By the fourth night of the voyage, many of the more famous faces on board had become familiar to passengers who confessed to “indulging in gossip”—an Edwardian travel journalist joked that “There is more gossip in a large passenger ship than at a parish sewing meeting…”—and the best chance to see the noted names was during the after-dinner concerts, when most of the passengers congregated in the Reception Room.
Along with fashion designer Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, and movie star Dorothy Gibson, the traveling celebrities included: Karl Behr, the third highest-ranked tennis player in the U.S. and a veteran of Wimbledon and the Davis Cup; Jacques Futrelle, author of a successful series of murder mysteries; and William Stead, a British newspaper editor and author with a wide range of passions including spiritualism and pacifism who, 11 years earlier, had published The Americanization of the World which, as its name suggested, correctly predicted that the 20th century would “belong” as much to the United States as the 19th had to Britain.
Others who had made themselves known to their fellow passengers by virtue of a memorable appearance included the 6-foot-1 Clarence Moore, a D.C.-based banker returning from a trip to buy hounds for the hunt he mastered on his family’s estate in his native Virginia, and Quigg Baxter, a 24-year-old Canadian sporting an eye patch after unintentionally offering up an eye in sacrifice to his national sport. An errant ice-hockey puck had exacted the tribute at a game in Montreal five years earlier, prompting Quigg to redirect his talents to coaching and promoting. He had organized one of the first international hockey tournaments during his recent stay in France. He, his younger sister, and their Quebecois mother were occupying one of the most luxurious of the Titanic’s suites on B-Deck.
A level below in C-90, unbeknown to his mother and sister, traveled Quigg’s Belgian girlfriend, the cabaret singer Berthe Mayné. There had been a whirlwind romance during Quigg’s visit to Brussels, where a local newspaper reported that Berthe was “well known in Brussels in circles of pleasure, and was often seen in the company of people who like to wine and dine and enjoy life.”Berthe Mayné was using an alias on the Titanic, “Mrs de Villiers,” a precaution likewise taken by Léontine Aubart, also a singer, from Paris rather than Brussels, and also involved in a covert romance. In Aubart’s case, she was the long-term mistress of Benjamin Guggenheim, a Philadelphian millionaire via inheritance from his father’s mining empire. If Guggenheim’s extramarital liaison was known by any of his fellow Philadelphians on the Titanic, there was a polite code prohibiting anyone from mentioning it, and he and Aubart too had taken the precaution of reserving two separate cabins.
No such politesse prevented opinions being discreetly shared about another Pennsylvanian, Mrs Charlotte Drake Cardeza, the kind of person who felt the need to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.
Possessed of impressive presence and volume, Mrs Cardeza was almost the archetype of the passenger warned against in traveling journals: “It is necessary to remember that the ship’s servants are human beings and need a little rest sometimes, and that a kindly word will do wonders; no one receives better attention by being ill-natured or swearing at them. If you have a sharp tongue and think you are witty when you are only unkind, just take that little weakness and drop it overboard.”
Dropping overboard was a phrase dancing through the heart of the Stewardess Violet Jessop when she realized she had been assigned to wait on Mrs Cardeza’s suite. She had barely recovered from the experience of dealing with her when she had crossed over to Europe on the Olympic a few months earlier. Two decades later, when she came to write her autobiography, Jessop had not forgotten—she referred to Cardeza, “a certain well-known society woman”, under a false name, but gave the game away, perhaps deliberately, by correctly including a description of “Miss Townsend’s” Pekingese, Teeny Weeny. Jessop included the titbit that, despite her wealth and frequent custom, Cardeza had “been blacklisted by another famous shipping line because of her utterly unreasonable behavior and her demoralizing effect on other passengers… Probably her happiest moments were spent watching the agonized struggles of a couple of perspiring stewards tackling the job” she had set them of rearranging her parlor’s furniture within minutes of boarding.
The antithesis of Mrs Cardeza could be found in Helen Churchill Candee, a respected art historian after her recently self-published book on the history of interior design had won praise from relevant experts, as well as commissions to decorate from President Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. A prominent presence in D.C. circles, Mrs Churchill Candee had kept her married name following her divorce from her physically abusive husband, an experience that had inspired her to write her most popular book, How Women May Earn a Living.
It was unsurprising that, like [fellow passenger] the Countess of Rothes, Helen Churchill Candee was an enthusiastic supporter of the suffragettes, serving as a board member for the national organization’s Washington chapter. Both intellectually and physically attractive, she was traveling by herself though not alone, having attracted a small coterie of admirers who joined her for walks on deck and dancing in the evening, including Mauritz Håkan Björnström-Steffansson, whose father owned most of the Swedish pulp industry and who was en route to Washington to study business. He was constantly attempting to quash rumors, on board and in the press, that he was in fact traveling to serve as a military attaché at the Swedish embassy in Washington.
Far more famous was the notoriety of James Smith, whose dinners on the Titanic had, so far, proved far more peaceful than the supper he had grabbed six years earlier at a rooftop restaurant in Madison Square Gardens. There he had been approached by his acquaintance, Harry Thaw, a millionaire and functioning cocaine addict who had offered to procure a prostitute for Smith as part of a ménage à trois.
