Diane talks with the author of The Last Night on the Titanic, Veronica Hinke.
In These Uncertain dDays, Inspiring Stories from the Titanic
by Veronica Hinke
A video of violinists wearing life jackets in the toilet paper aisle of a grocery store went viral on St. Patrick’s Day. As disheartening as it is that a parody was made out of the incredible story of the men who performed on deck of the Titanic as she sunk on April 14, 1912, the video, which has been watched by millions now, is still a sharp reminder to us of the many courageous people who stayed strong in the face of uncertainty. In the case of the Titanic band, survivors said that the band played Autumn, Lead Kindly Light and more for as long as they could.
“We’re just going to play a little bit to lift people’s spirits,” Titanic First Violinist John (“Jock”) Hume said to his friend Stewardess Violet Jessop – with his violin in tow – as he bumped into her in his scuttle up the narrow stairwell to the boat deck where he was to meet his fellow bandmates.
Nine weeks after the sinking, second class passenger Lawrence Beesley published his account of that last night aboard the Titanic. It was titled The Loss of the S.S. Titanic. Beesley recalled: “Many brave things were done that night, but none were more brave than those done by men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea. The music they played served alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recalled on the scrolls of undying fame.”
Their story still resonates loudly. Three years ago, the violin that band master Wallace Hartley was playing that night sold at auction for $1.7 million dollars.
When I wrote The Last Night on The Titanic (Regnery, 2019) – fumbling between the sudden, unexplained death of my 74-year-old mother and my own surgeries and treatments for triple negative breast cancer – my motivation to keep going was to further the stories of so many brave people.
Mr. Rogers said his mother told him: “Fred, in times of trouble, look for the helpers; there will always be helpers.” Aboard the Titanic, the helpers rose up out of unimaginable circumstances. Their stories are powerful lessons for us during these uncertain days, and always.
Margaret (“Molly”) Brown
In the Titanic lifeboats and even in years after the disaster, one of the most remarkable of the helpers was Margaret (“Molly”) Brown. In August 1987, about 453 miles south of Newfoundland, a diver found a gold nugget necklace. Some believe the necklace belonged to Molly. She was a first class Titanic passenger with a rags-to-riches story. As a little girl growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, Molly helped support her family by stripping tobacco leaves. Her father was an Irish immigrant ditch digger, and Molly married a man who worked in the silver mines. He struck gold shortly into their marriage, making them incredibly wealthy overnight, however Molly always said: “I’d rather marry a poor man that I love than a rich man that I didn’t.”
At the storied Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Molly is still known for having “a heart as big as a ham,” which is how she was described in one of the movies that told about her life. For many years, she handed out Christmas gifts, in person, to every housemaid, bellman, doorman and server at the hotel, where she stayed and held press conferences after she survived the Titanic. Margaret even got the Brown Palace Hotel staff a little Christmas tree for the front desk. She held fundraisers there for some of the causes she helped with, including Catholic Charities and the Dumb Friends League, a non-profit animal shelter and humane society. In 1900, she and Benjamin Guggenheim, who was also aboard the Titanic, provided a full holiday banquet at the hotel for 1,500 of Denver’s less fortunate.
In Titanic lifeboat 6, Molly persisted in her care for others. There was tension between Molly and Titanic quartermaster Robert Hichens. Hichens was steering the ship when it hit the iceberg, and Molly would later identify him as a “bully” in the lifeboat. They fought over his reluctancy to pick up more passengers. However, she kept her focus while in the lifeboat, and managed to help women stay warm by encouraging them to row.
Once finally aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, Margaret distributed food, handed out cups of drinks, and passed out blanket after blanket. While still on board, she organized a fund drive for those who would be most in need when they reached New York City. The Survivor’s Committee raised nearly $10,000. Today, this would be worth almost $250,000.
Unable to testify in the U.S. Senate hearings, because she was a woman, she persisted in doing whatever she could. She helped establish the Titanic Memorial in Washington, D.C. and galvanized others in the fight for workers’ rights, women’s rights and education. She worked to start the first juvenile court and helped organize the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. Even before the Nineteenth Amendment, Margaret ran for office— for a seat in the Colorado state Senate in 1901, and in 1914, two years after surviving the Titanic, for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Margaret organized an international women’s rights conference in Newport, Rhode Island in 1914 and started a support branch for relief for soldiers in France during WWI. She persisted in benevolent work until her death from an aneurism in the Barbizon Hotel in New York City in October 1932.
