Marie Grice Young is fondly remembered by her family. Randy Bryan Bigham spoke with them about Young’s experiences in the Titanic disaster and her long life of joy, dedication and courage.
Family members and friends of Titanic survivors who can recall those who died many years ago are growing scarcer. A descendant of first-class passenger Marie Grice Young keeps close to her heart just such memories.
“I wonder if anyone else remembers her?” Rita Potter, 83, of San Antonio, Texas, asked over the phone recently; her British accent is still robust, although she relocated from Nottingham to the United States in 1960. Washington D.C.- born Young, who died the year before Potter moved, may well have been forgotten by many, but Potter still recalls the thrill of having an American relation — and one who was on Titanic. “I’d like people to know what a dear, kind woman she was. It’s been many years, but I can see her in my mind clearly. Everything is still very clear to me about her.”
Potter, who is Young’s cousin, although she always called her “Auntie Mary,” was born Marguerita Iris Louise Sarson in Nottingham to Cecil Norman Sarson and the former Evelyn Grice. Rita, as she’s always been known, had two brothers, Kenneth (“Ken”) and Keith, and a sister Brenda.
“Auntie Mary would visit us whenever she was in England, and she had her own room in the family home there,” Rita said. “It was always a great occasion when she visited. We wished she would stay longer, but she was very busy although she was older then; I think she was in her 70s when I remember her as a girl.”
She mainly recalled the story of Titanic, which Marie would tell if asked, although as Rita was just a child, she doesn’t directly remember some of the details.
“But I learned them from my mother in later years,” she added.
Rita did not recall much about Marie Young’s life aside from Titanic, although she knew she had been a piano teacher to the children of President Theodore Roosevelt and had a long-term friendship with Ella Holmes White, with whom she had survived Titanic.
“She had a full life and was an unusually talented person,” Rita said. “It seems nobody knows or cares about her now, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve often thought of her and told people about her. We were very proud to have Auntie Mary in the family, and I may be one of the last who knew her. I want people to remember her and maybe now they will.”
Rediscovering Marie: 1876-1901
Marie Grice Young led an active life, first achieving prominence as a musician in the nation’s capital by the age of 25, but her family’s connections both smoothed the way and threatened to impede her progress. Her parents, Samuel (“Sam”) Grice Young and the former Margaret (“Maggie”) Wilson, were from established Washington, D.C. families. Both wealthy and well-connected, gossip had it that the Youngs were social climbers of “pretentious ridiculousness,” belonging to a fashionable but snobby set of “Old Washingtonians” who consumed “oyster scallops and pink tea” in chic restaurants. One of Sam’s sisters, Mary, had done especially well for herself, marrying the rich and influential civic leader Alexander Robey Shepherd, governor of the District of Columbia.
Despite their shared background, Marie’s father and mother were temperamentally so different they were unable to make their marriage a success. They separated and afterwards achieved widely dissimilar levels of success.
Family life had been volatile as Sam was an alcoholic, worked only intermittently as a bookkeeper and later as a musician, was emotionally unstable and eventually declared mentally ill. Added to this, Sam had been disabled as a young man. Perhaps while a soldier in the Civil War, he lost his left hand and wore a prosthetic limb.
Sam was said to be “a most amiable, genial and generous man,” but having the “usual fever to be in ‘society,’” he soon “fell into ways of extravagant living.” At some point, Maggie sought a divorce but relented when her husband promised to reform.
His sexuality may have also been an issue with which he was struggling. He had been described as “sensitive”, and it was said by some who knew him that Sam believed his family was “weary and ashamed of him.” Moreover, it was reported that:
A vindictive ‘female,’ in the outward form of woman, followed him and caused him to lose several places where he had found work.
Was he being pursued by a transgender individual with whom he was involved?
Marie, born in 1876, and her brother Wilson, who was two years older, appear to have been estranged from their father during these years, being reared instead by Maggie alone.
With their mother, the children found love and support. Maggie was described as “a woman of great personal distinction and charm.” She was proud of her family’s history, particularly a connection to George Washington in the Revolutionary War; her great-grandfather was Capt. Thomas Stokely, an officer under Washington who commanded and bankrolled his own regiment in the Battle of Brandywine.
Marie’s mother was an extraordinarily adept woman. However, it may have been her family’s prestige that helped win her a high-salaried position in the U.S. Treasury Department where she also briefly found employment for her husband. Eventually, Maggie was promoted to the General Land Office. There, years later, Maggie’s skills would come to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt who appointed her special secretary, a position in which she was authorized to sign official documents for the chief executive.
Little is known of Marie’s early life, except that she was schooled in a convent, the Academy of the Visitation in Washington, and that Maggie Young and her children were members of St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
Marie was tall (5’6”), attractive, and cheerful, and from her dissolute but gifted father she inherited a love of music. In his later years, Sam was a “notably good tenor” and composer, performing in concert and writing the lyrics to three songs published in 1895, including “Steadfast My Heart.” Marie sang as well and wrote songs, but what distinguished her was the talent she showed at the piano which she hoped to pursue as a career.
After school, Marie entered musical training under Professor John Porter Lawrence and graduated from his class in 1897 at the age of 21.
At a pupils’ recital Lawrence hosted that year, Marie was singled out for her abilities; it was reported that two songs she played, Moszkowski’s “Moment Musical” and Mendelssohn’s “Spinning Song,” drew “emphatic applause” from a “large and enthusiastic” audience.
The Washington Evening Star of May 26, 1897, observed:
In the latter number, she displayed a technique that surprised even her most intimate friends and in the former showed that she possessed no small amount of musical intelligence and power of expression.
Inspired by Professor Lawrence, Marie set herself up as a teacher of piano, soon “giving 68 lessons a week.” Her happiness at this success, for which she was praised in the newspapers for being “self-sustaining,” was balanced by heartbreak as her father’s problems intensified.
After Sam Young had undergone several hospital stays, a civic court found him legally insane in February 1897 on the strength of the testimony of two doctors, one of whom was his brother, William. In the ensuing days, Sam’s condition was found to have improved, and he was not institutionalized as suggested by the court. But by December 1898 he had deteriorated to the point of forging prominent persons’ names on checks, and a warrant for Sam’s arrest was issued. This may have brought about his attempt at suicide by overdosing on laudanum at a friend’s house. Sam was again determined to be insane and this time was committed to St. Elizabeth’s Asylum. How his wife and children, who were never mentioned by the press in relation to the case, took this horrifying news can be only imagined.
Sam proved a model patient, his charm and gentle nature impressing his doctors at St. Elizabeth’s and at the Government Hospital for the Insane to which he was transferred. It was there that he assumed the direction of the choir. He seemed to derive much satisfaction from his duties which included presenting a memorial service for President William McKinley after his assassination in 1901. In that performance, Marie’s father led the choir in singing “Peace, Perfect Peace,” followed by “Thy Will Be Done,” which he sang as a solo.
Three months later, a few days following his release from the hospital, Sam overdosed on laudanum again, this time at a hotel in Baltimore, and died. He was 55 years old.
The lure of music: 1901-1907
The grief and publicity of the suicide of her father went unrecorded in Marie’s memories. Normally chipper, she was undoubtedly devastated, but she never spoke of it publicly nor did her mother or brother.
It was fortunate for Marie that she had the piano to console her. To draw “such lovely music from the keyboard” had inspired and exhilarated her from an early age and now that she was supporting herself by teaching the skill to others she could wrap herself in music all day.
While her brother Wilson married (his wife was known as a singer of mostly religious music in Washington and New York) and became a father, Marie first taught piano from the home she shared with her mother on Oregon Street. Almost immediately, she had a large, devoted clientele made up of the Washington elite. She had hourly sessions with mainly children, but adults were among her pupils as well. Annual recitals, in which she took a great interest in arranging and which often drew “a large and fashionable audience,” were held in her home, at Professor Lawrence’s studio and at local clubs and hotels.
In January 1903, Marie and Maggie Young moved to The Ethelhurst apartment house at the corner of 15th and L streets where Marie’s patrons doubled in number. It was also here, in the winter of 1903, that fortune smiled on her in the person of First Lady Edith Roosevelt. Marie’s mother was employed by the Treasury Department where her father had also worked for a short time, but there’s no indication nepotism played a hand in sending the First Lady to the young teacher. Indeed Marie had become well-known in her own right by this time as “one of the most accomplished pianists in the capital.”
“One day I received a call from Mrs. Roosevelt asking if I would give daily lessons to her son Archie,” Marie recalled in later years, although her memory then was that the First Lady had also asked her to teach two of her other children, Quentin and Ethel. She may have, but the others didn’t begin lessons with Marie until sometime later.
