Audiences swooning over Jack and Rose’s love affair in the new 3-D version of Titanic probably don’t know the real onboard romance involved a Canadian hockey player.
He was Quigg Baxter, a wealthy Montreal bachelor on a European jaunt with his mother and sister; she was Berthe Mayné, a Brussels dance hall performer he had secretly slipped onboard under the assumed name of “Mrs. B. de Villiers.” Mother and sister realized the ruse only when Quigg lifted her into their lifeboat before stepping back to his own death.
That’s one of many great Titanic yarns told by Canadian writer Hugh Brewster, who skillfully weaves the sinking with the backstories of the first-class celebrities aboard the doomed ship. Behind those formal black-and-white photos of the Titanic elite lurked colourful scandal and gossip galore.
There was John Jacob Astor IV, heir to the world’s largest fortune (and New York’s biggest slumlord). Jack-Ass(tor) – as the New York press delighted in calling him – had a reputation for “pawing every girl in sight” and was honeymooning with his pregnant teenage bride, almost 30 years his junior, partly to escape the scandal his marriage had caused.
Another serial philanderer aboard the luxury liner was mining magnate Benjamin Guggenheim, who was travelling discreetly with his latest mistress, a blond Paris cabaret singer almost half his age.
Then there was William Thomas Stead, known as “the Napoleon of newsmen.” He had been a crusader against child prostitution in England and published the famous exposé, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, in 1885.
But Stead actually spent two months in prison on charges of abduction and procurement involving a 13-year-old girl, the jury not entirely believing his claims of journalistic research. Stead called the Titanic “a splendid, monstrous floating Babylon.” Indeed. One notorious rake who took a pass on the maiden voyage was legendary financier John Pierpont Morgan (who owned the Titanic’s company, the White Star Line). He just couldn’t tear himself away from his mistress at a French spa.
As for the women in first class, they were generally a more feisty, admirable crowd (although one American artist onboard did call them “obnoxious and ostentatious”). Margaret Brown was a backwoods socialite from Leadville, Colo. Her husband called her “too mean to sink,” but she acted heroically in her lifeboat and later raised thousands of dollars to help “the poor foreigners” from third class. She was eventually portrayed as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” on Broadway and in the movie starring Debbie Reynolds.
But perhaps the biggest female celebrity on the Titanic was Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon, the most fashionable English couturière. She began life as Lucy Sutherland in Guelph, Ont. Her creations of lacy “unmentionables” and the informal tea dress, or “teagie,” quickly made her the favourite designer of the royal court (which she nevertheless couldn’t attend; she was a divorcée).
In fact, Lucy from Guelph may well have invented the modern fashion business, staging the first shows that featured live models instead of wax dummies. Aboard the Titanic, she was surrounded in the evening by a coterie of stylish young men and sleek lesbians, while her elderly husband, Sir Cosmo, retired early to his own cabin.
The Titanic’s sinking, described so vividly by Brewster, marked the end of the Gilded Age of fabulous New York wealth immortalized by Edith Wharton. It was the last lavish party boat before the new century brought war, epidemic and the stock-market crash.
We all know what happened that night, but even a century later, the contrast between high life and sudden death on the icy sea endures as an “unsinkable story.” One female passenger later wrote of the infamous night: “In the elegantly furnished drawing room, no premonitory shadow of death was present to cast a cold fear over the gaiety of the evening. It was a brilliant scene, women beautifully gowned, laughing and talking – the odour of flowers – ridiculous to think of danger.”
Hugh Brewster’s colourful anecdotes and telling details show how 1912 – with its love-hate affair with wealth and its fascination with celebrity, its romance with technology and contempt for the power of nature – sounds eerily familiar a century later.
Doug Grant is senior producer of the CBC-TV documentary Titanic: The Canadian Story.