A Titanic Scandal

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the “unsinkable” ocean liner, a story that continues to fascinate. this month, James cameron’s oscar-winning film is re-released in 3D, and a miniseries about the disaster from Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, airs on Global. Hugh Brewster‘s latest book on the doomed ship, RMS Titanic: Gilded Lives on a Fatal Voyage, recounts the stories of the upper decks. Here, he describes how a woman from Guelph, Ont., survived the disaster – though what followed would, for her, be even worse.

Lucy Duff Gordon was awakened by a strange, rumbling noise. It seemed to her as if a giant hand was rolling huge bowling balls deep beneath her. Then the ship’s engines stopped, and she heard footsteps in the corridor.

“We must have hit an iceberg,” a voice called out. “There is ice on deck.”

Putting on a lavender silk kimono over her nightdress, Lucy went across the hall to her husband’s stateroom.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” said Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, annoyed at being awakened. “Go back to bed and don’t worry.”

But Lucy was worried. Leaving her husband’s room, she went out on deck and looked over the side but could see nothing in the pitch blackness. It was fiercely cold so she soon went back to her cabin and got under the lace-covered quilt on her bed. On the nightstand was a basket of lily-of-the-valley that had been thrust into her arms four days ago on the train platform in Paris by a farewell party of fashion models from her French salon. When she had opened a branch of Lucile Ltd in Paris the year before, design noses had been raised skyward at the notion of an English couturie daring to invade the capital of fashion. But the next day, Lucy had had the satisfaction of reading in a newspaper that “- the dramatic performance with which Lady Duff Gordon startled Paris today will be copied by every self-respecting couturier here before long.”

To a woman for whom the arrival of a barrel of castoff clothes sent by French relatives had been the yearly highlight of her girlhood in Guelph, Ont., this was a very sweet triumph indeed. The “performance” at her new salon had featured elegantly gowned Lucile mannequins in what was one of the world’s first real fashion shows. Stylish women flocked to see Lucile’s performances in Paris just as they had at her headquarters in London and salon in New York. Larger premises, in fact, were now required for New York, which is why Lucy had booked passage on the brand-new Titanic and brought her husband, Cosmo, along to negotiate the lease.

As she lay in her cabin, Lucy could hear the roar of steam being vented, and it made her anxious. At around midnight, she went back across to Cosmo’s cabin and shook him awake, insisting that he go and find out what was happening. After 10 minutes, he was back, looking grave. He said that he had met John Jacob Astor, the American millionaire, on the boat deck. “He told me he was going to ask his wife to dress,” he said,  “and I think you had better do the same.”

After Cosmo left, Lucy pulled out her squirrel coat and slipped her feet into a pair of pink velvet, ermine-lined mules.  As she was wrapping a turquoise silk scarf around her head, her assistant Mabel Francatelli (dubbed “Franks” by Lucy) arrived in a panic, claiming that she had seen water creeping along the corridor as she left her room four decks below. Cosmo soon returned and led them both up the grand staircase to the boat deck foyer. On hearing the call for ladies to board, they stepped out onto the starboard deck where crewmen tried to pull the two women toward the boats. But they protested loudly – Lucy would not leave without Cosmo, and Franks clung to her. After three lifeboats had been lowered, the crowd on the forward starboard deck dispersed, and Lucy suddenly noticed that a smaller emergency boat was being prepared for loading.

“Shouldn’t we try to get into that?” she asked Cosmo.

“We must wait for orders,” he replied. A few minutes later, however, Cosmo went forward and asked First Officer Murdoch if they could get in the boat.

“Yes, I wish you would,” he responded.

The emergency boat, Lifeboat 1, was kept permanently swung out beyond the railing, and the two women had to be hoisted over it and, as Lucy put it, “plopped” into the boat. An American man soon came forward and then another, and Murdoch allowed each of them to join the small group in Boat 1. The first officer then put two seamen in to handle the oars and, seeing no more passengers on the deck, told five stokers who were standing nearby that they could jump in as well. He put one of the Titanic’s lookouts in charge and ordered him to row away from the ship and then stand by. On reaching the sea, however, Lookout Symons was shocked to see water creeping toward the name Titanic painted on the bow and ordered   the crewmen to row away from the ship. In a lifeboat that could have carried 40 people, there were only 12, and only two of them were women.