“Miss Young is apparently one of those people to whom things just naturally happen,” wrote journalist Mildred C. Wilkins. “In fact, she says that she has always felt that an angel on high has had his finger pointing directly at her.”
“I remember it being discussed that Auntie Mary taught music to the president’s children, and it seems like she told us all stories about that,” Rita Potter said. “But I can’t recall what they were now. I know she became very close to the [Roosevelt] family.”
Eventually, all three of the younger Roosevelt kids “came to my home for their lessons for more than two years,” Marie remembered.
Archie, age 9, was a typical boy and, although he enjoyed his lessons and liked Marie, he was driven by competition. His “debut as a concert player” was set for March 27, 1903.
“Archie is to play a duet with Miss Young, but he is to have all the pretty part to himself, the treble of a sonata, which he plays in grand style,” cooed the newspapers.
But it was not to be. As The Baltimore Sun explained:
He was taken with measles just a week before the affair and was obliged to forego the pleasure – for it would have been a keen pleasure to him. He had a rival in that class and his one ambition was to make a greater success than the only other boy upon the program. Archie said, “Never mind, I’ll get ahead of him next year.”
His rival was little William Dunn, described as Marie’s “youngest pupil.” Whether he ever knew the president’s son was out to beat him isn’t known. But as there were few boys enrolled in Marie’s classes, it’s likely. Although her students included adult men and women, of the children among her pupils almost all were girls; this remained the case until Marie gave up teaching piano a few years later.
Archie finally got to play for an audience the following spring. By this time, both Quentin, 7, and Ethel, 13, had started training with Marie. As The National Tribune reported on May 26, 1904:
President Roosevelt attended a recital given by Miss Marie Grice Young at the Washington Club the other day at which his little son Archibald and his daughter Ethel made their bow to the public as pianists. Both the children did very well indeed, showing remarkable self-possession and musical feeling. The president seemed very much pleased with his children’s efforts and remained during most of the program.
Over 50 years later, Marie recalled the event, saying the famous “Teddy” Roosevelt “listened with paternal pride as Archie pounded out ‘Over the Waves.’”
Quentin, the youngest of the Roosevelt children, was the most serious about music of the presidential offspring Marie taught. He made his debut at one of her recitals in early 1906 at age 8. He played two duets with Marie and performed a solo of “A Little Song” by Baumfelder.
“Master Quentin is but following in the footsteps of his older brother at these musicals, except that Quentin is more fond of the music and is a closer student,” said The Evening Star of February 11, 1906. “He played with much sentimental feeling and good touch.”
Ethel may have been the most difficult. Marie said that Ethel always “read from her music because she never could memorize.” The teenager may have been a bit awed by Marie as Ethel later remembered her teacher as "a walking Encyclopedia Britannica. After a day with her, I really feel like a 'lunatic at large,' as if I had absolutely no brain at all.”
The lessons with Marie had just the effect on the family that Edith Roosevelt had desired. It was noted in the press that there was “always much music about the White House when the Roosevelt family is there,” with the first lady as well as the children often playing the piano.
There is no known account of how Mrs. Roosevelt felt toward Marie, but it can be assumed her opinion was one of as much warmth and gratitude as that of the president. In a 1904 letter, Theodore Roosevelt praised Marie as “a very sweet, good girl” and thought enough of her and her family to put in a good word for her brother Wilson, then working in the Library of Congress. It seems Wilson had gotten into some sort of trouble in his personal life which had caused gossip and the president wanted him assigned a new position “where the chief will treat him exactly on his merits” and “give him a fair show.”
Washington society: 1903-1910
Marie’s increasing popularity in the capital meant social, and business opportunities often came her way. She could sing as well as play the piano and did so at a number of private parties and charitable events. Marie’s “guardian angel” was evidently working overtime.
The most ambitious such undertaking during this time (1903) was a series of concerts she helped arrange in aid of the Christ Child Society with a friend from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Helen Weil. The program took the form of poetry readings. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden was chosen based on a musical setting by Richard Strauss. Helen recited, and Marie played. Their collaboration debuted in the ballroom of the Shoreham Hotel before the usual assemblage of stylish ladies that attended Marie’s recitals. The Washington Times wrote that Helen spoke with feeling and Marie’s “interpretations were most effective at the piano.”
An added feature was Marie’s mother’s singing of old French songs which preceded the other women’s performances. In the audience were diplomats and visiting royalty; among them was Countess Cassini, daughter of the Russian ambassador and one of the patronesses of the benefit. Mrs. Chauncey Depew, the wife of the vice president, also attended.
Through the countess, Marie and Helen received the honor of an engagement for their charity at the Russian Embassy. Eventually, Enoch Arden was performed beyond Washington, enjoying a tour that included the cities of Boston, Baltimore and New York where each event was “largely attended by fashionable women.”
Marie was constantly mentioned in the society columns of the Washington papers, as much for her life away from the capital as for her involvement in local events. Her visits with friends to seaside resorts in summer months or weekend jaunts with family were as frequently reported as her appearance at luncheons, dinners, balls and charitable fetes. At these, she was described as “lovely,” “charming” and “radiant,” dressing her slim figure often in white – evening gowns in chiffon or crepe de chine and garden party frocks of mull. Cousin Rita Potter remembered Marie as being, even in her later years, “as pretty as a picture.”
In 1903, Marie attended a performance of Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, joined friends at a Thousand Islands, Quebec resort for two months and at Christmas sang with her brother Wilson in the choir during high mass at St. Matthew Catholic Church which she had recently joined.
During these years, she was most often mentioned as enjoying the company of her cousin John F. Waggaman and his wife at their home in Chesapeake Bay and their shooting lodge near Annapolis. It was here that Marie learned the joys of gardening and general farm life, even milking cows and feeding the chickens.
The Young family kept a summer retreat in upstate New York where Marie sometimes went, staying with her brother, his wife and their little daughter Hildreth. Her niece Hildreth also came to Washington in the summers to be entertained by Marie and her mother at their home at the Ethelhurst and later at 1735 New Hampshire Avenue.
Her friends at this time were mostly single women, some apparently divorced or widowed, several married couples, and other family units. Among these — Mrs. Edward Beecham of Green Spring Valley, Maryland, near Baltimore; Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Nelson Page; a Mrs. Gordon in Georgetown; and a Dr. Hartman and his daughter Mary in Baltimore.
Unlike some society women, Marie was never mentioned in connection with a single gentleman in the columns of The Washington Times, Star, Herald, Post or any of the syndicated papers, not even as a dance partner at the evening events she attended. She turned 30 in 1906, somewhat past the usual marrying age, yet she seems to have been wholly content without a husband.
In the fall of 1906, she returned to plan her musical season in Washington, having spent the summer months in New York, New Jersey, Green Spring Valley and Georgetown.
Marie’s recitals continued to find favor with the crème de la crème of the capital. A number of Marie’s former students were in the program in 1907 to display their skills. Her 1908 event was described as a “well-selected program of piano numbers,” consisting of waltzes, serenades, marches and hymns. And the following year, she spent the summer in Maryland, returning to plan her next semiannual recital for Christmas.
Beginning about this time, her relationship with the Roosevelts reached a pinnacle insofar as her personal influence with the first family. Marie began to be consulted on household matters at the White House while her mother advised on decorating. Marie was acknowledged for her expertise in the book The Story of the White House, published in 1907.
Maggie Young’s star was also rising. In 1908, President Roosevelt appointed Marie’s mother special secretary with the responsibility of signing documents for him, mostly “land office patents” or similar technical papers; by the close of the year, the press estimated that Maggie Young had signed 80,000 documents for Roosevelt. This led to some criticism of her as “a woman acting as president.” Even so, Maggie continued to serve as special secretary to President William Howard Taft when he came into office.
Maggie’s unique career came to a halt in early 1910 when she suddenly died at age 62. She possibly had a heart attack or a stroke, but the cause of death was never released. Maggie’s passing was a shock to her children as well as other family and friends. Marie, who had been so close to her mother, depended on her counsel and included her in her musicales, was inconsolable and went into deep mourning. Her piano lessons were suspended and recitals postponed. She also moved to a smaller house on Q Street.
Enter Ella: 1910-1911
At the time of Maggie’s death, her family had expressed surprise, but over 40 years later, Marie claimed her mother had suffered from a “long illness.” At any rate, “after the strain” of Maggie’s passing, Marie “was recuperating at Atlantic City when her guardian angel again pointed his finger at her.”