Whether Thaw intended to appear as the third starring party or to introduce two sex workers to the tryst is unclear. Smith icily refused this apparently unprompted suggestion and the conversation petered out. Thaw left the table, pulled out a gun and fatally shot Stanford White, an architect famous for designing the Fifth Avenue mansions of the Astors and the Vanderbilts. The ensuing trial turned into a circus, with Thaw’s family utilizing their considerable wealth to destroy White’s reputation. Central to the defense’s case was Thaw’s insistence that, years earlier, White had sexually assaulted Thaw’s future wife, the then model Evelyn Nesbitt, and their claim that discovery of this tragedy had caused temporary insanity in Thaw.
Under the guise of concern for moral rectitude, the newspapers provided salacious details of unorthodox heterosexuality, including sex swings and bejeweled sadomasochistic whips in White’s studio, all of which was used to paint a picture of depraved libidinousness at the heart of the artistic New York set. The media frenzy reached such a pitch that it was the first time in American history that a jury had to be sequestered. As the last person to speak to the accused before he murdered Stanford White, James Smith found himself the recipient of fevered interest from the press, something which was both distasteful and distressing to him. Thaw was found guilty but received a reduced sentence by reason of insanity, and Smith had spent much of the ensuing years living Paris, returning home infrequently to visit his family on Long Island.
There were also secrets that either were not discussed or could not be acknowledged in 1912. In the course of the voyage, John Thayer befriended Algernon Barkworth, a 47-old unmarried squire from Yorkshire in northern England. Barkworth had championed improving the infrastructure in his home county, particularly through his service as a Justice of the Peace for the East Riding of Yorkshire. Family memories and the research of Northern Irish historian, Gavin Bell, confirm that for years Algernon Barkworth was romantically involved with his gardener, Walter, who later moved into Barkworth’s ancestral home at Tranby House. One of Barkworth’s collateral descendants recalls that no one assumed there was a platonic reason for inviting the gardener to live at the main house and “people who worked at Tranby House were all aware of the situation there, though it wasn’t talk[ed] about as many things weren’t in those days”.
Harriette Crosby, in cabin B-26, had left her illegitimate daughter, Andrée-Catherine, at a boarding school in Paris until she could form a plan to bring her to live respectably with her in Michigan. Also hidden or at least covered in the silence of manners was the agony of Marie-Eugenie Spencer, a retired opera singer traveling in cabin B-78 and struggling with an opium addiction that would kill her a year later. Her British husband, William, was having an affair with one of her maids.
Silence also cocooned the wealthiest couple on the Titanic, if for markedly different reasons. Almost no one was unaware of the honeymooning Colonel Astor and his wife. Astor’s flamboyant fortune was not matched by his personality; he was a devout worshipper of the “god of punctuality” according to the crushingly underwhelming compliment of his acquaintance Elizabeth Wharton Drexel. Astor and his first wife, Ava, had gained freedom from their miserable marriage through their divorce in November 1909, following the death of Astor’s redoubtable mother, to whom divorce had been anathema. The Astors’ separation had shocked New York Society, although not nearly as much as the 47-year-old Colonel’s subsequent marriage to Madeleine Force, a 17-year-old graduate of Miss Spence’s School in Manhattan when Astor first met her at the upper-class summer retreat of Bar Harbor, Maine, a few months after his divorce had been finalized. Madeleine had allegedly been in love with a twenty-two-year-old family friend, William Dick, but once her name had been linked to Astor’s her parents’ ambition and genuine concern about their daughter’s reputation resulted in her becoming the second Mrs Astor with a quiet ceremony in the ballroom at Beechwood, the Colonel’s summer house in Newport, Rhode Island.
Collective viciousness, expressed in silence, washed over the couple, with most of the Colonel’s friends avoiding the couple, on their wedding day and after. To escape, they had embarked upon an extended honeymoon to Europe and Egypt from which they were returning on the Titanic after Madeleine had discovered she was pregnant. Once home, the Colonel planned to rewrite his will to provide for his on-the-way third child. Madeleine had spent much of the voyage so far in their suite on B-Deck, which, given the agony she had endured as a result of the observations of the serially unkind about her marriage, was probably a shyness born from painful experience. She had been regarded as a vivacious and intellectually precocious student during her time at Spence, traits which had been subsumed or hidden after her wedding. May Futrelle, traveling with her novelist-husband, left a particularly sad recollection of the Astors’ time on the Titanic: “every other woman on board was curious about them … Perhaps they would have been rather glad to scrape up a few acquaintances. I used to think so when I saw her glance up from her reading at every one who passed. But, of course, the rest of us felt that it would have been rather presumptuous to make the first move.” Violet Jessop shared this curiosity but “instead of the radiant woman of my imagination, one who had succeeded in overcoming much opposition and marrying the man she wanted, I saw a quiet, pale, sad-faced, in fact dull young woman arrive listlessly on the arm of her husband, apparently indifferent to everything around her.”
As the music came to an end, most of the first-class passengers retired, as one of them put it, after another evening surrounded by “the hum of the voices, the lilt of the German waltzes, the unheeding sounds of a small world bent on pleasure."
Excerpted from THE SHIP OF DREAMS published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2019 by Gareth Russell