The Cahill Archives
AN ACTRESS ABOARD THE TITANIC
Michael P. Cahill
April 15, 2010
It hardly seems possible that it was over a dozen years ago that the blockbuster James Cameron film Titanic was released...but, as of today, it has been 98 years since the actual ship sunk to the bottom of the North Atlantic.
The tragic event inspired many movies, books, deep-sea investigations, and television documentaries. It is difficult, apparently, to make an uninteresting feature dealing with the Titanic tale.
Nothing, however, has had the impact of the 1997 Cameron film.
Many aspects contribute to the allure of the tale - far too many to deal with here. Heroism, cowardice, human spirit, mechanical folly, hubris, all classes of society, and the extended period of time from ice berg strike to final immersion to allow all this to play out.
Personally, one of the most moving aspects of the film and story is the band of musicians who continue playing - utilizing their artistry - to the last possible moment.
As the orchestra leader tells his fellows, it has been a privilege to play with you tonight. In a way, that’s how I felt doing Cabaret for JPAS early in 2006...one of the first shows staged in the city since Katrina. Our art was our bit to salvage something out of the disaster.
They weren’t the only ones from the theatrical world aboard the Titanic. Broadway producer Henry B. Harris was aboard the ship. The day before the iceberg, his wife had an accident and fractured her shoulder. As the ship was sinking, he carried his wife from their cabin to a lifeboat and asked if he would be allowed to accompany her. Informed that he could not, he stepped aside, saying, "I understand, the women must go first."
The last Mrs. Harris saw of him, he was calmly waving goodbye from the deck.
(Incidentally, another prominent Broadway producer - Charles Frohman - was lost in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.)
There was, however, an actress aboard the Titanic. What, you say, you wouldn’t have known that from Cameron’s film? Well, actually, the actress may well have been the star of the film.
In answer to critics, Cameron claimed that - with the exception of his two leads Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and their story line - everything was verifiably historically accurate. (I have to admit I have never understood the supposed appeal of DiCaprio.) There were no "Actresses" in the Cameron movie.
Or were there?
There seems to be a hint that in her later life, as the Kate Winslet character morphed into Gloria Stuart, that part of the destiny she was rescued for was to be a movie star.
Could that movie star have been based upon the remarkable life of the actress who actually was aboard the Titanic?
Perhaps. Let’s see.
Dorothy Winifred Brown was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1889. She took to the stage in 1906 and went by the name of Dorothy Gibson. Also a model, she often posed for magazine illustrator Harrison Fisher and became known as "The Original Harrison Fisher Girl." [Perhaps to differentiate her from the Original Gibson Girls.]
Early in 1911, she entered films as an extra and soon became a stock player when the center of the motion picture world was Fort Lee, New Jersey. Undoubtedly, her career was aided by the fact that - although she was married - she soon became involved in a long-term affair with the also-married movie tycoon Jules Brulatour, co-founder of Universal Pictures with Carl Laemmle.
She starred in a string of comedies in 1911-12, as well as playing Molly Pitcher in the historical Hands Across The Sea In ‘76.
Early in 1912, Dorothy and her mother took a six-week vacation in Italy, before returning aboard the Titanic. What follows is the account of Gibson’s travails aboard the Titanic, as told to the New York Dramatic Mirror - one of the leading theatrical publications of the day:
DOROTHY GIBSON FROM THE TITANIC:
An Account Of The Shipwreck According To An Actress Who Went Through It
Chauncey L. Parsons
New York Dramatic Mirror
May 1, 1912
Dorothy Gibson, the Eclair Motion Picture actress, does not look a bit like a Robinson Crusoe, for her startling experiences on the Titanic have left few traces. She is pretty and cheerful beyond the average lot, and her picked up wardrobe needed no apology.
"These are not my clothes at all," she said with a smile. "I was fortunate enough to have a chum just my size, who fitted me out as soon as I landed in New York. A white silk evening dress will do to escape in from a sinking liner, but it would look rather queer on the street in the afternoon.
"But that is the wrong end of the story. Suppose we begin at the beginning.
