History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 May 2012

Of Toothpaste and the Titanic

Can I get a show of hands -- how many people watched the 4-hour ABC miniseries, TITANIC, penned by Julian Fellowes of DOWNTON ABBEY fame? I vastly preferred this screenplay to Cameron's treacly, overindulgent, and overrated feature film, which strained all bounds of credulity; and I have a number of friends who still maintain that the movie classic, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, has thus far been their favorite retelling of the maritime tragedy of the night of April 14-15, 1912.

With this being the centennial year of the unsinkable ship's epic sinking, all things Titanic-related are hot, hot, hot.

But even with the fairly sophisticated and laudable Fellowes script, which was very DOWNTON ABBEY or UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS on the high seas, for me, it lacked what the Cameron version lacked as well. I want to see the stories of the actual historical personages on board.

John Jacob Astor, who sailed with his wife.

At least the Broadway musical version cared enough to care. How can you film the story of the sinking of the Titanic and not even once mention the Strausses, the elderly department store moguls who decided to perish in each other's arms. The thing I remember most about the mega musical is their duet as the ship goes down.

Isidor and Ida Strauss memorial, Upper West Side of Manhattan

I'm more interested in the real people than in archetypes from first class to steerage. Yeah, yeah, there was an enormous class chasm in 1912, and the Titanic herself represents it in microcosm. But tell me something I don't already know. Enlighten and educate me while you're also entertaining me.

the a la carte Italian restaurant on board run by chef Gaspare Gatti

I came across a fascinating article by Neil Goswami, which first appeared in the Bennington Banner on March 28, 2012. It's the story of Charles Cresson Jones, an actual (regular, not filthy rich or frighteninghly poor) person who perished aboard Titanic. Jones was the manager of the 4000-acre estate in Southern VT known as Fillmore Farm, which was owned by the Colgate family--yes, as in Colgate toothpaste.

Charles Cresson Jones penned a letter to his friend aboard the Titanic and posted it April 10, 1912—the day the infamous ship began its maiden voyage to America. It was the disastrous events just four days later, however, that have given great value to his letter and other accompanying papers.
Jones was born Jan. 22, 1866, outside of Philadelphia, but at the time of his death aboard the Titanic he was residing in Bennington. He worked as superintendent of the vast Fillmore Farms, the 4,000-acre estate of the Colgate family, founders of the toothpaste brand. A shepherd by trade, Jones had journeyed to England to purchase sheep from a Dorset, England, farmer named James Foot.
But just four days into its journey the new White Star liner, Titanic—the largest passenger ship of its time—struck a hefty iceberg, tearing a 300-foot gash in the ship's hull, and securing its fate. Some who survived the sinking reported that Jones responded to the collision and subsequent chaos with bravery, helping to load women and children into life boats.
A friend from New York, who remains unnamed, called to Jones to don a life vest and follow him into the water. Unable to swim, Jones declined, and reportedly drew a cigar from his pocket and calmly lit it. He perished shortly thereafter, along with more than 1,500 others, as the ship sunk into the icy water in the early hours of April 15. His body was later recovered by the ship Mackay-Bennet and returned to Bennington, where it was buried in the Old First Church cemetery in Old Bennington.
Jones had written his last letter to Foot, on Titanic stationery, and it begins, “My Dear Friend, just had lunch and a cigar and feel fine ...”
Jones went on to thank Foot for his hospitality during the trip. “ want you to realize that I most truly appreciate all you have done and are doing to make my visit pleasant and hope to return the favor sometime,” he wrote.
Now, nearly a century later, relatives of Foot have rediscovered the letter, along with telegrams between Foot and Jones' employer, James C. Colgate, and articles from the Bennington Evening Banner published in 1912. The material, now belonging to Foot's great-granddaughter, Penny Ems, of Hampshire, England, will be auctioned by Duke's Auctioneers of Dorcester.
“I would imagine my grandfather put them in the envelope and they have been there ever since,” Ems said. The letters, telegrams and newspapers were found by chance, she said. “We only found these papers after my father died and we were going through things,” Ems said. “My son opened the envelope and spotted the Titanic paper.”
The sale of the documents is expected to fetch a fair amount at auction, according to Deborah Doyle of Duke's auction house. “Titanic memorabilia is very popular and there are many collectors on both sides of the Atlantic,” Doyle said. "It is difficult to estimate the value of a unique collection such as this, but it has been valued at between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds (or $15,000 to $18,000).”
“The story contained within these documents is very moving,” Doyle added. “Not only is there the letter written by Mr. Jones on White Star paper that arrived days before the Titanic sank, but there is all the correspondence after the sinking.”
The various types of materials included in the lot also make it rare and valuable, she said.
“There are telegrams that show the receding hope of finding Mr. Jones alive, then the newspaper articles from the Bennington Evening Banner with accounts of the disaster,” Doyle said. “One account described how Mr. Jones was seen on the ship after the collision preparing for his death.”
A telegram, from Colgate to Foot, sent on April 16 before Jones' death was confirmed, shows Colgate's despair. “No news fear the worst,” Colgate wrote.
Jones’ housekeeper, Elizabeth Mellinger, and her teenage daughter were also aboard the Titanic. They had been second class passengers, however, and survived the disaster because women and children were loaded into lifeboats first. Foot cabled back to Colgate that Mellinger and her daughter had not seen Jones.
“They had not seen Mr. Jones since Sunday afternoon. Not a word of any kind has been heard from him, and we can only conjecture that he met his death like the man he was,” Foot wrote. Foot also wrote that he had taken the Mellingers in after the tragedy. “I took them immediately to my house, and they are still there,” he wrote. “Both seemed well, but yesterday morning when I cabled, I had received word that Mrs. Mellinger seemed to be feeling the reaction and was somewhat stunned.”
After Jones’s death was confirmed, Colgate continued to keep in touch with Foot, sending him newspaper articles from the Bennington Evening Banner. One article, published in May 1912, illustrates Jones’ last moments on the ship. A witness by the name of A.H. Barkworth told the Banner how he jumped into the water after the collision and saw Jones and another man called Mr. Gee still aboard.
“Jones and Gee were standing by, with arms on the rail, looking down. I imagine they were preparing for death,” Barkworth said.
Another Banner article published after Jones’s death was confirmed speaks to a possible premonition Jones had of his voyage. The report states that "for weeks before he left Fillmore he told the boys his ‘heart was not in the trip.’” He also told his assistant, Charlie Brettle, that “I'll never return. My books and accounts are all in good shape, and I want you to take charge of them.”
Copyright 2012 Bennington Banner. All rights reserved.