The good fortune fate directed to her now was in the person of Ella Holmes White, “an immensely wealthy New York woman.” Known as Mrs. J. Stuart White, heavyset and as formidable as she was high-spirited, 53-year-old Ella was looking for a new “traveling companion.” She was a widow – in 1894 Ella had married John Stuart White who died less than three years later – and by the time she met Marie in the summer of 1910, she was just getting over the end of a relationship with Ella Hoagland, with whom she lived and traveled widely; in 1908, the two Ellas had spent nine months on vacation in Europe.
“It was talk of chickens that brought them together,” recalled Marie’s cousin, Rita Potter, with a laugh. Ella White had use of “a patch of farmland” at her country place at Briarcliff Lodge at Briarcliff Manor, New York, and had heard of a breed of French poultry which she thought would be a wise investment. Marie had interested herself in foul at her relatives’ country house and was happy to share what she’d learned with Ella.
“Auntie Mary was always interested in raising chickens,” Rita said. “She talked of it even late in life.”
Marie and Ella hit it off, becoming “fast friends.” But as Ella insisted on hiring Marie to consult on the farm work going on at Briarcliff Lodge, it was really as an employee that Marie first came into Ella’s life.
The friendship with Ella ripened into a closer bond. As Rita put it frankly, “Auntie Mary fell in love with her.”
That might be a revelation to some, but it wasn’t to Marie’s Grice cousins.
“I don’t know when I knew, but it seems I always did,” Rita explained. “My mother knew. We all did. It was just accepted. Of course, when I met Auntie Mary, she was an older woman, and Mrs. White had died. I never met Mrs. White, but we all knew who she was and what she had meant.”
It appears Ella’s family may not have known the nature of her relationship with Marie until more recent years.
“I don’t think my father understood that Ella and Marie Grice Young had a relationship that was more than just friends,” explained John Hoving, Ella’s great-grandnephew, to journalist Sabrina Imbler. “I didn’t put two and two together about their relationship until later in my life.”
Asked whether she knew whether closer relatives accepted Marie and Ella as a couple, Rita replied, “I don’t know, but the English side of the Grice family understood. I did hear that the Youngs had problems with it, but I don’t know for a fact that they did.”
Rita was told some people felt that, while it doesn’t matter that Marie and Ella were lesbians, it shouldn’t be discussed. Her response was emphatic: “Well, if it doesn’t matter, what are they worried about?”
While resuming her piano teaching and recitals, Marie spent her spare time getting to know Ella. Direct and plain-spoken, Ella could be domineering at times, or as Rita put it, “a bit bossy.” Ella found Marie to be calm-natured, emotional, intellectual, talkative, fussy about details and highly organized.
By the late summer of 1910, they had become a fixture in one another’s lives.
Both the New York Tribune and The New York Times on Aug. 21 carried an otherwise innocuous item that may have signaled the beginning of their affair. At Briarcliff Lodge’s Oak Room, Ella’s apartment at the resort (built as an addition to the lodge a year earlier), Ella “entertained friends at dinner and bridge in honor of her guest Miss Marie G. Young of Washington.”
As 1911 dawned, Marie was back teaching full-time at her new apartment at the Versailles Hotel. But her recital that April may have been her last as it appears she gave up piano tutoring around this time. It was a beautiful event at which her pupils’ selections glittered – serenades, sonatas, waltzes, hymns and folk songs.
Within four months, as The Washington Herald reported, Marie was Ella’s “houseguest” at Briarcliff Lodge, the arrangement now apparently permanent. It’s not known exactly when Marie moved in with Ella, but it appears to have been at this time that Ella “invited Miss Young to come to New York and make her home with her.”
In the fall, Ella planned to leave Briarcliff Lodge, which was her country place, for her suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York; her “sumptuous apartment” there she considered her home when in New York City. But this year she decided on a trip to Europe with Marie.
As The Washington Herald of Sept. 24, 1911, recorded:
Miss Marie Grice Young, pianist, who was the piano teacher of the Roosevelt children during their years in the White House, will spend the coming winter in Europe. She will sail next week as the guest of Mrs. J. Stuart White of New York, whom she has been visiting during the summer at Briarcliff Lodge, Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. They have a charming schedule engaged for the winter.
Apart from the oblique reference to a “charming schedule,” the only especially unique point on their known itinerary for this trip was that in the Normandy, France region of Vallee d’Auge they personally visited the breeders of their chickens and purchased some more to take back with them to New York.
Nothing specific in the press alluded to the claim that Marie later made that Ella was going to buy Marie a trousseau for a pending wedding. No man’s name was ever linked to Marie in the papers. If such a popular woman were engaged to marry, details (not errant gossip) would have been reported, especially if the prospective groom died before the event took place, as was also claimed. Moreover, for a woman of Marie’s age (36) having an elaborate Paris trousseau, was beyond gauche by the standards of Edwardian society.
Rita Potter wasn’t aware of the engagement claim but found it suspicious. She had heard in general of various subterfuges which the women concocted to evade inquisitive friends and feels the alleged engagement may have been one of those “cover stories.”
Just before their trip, the women enjoyed an important social event at Briarcliff Lodge. The famous opera star Lillian Nordica performed there to a packed audience of noted New York and Washington figures, including millionaire John D. Rockefeller. It was one of the grandest events held at the resort.
The pair finally departed New York for their European jaunt in early October.
The New York Times of Oct. 15, 1911 announced:
Mrs. J. Stuart White and Miss M. Young, who crossed the Atlantic in the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, motored from Cherbourg to Paris on Monday, and are now at the Meurice, where they will remain a fortnight.
Ella’s last extensive European adventure had been with her former partner, Ella Hoagland, three years earlier and it’s not known whether Marie had ever been abroad: she was well-off and well-connected, but she never had the means to travel as widely, as luxuriously or as often as Ella.
After two weeks in Paris, the women may have followed the route Ella had previously taken, she hoping to show off these places to her new companion: Egypt, Algeria, Spain and Germany.
The only known extended stay on this trip, apart from Paris, was in Rome.
Whatever their full schedule, the ladies came back through Paris where perhaps they obtained the alleged “$5,000 trousseau” that Ella had bought Marie. That the “pretty clothes” were intended for a “forthcoming marriage” may not have been true, but certainly, the women indulged in the season’s latest fripperies. It must have been a novel experience for Marie who, while well-dressed, had likely never bought gowns and hats directly from the great couturiers. It is said that the women shopped along the fabled rue de la Paix which offered such exclusive fashion emporiums as Paquin and Doucet, among other world-famous designers and milliners.
It was also in Paris that they booked passage home to New York after nearly six months of touring Europe. The travelers were all four on the same £135 ticket for the new Titanic of the White Star Line.
In the Paris edition of The New York Herald, news of the ladies’ plans was announced on April 5:
Mrs. J. Stuart White and Miss Marie Young, who have been spending the winter in Rome, are returning to America on board the Titanic on April 10 and will go directly to Briarcliff Lodge.
The April 10 issue of The New York Herald carried the names of some of Titanic’s notably rich passengers on the front page, including Ella.
Getting into the seaport of Cherbourg that afternoon, Marie, Ella, Nellie and Sante waited at the pier for the tender Nomadic which would ferry them and other travelers out to Titanic when the liner arrived from Southampton. Marie recalled, “a merry group of boys beside me in the telegraph office at the dock at Cherbourg, hurrying off last messages to friends.”
Marie sent her own message, addressed to the head of U.S. Customs in New York, referencing in jest the chickens she and Ella had bought: “On with the blood hounds on Titanic.” According to Ken Fenwick who researched the ladies’ chickens for the trade magazine Australasian Poultry, Ella and Marie were charged premium rates for the transportation of live fowl.
She later wrote of “the gay farewells as the tender left the French harbor.” It was getting on to evening when Nomadic started out for Titanic. Standing next to Marie, Ella leaned on a black enameled cane she had recently bought to steady herself following the slight injury to one of her legs that she suffered at some point during their trip. That walking stick was destined to become famous a few nights later for the battery-powered electric light in its amber Bakelite tip.
Looking around the tender at her fellow passengers, Ella was impressed. The men especially held her attention: “I never saw a finer body of men in my life than the men passengers on this trip - athletes and men of sense.” They were, she said, “magnificent fellows.”
As the tender came alongside Titanic, the sea grew choppy. Edith Rosenbaum, a Paris correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily in New York, was among the passengers boarding at Cherbourg and may have seen what happened to Ella in the next few minutes.