"Four of us had been breaking the rules of the boat by playing bridge on Sunday evening. After the steward had told us that he must put out the lights, we begged to finish the rubber and have some Poland water. These ceremonies over, I walked down to my room, at just 11:40. No sooner had I stepped into my apartment than there suddenly came this long drawn, sickening scrunch. To find out what it might mean, I went back to the A deck.
"It was a night to dream of, clear as crystal and brilliant with stars. Ice was scattered over the deck, and there alongside was a huge, shadowy mass. One of the officers explained that we had collided with an iceberg, and that it would probably cause a slight delay. The passengers, far from realizing their danger, were laughing and joking about the novel adventure.
"As I started to walk across the boat, I noticed how lopsided the deck was. Somewhat uneasy, I went back to get my mother, and at the same time picked up my sweater and coat.
"The steward - the same one who had broken up our card game - assured us as he passed in the corridor that the Titanic simply couldn’t be sunk. Just then I saw one of the designers of the ship coming up the stairs, three or four steps at a bound. His face was pallid. When I tried to make further inquiry from him, he simply couldn’t speak, from his excitement.
"Then I was frightened. A few moments later came the order to put on life belts. I was paralyzed. Two men - Mr. Ismay was one of them - helped fasten on the preservers, and taking our rugs, we hurried to the boat deck.
"Mr. and Mrs. Astor were standing near us, but they were called away by some message. Shortly after, we were ordered into the life boats. We did not want to obey, but as some men made my mother get in, of course, I followed. The boat swung so on the davits, that I had to jump in as it came towards me, and I remember that I fell all over myself as I slid down, down, down to the bottom of the boat.
"The discipline of the crew was wretched, for nobody knew what to do. Many people refused to trust themselves to the life boats, and we were finally lowered down the side with only twenty-eight aboard. That was the most perilous part of the whole adventure, because first one end would drop, then the other. We were absolutely silent until we reached the waves.
"Then we began to realize our plight. There was no plug in the boat, no light, no food, and not a single rower. Putting two men at lookout, the rest bent to the oars.
"As soon as we were at safe distance from the Titanic, we turned to watch great liner settling gradually down into the water. It seemed like a nightmare. The lights flickered out, deck by deck, until the bow was quite submerged. Then with a lurch, the Titanic slid forward under the waves. Instantly there sounded a rumble like Niagara, with two dull explosions.
"A pause of silence held everything and everybody spellbound, until the stern shot back into sight and immediately sank again. Then, there burst out the most ghastly cries, shrieks, yells, and moans that a mortal could ever imagine. No one can describe the frightful sounds, that gradually died away to nothing.
"With these horrible cries lingering in our minds, we floated about, keeping as near the other boats as safety permitted. A breeze sprang up that whipped the sea into waves and chilled us through and through. I never knew one could be so cold and live. I ached from head to foot, and I was much more warmly clad than some of the women. Everybody was cheerful in his suffering, and one of our men, named Auger, was simply splendid. He gave his outer clothing, even his gloves, to various women, and wrapped others in the sail.
"At first, we had hoped that the loss of life would be slight, until the steward told us that if the boats were filled, not more than a third of those on the Titanic could have escaped. We wondered if the wireless operator had stuck to his post, and if he had succeeded in calling any other vessel to our rescue. So we rowed about in miserable agony, held together by the green lights which a steward in another boat set off, and jumping up at every false alarm of a ship in sight. I recall seeing the green sofa pillows from the saloons bobbing about on the water near us.
"Never was I so glad of anything in my life, as when the blessed Carpathia appeared in the distance, moving in our direction. With numb hands we rowed towards her. Ours was the second boat to be tended to.
"When the other boats were unloaded, we began to realize the terrible event. Such stories I have never heard. A panic broke out on the Titanic after the first boats had left, and men had been shot to keep them from filling the remaining boats. The steerage broke loose and swept things before them. The women who were saved after that owe their lives to the sublime heroism of the men among the passengers. The officers were powerless to control the crew. A steward told me that if the crew had realized sooner the fate before them, few passengers would have been saved.
