by Olivier Mendez & Michel Leroy
Berthe Leroy was born on August 10th, 1884, at 10 AM, in a modest miners house in the mining town of Hersin-Coupigny, in the French Pas-de-Calais region; the house was one in a row of ten which formed a long wall almost 250 feet long. That day, the Leroy family, who had numbered five, increased to seven, for Berthe was born minutes after Marthe, her twin sister. The birth of two girls caused a problem because there was only one cradle. A convenient chest of drawers made a second bed.
Jules, her 42 year old father, was a miner, as were his two sons Léon and Jules, aged 18 and 16. Marie-Adeline Calonne, her 39 year old mother, was a house-maid who lovingly raised their third son Samuel, aged 5.
Jules and Marie-Adeline had been working at the mine from the day of their 10th birthday. From research into the family trees of both the Leroys and Calonnes it is known that their great-great-grandfathers had come from Belgium to be miners in Vieux-Condé (Northern France). The next generations moved to Noeux-les-Mines where Jules and Marie-Adeline married on December 23rd, 1865, and then to Hersin-Coupigny where the opening of pits #2 and #4 gave them work. Being a member of such a nomadic family may explain why Berthe left for America.
Berthe grew up in Hersin. She was only four when her father passed away on September 22nd, 1888. She did not regularly attend the school that the Houillères (colliery) ran inside the very mining town. Having to work as as a housemaid and outdoors as well as the death of her father may explain why she was not a regular pupil. The workers' children and people employed at the mine could attend school until they were eleven. At the end of this school period, many of them sat for an exam called Certificat détudes. Berthe did not.
At the sewing room, the Soeurs de la Charité (Sisters of Charity) taught how to sew and take care of the linen. Most of the girls, aged 12 16, could train there. Berthe did so.
PARIS, A FIRST STEP BEFORE AMERICA
When she was about 19, she left and got a job in Paris, being hired by a family living Avenue du Bois. Among her many occupations there, she ironed linen. In 1904, she was employed by a family named Nattenson. Berthe sometimes mentioned being employed by Sarah Bernhardt as a seamstress but no evidence to support the claim has so far come to light, though this does not prove it to be false.
At the beginning of 1910, Mrs Mahala and Mr. Walter Douglas, an American captain of industry who co-founded the Quaker Oats Company, were staying in Paris. Mrs Douglas asked Berthe to join her staff and the young lady became her Travelling Companion. Berthe made the first of many trips across the Atlantic ocean along with her new employers. At last, she had left France. She would come back for good in 1964, on the liner France.
A new life was dawning for her, a life of hard work, but also a life during which she would roam the USA, Canada, Europe and South America. On many occasions she would come back in Europe, visiting Austria, Switzerland, Russia, Great-Britain or Italy. She experienced some incredible moments; for instance, one day, on a trip to South America, her employers rented a whole train to ferry their party and their things.
In 1911, she sent a letter to her brother Samuel and his wife Sidonie, from Karlsbad (Austria), in which she wrote:
Weve been in Karlsbad for fifteen days and we will stay here another twelve days
before the end of the cure.
I am always very busy with Madame, as for 3 or 4 times a day I have to get a new dress ready, and always a white one.
I do not know where we are going to, Russia or Switzerland. When Mrs Douglas stayed in Paris, Berthe had a few days off she spent visiting her family.
THE TRAGIC CROSSING
In April 1912, the Douglases were on a trip in Europe; they wanted to buy new pieces of furniture for their Lake Minnetonka house. Before leaving for America, they visited American friends in Paris. As Mr. Douglas wanted to celebrate his 53rd birthday at home, in America, the couple had decided not to stay too long in Paris. The first liner sailing from France was the Titanic. The Douglases had a ticket (number PC 17761) purchased at the Parisian offices of the White Star Line. They boarded in Cherbourg, where a strange thing occurred. According to Mrs Douglas, a man who was speaking broken English with the accent of the Basque country told her on the Nomadic that the Titanic was cursed, that she had better disembark in Ireland. Mrs Douglas felt uneasy and sent Berthe after the man. Berthe never could find him, despite Mrs Douglass description. Mr. Douglas laughed and told his wife that the ship was unsinkable. The Douglases occupied cabin number C-86, on C-Deck, and Berthe was in cabin C-138 or C-140). In Queenstown, where the ship stopped on April 11th, Berthe took the opportunity to send her mother a postcard, which would soon become a rather moving memento: I would like to have you visit this wonderful ship, she wrote. Then the giant liner left the Irish coast and began her maiden voyage.
Berthe had vivid memories of a brilliant life on board, of evening parties, gala dinners and special meals held in honour some of the most fortunate passengers. She shared a magnificent first class cabin with another passenger, Augustine (or Augusta, as she chose to be called in America) Serraplan, who was Mrs Lucile Carters personal maid. Life was simply beautiful until the shout: Everybody on deck! rang out.
