The night that changed everything
More than a century after the Titanic sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg at 11.40 pm on April 14, 1912, the story of that fateful night continues to linger in our imaginations. We remember the 1500-plus people who perished, including famous titans like John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, and Macy’s owners Isidor and Ida Strauss. But what about the people who survived, the 706 who were lucky enough to make it into lifeboats and then sail to safety aboard the Carpathia? For some, traumatic memories of the tragedy cast a shadow over the rest of their lives; others found fame in their survivor status or became heroes.
Today, there are no survivors left. The last survivor Millvina Dean, who was just two months old at the time of the tragedy, died in 2009 at the age of 97. Here’s a look back at some of the fortunate few who survived ‘the unsinkable Titanic’.
The most famous Titanic survivor, ‘new money’ socialite and philanthropist Margaret Brown became known as ‘the Unsinkable Molly Brown.’ There was a Broadway musical based on her and, later, a film starring Debbie Reynolds. On the night of the sinking, after helping with the evacuation efforts, she got into Lifeboat 6. Brown urged the boat’s crewman to go back for more people, something depicted in the 1997 film Titanic, but her pleas were rejected.
Once on the Carpathia, Brown helped the other survivors, giving out food and blankets, establishing a Survivor’s Committee, and raising money for those who’d lost everything. By the time the ship reached New York, word of her selfless actions had made her famous. “After being brined, salted and pickled in mid-ocean I am now high and dry,” she later wrote to her daughter. “I have had flowers, letters, telegrams, people until I am befuddled. They are petitioning Congress to give me a medal….If I must call a specialist to examine my head it is due to the title of Heroine of the Titanic.”
But Brown certainly didn’t let fame go to her head. She continued her activism for causes including women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, ran for Congress, and assisted with relief efforts in France during World War I, which earned her the French Legion of Honor. She also dabbled in acting before dying in 1932 at age 65.
Upon boarding the Titanic, newlywed Madeleine Astor was in the midst of a scandal. At 18, she had just married John Jacob ‘JJ’ Astor, who was 47 and recently divorced. On a long honeymoon abroad, Madeleine became pregnant, so the couple set sail for home. Unfortunately, JJ Astor wouldn’t survive the sinking. “She recalled, she thought, that in the confusion, as she was about to be put into one of the boats, Colonel Astor was standing by her side,” one newspaper reported at the time. “After that…she had no very clear recollection of the happenings until the boats were well clear of the sinking steamer.”
Although she gave birth to a healthy baby later that summer, the public’s interest in her after the tragedy made life difficult. Reportedly, she was greatly “inconvenienced by the curious.” She didn’t often speak about the Titanic, and a cloud seemed to hang over her life. As Astor’s widow and the mother of his son, Madeleine was entitled to a trust as long as she didn’t remarry, but she did just that in 1916, then later divorced and remarried again, this time to an abusive Italian boxer. She died in 1940 when she was just 46 years old.