Terrifyingly, the “unsinkable” Titanic lurches sickeningly as it smashes into a massive iceberg. It’s near midnight now; in little more than two hours the ship will break in two. It will then sink to the bottom of the icy Atlantic at a cost of some 1,500 lives. But there are survivors. One is a first-class passenger: then-22-year-old movie actress Dorothy Gibson, who was lucky enough to make it on to a lifeboat. And her harrowing true tale will soon become the stuff of fiction.
Gibson was on board the White Star Line’s RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage along with her mother Pauline. The two Americans had sailed to Europe in March 1912 for a vacation after Gibson had completed a clutch of movies. Soon, a cable arrived from producer Jules Brulatour of the New Jersey-based Eclair Moving Picture Company. The actress and her mother were in Italy at this point.
Brulatour’s message told Gibson that he’d secured a multi-picture deal and asked her to come back to the States. The producer obviously had a professional relationship with Gibson. But there was more to it than that. The two were in fact lovers, although Brulatour was almost 20 years her senior and married. So, perhaps he had more than one reason to want her back in America.
Gibson and her mother now traveled across Europe to Paris and from there booked tickets to sail across the Atlantic on the Titanic. The ship had set off from Southampton – a port city on England’s south coast – at noon on Wednesday April 10, 1912. Although her ultimate destination was New York City, the liner had a couple of stop-offs to make on the way in France and Ireland.
The Titanic arrived at Cherbourg – a busy French port just across the English Channel from Southampton – at 6:30 p.m. that Wednesday. The two Gibsons boarded the ill-fated luxury liner that evening and she sailed just after 8:00 p.m. The ship docked for what would be the last time at Queenstown in Ireland – now called Cobh – on the Thursday morning and set off across the Atlantic in the early afternoon.
Gibson and her mother no doubt enjoyed the unashamed opulence that their first-class berth afforded them. For the moneyed passengers there was a special lounge sumptuously kitted out in elaborate Louis XV style. According to National Museums Northern Ireland, the first-class dinner menu on the night the ship sank included pate de foie gras, roast duckling and peaches in Chartreuse jelly.
So, it’s fair to assume that the successful young film star and her mother had nary a care in the world as they steamed across the Atlantic. That must have been especially so since Gibson was traveling home on a promise of plentiful work on the horizon. But how had the young star risen through the ranks of the early 20th century movie world?
The future actress began life in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1889. Gibson’s father was a Scotsman and mason called John A. Brown, but he died a couple of months before his daughter’s first birthday. Pauline remarried to John Leonard Gibson in 1893 – giving the star the surname she would use for the rest of her life.
By 1910 the family was living on Manhattan’s West 148th Street and in that year Gibson married a pharmacist called George Henry Battier Jr. But it seems the marriage was not a happy one since they parted not long after being wed and were divorced by 1913. Gibson’s life elsewhere was looking a bit brighter, though, because her career as a performer had already got under way at this point.
From 1907 Gibson was already finding parts in Broadway musicals as a dancer and singer. Then, in what must have seemed like a career breakthrough, the artist Harrison Fisher chose her as a model two years later. The latter was an accomplished illustrator and worked for many of the premier magazines and high-circulation newspapers of the day.
In 1911 a Harrison illustration of Gibson appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, which was a highly prestigious platform back then. The actress – who appeared rosy cheeked and sporting a beguiling pout – posed in a large brimmed hat with an extravagant white cockade flowing from it. She then had another triumph with an appearance on the cover of Cosmopolitan. And sure enough, the glamour of the movies soon beckoned.
Gibson was adjudged to be one of the great beauties of her day. And Randy Bigham described her allure in his 2014 book Finding Dorothy: A Biography of Dorothy Gibson. He wrote of her “big, heavy-lidded eyes and wide, curling lips.” Those features soon attracted the attention of movie makers and Gibson began to land bit parts in various productions.
