A Night to Forget : Renée Harris and the Titanic Disaster

New book focuses on the forgotten career of Mrs. Henry B. Harris

Titanica!

A Night to Forget : Renée Harris and the Titanic Disaster

Their new book focuses on the forgotten career of Mrs. Henry B. Harris, Broadway’s first woman producer, but authors Gregg Jasper and Randy Bigham also share for the first time a fact-based account of her escape from the Titanic.

Renee Harris in 1913

Renée Harris as she appeared in 1913, a year after the disaster that changed her life.

The story of how Renée Harris survived the sinking of the Titanic — told in Liberty magazine 20 years later — became one of the best-known accounts of the 1912 tragedy. But was it all true? 

Unraveling that story was just one of the challenges the authors of the first biography of Renée Harris have tackled. While Broadway Dame is largely devoted to her professional life as a producer, theater owner, and manager, Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper have delved into her experiences aboard the Titanic in hopes of separating fact from fiction.

“That would seem to be an easy thing to do,” Gregg said. “We have an article she wrote but, unfortunately, not all of it is factual. Renée was nearly broke when she wrote her story for Liberty which was offering up to $500 for short stories. She may have consented to allow the publishers to embellish it in order to optimize its chances of being selected. The way the artwork was manipulated suggests that sensationalism was what the editors were after.”

The stirring image that was used for Renée’s Liberty article – a scene of the rescue of the Titanic’s survivors by the Carpathia - was drawn by Charles Dixon and originally published in Leslie’s Weekly in 1912. But to increase the dramatic effect of the piece, Liberty hired another artist, Robert A. Cameron, to add a lifeboat, full of women and children, being swamped.

HB Harris

Henry B. Harris, Renée’s husband, who died in the sinking of the Titanic.

Although throughout her career she was known as “Mrs. Henry B. Harris,” the story, “Her Husband Went Down with the Titanic,” was written under her own name, René, the spelling of which she altered later to Renée. The Liberty piece appeared in the magazine’s April 23, 1932 issue, almost exactly 20 years after the disaster that overwhelmed her. 

“From what we have found, Renée was not prone to exaggeration,” Randy added. “Therefore, some of what is attributed to her in the Liberty article surprised us. It was important to Gregg and me to make sure what we put in our book was the absolute truth or as close to it as we could get.”

Randy and Gregg have related in their book that Renée often referred to the disaster as “a night to forget,” a gentle ribbing of Walter Lord’s best-selling book A Night to Remember. In time, she most likely did forget many details which may have been preferable to recalling the horror she experienced. 

“Renée spent most of her life trying to forget the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of the love of her life, her husband, Harry,” Gregg explained. “After spending years of trying to block it out, when she tried to remember it, some of the details had faded away, and for her it was a fortunate thing. Trying to recall an awful night that she had spent years trying to forget would make her emotional and oftentimes come close to tearing her apart.”

The authors said they drew mainly from four accounts to write the Titanic chapter in Broadway Dame

“We chose the excerpts we included in our book for their reliability,” Gregg explained. “We used some of her less dramatic statements in Liberty, but we intermingled those with two 1912 accounts; one in the New York Evening World, another from the New York Evening Journal.”

Randy said, “And we also took some details from a later article Renée wrote for The American Weekly. Still, most of the erroneous information seemed to come from the Liberty piece.”

As Gregg and Randy weighed the evidence for some of Renée’s more extraordinary claims, especially in Liberty, they were able to discount most of them.

“We realized that we just couldn’t ignore the exaggerations,” Gregg pointed out. “We really wanted to address them, and we felt an article for Encyclopedia Titanica would be a good way to do that."

Coming of the dawn
The sketch of the Carpathia with Titanic lifeboats (top), entitled “The Coming of Dawn: The Rescue of Titanic’s Survivors,” was originally drawn by artist Charles Dixon for Leslie’s Weekly magazine in 1912. It was repurposed for René Harris’ story, “Her Husband Went Down with the Titanic,” for Liberty magazine in 1932 (bottom).

The authors felt an article discussing the errors in Renée’s Liberty story was also imperative since so many Titanic researchers and writers over the years have quoted, sometimes extensively, from the account.

Randy stressed that the book he and Gregg wrote is not about the Titanic, although there is a chapter about the disaster, and it is mentioned throughout the remainder of the book.

“The story of Renée Harris’ life has never been told,” he said. “It was an extraordinary life, an inspiring life, and I hope readers will enjoy getting to know her and her accomplishments.”

Gregg, who actually was friends with Renée in her final years, agreed. “When I met and corresponded with Renée all those years ago, I was a teenager. I never knew that one day I would write a book about her, but she may have known I would. It’s been an honor to do this for her. She was working on her memoir when she passed away, and I hope that the book Randy and I have done would make her very happy.”

