Miss May Rule Birkhead was born in Louisiana, Missouri, USA on 14 March 1882. She was the only child of William W. Birkhead, a dentist, and Laura Rule, both natives of Missouri.
The Birkhead family, although comfortable if not wealthy, were well-connected; her maternal uncle Virgil Rule was a judge and her parents were close friends to Champ Clark and his family, a member of the US House of Representatives; May was best friends with his daughter, Genevieve Clark; through that relationship Miss Birkhead had come into the acquaintance of James Gordon Bennett Jr, publisher of the New York Herald. By 1912 Miss Birkhead, a talented seamstress that earned her a modest income through the creation of waists, lived with her widowed mother at North Third Street, Louisiana
Miss Birkhead was a first cabin passenger on the Carpathia, accompanying her maternal aunt Susan Eva Rule for six-month vacation in Europe. Once the survivors of the Titanic were rescued May’s modiste abilities were put to excellent use and she took towels, curtains and table cloths to fashion temporary garments for the unfortunates, many who were scantily clad.
Her publishing acquaintance, James Gordon Bennett, knew she was aboard and cabled her to have a story ready once the ship had docked in New York. Miss Birkhead—although having never written professionally before—delivered. When the Carpathia docked in New York a cab was waiting for her and her story and the result was published in the New York Herald on 19 April 1912, the first national newspaper to deliver such a story:
It was half-past four on the morning of Monday, April 15, when I was awakened by much rushing around of hasty footsteps on deck above, just over my head. I got out and on deck by five and was greeted with a most beautiful sight of icebergs on every side—some of much greater dimensions than the ship, and then some-baby ones-all beautiful white in the calm sea and glittering sun, a most impressive view, but one that turned from gorgeous beauty to sickening pangs when I learned the great disaster one had caused.
The sea was dotted with tiny lifeboats from the Titanic, and much to my amazement there was one at our side and our sailors were pulling the passengers up onto our deck with ropes. Some were so cold it was impossible for them to climb the ladders and had to be put in bags to be hauled up. Then I heard one, then another woman calling for her husband—husbands who have never yet appeared…
Miss Birkhead’s account proved to be a sensation and on the back of it she became the Paris fashion and general correspondent for the New York Herald and other papers. Making her home in Paris but with frequent trips to the USA, during WWI Miss Birkhead achieved another lucky break when General John J. Pershing arrived in Paris she discovered that they both came from the same county in Missouri; the two got along famously and the General frequently gave her exclusive stories.
Miss Birkhead, who never married, remained in Paris and was there when the Nazis invaded the city; she reported on those events, noting how the aggressors were stripping the city of valuables and leaving it a ghost town. She and some acquaintances fled the capital in July 1940, managing to cross the Spanish border and then travel into Portugal on their route back to the USA.
May Birkhead made her home in New York City and died there on 27 October 1941 aged 59 (although she had convinced everybody else that she was only 55) and was buried four days later in Riverview Cemetery, Louisiana, Missouri.