It's the 105th anniversary of the international tragedy, the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912. Those who have read Yours in a Hurry know that the date also had significance for Harriet Quimby. Walter Lord's A Night to Remember may be the most popular novel about the event, but my Dorothy Gibson story is based on her testimony from the nonfiction The Story of the Titanic as Told by its Survivors edited by Jack Winocour. We don't know if Harriet and Dorothy were acquaintances, but it would be likely given that they were both actresses and scenario writers in New York.
Titanic Survivor Dorothy Gibson
Following is an abbreviated account of their meeting after the tragedy taken from Yours in a Hurry.
Shortly after her return, Harriet was curious to get Dorothy Gibson's first-hand account of the Titanic disaster. Dorothy arrived at Sherry's in a high-waisted black and white stripped dress, trimmed with black lace piping and transparent lace from elbows to wrist. Her large white hat with a black underside anchored flowing black plumes, with abundant auburn curls seeming to burst from underneath.
After they ordered, Dorothy commenced her story, her large expressive eyes focused on Harriet's. "To this day I don't know how many were in the lifeboat with me. Ours was one of the first lifeboats to be lowered after the iceberg struck just before midnight. There was no advance warning. Some remembered feeling more vibration than usual on the ship. It probably depended on where one was at the time. But when the motors stopped, we became concerned. It was some time before the crew came to tell us all to go on deck with our life jackets. Many thought it was a drill."
Harriet leaned in further toward Dorothy. "What was it like after you all realized what was happening?"
"Well, the crew kept shouting 'women and children first,' but there appeared to be no order. Mr. Ismay was helping to direct people to lifeboats, and crew members were assigned to each boat to row and to keep order. Some passengers started changing into other lifeboats after we were in the water, mostly over disagreements on whether or not to row back and pick survivors out of the water."
"We were all freezing. Someone wrapped a sail around two of the others. No one minded that a woman had her Pomeranian with her, given that our boat wasn't full."
"Yes. I read that some of the lifeboats were less than half full."
"In some ways, I understand. Once terror sets in the mind, we don't always think rationally. I was told on the Carpathia that many feared the sea worse than staying on the ship, and in the beginning, few wanted to risk leaving. That way of thinking changed as events worsened.
"I never experienced such sadness as on the Carpathia—so many people in one place who had lost loved ones. The trip home was slower than expected due to ice, fog, and rough seas. Thank goodness for the wireless. At least we had contact with the world."
"Some of that didn't help," Harriet replied. "Rumors started. At one point it was reported that the Titanic was being towed to port and another that all had been saved. Later the survivor lists were incorrect, leading to more confusion and anxiety. I was still in England. It was sad there, especially in Southampton, since four of every five crew members were from there."
Dorothy gazed out the window. "I can still see the thousands of people standing in heavy rain when the Carpathia docked. Everyone wanted to help us, but anyone who was not a New Yorker just wanted to go home by the fastest means possible."
"What will you do now?" Harriet asked.
Dorothy continued without a beat. "My film, The Lucky Holdup, was released while I was on ship, so there are engagements around that. And, can you believe, I started working on a film this week titled Saved from the Titanic. I helped with the scenario." She placed her hands on the table and leaned toward Harriet. "They even want me to wear the sweater I wore that night."
"Is that in good taste?"
"Harriet, have you read the survivor's interviews? Telling our stories has been cathartic. They want to start filming next week so it will be out as soon as possible. The Germans are making a film about the disaster, and the studio hopes ours will be first."
Reading Historical Novels
David McCullough has said that Walter Lord, author of a Night to Remember and Day of Infamy about Pearl Harbor ". . .knows how to do research and how not to use all the research he found. . ." What you just read about actress Dorothy Gibson is taken from the sources mentioned in the introduction and newspapers I read from the period . We can learn much about history from reading historical novels, especially the more human aspects. That's why so many of us love reading and writing them.
Find out more about Dorothy's life and film career at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Gibson
Ann Kathleen Otto is the author of Yours in a Hurry, a historical novel of 1908-1912. Her next novel will include stories based on Ohio's Little Cities of the Black Diamonds in the 1920's.