In movies about the Titanic, head baker Charles Joughin is depicted as drinking heavily during the sinking. In the James Cameron movie, Charles holds onto the railing with one hand and takes a swig from his flask with the other. Weeks after the Titanic sank, Joughin told British inquiry officials that, at one point, he went down to his bunk to “have a nip.” He also told them what happened beforehand.
After he led his crew in stocking the lifeboats with loaves of bread, Charles went up to the boat deck and assisted with loading lifeboats. Having worked on ships since he was a little boy, he knew his disaster checklist well. On the Thursday before the disaster, right after he boarded, he noted his lifeboat assignment for the trip. Lifeboat 10. But after he helped fill up his assigned lifeboat someone else was assigned to board it as crew and row it. Even though this was Charles’ job to do, he was not given the direction to board. When he realized that he would not have a spot in a lifeboat, he went down to his bunk for a nip. But afterward, Charles came back up to the boat deck, and he noticed the deck chairs. The heavy wooden chairs might be enough to hold people up, he thought. He threw as many as he could of the enormously heavy chairs up high and into the ocean – far enough away from the ship to hopefully avoid the suction that would occur when she went completely under. Charles threw many so there might be enough for everyone. He used strength that he knew he would likely need later in the water.
Through a string of miracles, Charles survived the sinking of the Titanic. Back at home, he continued to consider the needs of others. He rarely talked about the Titanic, and when he did, he turned his story into a whimsical tale to shield the children – for whom he relished in making Christening cakes, chocolate eclairs and more – from the reality of his experiences. “I knew it was an iceberg,” he told the children, “because I saw a polar bear, and he waved at me.”
Charles went back to life at sea, the only life he’d ever known, and even survived another historic maritime accident: He was the baker aboard the SS Congress when it caught fire in Coos Bay, Oregon, on Thursday, September 14, 1916. Charles lived until 1956 in Paterson, New Jersey.
Edith Rosenbaum Russell
Edith Rosenbaum Russell was traveling aboard the Titanic in first class on her way to New York City from Paris. Thirty-three and as fit as a gazelle, Edith was one of the most fabulously glamorous women in the world, and she covered all the latest fashion news for Women’s Wear Daily. Beautiful, stunning Edith was the inspiration to young girls everywhere with her career as fashion buyer for some of the most stylish stores in the United States. Edith had just completed the coveted assignment of reporting the Easter Sunday fashions in Paris. Edith’s father was an incredibly wealthy man who ran department stores, where people bought capes, cloaks and coats, (some made from seal hide), cheviot suit jackets and more.
A few months before the Titanic, in August 1911, Edith had only narrowly escaped death in a horrific automobile accident near Rouen, France. “I’m accident prone,” she quipped. “I’ve been in shipwrecks, car crashes, fires, floods, and tornadoes. I’ve had every disaster but bubonic plague and a husband.”
On April 14, here she was again, facing the possibility of death. When she climbed into Titanic lifeboat 11, she left 19 trunks back in her cabin. But she kept one thing with her: a music box in the shape of a pig. When you wound the pig’s tail, it played the song of the maxixe (a Brazilian dance tune). To reassure the children in her lifeboat, Edith wound and rewound the pig’s tail all night long, cold night – so dark that occasionally the tip of a rope was lit so passengers could see who was right next to them.
Edith’s bravery in the iceberg-covered waters of the Atlantic in the wee hours of April 15, 1912 reminded me of Dina Babbitt’s selfless bravery at Auschwitz when she mustered enough strength to painstakingly decorate a wall with cheerful scenes of Disney’s Snow White. Dina survived Auschwitz, went on to work as an illustrator with Disney in California – and married co-worker Art Babbitt, the man who created Disney’s “Goofy.” Edith lived until April 4, 1975. When she passed away in London, her musical pig was still with her.
Women Beyond a Certain Age is an award-winning weekly podcast by Denise Vivaldo and Diane Worthington. They bring their own lively, humorous, and experienced viewpoints to the topics they discuss. The podcast covers wide-ranging subjects of importance to older women.
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