“As we drew closer, a most unusual thing occurred,” Edith said. “Although the sea was perfectly calm, our tender began rocking in the most violent manner conceivable, throwing the passengers completely off their feet.”
This sudden swell caused Ella to lose her balance and she is thought to have twisted one of her ankles as she swayed with her walking stick, just managing to catch herself from falling over. It was difficult for Nomadic’s crew to steady the gangplank, but it was managed and Ella, assisted by Marie and Ella’s maid Nellie, made it up the steps to the reception room. It is not known if Ella was able to walk from there to their stateroom, C-32, one deck up, but if not, stewards may have carried her or taken her in a wheelchair via the elevator to her cabin.
One of the ship’s doctors, either William O’Loughlin or Edward Simpson, then attended to Ella. Her injured leg was wrapped in bandages, and she was evidently ordered bedrest as she admitted later that she never left the cabin, in fact “never took a step from my bed.”
With Ella’s “little accident” to her already hurt leg, any real enjoyment of the voyage for the ladies together was impossible, but Marie took advantage of the beauty and luxury of the new ship in her moments away from Ella.
As Titanic set out for New York the next day, following a stop in Queenstown, its last port of call, Marie took a walk around the A-Deck promenade, finally settling down in a deck chair. Below, Ella was being looked after by Nellie or Sante, and Marie welcomed the time to herself.
Later, Marie wrote:
In my thoughts I often lie again in my steamer chair, and watch the passing throng on the Titanic’s promenade deck. After the usual excitement of buying lace from the Irish girls who came aboard at Queenstown was over, the routine of life on deck was established.
She said she remembered “figures, faces and even varied facial expressions” of her fellow voyagers.
“A panorama of incidents passes before the mind – trivial events, ordinarily,” Marie said, “but rendered tragic because of many who sailed on the Titanic but who never heard the eager roll call of the Carpathia…Babies and nurses, dear old couples, solitary men passed sunlit hours of those spring days on deck, while the Titanic swept on to the scene of the disaster.”
Two men in particular she watched – Major Archie Butt, military aide to President Taft, and his friend, sportsman and club figure Clarence Moore. They were well-known and from Washington, D.C., but Marie had never met them personally. She said they came on deck every day for a “vigorous constitutional,” Butt “talking always – as rapidly as he walked,” while Moore was “a good and smiling listener.”
Although it’s likely Marie never ate in Titanic’s restaurant or dining room, choosing instead to take her meals in the cabin with Ella, she remembered that, in touring below deck, she came upon the kitchens that served the meals in those beautiful rooms.
“I had seen the cooks before their great cauldrons of porcelain,” she recalled, “and the bakers turning out the huge loaves of bread.”
But what most occupied her mind was the welfare of the chickens she and Ella had bought and were having shipped home. She regarded them with the care she would give pets which meant she was often on F Deck where the poultry were kept. The fowl supposedly included “two prize-winning roosters and two hens.” While there, Marie came to know a few of the crew members employed in that section.
“It so happened that I took an unusual interest in some of the men below decks,” she would write, “for I had talked often with the carpenter [John Hutchinson] and the printer in having extra crates and labels made for the fancy French poultry we were bringing home, and I saw a little of the ship’s life in my daily visits to the gaily crowing roosters, and to the hens who laid eggs busily, undismayed by the novelty and commotion of their surroundings.”
The steerage and second-class passengers in nearby cabins also soon grew used to the chickens; at least five survivors recalled their noisy presence.
Marie related a poignant incident of her time on F Deck: “In accepting some gold coins, the ship’s carpenter said, ‘It is such good luck to receive gold on a first voyage!’”
Night of nights: 1912
By Sunday, April 14, five nights after Marie and Ella boarded the Titanic, the ship was steaming through the North Atlantic at 22 ½ knots, near top speed. The temperature had been dropping all day.
Marie went up on deck that evening, possibly to the lounge, where she overheard discussions among fellow passengers about the speed and the increasing cold. She remembered the night as “clear and bright.”
To Ella, sitting up in bed in cabin C-32, forward on the port side, it was a “beautiful starlit night,” but she found it “terribly cold… unusually cold.”
“Everybody knew we were in the vicinity of icebergs,” Ella later said. “Even in our stateroom, it was so cold that we could not leave the porthole open. I made the remark to Miss Young, on Sunday morning: ‘We must be very near icebergs to have such cold weather as this.’”
Marie would recount for The New York Evening Post that it was the impression she had that ice was indeed near.
All through the evening, people were sitting about talking of the fine speed the Titanic was making. She was traveling at 21 knots, I heard. It was a beautiful, clear, starlit night, and there was much ice in the sea.
She claimed one particular berg was “in plain view for a long time.”
While Marie understood Titanic’s speed was not considered excessive and the route through a known ice zone was the same which other ships would have taken, she nevertheless felt “insane speeding among icebergs” was insupportable.
Rita Potter recalled Marie telling her family that she had been up late that night “and had taken a walk around the deck.” Perhaps, she also made a visit below to check in on the chickens.
But by between 11:40 and 11:45 p,m., when Titanic hit the iceberg, she and Ella were getting ready for sleep in their beds.
Marie remembered: “I was in my stateroom. The shock was so slight that most of us did not have any idea of what had happened.”
Ella agreed. “I was just sitting on the bed, just ready to turn the lights out,” she recalled when she heard what she later realized was the collision with the berg. She added she thought there was no “great impact,” that “there was nothing terrifying about it at all.”
To Ella it merely sounded as if the ship had shot across “a thousand marbles.”
Despite the slight jar, Marie and Ella were sufficiently concerned to go on deck. Ella was emphatic that they did so before the stewards began telling people to get up. Nellie and Sante shortly arrived from their cabins to help the women, particularly Ella, prepare to go upstairs.
“I insisted on Miss Young getting into something warm, and I got into something warm, and we locked our trunks and bags and went on deck,” Ella explained. Injured ankle or not, she was still directing the show, as it were.
What Ella wore isn’t known, but Marie’s idea of dressing warmly meant flinging her biggest fur coat over a “flimsy negligee.” Marie was in a hurry, but took time to put on a hat and gloves and carry her purse.
Many years later, Rita recalled Marie stressing the importance of the latter: “Auntie Mary said, ‘I couldn’t forget to take my bag.’”
Marie said they were encouraged by the nonchalance of the crew: “Officers and stewards came down the corridors, telling us not to worry, that the ship had merely ‘slipped on a small berg.’”
Ella took along her trusty cane which enabled her to hobble to the C Deck grand staircase foyer where they and other passengers were “simply all standing around.” After a few minutes, the foursome went up to A Deck, possibly taking the elevator.
“Suddenly Capt. Smith came down the stairway and ordered us all to put on our life preservers, which we did, “ Ella said. “We stood around for another 20 minutes then, I should think.”
The group slowly made their way up the grand staircase to the boat deck, Ella perhaps supported by Sante, as her “foot being bound up,” she said she “could hardly step.”
Once ascended, they went out on the port side and joined the gathering crowd of other first-class passengers. The roar of steam blowing off from the funnels overhead was nerve-racking; conversation was almost impossible to hear. The lights were dim on the boat deck, so the scene was shadowy as they stood near one of the lifeboats - the farthest aft in that section, located just outside the boat deck foyer, a boat they discovered was No. 8.
Marie could see crewmembers were readying the boats, swinging them out over the side so that they were flush with the deck; one boat, No. 4, was lowered to A Deck for loading.
When we got on deck, they were already lowering the lifeboats. There was no confusion. We were told there was nothing to get excited about and that the Titanic was good for 48 hours. The Olympic was coming.
To illuminate the dark deck, Ella occasionally swung her lighted cane, which distracted some of the crew who were preparing the lifeboats.
One of these men was Second Officer Charles Lightoller who wrote that he was most annoyed by
a very good lady who achieved fame by waving an electric light and successfully blinding us as we worked on the boats. It puzzled me until I found she had it installed in the head of her walking stick. I am afraid she was rather disappointed on finding out that her precious light was not a bit appreciated.
Soon the deafening noise of escaping steam stopped, and the sound was replaced by ragtime tunes from the ship’s band which assembled just inside the boat deck foyer.
The crowd around Boat 8 increased until finally the order was issued, either by Captain Edward J. Smith or Chief Officer Harry Wilde, for women and children to get aboard. The loading was orderly for the most part.
“There was no excitement whatever,” Ella said. “Nobody seemed frightened. Nobody was panic-stricken.” She did admit “there was a lot of pathos when husbands and wives kissed each other goodbye, of course.”