Below, the original seven pages of Renée Harris’ famous account of her experiences aboard the Titanic, written for Liberty magazine, can be accessed at high resolution. Following these pages, Broadway Dame authors Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper have provided context, corrections, and additional insight through a running commentary on her story.

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“Pandemonium! Never will I forget the sound of those tortured souls.”

This emotional excerpt from later on in the story forms a caption for the image that opens up Renée’s article.

As mentioned in the introduction, the illustration was manipulated from an earlier version so as to depict more drama – i.e., the swamping of a lifeboat. The differences from the original and when it was repurposed for Liberty magazine are fairly easy to spot. The first version published in Leslie’s depicted the rescue of the Titanic’s survivors by the Carpathia, but for Liberty the drawing has been skewed, cropped, and refitted in what appears to be a replication of the evacuation of the Titanic. The placement of the “pandemonium” quote tends to support that a depiction of the sinking was the artist’s intention. For the 1932 rendering, the lifeboat at the extreme left appears to have been removed in favor of a wave, the lifeboat at the extreme right has been cropped off, and toward the center of the picture, a tipping lifeboat with people in the water has been added for extra dramatic effect. (The 1912 sketch was issued as a press photo on March 9, 1956 for the Kraft Theatre’s live TV broadcast of A Night to Remember on March 28.)

Rene Harris 1932
Renée Harris in 1932, the year she wrote about the Titanic for Liberty magazine.

The remark about pandemonium does not jibe with how Renée described the last moments before she left the ship. (She told Gregg that everyone was quiet until the final moments.)

“The widow of the celebrated theatrical producer Henry B. Harris, herself one of the last to leave the ship, looks back at that night of horror twenty years ago.”

Interestingly, Renée was referred to as the widow of a producer rather than being one herself — and for a longer period of time than her husband. 

“A neighbor ship, the New York, I believe, was fast moving toward us. I learned from a stranger standing next to me that the cables of the New York must have been broken by the force of the suction created by our giant engines. He turned toward me and said, ‘This is a bad omen. Do you love life?’ ‘I love it,’ I replied.  ‘Then get off this ship at Cherbourg, if we get that far.  That’s what I’m going to do.’”

As with the image that was manipulated, this story seems to have been placed for added drama. It may have been Renée’s own imagination and not the product of the editor’s pen. Premonition stories were very popular and she likely knew that.

“The days passed too quickly. I felt as if I would like to go on until the end of time. Dinner parties, bridge parties, dancing, auction pools, midnight repasts were indulged in to the nth degree.”

Renée told Walter Lord in 1964 that the craze for dancing had not yet spread to ships in 1912. In that document, preserved at the National Maritime Museum, Lord wrote: “But Mrs. Harris doesn’t remember any dancing at all. Thinks it was before the day of casual dancing – the Castles and the foxtrot were just beginning to come in.” (The comment about “the Castles” refers to ballroom dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. The foxtrot was a popular dance introduced in the 1910s.)

“Standing at a door leading to the deck, two armed officers were directing the passengers to the lifeboats. A couple was just ahead of us. The woman stepped through the door and the man was about to follow her, when one of the officers said, ‘Women only.’ The man replied, ‘I’m only going to place my wife in a lifeboat. I’ll come right back.’ They both went on deck. I turned to my husband. ‘Why don’t you say that too, and come with me?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘I must obey orders.’ Later that other man was on the Carpathia. If he were alive today I would say who he was. He lived many years after the tragedy.”

There were no armed officers standing at either door to the boat deck preventing men from proceeding. Renée’s resentfulness toward male survivors seems to be due to the pain of losing her husband. 

“We went from boat to boat. John Jacob Astor with his foot on the rail was about to get in a boat suspended on its davits when two officers turned him around and one of them said: ‘Women only, Mr. Astor.’ ‘I’m only going to get into the boat so you can lift my wife into my arms,’ he said. ‘She must be handled gently; she is going to be a mother.’”

Many survivors claimed to have seen the Astors during the sinking. Renée and Harry likely knew them, may have interacted with them on the ship, but it does not seem possible that Renée witnessed the Astors’ parting. She mentions J. J. Astor being on the boat deck when he helped Madeleine into the boat, but it’s known that Boat 4, in which she escaped, was loaded and lowered from A Deck.

“I had not seen up to that time a rope stretched across the deck with a line of armed officers holding back a mob of screaming men, women, and children – the steerage.”

Renée would have seen the circle of crewmembers that was known to have surrounded Boat D while it was being loaded. But the group was making sure that no male passengers rushed the lifeboat; they were not there to prevent “a mob of screaming” steerage passengers from entering it. 

Lantern Slide
This 1912 glass slide, which would have been projected in movie theaters after the Titanic disaster, shows photos of prominent first-class passengers including Mr. and Mrs. Henry B. Harris.

“Isidor Straus and his wife were in our little group. We were watching the second collapsible being lowered when Mr. Straus and my husband led us two women away from the rail. I did not learn until much later that it was because the boat had been turned over while being lowered and all its occupants were lost.”

