Sink or Swim

Millivina Dean lived the life of a celebrity when she became the world’s last Titanic survivor. ‘Someone said of me that I am a tough old bird,’ she said before her death on May 31, 2009 at the age of ninety-seven.

An undated artist impression showing the April 14-15 1912 shipwreck of the British luxury passenger liner Titanic off the Nova-Scotia coasts, during its maiden voyage. Pic/AFP Photo.

She, along with 74 others, were the last of a slice of history. A painful one — so to speak. They survived an accident that scarred their lives in different ways and through diverse manifestations. Read this exclusive extract from the life of J Bruce Ismay, a troubled soul who became, in the words of his granddaughter “…like a frozen corpse.”

Bruce Ismay twisted round in the lifeboat and turned his back on the Titanic as it sank deeper into the water. He could not bear to see the luxurious liner — which he described as ‘the latest thing in the art of shipbuilding' — disappear below the waves. Yet he had no choice but to listen to the awful screams of the dying, a sound that would stay with him for the rest of his life. During the course of the next five or so hours, the managing director of the White Star Line — a man who had been called ‘King of the Atlantic’ — stared into the darkness as he rowed, wishing he could disappear.

Pic Courtesy/Getty Images

By the time his lifeboat, collapsible C, drew up alongside the Carpathia, at around 6.15 a.m., he had already become so tortured that he could no longer communicate with the outside world; one witness described him as looking ‘pitiable’. Suffering from a form of traumatic shock so extreme that today it would almost be treated as a type of dissociative disorder, Ismay had to be confined to the doctor’s cabin, where he was prescribed mind-numbing opiates. Ismay slipped further into a state of nervous collapse with each piece of bad news.

First there was the incomprehensible statistic, the loss of over 1500 lives, and then the slow torture of individual messages relating to the deaths of those close to him: his butler, John Richard Fry; his secretary, William Henry Harrison; the Titanic’s Captain, Edward Smith; the ship’s chief designer and builder, Thomas Andrews, who was also the nephew of the chairman of Harland and Wolff, Lord Pirrie, and Dr O’Loughlin, who had worked with the White Star Line for thirty years and who had dined with Ismay the night of the collision.

On the 15 April, Ismay managed to compose a short telegram, which was sent to the White Star Line. It read: ‘Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning after collision iceberg, resulting serious loss life. Full particulars later’. However, by the time seventeen-year-old Jack Thayer knocked on the door of his cabin, just as the ship was approaching New York, Ismay had entered what can only be described as a fugue state. ‘He was seated, in his pajamas, on his bunk, staring straight ahead, shaking all over like a leaf,’ observed Thayer. He did not register the presence of the boy in the cabin and neither did he respond when Thayer tried to reassure him that it was right that he had taken a place in one of the last lifeboats to leave the ship. Instead, the forty-nine-year-old man, who normally dominated a room with his six-foot-three frame, continued to stare straight ahead as if looking into an abyss. ‘I am almost certain that on the Titanic his hair had been black with slight tinges of gray,’ said Jack Thayer, ‘but now his hair was virtually snow white. I have never seen a man so completely wrecked. Nothing I could do or say brought any response.’

Ismay’s self-imposed isolation — which appears to have been borne out of an instinctive desire for self-preservation rather than any sense of shame or fear — did not earn him many friends aboard the rescue ship. A small group of recently-widowed, first-class women started to talk amongst themselves about how outrageous it was that they, who had been forced to sleep on blankets in public places on the Carpathia, had lost their husbands, while Ismay, cosseted away in the comforts of a cabin, had survived the disaster. Little did Ismay or anyone else for that matter realise at this stage how a few snide comments would mutate and grow into an international hate campaign against him. At issue, was the fact that while he had survived, a total of 111 women and 54 children had died, along with the 1327 men. Ismay’s trauma regarding this issue was witnessed at close quarters by Second Officer Lightoller.

‘I may say that at that time Mr Ismay did not seem to me to be in a mental condition to finally decide anything,’ he told the American inquiry. ‘I tried my utmost to rouse Mr Ismay, for he was obsessed with the idea, and kept repeating, that he ought to have gone down with the ship because he found that women had gone down. I told him there was no such reason; I told him a very great deal; I tried to get that idea out of his head, but he was taken with it — and I know the doctor tried, too — but we had difficulty in arousing Mr Ismay, purely owing to that wholly and solely, that women had gone down in the boat and he had not.’

Despite his delicate mental state, Ismay had no choice but to try and pull himself together. People started asking questions of him, they needed decisions to be made and, as the managing director of the White Star Line, one of the most high profile survivors, he had to assume a certain level of responsibility. However, at times, he was uncertain not only what he should say, but also who he was — as a result of the trauma, his identity was fragmenting, his powers of reason were eluding him and his memory was beginning to fail. To the outside world, he appeared to display occasional moments of clarity — for example, as the Carpathia approached New York he signed a telegram using the personal, coded signature of ‘Yamsi’, to the White Star Line's New York office asking that the company’s ship, the Cedric, be held in port until he arrived so that he, together with the crew, could use it to return to Britain. ‘Please send outfit of clothes, including shoes, for me to Cedric,’ he added. ‘Have nothing of my own.’

J Bruce Ismay , whose father created the White Star Line, built the Titanic as an act of hubris. His survival of the sinking brought about his destruction. Within days of the disaster, one newspaper ran a full-page cartoon of Ismay, showing him in a lifeboat, with the sinking ship in the distance and accompanied by the caption: ‘This Is J. Brute ismay’; ismay’s marriage to his wife, Florence, was far from happy.

Pic Coutsey/Library Of Congress

She suffered from an early menopause at the age of thirty-seven and their relationship became a sexless one. Perhaps as a consequence of this, Ismay became obsessed with fellow Titanic survivor Marian Tahyer, to whom he wrote a series of impassioned letters. ‘I never want to see a ship again, and I loved them so...’ he wrote to her. ‘What an ending to my life. Perhaps I was too proud of the ships and this is my punishment.’

A woman is seen behind an iceberg at an exhibit on the Titanic in Athens. Pic/AFP Photo.

Silent screen star Dorothy Gibson made the first film, Saved from the Titanic, about the ship within four weeks of the disaster. She starred as herself, wearing the same dress she had worn that night.

Once, during the making of the film, shooting had to be halted when Dorothy seemed to experience some sort of existential crisis. ‘She had practically lost her reason,’ wrote one observer, ‘by virtue of the terrible strain she had been under to graphically portray her part.’

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