One near-parting, the night’s most legendary, was witnessed by some of those who escaped in Boat 8. The couple was elderly Isidor and Ida Straus. Ida’s maid Ellen Bird got into No. 8, but Ida declined to follow, returning to Isidor with the now famous line, “Where you go, I go.”
When it came their turn to step aboard, Marie, Ella and Nellie got in with some assistance required for Ella.
“They handled me very carefully,” Ella remembered, “lifted me in very carefully and very nicely. We got into the lifeboat without any inconvenience whatever.”
It’s not known who the men were who helped Ella into the boat, but it’s possible one of them was Sante, carrying out his last duty for his employer, though he couldn’t have known it. Ella made a general point of this later:
They speak of the bravery of the men. I do not think there was any particular bravery, because none of the men thought it was going down. If they had thought the ship was going down, they would not have frivoled as they did about it. Some of them said, ‘When you come back you will need a pass,’ and, ‘You cannot get on tomorrow morning without a pass.’ They never would have said these things if anybody had had any idea that the ship was going to sink.
When there were approximately 24 women in No. 8, it was decided to lower the boat, although its capacity of 65 meant there were over 40 empty seats. Marie was frightened; to her, the lowering was a “perilous descent.”
The boat was loaded and lowered by Chief Officer Wilde and Capt. Smith. As Ella said:
The officer who put us in the boat - I do not know who he was - gave strict orders to the seamen, or the men, to make for the light opposite and land the passengers and get back just as soon as possible. That was the light that everybody saw in the distance.
It is thought that the instructions to the lifeboat crew were given by the captain. The crewmen in Boat 8 were only four in number – seaman Tom Jones, 34, steward Alfred Crawford, 43, and two men whose identities are uncertain: a young dining room steward, possibly Albert Thomas, 23, and a kitchen helper who might have been Andrew Simmons, 31. The light on the horizon was later widely believed to have been Californian, stopped in the night 13 nautical miles (or 15 miles) away due to the surrounding field of ice. Marie and other survivors believed the light may have been a bright star on the horizon.
When Boat 8 started down its fall lines, it was about 1 a.m., an hour and 20 minutes since the collision with the iceberg. Marie remembered there were a total of 26 to 28 aboard the lifeboat which was “one of the first” lowered. She opined that the boat “could have easily carried 40” and said that she expressed her annoyance to Jones “for not waiting for more people.” Marie claimed he answered that the boat could not safely carry a full complement.
Ella and Marie repeatedly stated No. 8 was the second to be launched. Other passengers aboard recalled the same, including Margaret Swift, her friend Alice Farnum-Leader and Emma Bucknell. Later testimonies by crewmembers and passengers in Lifeboats 6 and 8 also bear this out. No. 8 may have actually been the first lifeboat to reach the ocean on the port side, however, as No. 6, the first to begin lowering, had been held up for a few minutes along C-Deck.
“Everyone in our boat was calm,” Marie remembered as No. 8 touched down in the sea.
The boatload of mostly women was surprised to discover that on getting down in the water, three of the four men aboard frankly admitted to not knowing how to row. Marie and Ella were visibly disgusted and, of the passengers in Boat 8, they were the most critical of and outspoken about the men’s behavior.
"I have never had an oar in my hand before, but I think I can row," one of them, probably Crawford, said to Ella.
Ella related her exchange with another crewmember: “The man who rowed [beside] me took his oar and rowed all over the boat, in every direction. I said to him, ‘Why don't you put the oar in the oarlock?’ He said, ‘Do you put it in that hole?’ I said ‘Certainly.’"
Marie also spoke of the “ignorant handling” of the boat after it was lowered. As she later explained, the men had
been allowed to leave the ship because they said they could handle the oars. It was only later, after the boat had been lowered and we were adrift in those icy waters, that these men confessed that they knew nothing about rowing. So some of us women took our turn at the oars and another did the steering.
She clarified later that she “took hold of one of the oars and helped row the boat partly to keep warm.”
The woman who took the tiller, whom Marie once referred to as a “girl,” was actually 33-year-old Noëlle, Countess of Rothes who shared the duty of steering the boat with Gladys Cherry, 30, her friend and a cousin to her husband. Other women took an active part in rowing – Marion Kenyon, 40, and her friends Dr. Alice Farnun-Leader, 49, and Margaret Swift, 46.
Marie would praise the “self-controlled women of our boat, four of whom had parted, bitterly protesting, from their husbands.” She continued:
In those hours spent face to face with the solemn thoughts of trials still to undergo before possible rescue, it was inspiring to see that these 20th century women were, in mentality and physique, worthy descendants of their ancestors who had faced other dire perils in Colonial and Revolutionary periods.
Ella agreed: “As I have said before, the men in our boat were anything but seamen, with the exception of one man [Jones].…Where would we have been if it had not been for our women, with such men as that put in charge of the boat?”
Although Ella did not row, she helped count strokes for the women at the oars and, when Seaman Jones and others could not get the boat’s lamp to work, she appointed herself a kind of “signalman,” as historian Walter Lord put it.
“The lamp on the boat was absolutely worth nothing,” Ella declared. “They tinkered with it all along, but they could not get it in shape. I had an electric cane - a cane with an electric light in it - and that was the only light we had.”
Marie appreciated her efforts even if others didn’t; she knew Ella was trying to help.
“Treasured above all else,” wrote Marie, “was the electric light in the handle of a cane belonging to Mrs. J. Stuart White who waved it regularly.” What’s more, Ella didn’t exactly have it easy: “I could not get up onto the seats which were very high… I had no strength in my foot, and I stood all night long.”
Everyone in Boat 8 eventually worked together as well as they could manage, but the first few minutes afloat were rough-going. According to an exasperated Ella, the moment the boat cut loose from the ship, the stewards “took out cigarettes and lighted them on an occasion like that!”
Marie also recalled the incident of the stewards smoking:
The men took out cigarettes and lighted them as we were being lowered into the sea. The man in front of me lighted a pipe and it was so foul-smelling that it actually made me sick.
Ella further complained:
Our head seaman [Jones] would give an order and those men who knew nothing about the handling of a boat would say, ‘If you don't stop talking through that hole in your face there will be one less in the boat.’ We were in the hands of men of that kind. I settled two or three fights between them, and quieted them down. Imagine getting right out there and taking out a pipe and filling it and standing there smoking, with the women rowing, which was most dangerous; we had woolen rugs all around us.
Ella may sound priggish and overcritical, but men, especially employees, lighting cigarettes in the presence of ladies was considered extremely bad-mannered in Edwardian days. The stress of the situation magnified the men’s laxity.
As the night wore on, Marie grew seasick at her oar, although at the time she attributed her sudden illness to the smell of tobacco from the men smoking. Rita Potter remembered Marie telling this part of the story.
“Auntie Mary got sick and had to lie down in the bottom of the boat for a while,” Rita said. “There must have been water in the bottom because she said it soaked her fur coat.”
Ella recalled Marie vomited six or seven times that night. Marie recovered well enough to resume rowing at which time, as she later told Rita, she thought she could see a man lying dead near her.
There was no dead man in Boat 8, but the account of another woman aboard the craft may explain what Marie saw. Marion Kenyon said she was sitting beside a steward who was rowing when he suddenly collapsed, “just doubled up at my feet.” Marion took over the man’s oar and started rowing while he revived. Might this have been the man Marie saw? Or maybe she only saw a pile of blankets, and in the darkness imagined it was a man.
“I don’t know what she saw,” Rita said, “but whenever she told that story she always said the man died.”
The end and a beginning: 1912
As the bickering subsided in the lifeboat, a concerted effort was finally underway to overtake the light on the horizon – “a boat of some kind.” Jones directed the crewmen and ladies in rowing, Noëlle Rothes and Gladys Cherry handled the tiller until the countess stopped to console a sobbing Pepita Penásco y Castellana. Meantime Ella swung her battery lit walking stick with zeal.
All the while, Titanic, now perhaps half a mile to a mile way, settled deeper into the sea, her bow soon extinguished beneath the waves. The band still played and distress rockets seared the night sky as the last lifeboats swung off.
It was soon obvious that the ship’s end was near. For Marie, the sinking of Titanic was an “epic of abysmal horror” that would “haunt and tax the most stoical.”
Ella admitted that their lifeboat wasn’t close enough for the occupants to see details of what was happening on the ship, but said what they could see “was something dreadful.”
Marie thought Boat 8 was “probably a mile from her when she went down,” adding:
There was a great explosion just before the end. The ship seemed to break in two and the sparks shot up like fireworks.
