by Hugh Brewster
The sinking of the Titanic has many draws for those who are interested in knowing more about the disaster, or for those who feel the need to write about it. For some it is the size of the ship, for others its the massive loss of life. But at the heart of the story is the death of the Edwardian Era and the fading pleasantries of the Gilded Age. Sure, in retrospect and revisionist history the tragedy can bee seen as the ongoing fight between the haves and the have-nots, and most of those saved were in first class, but Hugh Brewster reminds us in his new book, Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, there were many first class passengers who died, most of them men.
Brewster touches on the most famous of those first-classers on board—John Astor and his mistress, Margaret Brown—but his delving into the last few days of the lives of those who haven’t received the accolades and/or recognition that made this book impossible for me to put down. In the vein of Erik Larson (Devil in the White City, In the Garden of the Beasts) Brewster uses the techniques of fiction and hardcore research to bring readers onto Titanic by following around Frank Millett, America’s unofficial Artist Laureate who was in charge of many public works of art (he’s the man who helped to give us the neoclassical Lincoln Memorial). Millet knew John Singer Sergeant, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Mark Twain, among every other major artist working in the United States at the time (Millett also gave us Chicago’s White City and many murals in public buildings). He was returning to the United States to convince our know-it-all Congress that architect Henry Bacon’s design for the Lincoln Memorial was the most honorable for the slain President.
Brewster also delves into the lives of actress/model Dorothy Gibson, many of the top officers, and my personal favorite, William T. Sloper, the man who was accused of dressing like a woman to get off the sinking ship, which Brewster reveals was a lie published by the New York Herald because Sloper wanted to give his account to his hometown newspaper, The New Britain Herald (my old workplace!).
There are a few flaw in terms of the research of the book that very easily could be fixed with a simple Google search. It is stated quite a few times that George Widener and his family were part of the Main Line society of Philadelphia. In fact, Widener and his wife Eleanor Elkins Widener had lived in the family mansion Lynnewood Hall (Designed by famed architect Horace Tumbauer), located in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, completely opposite the Main Line. Another wealthy heiress, Charlotte Wardle Cardeza, was also said to be one of the Main Liners. Her mansion, Montebello, was in Germantown, Philadelphia. Germantown was one of the earlier suburbs of Philadelphia, along with Mt. Airy (much of which was an estate) and Chestnut Hill, a suburb founded by Pennsylvania Railroad executive Henry Houston. These three areas were where Philadelphia’s elite used to lived until the main line of the railroads were built in Bryn Mawr and Haverford et al.
Are these details important? Maybe. In terms of getting history straight I’m not sure how much the Wideners or the Cardezas mingled with other Main Liners. (And for the record, Lynnewood Hall is rotting and abandoned and Montebello was torn down years ago, the land now a parking lot.) But none of this is important to reliving the terror and the struggle to survive on the Titanic. Indeed, Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage is an excellent read.