Collapsible C did not overturn while being lowered, and Renée was not the only survivor to make this claim. Perhaps later in the morning, when she saw the men standing on Collapsible B, which had floated off the ship upside down, she thought that it had overturned as it was being launched. 

“My husband asked Mrs. Straus if she would get into the next boat and take me with her. It sounded as if I myself were speaking when I heard her say, ‘I won’t leave my husband. I will go where he goes.’ … Mr. Straus spoke for the first time: ‘We’ve been together all these years, and when we must go we will go together. You are very young, my dear. Life still holds much for you. Don’t wait for my wife.’”

The Strauses were passengers whom the Harrises possibly knew, at least from being on the ship, but it seems implausible that the elderly couple was standing with Harry and Renée in the middle of the commotion on deck as Boat D was being loaded. And those who saw the Strauses last said that they were seated on deck chairs, probably some distance from the loading of the collapsibles. 

“There was at no time any sound of music. The orchestra, most of whom were caught below, were never seen after the first report of danger.”

There are credible reports of survivors in lifeboats hearing music from the band, so it’s obvious that the musicians assembled on the Boat Deck at some point.

Renée’s mind was on her fear for her husband and on her injured arm. She probably was not focused on much that was happening around her and just never noticed or remembered hearing the band. There is no basis for stating that most of the musicians were trapped below.

“Two little girls were sitting at my feet – two little tots whose mother had evidently thrown them into the collapsible when she found there wasn’t room for her. The little Belgian babies!”

The “little girls” in Boat D were, in fact, boys – the Navratil brothers, Michel and Edmond - who were French. It was their father who handed them over to the Titanic’s crew to be placed in the lifeboat.

“I was taken on board the Carpathia on a scaffold, and was carried into a large room crowded with men and women.”

We don’t know why she used the word “scaffold” for a chair sling which is what she was hauled aloft in, and she recalled being lifted in a sling onto the Carpathia in an interview she gave to the New York Evening World of April 19, 1912.

“I was taken into a cabin that had been given for my use by a Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, artists who were on their way to the Mediterranean.”

The Coopers were Colin Campbell Cooper and his wife, Emma. Mr. Cooper painted three well-known pictures of the Titanic disaster – two of the rescue of the survivors by the Carpathia and another of a large iceberg in the vicinity.

“My cabin [on the Carpathia] was shared by a widowed bride and a French girl.”

The “widowed bride” was Mabelle Thorne, mistress of George Rosenshine, and Leontine “Ninette” Aubart was the “French girl” with whom she shared a cabin on the Carpathia. Renée made it clear in an interview with Walter Lord years later that Aubart was Benjamin Guggenheim’s mistress. 

“My attention was called to a couple in full evening regalia. They were a lord and lady whom I had met on the Titanic. … It was afterward disclosed to me that this lord and lady had rescued not only themselves but their luggage.”

Here, Renée was referring to Sir Cosmo and Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon. There are no facts supporting the claim that the Duff Gordons escaped with their luggage. This fabrication was told by May Futrelle over many years and Renée used it for her Liberty story.

Lucy Duff Gordon and Renée Harris were friends until the former published her memoir, Discretions and Indiscretions, in which she claimed “nearly all the American wives” on the Titanic left their husbands “without a word of protest or regret.” Renée seems to have been trying to get even with Lucy for that comment.

“The day following, I was put on deck with a few of the women who had tried, as I had, to be left to themselves. We were given a secluded corner. Two sailors with life belts on them came toward us. One of the women said, ‘Good God! What has happened now?’ One of the sailors replied, ‘Nothing, lady. Someone wants to take pictures.’ And there, with a camera pointing toward us, were the aforementioned lord and lady. Again the one to come to my rescue was the same officer [Fifth Officer Harold Lowe] who had manned the lifeboat that had saved the collapsible from sure destruction. In no uncertain words he told the titled couple what an Englishman thought of his own countrymen. Of course, the pictures were not taken.”

It’s doubtful that Fifth Officer Lowe would have done or said any of what Renée claimed. It was not his job to make a judgment about people taking pictures or to stop them from doing so. In fact, the photos were taken, but the Duff Gordons did not organize these lifeboat pictures or the wearing of the life jackets. 

Broadway Dame: The Life & Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris
By Randy Bryan Bigham & Gregg Jasper

Related Biographies:

Henry Burkhardt Harris
Irene Harris

Acknowledgements

All images from the Gregg Jasper Collection and the Randy Bryan Bigham Collection.

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Copyright © 1996-2019 Encyclopedia Titanica (www.encyclopedia-titanica.org) and third parties (ref: #53, published 16 June 2019, generated 12th November 2019 11:26:23 PM)
URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/a-night-to-forget-rene-harris-and-the-titanic-disaster.html