Those minor parts caught the attention of Eclair Studios, which signed up Gibson as a leading lady in July 1911. This was actually a French studio, but it had an American subsidiary in New Jersey. Anyway, the actress went on to make a series of successful dramas and comedies including Hands Across the Sea – a tale set during the American Revolution. She also starred in romantic comedies such as The Easter Bonnet and in a crime serial called The Revenge of the Silk Masks.
Bigham added that Gibson “received a great deal of publicity and excellent critical review for the movies in which she appeared.” And not just that; she was also “considered [to be] one of the most promising new actresses upon her debut.” So Gibson – scarcely into her 20s – was already a formidable talent with potential for much more success in those early days of the movie industry. Of course, at that time all films were black and white and silent.
After making a spate of films from the time she signed for Eclair in 1911. But by the spring of the following year it seems that Gibson had decided it was time for a break. At any rate, with her mother she headed for Europe on March 17. And three weeks later she booked her return journey on the ill-starred Titanic after being prompted by Brulatour’s telegram
Luckily for us, Gibson gave an interview a couple of weeks after she survived the Titanic catastrophe. And her account gives a real flavor of the normality that flipped to terror in the freezing Atlantic. Things were calm enough early in the evening of Sunday April 14. Gibson and her mom had been aboard the ship for four days by this point. In fact, the former was playing cards with friends.
Gibson recalled, “Four of us had been breaking the rules of the boat by playing bridge on Sunday evening.” Two of her partners were New York bankers William T. Sloper and Frederick K. Seward. A steward then told the party that it was time to shut the lounge they were in. So Gibson walked to her cabin and apparently reached it at around 20 minutes before midnight.
Gibson continued, “No sooner had I stepped into my apartment than there suddenly came this long drawn, sickening crunch. To find out what it might mean, I went back to the A deck… One of the officers explained that we had collided with an iceberg, and that it would probably cause a slight delay… I went back to get my mother, and at the same time picked up my sweater and coat…”
Of course, we now know that the collision with an iceberg would result in much more than a trivial “slight delay.” In any case, Gibson herself seems to have understood quickly that something was seriously amiss with the ship. Going back below she roused her mother, picked up a coat and sweater, and the two made their way up to the deck.
With the help of two passengers, Gibson donned a life preserver and she and her mother prepared for the worst. The actress recalled, “Shortly after, we were ordered into the lifeboats. 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 to the bottom of the boat.”
Gibson then described the panic and disorder which now dominated the Titanic. She wrote, “The discipline of the crew was wretched, for nobody knew what to do. Many people refused to trust themselves to the lifeboats, and we were finally lowered down the side with only 26 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.”
The boat itself appeared to be something of a death trap, too. The actress said, “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.” Now, she was to witness the Titanic’s ghastly demise.
Gibson’s vivid recollection continued, “As soon as we were at a safe distance from the Titanic, we turned to watch the great liner settling gradually down into the water. It seemed like a nightmare.” But it was no bad dream, the ship’s plight was only too real. And things were about to get a lot worse.
Next came the shocking final moments of the great ship’s existence as she inevitably foundered. Gibson recalled, “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.”
Even that was not the end of the horror, though. Gibson said, “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.”
Gibson’s two card-playing friends Seward and Sloper also luckily survived. The latter composed an account published in 1984 by the Oceanographic Navigation Research Society. He wrote, “Luckily for both Seward and me, [Gibson] held onto my hand and demanded that we get into the boat with them. ‘We won’t go unless you do’ she said.” The two men then clambered into the vessel.
Sloper also gave an account of the RMS Carpathia’s rescue of Gibson and her mother, himself and Seward. It arrived on the scene at around 3:30 a.m. – a little more than an hour after the Titanic had disappeared beneath the waves. The cruise vessel had picked up the stricken liner’s distress call, and it must have been a welcome sight. The boat had sailed through the night at full steam – covering some 60 miles to reach the survivors.
Sloper then recalled his remarkable journey to salvation. He wrote, “It took us an hour to awkwardly row our boat to the side of the Carpathia. During the hour we had been rowing the sun came out of the ocean like a ball of fire. Its rays reflected on the numerous icebergs sticking up out of the sea around us. As we came alongside the Carpathia and our turn came to disembark it didn’t take long for the 29 people in our boat to be assisted up the stairway which had been lowered down the outside of the ship.”