For more than an hour, Boat 1 rowed toward a ship’s light that could be seen in the distance. The stern of the Titanic, meanwhile, rose ever higher against the starry sky, its lights still blazing. Lucy was lying down in the boat, seasick and shivering from the cold. Suddenly, she heard Cosmo exclaim, “My God! She is going now!” Rousing herself, Lucy saw the ship’s lights blink and then go out. “For a few seconds, she stayed motionless while agonized cries from her decks grew in intensity,” she later wrote. “Then, with one downward rush, she plunged to her grave, and the air was rent with awful shrieks.” For the next half hour, the piteous wails of those dying in the freezing water filled the air. Yet Boat 1, like most of the Titanic’s lifeboats, made no effort to go to their aid. Finally, all was silent on the inky sea, except for the splashing of the oars.

Franks lay down next to her employer and, from time to time, Lucy tried to make light conversation. “Just fancy,” she said to Franks at one point, “you actually left your beautiful nightdress behind you.”

“Never mind about your nightdress, madam,” one of the stokers retorted, “as long as you have got your life.” Another crewman joined in. “You people need not bother about losing your things for you can afford to buy new ones.” Seeing her ladyship stretched out in her fur coat and designer mules made this all too apparent. “What about us?” the crewman continued. “We have lost all our kit, and our pay stops from the moment the ship went down.”

“Don’t worry,” replied Sir Cosmo, “you will get another ship. At any rate, I will give you a fiver toward getting a new kit.”  He could not then have imagined how this small gesture of noblesse oblige would come to haunt him.

At dawn, Lucy and Franks were hoisted up the side of the rescue ship Carpathia and clung to each other on the deck, shivering with cold and relief. The Carpathia arrived in New York on April 18, 1912, with 712 survivors from the 2,209 who had been on board the Titanic. Three weeks later, the Duff Gordons returned to England, and Lucy described the scene that greeted them upon landing:

“All over the [train] station were newspaper placards ‘Duff Gordon Scandal,’ ‘Baronet and Wife Row Away From the Drowning,’ ‘Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon Safe and Sound While Women Go Down on Titanic.‘ ”

The Titanic’s sinking was the news story of the century, and the fact that a titled English couple had escaped in a boat only one-third full had roused intense public indignation. It was claimed that Sir Cosmo had bribed each of the crewmen with a £5 note to buy their silence. Making matters worse was testimony already given at the British Titanic Inquiry by one of the crewmen in Boat 1. He claimed that he had suggested they row back to pick up survivors in the water, but Lady Duff Gordon had protested, saying they would be swamped, and Sir Cosmo had backed her up. In a bid to clear their names, the Duff Gordons offered to testify before the inquiry. On Monday, May 20, 1912, Lucile was sworn in wearing a large black hat and veil. She emphatically denied the crewman’s testimony though her time before the inquiry was brief since she followed Cosmo, who had already been grilled for several hours that morning and on the preceding Friday. Cosmo’s aristocratic reticence did not make him a particularly forceful witness in his own defence, but Lord Mersey, the head of the inquiry, found in his report that “the very gross charge” against Sir Cosmo was unfounded. Yet, this did not clear the Duff Gordons in the court of public opinion. As Lucy later noted, “- a great deal of the mud that was flung stuck to us both. For myself, I did not mind – but I minded very much for Cosmo’s sake.” The whole affair, in her words,  “well-nigh broke his heart and ruined his life.”

Lucy later claimed that the notoriety actually helped her business and certainly, the next few years were good ones for Lucile Ltd. When the Great War began, she moved to New York and soon opened a Chicago salon as well. Cosmo stayed with Lucy for a time in America, but when a Russian gigolo became a permanent part of the household in 1915, he stormed off to England and lived apart from her until his death in 1931. The Titanic and the war had failed to daunt Lucy, but the 1920s did – the flapper look made her gowns passé and, by 1923, she was bankrupt. The woman who had dressed everyone from royalty to Ziegfeld girls was reduced to designing for clients from her London flat. She published her autobiography, Discretions and Indiscretions, in 1932 and, three years later, died of breast cancer and was buried next to Cosmo in a cemetery in Surrey. Today, Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon is best remembered for her part in the Titanic’s story but, in recent years, the unique contribution to the history of fashion made by the girl from Guelph is at last being recognized.