Ella also said it was her opinion that “the ship when it went down was broken in two…I heard four distinct explosions, which we supposed were the boilers.”
These horrific sights and sounds were followed by the wails of people thrown into the sea to drown or freeze to death. Marie remembered that the portholes “remained lighted until shortly before the end.” She especially recalled the “heart-rending cries of the dying” in the water where Titanic disappeared and the “sobs of the broken-hearted” women in Boat 8. To The New York Evening Post she would say that the scenes of the sinking were “too horrible to talk about,” adding “I could not describe them.”
One of the broken-hearted was Pepita Penásco y Castellana whom Noëlle Rothes tried to calm, covering the newlywed’s ears to spare her the sounds of the ship’s final plunge. It was about 2:20 a.m.
For Marie, the end of Titanic, stern uplifted, its lights flickering out, was the beginning of a “night of exhausting struggle, of emotion and of prayer.”
Rowing for the phantom ship’s light that they could still see gave the women hope and a goal to reach after Titanic disappeared.
To Ella, the light “was 10 miles away, but we could see it distinctly. There was no doubt but that it was a boat.” She said that overtaking the light “seemed to be the verdict of everybody in the boat,” but within an hour all reluctantly abandoned the quest to reach the mysterious orb. “We all supposed that boat was coming toward us,” she explained, “on account of all the rockets that we [Titanic] had sent up.” But eventually they surmised it was heading in the same direction as No. 8 was rowing; either that or the light was stationary.
Seaman Jones decided to change course, started hailing other boats which no one could see in the dark but could at least hear, and directed the men and women at the oars to keep rowing. Boat 8 was still aimlessly underway as night gave way to dawn.
Ella pronounced their mental state following the sinking as “simply unbearable,” yet she saw beauty in the midst of their terrible plight, noticing that as they rowed in the cold blackness of early morning “you could see the stars reflected in the water.”
Marie also recalled this detail. “The night was so clear,” she said, “that we kept mistaking the reflection of stars for the lights of ships.”
Just before the first rays of light of April 15 shone over the sea where Titanic had gone down, rescue arrived – Carpathia had raced through ice fields to aid the sinking ship, and her lights on the horizon brought elation to the survivors in the scattered lifeboats.
“Before dawn, we had made out the smoke of a steamship, the Carpathia,” Marie said, “but the sun had come up by the time she reached us.” Although Marie estimated that they had been adrift in No. 8 for only two hours, in reality she and the others were in the boat for about six and a half hours; Boat 8 drew alongside Carpathia at around 7:30 a.m.
Marie was understandably emotional that salvation was finally at hand:
There was not a drop of fresh water in our boat, nor was there a compass or anything to eat, nothing to keep us from starving if we had been in the boat too long.
Her memory of the rescue was vivid. “When the Carpathia reached the scene of the disaster,” she wrote, “the survivors of the tragedy that had been enacted between the setting and the rising sun were lifted on board with pity and tenderness almost divine in its gentleness.”
Marie added that “the hazardous ascent in the boatswain’s seat from the lifeboat to the Carpathia’s gangway” was a great trial. Ella concurred. “We had a great deal of trouble,” she admitted, “but we all landed safely.”
Once aboard the rescue ship, Ella counted 13 icebergs in the immediate vicinity and what she estimated was “45 miles of floating ice” that could be seen “around us in every direction.”
One of the first actions the women made after getting aboard was to send word of their safety by wireless to their families. Ella’s telegram was addressed to her brother, E. T. Holmes: “All saved on Carpathia. Notify Wilson Young.” Due to the backlog of messages, the wire was unfortunately not received by Ella’s brother until after the ladies arrived home. Like Marie, Ella believed what had happened to them was a “careless, reckless thing.” For Marie, it was something for which blame could be ascribed to Capt. Smith but, in her estimation, more so to J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line and a fellow survivor.
Her words showed her deep resentment of his purported behavior. She said that while she, Ella and others had to make due with mattresses flung onto dining room tables for beds, he hid himself away in the Carpathia doctor’s “comfortable room.” He was, she believed, “as heedlessly indifferent to the discomfort of his company’s passengers as he had been to the deadly peril that had menaced them.”
In contrast, Marie praised Carpathia’s commander, Captain Arthur Rostron, as well as his crew and passengers for the many kindnesses they extended to the survivors.
“After food and blankets had been distributed amongst the survivors,” Marie recalled, “their names were carefully noted; then the weary task began, lasting several days, of sending them by wireless to an awe-stricken, listening, longing world. The Carpathia’s own exhausted operator was relieved by the equally worn-out second operator (Harold Bride) from the Titanic, who had been lifted more dead than alive from the ocean.”
Marie was pleased that the guardian angel that she had once told a reporter always looked out for her was especially close when the most tragic event of her life played out. With Ella, she was now safe, but she could not forget the loss of so many others in a disaster that she felt was full of hubris. “Man can never be omnipotent,” she reckoned. “An unsinkable ship will never cross the sea. Granting that the Titanic was a triumph of construction and appointments, even she could not trespass upon a law of nature and survive.”
Marie and Ella looked forward to getting home. There was the seasonal move to undertake from Briarcliff Lodge to the Waldorf-Astoria which their European vacation had postponed. Marie was still growing accustomed to the idea that home was now one that was shared, that she was no longer alone in life and that for the first time since her mother’s death she was happy and contented.
Arriving in New York Harbor on Carpathia on Thursday, April 18 was a release from days of “overwrought nerves” and the “consuming, unending grief” that Marie, Ella and Ella’s maid Nellie felt among the widows, fatherless children and other survivors whose loss was as great or greater. The ladies were fortunate to have escaped death, but they were in grief of their own: Sante Righini, Ella’s young manservant, was lost.
Marie was ecstatic at reaching New York although it was getting late and pouring rain was falling.
“Fire Island! Ambrose Channel!” she exclaimed. “Welcoming sirens of hundreds of tugs, newspaper boats, steamers and yachts! And the lights of New York!”
The two women read telegrams that they received from family and friends as Carpathia moved slowly toward the Cunard pier. Marie said, “never was homecoming so sweet as on that immortal night of nights when again the world waited, hushed.”
Their peace of mind and relief from depression was short-lived; after they came ashore, they were inundated by reporters. Marie refused to speak to most pressmen; only one interview – with a correspondent for The New York Evening Post – is known to have taken place in the immediate aftermath of the sinking. It happened at the Hotel Manhattan where she and Ella went with Marie’s cousin, K. Andrews Lloyd, after coming off the rescue ship; it appeared in the Post the next day.
Marie’s cousin Rita said she remembered how angry Marie remained nearly 40 years later about the press’ harassing treatment.
“She was very mad about how the newspapers behaved,” Rita said. “Auntie Mary said they wouldn’t leave her and Mrs. White alone.”
The worst result of this furor was an alleged interview with Marie that appeared in syndicated papers nationwide, even in London and Paris, claiming Maj. Archie Butt himself had placed her in a lifeboat and bid her farewell, asking, “Will you kindly remember me to all the folks back home?”
She was hardly the only prominent survivor to suffer from some newspapers’ tendency to embellish or entirely fabricate interviews. Both Mrs. Henry B. (René) Harris, wife of the theatrical producer, and Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, the dress designer “Lucile,” were targets of tabloid journalism in the wake of the disaster.
Marie was livid about the lies. She didn’t even know Archie Butt yet now she was being quoted as having spoken to him before she left in a lifeboat; it was also erroneously claimed her boat was the last launched.
She stood it as long as she could. Everyone knew the papers printed exaggerations and falsehoods; no one, she reasoned, who really knew her could believe the tale.
But when someone in President Taft’s circle mentioned it, Marie could contain herself no longer and she wrote the president from Briarcliff Lodge on May 10:
Dear Mr. President:
I have read an account of the memorial service held in Washington recently in honor of Major Archibald Butt, at which service the Secretary of War alluded to a farewell conversation supposed to have taken place between Major Butt and myself. Had such a conversation taken place, I should not have delayed one hour in giving you every detail of the last hours of your special aide and friend.
Although a Washingtonian, I did not know Major Butt, having been in deep mourning for several years. The alleged "interview" is entirely an invention by some officious reporter; who thereby brought much distress to many of Major Butt's near relatives and friends.
When I last saw Major Butt, he was walking on deck, with Mr. Clarence Moore, on Sunday afternoon.
With deep regret that I could not be his messenger to you,
Very sincerely yours,
Marie G. Young
It was a busy time for Ella as well. The week before, she had left Briarcliff Lodge to appear before the U.S. Senate subcommittee that had been formed to investigate Titanic’s sinking, the hearings being held in New York in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria — home for her.