Berthe stated she heard the noise of the collision with the iceberg, which she first thought was nothing but the rumble of a storm. She was sleeping, Augustine was reading. She did not worry at first. She did not answer the order to leave ship shouted by a sailor who knocked many times at their door. She later admitted, some day in 1966, that she imagined this was a trick from a young man whom, she thought, was rather fond of her and tried to have her open her door. Much later, when she noticed that the ship was tilting forward and because the sailor was insisting at the door, she finally put a dressing gown over her night gown and hurried out of her cabin, with only one slipper on as she could not find the second one, and a lifebelt she found in a cupboard.
The corridors were almost deserted, she remembered. As they were not lighted, she found it difficult to reach the upper deck, finding her path reading the cabin numbers on the brass plaques glinting in the dark.
She hoped she would meet her employers up there.
She was one of the last passengers to leave the liner on the last but one lifeboat, #2. Because of the dark, she did not notice that Mrs Douglas was also in the same boat.
Mr. Archibald Gracie wrote in his book The Truth about the Titanic:
Boat NO 2 :Total: 25. British Report gives this as the seventh boat lowered on the port side at 1.45 a.m. Bade goodbye to wife and sank with ship: Mr. Douglas.
As she boarded #2 after this scene took place, she only learnt of it on the Carpathia. Mrs Douglas was on board, and Mr. Boxhall, the fourth officer, asked her to steer the boat.
Berthe also recalled: "I did not hear the band playing Nearer my god to thee".
She stated that she rowed (which certainly warmed her up a little bit), that much wreckage and many bodies were floating and that when some women cried Pray god, others answered No hope.
She told her family:
As for me, I thought that I would never see my mother again. A ship was somewhere around us when we went down. They certainly saw the rockets fired from the Titanic, but they got away.
SAVED BY THE CARPATHIA
None of the many rockets fired by Mr. Boxhall or the liners Morse messages were noticed by any vessel in the vicinity of the sinking Titanic, if ever there was one. The wireless messages which flickered through the air caught the attention of the Carpathia which changed her route and first met lifeboat #2. It was ten minutes after 4 a.m. Mrs Douglas was the first survivor to set foot on the rescue ship. She hysterically shouted that the Titanic had gone down with hundreds of passengers, and one crew member had to quiet her down. On the Carpathia, Berthe met Mrs Douglas, and both women were given comfort and warmth.
A severe pneumonia altered Berthes health. It took her six weeks before she could somewhat recover. The story in the Leroy family runs this way: Mr. Walter Douglas was picked up from the sea after a long stay in the freezing water. He could not recover and died a few weeks later (1).
In New York, Mrs Douglas and Berthe were met by family and friends and left at once for Minneapolis. The American Red Cross studied Berthes case, #261, and she was given 50 dollars on behalf of the Titanic Relief Fund.
Berthe promised Mrs Douglas to stay with her. She would not leave her until Mrs Douglas passed away, aged 81, in 1945.
On April 16th, 1912, the New York Times published a first list of survivors, among which was one Miss Bertha Lavory. The list was reproduced by an important newspaper from Lille in France. When she read it, Marie-Adeline Leroy stated that she had found her daughters name, knowing Berthe despite the deformed name.
Berthe made many other voyages (2), without meeting a single problem on her way. Yet, she always felt a little bit worried. Berthe once sailed on the Cunarder Lusitania, and she wrote to Samuel, her brother:
Another couple of days on board this ship. It is not too bad a trip but I cannot help feeling a little bit anguished sometimes.
LIFE IN AMERICA
Sometime after she survived the sinking of the Titanic, Berthe escaped another disaster. She was staying at a Florida hotel when a fire broke out. She ran through the flames and escaped the fire a few minutes before the building was ablaze.
Life in America with a patroness such as Mrs Douglas allowed Berthe to become acquainted with modernism. Artists, writers and actors often were Mrs Douglas guests. Berthe told her family that she met, amongst others, Jannet Mac Donald and Walt Disney.
During the sunny months of the year, the bustling city of Minneapolis welcomed her. Continental cold seldom was a nuisance to Berthe. Indeed, the Californian mansion in Pasadena soothed away the winter cold of Minnesota. These two places were where she spent most of her life between 1910 and 1945, the year when Mrs Douglas passed away.
Here are the different addresses noted in Berthes letters:
BERTHE AND GASTON
Gaston Bourlard was born on September 4th, 1886 in Labourse (French Pas-de-Calais department), a town 7 km away from Hersin-Coupigny. He landed in Quebec, Canada, in July 1912, eager to succeed in a new life. He reached the USA aboard the Glasgow and settled in Pomeroy, Ohio, where he was hired as a miner. He bought a land and a house in Pomeroy. He married Alphonsine, a French lady from Auchel, also in the North of France, who died very soon after. He once was employed by Goodyear (3).