So -- do you have a favorite dramatization of the sinking of the Titanic? Are you more interested in the lives of the actual passengers, or do you derive just as much enjoyment from the versions that depict mainly archetypal characters who are representative of the times? Or ... are you utterly Titanic-ed out by now?


Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I watched the Titanic mini-series and enjoyed it because the focus was on the characters rather than the beauty of the steamship. However, I do admit the 360 degree storytelling technique failed a bit, particularly in the first episode, but the last part was suitably moving.

As for the story of the real survivors and victims, I figure that's what non-fiction and 1958's A Night to Remember is for. Plus, we don't have the POV from every person who survived the sinking, so fictional characters can fill in the gaps. I'm not Titanic-ed out, but that's only because it is part of my chosen time period. *g*

1:38 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I agree with Evangeline. I applaud Julian Fellowes for trying, and for at least mentioning people like Dorothy Gibson, although where was Margaret Tobin Brown? But there over 2,000 passengers on the Titanic, and whose stories do you choose? So many great books came out about the Titanic this year that included the stories of Lucy Duff-Gordon, Helen Candee and Madeline Astor.

4:16 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I didn't even know it had aired. But I have to admit, I'm not someone who's all that interested in the Titanic or stories about it. I've never seen the Cameron film (though I have seen bits and pieces of the documentary he did about the actual wrech), and while I'm making a gown for the Titanic Tea at RomCon, I would never do so if it wasn't for that kind of specific event.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I understand what you ladies are saying and where you are coming from. And I thought the actors in the Fellowes series were uniformly excellent and made you care about them. I just wish that, where there was documented info about some of the passengers (like the Strausses) that at least he might have SHOWN them on board! I wanted to see a more historically grounded production; otherwise it's not appreciably different from the Cameron film in terms of focusing on archetypes.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I did feel that way about the character that Geraldine Somerville played. She was such a snob that I was hoping she'd drown. It would have been nice to have seen her at dinner with Astor and his bride, instead of just seeing a scene with him and his dog, or later on when he wants to go with his pregnant wife.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Good point, Kerri. She was pretty one-note, as written. And once again we were treated to the nobility of everyone in steerage, the ambivalence of those in Second Class and the snobbery of the wealthy in First Class. There was very little nuance. There were, famously, First Class passengers who sacrificed themselves to aid women, children, and Third Class passengers.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I confess I haven't seen the mini series, but I suppose I will at some point. I prefer the unique little vignettes of the real people who lived or died on the Titanic. Someone sent me the link to a brief article about the dogs who traveled on the Titanic - a dozen documented, three survived (small dogs including one attached to the Harper Collins family.) The story of the lady who refused to leave without her Great Dane and whose dead body was found in the icy waters clinging to the body of the companion she refused to leave - those are the stories that speak to me.

And the story of the Mr. and Mrs. Strauss - "Where you will go, I will go." Hey, I'm a romance writer - sue me!

I think so much time is spent on the BIG story and it is the little stories that make a tragedy like this live on in our memories.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Louisa, I love the real life Titanic stories you mentioned. And I didn't even know there were Harper Collins (THAT'LL interest a writer who used to be with Avon) scions on board the ship. That's far more interesting to me than manufactured shipboard romances between fictional servants, or an inorganic love triangle. Ditto the story of the dogs. I'd weep if I saw the dead woman clinging to her Great Dane's corpse (especially if it were a true story). Even though I also write fiction, I have to say that a lot of the time the true stories (even fictionalized) are far more interesting (from the Stranger than Fiction department) than wholly manufactured stereotypes.

10:11 AM  

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