An outraged Ella gave testimony that was damning of the White Star Line and of the ill-manned lifeboats. Her tough, no-nonsense personality was on full display, her frank remarks tinged with sarcasm which must have amused those present.
She especially bemoaned the loss of male passengers “who would have been such a protection to us.” Instead, Ella and the others in Boat 8 had to contend with rude, argumentative crewmembers that in her estimation not only lacked knowledge of how to handle a boat, but had no manners or respect for authority.
“Those were the kind of men with whom we were put out to sea that night,” she grumbled, adding that if the men among the passengers
had been permitted to enter these lifeboats with their families, the boats would have been appropriately manned and many more lives saved, instead of allowing the stewards to get in the boats and save their lives under the pretense that they could row when they knew nothing whatever about it.
Ella’s feelings weren’t only a general disapproval of how things played out that night, but were personally, deeply held. Her own valet, Sante Righini, had been a victim of the order not to allow male passengers in the portside lifeboats. His body had been recovered and returned to New York, where Ella paid for his funeral. Sante was laid to rest at The Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Picking up the threads of their lives, mainly spent at Briarcliff Lodge, but also at the Waldorf-Astoria, Marie and Ella fell into the routine of entertaining as well as visiting friends and family at their homes or meeting them for vacation trips to various resorts. Marie continued to refuse to be interviewed by the press about Titanic which appears to have disturbed her to a greater extent than it had Ella. She changed her mind when she was offered the chance to write her own account of it. Her five-page story, “Lest We Forget,” appeared in the Oct. 1912 issue of The National Magazine. A somewhat emotional essay, it was poetic and, at times, to-the-point. Its end was beautifully, sadly worded:
Majestically she sailed; but bowed and broken and crouching, she sank slowly beneath the conquering ocean.
The loss of Sante was tragic, but Marie also mourned the chickens they lost aboard Titanic. “The insurance claim for the loss of the four French fowl was settled for $207.87,” wrote journalist Ken Fenwick. But that wasn’t what bothered Marie. The birds’ sad deaths horrified her. It’s not known if she ever learned that at least one survivor, steerage class passenger Ellen Mockler, 23, claimed the chickens had escaped their coops during the sinking and were apparently seen in the corridors below decks.
Rita Potter remembered the family story about Marie’s efforts to replace the chickens. The first time the chickens were purchased in 1910, they had been ordered through a representative, but when Marie went abroad with Ella the next year, the ladies had personally selected each one. Marie was determined to do so again, and once more booked passage for France – this time via England, where she visited her Grice cousins in Nottingham.
Marie was alone on this trip, delighting to stay in the Grice family home, where she was given her own room that would remain “Auntie Mary’s room” on subsequent stops, even as late as 1950.
Rita’s mother Evelyn Grice was only a child in 1912, but she was old enough to recall her American cousin’s visit and later told Rita and her brothers what an interesting time Marie’s stay was. Marie not only regaled her relatives with her memories of the Titanic disaster, but she left them with souvenirs of the experience.
As the story goes, Marie had in her luggage the coat, hat and gloves she had worn when she escaped the ship in the lifeboat; she even had the purse she had carried that night. Apparently, the fur was still a part of her wardrobe, and she still wore the accessories. But she grew emotional when getting them out to show her cousins and decided she needed to part with these vestiges of a painful memory. The coat was hung up in a closet in the Grice home and the other items placed in a box and stored away; Marie left them there — and there they remained, largely forgotten, for decades.
“These things were put up in a box,” Rita said, remembering vividly when she took them out to look at them in the 1940s. “We knew they were Auntie Mary’s things from the Titanic, but we took it for granted; we just grew up knowing they were there.”
Only after she reached adulthood, did Rita realize Marie’s unique belongings’ historical significance and potential value.
After staying in Nottingham, Marie went over to France and, after collecting her new brood of roosters, hens and chicks at what is today Saint-Paul-en-Vallée-d'Auge, she went back to America, lovingly caring for them and ultimately raising many generations at Briarcliff Lodge.
Home and abroad: 1912-1929
Marie and Ella continued living their lives between Briarcliff Lodge and the Waldorf-Astoria, traveling and visiting friends and relatives on the east coast. World War I encroached on their trips abroad. Yet all those years just before and during the war were relatively happy and carefree.
Both ladies kept close to nieces and nephews and other relatives, and as a couple, sometimes joined by friends, they spent an increasing amount of time at resorts and various vacation spots.
Late in 1912, presumably just after Marie’s return from her reconnaissance visit to France, the women held a series of luncheons and dinners at the Waldorf-Astoria and Briarcliff Lodge and rested at an inn in the Berkshires.
The year 1913 started off with a big dinner party at the Waldorf-Astoria in honor of Ella’s debutante niece Dorothy March. They divided the spring and summer between Briarcliff Lodge and Newport.
Marie loved to play the piano at their entertainments, and she sometimes sang in French from some 18th-century music her mother had left her. But never again did Marie teach piano. Whether she was still paid a salary by Ella for acting as companion — thereby legitimizing their connection for the gossips — or whether Marie wholly depended on Ella’s generosity is not known.
Marie and Ella contributed to a number of charities at this time, including the Young Women’s Christian Association. They even funded birthday parties for the girls there; in 1918 one involved an activity called a “bean bag contest” which Ella had planned.
They kept the Oak Room at Briarcliff at least until 1920, thereafter living at a succession of resorts, hotels and rented cottages. Their New York City address remained the Waldorf-Astoria through the 1920s.
Favorite getaways for the ladies in the 1910s and ‘20s included Laurel in the Pines at Lakewood, New Jersey; Hot Springs, Virginia; Bretton Woods, New Hampshire; and White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. Mutual friends often joined them and sometimes family members like Hildreth Young, Marie’s niece; Belle March, Ella’s sister; or Mildred Holmes Durand, Ella’s niece.
The ladies’ comings and goings were mentioned in the social and travel columns of many east coast newspapers throughout this period. Seeing the names “Mrs. J. Stuart White and Miss Marie G. Young” was as familiar to readers as those of the married couples whose plans and other activities were regularly noted. There was one possible snub: in reporting Ella’s movements, the society magazine Town & Country carefully omitted that Marie was accompanying her, a fact made clear by mentions in the daily press of the same excursions as having been shared. In a dozen references in the magazine to Ella between 1912 and 1925, Marie was mentioned as being with her only once. Were the fastidious editors enacting some censorship owing to their disapproval of the suspected connection between the women?
After the war ended, Marie and Ella resumed their European trips while their stateside jaunts more and more involved “automobiling” along the coast with friends.
Seemingly inseparable, Marie did sometimes visit family and friends alone and Ella, while Marie was away, entertained friends at Briarcliff or the Waldorf.
A change in their lives that both women regretted but knew was inevitable was the decision the owners of the Waldorf-Astoria made to raze the structure to make way for new real estate – the Empire State Building. Marie and Ella moved out of their hotel suite in May 1929 after living together there for 17 years.
Among the last longtime residents to leave the building, their move made the news, but not without a convenient story to disguise their devotion to prying eyes.
Marie was in fact not even mentioned. It was Ella who spoke to reporters; it’s unclear if the ruse was manufactured by the press or if Ella made up the story. But it was stated in one widely syndicated article that Ella “for 15 years has kept candles burning on an iron grate in her suite in memory of her husband who went down with the Titanic.” Whoever thought up the tale, it must have amused the ladies and their friends.
Saying goodbye: 1929-1944
The hotel’s closure wasn’t a surprise for Marie and Ella. They had long prepared for the move from the Waldorf-Astoria to a new and even grander hotel – the almost equally famous Plaza. According to Marie, it “took four months to prepare for their occupancy,” the new place being completely redecorated, incorporating the “rare rugs and priceless tapestries” that had distinguished their rooms at the Waldorf.
The pair didn’t slow down. Marie was now in her late 50s and Ella was in her 70s, but they still enjoyed their social lives - teas, luncheons, charity balls, golf, swimming, even oyster roasts. And their trips abroad didn’t slacken; Marie claimed she and Ella crossed the Atlantic altogether 14 times.
In the 1930s, the ladies sought out new vacation havens – Sea Island Beach, Georgia and Poland Spring, Maine were favorite locales for taking a rest – and one of their most extensive international holidays in these years was a trip to England and Europe in 1933. With a third companion (Belle, Ella’s sister), Marie and Ella sailed on the Berengaria.