One year, just after the First World War, Berthe was in Boston, walking along the quay where her employers private train was stopped; Mrs Douglas was going to have a party and Berthe was asked to hire musicians. As she was looking for musicians in the crowd, she noticed a face she had not seen for years: that of Gaston Bourlard, whom she had known as a boy in the North of France when they both were children. Quest-ce que tu fais là, toi ? (What the hell are you doing here?) was how she welcomed him. She hired him as a musician for the party. Later, they began a serious relationship and married in 1928. Berthe was Dame de Compagnie (travelling companion), Gaston was a butler, both employed by Mrs Douglas. He remained at this post for more than two decades. Berthe used to say that this job was meant for him. He had such an elegant stature.
After Mrs Douglas died, Berthe and Gaston retired to Santa Barbara, California, where they bought a small villa at 2206 Modoc Rd. They regularly left it for the Pomeroy house after travelling a few days on board their Station-Wagon.
Gaston Bourlard was awarded American citizenship on January 14th, 1921 (he had applied for it on November 26th, 1919); as an American citizen, he had always refused to set foot in France again. He seemed to have absolutely forgotten his former nationality. Gaston died on August 15th, 1955; after a long period of ill health. He rests in America, at Santa Barbaras Calvary Cemetery.
Berthe sometimes went back to France, but she became an American citizen on July 14th, 1942.
In 1920 Berthe had a small house built in Hersin-Coupigny, at 65 rue Emile Basly, where she decently housed her mother as well as her sister Marthe, who cared for their weakened mother who suffered from hemiplegics. Marie-Adeline Leroy died on February 17th, 1927. Berthe lost her twin sister Marthe on August 24th, 1951.
During the summer of 1960, Berthe came to visit her family. She was welcomed by her nephews and nieces and their children. I (ML) was among the latter, and many of us had never met her before. We quietly listened to her when she evoked her adventures and were eager to have our questions answered.
Once back in Santa Barbara, she arranged everything to allow her to settle in France for good. She last sailed across the Atlantic on the France from August 8th to 12th, 1964.
For some time, she stayed at a Parisian hotel (4) and even considered moving to the Riviera. But she dreaded the distance from her family and her poor physical condition (bronchitis affection, fragile stomach and intestines) would very quickly have made her a feeble woman. She certainly became aware of it and abandoned the idea. She thought it wiser to dwell at the Sully home for elderly people in Béthune, next to her kin. This is what she did.
She was carried off every time her family popped in for a visit. So were they when they welcomed her on a family meeting. They were very close and kind to her, and as she was very modest, she often uttered Cest trop ! or Too much!
In April 1966, her family arranged a meeting with a friend of hers whom she had met when they were children, a lady from Hersin, of course, Marie Birambaut. That day, they shared memories of events that took place during the seventy years that had elapsed. At the same time, she accepted to answer a journalists questions about the Titanic and her recorded testimony is now available (5).
In the first half of 1967 she suffered a very severe heart attack. Thanks to rest and to a medicinal cure prescribed by a famous cardiologist, she slowly recovered. Her brother carefully looked after her in these hard times and did so until her very last moments.
Her life ended quietly. She passed away on July 4th, 1972 at 4 P.M. after asking for some water she had no time to sip. She gasped twice and her life, which had been at the same time incredibly restless and simple, was put to an end. Her death took place on the Independence Day; maybe was it some kind of allusion to her American citizenship, for she remained an American lady to her death.
Despite the fact that her family was very close to Berthe, many questions still remain unanswered.
(1) In fact, Mr. Walter Douglas body was recovered by the Mackay-Bennett a few weeks after the sinking; his
body, N0 62, was described this way: Male Estimated age, 55 Hair grey, Clothing : Evening dress, with "W.D.D." on shirt.
Effects : Gold watch; chain; sov. case with "W.D.D."; gold cigarette case "W.D.D."; five gold studs; wedding ring on finger
engraved "May 19th '84"; pocket letter case with $551.00 and one £5 note; cards. » First class Name WALTER D. DOUGLAS,
(2) In 1956, she had crossed the Atlantic Ocean 19 times. Here are the dates of some of her other voyages:
Oct. 29th, 1923: bound to Southampton on the Cunarder Aquitania;
May 1927: back to the USA on the Cunarder Berengaria;
Aug. 17th, 1928: bound to Le Havre on the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique Ile de France;
Aug. 11th, 1964: that is when she came back for ever on the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique France.
(3) Karl Howell Behr, a young man who survived the sinking of the Titanic, was a member of the Board of Trade at Goodyear.
(4) Mme Marie-Thérèse Leroy-Boidin told me that Berthe stayed at the Fleury Hotel, rue de Constantinople, in Paris.
(5) Double CD Titanic, survivors in their own voice, 1915-1999, Frémeaux et Associés, France.
Adapted from an article first published in 2001, in Latitude 41, Journal of the Association Française du Titanic.