslie, The Right Honourable The Countess of Rothes:
She was 24 at the time she sailed with a cousin on the Titanic. The Countess, her cousin and maid were rescued in lifeboat 8. Thomas William Jones, the able seaman in charge of their lifeboat, later said Rothes “had a lot to say, so I put her to steering the boat,” by which he apparently meant to compliment her leadership abilities. She took the tiller for a while, then went to sit with a young Spanish woman whose husband had remained behind. The Countess rowed all night and continued to try to keep the morale up in the lifeboat. As a token of his esteem, Seaman Jones later presented her with the brass number plate from their lifeboat. She wrote to him every Christmas, and the two maintained correspondence until her death.
Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon:
Although married to Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, she was a leading fashion designer, working under the professional name “Lucile”. She is credited with staging the first fashion show, and designed slit skirts, plunging necklines and what was considered naughty lingerie at the time. Her house of fashion had branches in New York City, Paris and Chicago. She dressed nobility, the rich and famous actresses of the day such as Mary Pickford; licensed clothing to Sears and wrote columns for Harper’s Bazaar and Good Housekeeping.
In 1912, Lucile was traveling aboard Titanic on business. The Duff Gordons and “Franks”, her secretary, escaped in Lifeboat 1. Although the boat was built to hold forty people, it was lowered with just twelve – most of them crewmen. This famous underutilization of a lifeboat almost always gets portrayed in any movie about the sinking.
After the ship sank, while still in the lifeboat, Lucile reportedly commented to her secretary, “There is your beautiful nightdress gone.” One of the stokers told her that while the couple could replace their property, he and the other crew members had lost everything in the sinking. Her husband offered the men some funds to assist them until they received new assignments, giving them checks once they were safe on the Carpathia. Later this action fueled the rumors that the Duff Gordons bribed the crew in their boat not to return to save swimmers out of fear it would be swamped.
Dressed in black, with a large, veiled hat, Lucile had to testify at the hearings about the Titanic sinking and told the court she remembered very little about what happened in the lifeboat on the night of the sinking, and could not recall specific conversations. The final report by the inquiry determined that the Duff Gordons did not deter the crew from making rescue attempts.
Edith Louise Rosenbaum Russell
Age 44 at the time of the Titanic’s sinking, Ms. Russell was a woman of many trades in the fashion industry, from writer to consultant to stylist, buying and selling clothing. She even created sketches for the Butterick Pattern Service and was the chief foreign correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily. By 1912 Rosenbaum Russell was also designing her own line of clothes, called ”Elrose,” for Lord & Taylor in New York. She worked as a fashion stylist for showgirls, opera divas and Broadway stars.
She became famous for her “lucky pig,” a music box that she took with her into Lifeboat 11. The pig was covered in white fur and played the song “Maxixe” when the tail was wound. She later filed two of the largest damage claims, for financial loss of her merchandise and for personal injury. Ms. Russell was particularly upset that she had been unable to insure her merchandise prior to sailing because the insurance firm told her the ship was unsinkable!
Here’s an eerie fragment from a letter she wrote her secretary before the Titanic left Queenstown:
To say that (the Titanic) is wonderful, is unquestionable, but not the cozy ship-board feeling of former years. …Am going to take my very much needed rest on this trip, but I cannot get over my feeling of depression and premonition of trouble.
How I wish it were over!
And finally, Rhoda Abbott, Steerage Passenger, the only woman rescued from the water:
A seamstress, separated from her middleweight boxing champion husband, Mrs. Abbott had taken her two sons to England to live but the boys were unhappy there, so she booked a passage for three back to America on the Titanic. After the collision, she and the boys made their way to the after deck just as the second lifeboat was lowered away but were unable to get into any of the remaining lifeboats. She later claimed that she, her sons and seven other women were passed over while men were allowed to escape in various lifeboats. When the ship sank, she and her sons jumped from the deck but the boys never resurfaced. She herself went under a second time but was blown out of the water by an exploding boiler, suffering burns. She persuaded the people aboard Collapsible Lifeboat A to take her aboard and she was the only woman rescued from the water. She had high praise for Officer Lowe for saving her life that night.
She did remarry in later years but never had any other children.
So there you have five very different stories of women who survived the Titanic’s sinking…..is it any wonder the world (including yours truly) remains so fascinated by the events on that cold April night 100 years ago? As James Cameron said Titanic’s story is like a great novel that really happened: “The story could not have been written better . . . the juxtaposition of rich and poor, the gender roles played out unto death (women first), the stoicism and nobility of a bygone age, the magnificence of the great ship matched in scale only by the folly of the men who drove her hell-bent through the darkness. And above all the lesson: that life is uncertain, the future unknowable . . . the unthinkable possible” (James Cameron’s Titanic, 1998).