This trip may have been Ella’s farewell to her life of world travel and adventure for it was shortly thereafter that her health began to fail and she was mostly confined to their suite at the Plaza.
By 1940, Ella was in her 80s and sadly slipping away. Marie was nearly always in attendance, as she had been for their many years together. But she also, at times, went away by herself to recharge, coming back to the Plaza freshly focused, as cheerful as she could manage and ready to carry out any task to make life easier and more comfortable for Ella. It seems it was Marie’s pleasure simply to be near Ella, the woman whose companionship and love had saved her from sadness when her mother died 30 years earlier.
Realizing the end was near, Ella began selling some of her possessions that were in storage and which might become a burden for Marie to maintain alone. Kende Galleries auctioned in 1940-41 a number of art treasures and furniture acquired by Marie and Ella over the years; one rare aquatint engraving, selling for a high price, made the papers.
Finally, less than a month after her 85th birthday, Ella’s forceful, witty spirit was stilled on January 31, 1942. She passed away peacefully with Marie and Ella’s sister Belle at her side as she lay on a sofa in their beautiful apartment, surrounded by memories of their years together.
Ella was cremated a few days later at Ferncliff Cemetery. Her sizeable estate was willed to family, friends and servants, but most of Ella’s money and possessions went to Marie along with a trust fund for life ($250 monthly).
Marie was now 66 years old and, although with Ella’s bequest she was a wealthy woman, she knew she had to economize and live reasonably; gone were throwing elaborate parties and visiting luxurious resorts. Adjustments were made with the common sense and comparative frugality with which she once lived when earning her own living in Washington, D.C.
She moved to a smaller apartment elsewhere in New York City by 1944. She tried to go on without Ella, but when Marie played the piano now, friends noticed she often grew melancholy, from which she bounced back only if her guests brought up a happy or funny topic of conversation. It was clear that it was the emotional adjustment of being without Ella with which Marie struggled in these years, not the loss of a lavish lifestyle.
A quiet life: 1944-1959
Perhaps to recapture some of the joy of her trips with Ella, Marie went back to England for a visit with friends and her Grice cousins in about 1944.
Rita Potter was only six at the time of this visit. She recalls it with elation:
My brother and I were not behaving, I’m sorry to say, and were jumping on Auntie Mary’s bed in the room the family set aside for her. I recall she was not a bit annoyed as grown-ups always are about that sort of thing. I think she must have had the patience of Job.
Rita says her outstanding memory of Marie that day was when she was first brought into the room by her mother Evelyn Grice Sarson to meet their houseguest.
“She just had a wonderful smile and pleasantness about her,” Rita said. “I think children know when people are good and they respond to that.”
During her visit, the family talked about the awful time of the Titanic tragedy and Marie held the floor; everyone was quiet so as not to miss anything. I was afraid of the talk about icebergs in the night and the bit about a dead man in her lifeboat, though I know now this was an exaggeration.
Another thing stands out for Rita - her mother telling her that “Auntie Mary is now a rich lady’ because of her inheritance from Ella.
The most jubilant memory that Rita has of this visit was going shopping with Marie in London. Seeing London, probably for the first time, was a thrill for the little girl despite slow trains and other problems the city was facing during World War II:
I don’t know what Auntie Mary bought for herself or me, but I remember having tea with her in a hotel, and that hotel was still there not long ago, when I was there last. Very little has changed about it, inside or out. I seem to remember finding the same window in the restaurant where we had sat.
Rita said she’d never had “a proper tea out in public” and Marie was going to teach her:
The hostess brought the tea tray and I was so excited I reached at once for a cake. But Auntie Mary said, gently, ‘No.’ And she patted my hand, not swatted it, to let me know it was bad manners to reach like that.
It was a few years later, in around 1950, that she met Marie again. Rita was then 12 years old. Marie would have been 74.
She doesn’t recall as much about that visit. Nearly a teenager, Rita thinks she was probably preoccupied or “distracted by things I thought were more important.” But she remembers telling Marie goodbye in a crowded London train station:
She had the same big smile and cheery way about her. We waved bye to her and she went off down the platform. It was the last time I saw her.
Rita’s son, Bret Potter, says his mother in recent years has felt a need to tell people about their cousin Marie whom no one else in the family, probably the world, personally remembers.
“We know there’s an interest in Marie and Ella’s relationship,” Bret commented, “and we’re glad to put the speculation to rest, but we want any story on Marie to not be focused on that. We’d like her full story told. Like my mother has said, Marie deserves to be remembered for herself, for all of who she was.”
A postscript to the Grices’ connection to Marie Young’s story, and to the Titanic in particular, is a sad one. All through the decades, Marie’s fur coat and the box of items that she had worn or carried the night she left the sinking ship had been preserved in a closet at the family home in Nottingham. But the coat and box weren’t labeled so they were discarded not many years ago when the Grice home was sold.
“No one had thought about them but me,” Rita said. “But I was living here in America by then and could do nothing. I just remember ringing my brother and asking if he’d gotten the coat and other things, but he said they’d already thrown everything out. I was so sorry to hear that. It’s such a great loss.”
Back home in New York in 1950, Marie continued her interest in gardening and farm life but she confined it to reading. Her country house visiting days were over, although she kept in touch with a great niece and nephew who lived near Amsterdam, New York.
It was to be nearer to them - her closest relatives - that she decided to move to the area at the age of 78 in May 1954.
Marie checked into the Mount Loretto Convalescent and Rest Home at Swan Hill. A local paper, the Amsterdam Evening Recorder, did a feature on her the following year. Reporter Mildred Wilkins found Marie “bright-eyed and keen,” “youthful and charming,” and with “a remarkable memory.”
"The drives around here and the view from the home are beautiful," Marie told Wilkins.
In probably her last interview, Marie shared the story of Titanic and her brush with fame in the social whirl of Washington, D.C. by teaching piano to the Roosevelt children. And remarkably, Marie didn’t diminish her love for Ella, confessing they lived with each other and traveled the world together until Ella passed away.
“She [Marie] spends a lot of time with her books and boasts that she only needs glasses for reading,” Mildred Wilkins wrote. “Sometimes she plays the piano although arthritis is stiffening the nimble fingers. But she is seldom lonesome. There are always those wonderful memories to keep her company.”
Marie Grice Young died at the nursing facility on July 27, 1959. She was 83. Interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York, her grave is unmarked but tended to by locals, including a distant relative.
First of all, thank you to Rita Potter for sharing with me her memories of her delightful “Auntie Mary.” “Remembering Auntie Mary” was in fact the title of this article when it first appeared in print in Voyage, the journal for the Titanic International Society in 2021. I must also thank Laurie Stiteler, the Potter family’s attorney and friend who originally made introductions for me to Rita and her son, Bret, whom I also thank for providing images as well as clippings of news items that the British side of the Grice family kept about Titanic. Also, thanks go to Harry S. Durand for supplying the only known image of Marie and his great-great aunt Ella together. Personally, gratitude goes to Gregg Jasper whose confidence inspired me to complete this article, and for his always excellent editing suggestions. To Brandon and Julian Whited, Bruno Piola and Mike Poirier, some of the most diligent researchers it is my pleasure to know, I thank for their extraordinary attention to detail. Special thanks go to José Martinez, Philip Hind of encyclopedia-titanica.org, Bruce Beveridge, Michael Beatty, Michael Findlay, Scott Friedman, Paul Kubek, Porter Strong and the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. Finally, I thank Charles Haas of Titanic International Society for first publishing this article in that organization’s journal Voyage in 2021.
Fenwick, Ken, Poultry on the Titanic, Australasian Poultry, August/September 2012, pp. 14-15.
Halpern, Samuel, ed., Report Into the Loss of the SS Titanic, Gloucestershire, Eng.:
The History Press, 2016.
Gracie, Col. Archibald, The Truth About the Titanic, New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1913.
New York Evening Post, The Lights Did Not Go Out, April 19, 1912, n.p.
Singleton, Esther, The Story of the White House (vol. I and II), New York: McClure Co., 1907.
United States Senate Inquiry, Mrs. J. Stuart White testimony (Day 12; May 2, 1912).
Wilkins, Mildred C., Mount Loretto Resident Taught Music to President’s Children, Evening Recorder (Amsterdam, N. Y.) Feb. 12, 1955, p. 8.
Young, Marie G. Lest We Forget, The National Magazine, October 1912, pp. 109-111.
Washington Times, Washington Post, Washington Herald, Washington Star, New York Herald, New York Times, New York Tribune, The National Review, Daily Express (London), Evening Echo (Cork), Cork Examiner.