"It is useless to deny that the Titanic was out to break the trans-Atlantic record. Everybody knew it; it was the talk of the voyage. Although four different boats warned us of icebergs; we were going faster than ever - twenty-six knots an hour, which would be good time for a train.
"The three days on the Carpathia were days of suspense, because we could neither send nor receive messages. Yet, every possible consideration was showered upon us by officers and passengers. Food, staterooms, and clothing were ours for the asking. One of the Carpathia passengers even gave up his berth and slept in the bath-tub.
"But I’ve had quite enough ocean travel for some time. Europe offers no inducements now that can drag me away from the Western shore of the Atlantic. The whole adventure was so unreal that it seems more like a story I have read, but I don’t care to read any more like it."
One can readily sympathize with Miss Gibson, for one such harrowing adventure is enough for a lifetime even when it seems to dissolve into a chapter from some book.
Naturally, that is only part of the story. Shortly after arriving in New York aboard the Carpathia, Dorothy was convinced to star in the one-reel Saved From The Titanic, for which she also supplied the scenario - her own personal story of the tragedy. Her costume was the actual white silk evening dress topped with the cardigan and polo coat that she wore on the night to remember. It went into release a month after the tragedy in May 1912 - literally torn from the day’s headlines.
The film was a huge hit in America, England, and France, but the only known prints were destroyed in a 1914 fire at the Eclair Studios. Along with, perhaps, the Marx Brothers’ HumorRisk, it is considered one of the greatest losses of silent era films. In fact, only one of Dorothy Gibson’s sixteen or so films is known to survive - 1912's adventure-comedy The Lucky Holdup, which went into release while Dorothy was physically aboard the Titanic.
After the Titanic film in May 1912, she retired from the film world as - along with Mary Pickford - the highest paid movie actress in the world. She then pursed a singing career, appearing in such works as Madame Sans-Gene at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Then things really got odd.
In 1913, Dorothy struck and killed a pedestrian in New York while driving Brulatour’s sports car. In the resultant publicity and court case, it was revealed that she was his mistress and both were married to others.
Jules then did divorce in 1915 and Dorothy in 1916. They married each other in 1917...but the union was dissolved in 1919 when a legal challenge ruled the marriage an "invalid contract." [When the scandal broke, the first Mrs. Brulator filed for a separation. Mr. Brulator obtained a secret divorce in Kentucky without letting the first wife know or paying any alimony. The first wife found out, contended the Kentucky divorce was illegal, and, thus, the Brulator-Gibson marriage was invalid. By the time all of this came to court, Jules and Dorothy had apparently tired of each other and gave up the fight.]
To escape the gossip and publicity, Dorothy soon moved to Paris and remained in Europe the rest of her life.
There are also those who aver that - in addition to the obvious William Randolph Hearst paramour Marion Davies - Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles based the character of "Susan Alexander" in Citizen Kane upon Dorothy Gibson, as well as Hope Hampton (another Brulatour wife) and Ganna Walska.
It doesn’t end there. By World War II, Dorothy Gibson had become a Nazi sympathizer and was alleged to be an intelligence operative in their service. In 1944, she renounced her involvement...and was promptly arrested by the Gestapo and jailed in San Vittore prison in Milan. Along with General Bartolo Zambon and journalist Indro Montenelli, she escaped and the three were aided through the intervention of a Roman Catholic Cardinal and a young chaplain with the Fiamme Verdi resistance group.
Montenelli based a character upon her in his novel General della Rovere, which became an award-winning 1959 Roberto Rossellini film.
Dorothy returned to France but did not long survive the war, dying of a heart attack at the Hotel Ritz Paris in 1946 at the age of 56. Her estate was divided between her mother and her lover - an attache with the Spanish Embassy in Paris.
It certainly appears to be a life as crowded with incident as we are led to believe was the life of the Winslet-Stuart character in Titanic.
Oh, by the way, in case the name Brulatour sounds familiar, yes, the long-time - 1950-1996 - headquarters of WDSU-TV at 520 Royal Street in the French Quarter was located at the Brulatour house and courtyard, so named in honor of its former owner Jules Brulatour.