Why the Titanic Still Fascinates Us
February 24, 2012
One hundred years after the ocean liner struck an iceberg and sank, the tragedy still looms large in the popular psyche
Dorothy Gibson—the 22-year-old silent film star— huddled in a lifeboat, dressed in only a short coat and sweater over an evening gown. She was beginning to shiver.
Ever since it had been launched, at 12:45 a.m., Lifeboat 7 had remained stationed only 20 yards away from the Titanic in case it could be used in a rescue operation. Dorothy and her mother, Pauline, who had been traveling with her, had watched as lifeboat after lifeboat left the vessel, but by just after 2 o’clock it was obvious that the vast majority of its passengers would not be able to escape from the liner. Realizing that the ship’s sinking was imminent, lookout George Hogg ordered that Lifeboat 7 be rowed away from the Titanic. The risk of being sucked down was high, he thought, and so the passengers and crew manning the oars rowed as hard as they could across the pitch-black sea. Dorothy could not take her eyes off the ship, its bow now underwater, its stern rising up into the sky.
“Suddenly there was a wild coming together of voices from the ship and we noticed an unusual commotion among the people about the railing,” she said. “Then the awful thing happened, the thing that will remain in my memory until the day I die.”
Dorothy listened as 1,500 people cried out to be saved, a noise she described as a horrific mixture of yells, shrieks and moans. This was counterpointed by a deeper sound emanating from under the water, the noise of explosions that she likened to the terrific power of Niagara Falls. “No one can describe the frightful sounds,” she remembered later.
Before stepping onto the Titanic, Dorothy Gibson had already transformed herself from an ordinary New Jersey girl into a model for the famous illustrator Harrison Fisher—whose lush images of idealized American beauty graced the covers of popular magazines—and then into a star of the silent screen.
By the spring of 1912, Dorothy was feeling so overworked that she pleaded with her employers at the Éclair studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to grant her a holiday. The days were long, and she realized that, in effect, there was “very little of the glamour connected with movie stars.” She may have been earning $175 a week—the equivalent of nearly $4,000 today—but she was exhausted; she even went so far as to consider quitting the studio. “I was feeling very run down and everyone insisted I go away for a while,” she recalled later. “So Mr. Brulatour made arrangements for me to have a wondrous holiday abroad. It seemed the ideal solution.” (Her married 42-year-old lover, Éclair’s Jules Brulatour, was one of the most powerful producers in the film industry.)
Dorothy and her mother sailed for Europe on March 17, 1912, with an itinerary that was to include not only the capitals of the Continent, but also Algiers and Egypt. However, when they arrived in Genoa from Venice on April 8, they received a telegram at their hotel requesting that Dorothy return to America. An emergency had arisen at the studio; she was needed to start work at once on a series of films. Although she had been away for only three weeks, she had benefited from the change of scene—she said she felt “like a new woman”—and cabled back to tell the studio of her plans. After a brief stopover in Paris, she would sail back to New York from Cherbourg on April 10.
There was silence in the lifeboat. “No one said a word,” recalled Dorothy. “There was nothing to say and nothing we could do.” Faced with the bitter cold and increasingly choppy seas, Dorothy had to acknowledge the possibility that she might not last the night. Had the wireless operators managed to send out a distress signal and call for the help of any nearby ships? The possibility that they could drift for miles in the middle of the harsh Atlantic for days on end was suddenly very real.
As dawn broke on April 15, the passengers in Lifeboat 7 saw a row of lights and a dark cloud of smoke in the distance.“Warming ourselves as best we could in the cramped quarters of the lifeboat, we watched that streak of black smoke grow larger and larger,” recalled Dorothy. “And then we were able to discern the hull of a steamship heading in our direction.”
The men on the lifeboat, now with hands numbed by cold, rowed with extra vigor toward the Carpathia, which had picked up Titanic’s distress signals and had traveled 58 miles in an effort to rescue its survivors. As the sun cast its weak early-morning light across the sea, Dorothy noticed a few green cushions floating in the ocean; she recognized them as being from the sofas on the Titanic. The morning light—which soon became bright and fierce—also revealed the numerous icebergs that crowded around them.
At around 6 o’clock the lifeboat carrying Dorothy Gibson drew up alongside the Carpathia. A few moments later, after she had climbed the rope ladder that had been lowered down from above, she found herself on deck. Still wearing her damp, wind-swept evening gown, Dorothy was approached by Carpathia passengers James Russell Lowell and his wife, and asked whether she would like to share their cabin. After eating breakfast, she retired to their quarters, where she slept for the next 26 hours.
Jules Brulatour had always intended to send a film crew to the pier to record Dorothy’s arrival in New York; he was one of the first to realize that the newsreel could be used as a powerful publicity tool and that the star’s return to America on board the world’s most famous rescue ship would help boost box-office numbers. But suddenly he found himself with an extraordinary story on his hands. Information about the loss of the Titanic was in short supply—initially some newspapers had claimed that all its passengers had survived. Capt. Arthur Rostron of the Carpathia had placed a blanket ban on information from the vessel being leaked to the news media—the wireless service could be used, he said, only for communication with the authorities and for relay of messages between survivors and their families, as well as the task of providing a list of which of the Titanic’s passengers had perished.
As the Carpathia sailed into New York—on the stormy night of Thursday, April 18—it was surrounded by a mass of tiny vessels, all chartered by news corporations desperate to break what would be one of the biggest stories of modern times. From their tugs, reporters shouted through megaphones offering terrific sums of money for information and exclusives, but Captain Rostron said he would shoot any pressmen who dared venture aboard his ship…