The Carpathia – carrying 705 Titanic survivors – then set a course for New York City and arrived there three days later on April 18, 1912. And a cheering crowd of thousands welcomed the ship as she entered the port. Six years later, Carpathia herself would sink off the coast of Ireland – the victim of a German U-boat torpedo during the hostilities of WWI.
But what happened next in Gibson’s life stretches credibility. Just days later, the young actress was on a movie set. Bigham described the scene in his biography, “She wasn’t really alone but standing on a contrived set, surrounded by her director and two cameramen who were advancing slowly toward her on a rolling dais. But the terror her face registered was genuine as less than a week before this movie shoot [Gibson] – wearing the same sweater – had actually survived the sinking of Titanic.”
Yes, incredible as it might seem, the Eclair Studio had spotted an unmissable commercial opportunity. Who better to play a leading role in their hastily made feature Saved from the Titanic than the young actress Dorothy Gibson? In fact, not only did she appear in the film, the star also got a writing credit. When the movie was released a month later, audiences flocked to picture houses to see this dramatic feature. It was a huge hit, though sadly no print of the film exists today.
But this Titanic movie – the first of many made over the years – was to be Gibson’s swan song. After making it, as far as we know, she never appeared on celluloid again. She instead spurned the world of film to try her hand as an operatic singer – despite being one of the highest earners in American movies at the time. Though the performer indeed appeared in 1915 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in a work called Madame Sans-Gene.
After that operatic appearance, Gibson’s performing career seems to have descended into obscurity. But we do know a fair bit about her life. You’ll recall that at the time of the Titanic disaster, the star had been embroiled in an affair with the married Eclair producer Jules Brulatour. Well, this illicit romance was exposed by an unfortunate incident in 1913.
Disaster had struck just a year after her escape from the Titanic when Gibson was out for a drive in New York. The car she was driving belonged to Brulatour and she’d had an accident in it – killing a man in the process. Her affair with the movie producer emerged during the subsequent court case and this, of course, was catnip to the journalists of the day.
The inevitable scandal that ensued apparently infuriated Brulatour’s wife Isabelle. And this is despite the fact that the couple had been separated for some time. Isabelle insisted on a divorce which was confirmed in 1915. This left the field clear for Brulatour and Gibson to wed, and they duly did two years later. But it seems the couple did not find happiness once their relationship was regularized, and they separated a couple of years later.
After this episode – and the unpleasant publicity surrounding it – Gibson lived for a while in a Manhattan apartment. Though by around 1928 she had moved to the French capital of Paris with her mother – perhaps in an effort to wipe the slate clean. She was still in Europe at the outbreak of WWII in 1939. But at this point her story becomes distinctly murky.
One version of events has it that when war engulfed Europe, Gibson was actually in Florence, Italy, with her mother, and so she spent the war in that country. Italy was of course led by the fascist and close Adolf Hitler ally Benito Mussolini. There is also an allegation that Gibson herself was a Nazi sympathizer and even spied for the fascists.
By this account, Gibson had disavowed her fascist beliefs by 1944 and switched sides altogether. As a result of this, she was arrested for anti-fascist activities and held in the grim San Vittore prison in Milan. But somehow, she managed to escape and made her way to Switzerland. There, she was questioned by an American consulate official called James G. Bell.
Bell’s unflattering conclusion was that Gibson was not smart enough to have been a spy. As for her alleged Nazi sympathies, they remain controversial to this day. Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems that Gibson certainly had a difficult war – whether she chose to stay in Italy or was in truth actually trapped there.
Yet Gibson had an incredible life – however you dice it. First, she was shipwrecked after sailing on the Titanic and immediately made a movie about it. Then she endured the public opprobrium of an affair with a married man and following this up with a prison ordeal in Italy. After the war, she landed back in Paris – now liberated from German occupation. But her time was drawing to a close. She sadly died in February 1946 aged 56 of heart failure in the French capital.