Isidor Straus: A Point of Psychology


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LukeOwens

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In the transcripts of the U.S. Senate hearings on the Titanic, Hugh Woolner is quoted as saying to Isidor Straus, “I am sure nobody would object to an old gentleman like you getting in.”￾ Straus refused, saying he wouldn't get into a boat before the other men.

No one seems to have caught the implicit insult in Woolner's offer. To Straus, it must have been a slap in the face. There are at least three reasons for this.

Firstly, there is a definite implication that “an old gentleman like you”￾ is not as much a man as someone younger (Woolner was 22 years younger than Straus at the time of the foundering). This would be enough to get a man's back up today, let alone in 1912.

Secondly, Isidor Straus was 67 years old at the time of the sinking. Queen Victoria died in 1901, one month before Straus's 56th birthday. He was a Victorian through and through, though possibly with some Edwardian mannerisms acquired in the previous 11 years. Despite the public view of the Victorian Era as being completely civilized, nothing was further from the truth. The period is known for events like the Ripper murders, the Boer War, the subjugation of India and other outlying portions of the Empire, and so on. To impugn the masculinity of any Victorian man was to take your own life into your hands, no matter the age of the man.

Finally, Straus was a Bavarian Jew. He was used to anti-Semitic statements in his presence throughout his life; these were directed both at others and at himself. At the age of 67 he probably reacted without thinking to the offer, supposing it a slur on his ethnic background.

Whether Woolner meant any of these things is both moot and unimportant. What IS important and debatable is how Straus took the offer. It is my belief that he felt insulted, got his back up, and said, “I will not go before the other men,”￾ simply because he felt the insult deeply, especially from someone he had counted as a friend.

So I imagine that Hugh Woolner's offer, though probably kindly meant, was phrased clumsily (in the heat of the moment rather than from any malice aforethought) and at some level Isidor Straus took offense, refusing to board a lifeboat. And the Strauses died.

I should mention here that someone pointed out to me that Ida Straus's refusal to board a lifeboat (“Where you go, I go!”￾) could as easily be interpreted as a jealous woman's comment as a loving woman's comment. Untrue. By all accounts, the Strauses were a loving couple, enjoying each other's company at all times. For Ida Straus's statement, I go with the traditional (if tacit) explanation that she simply did not wish to live without her beloved Isidor.

The Strauses went down together, the way they lived. As a couple, they should be remembered as loving and happy with their relationship.
 

TimTurner

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Dec 11, 2012
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I think the greater insult would be the implied cowardice: "Nobody will question your honor if you turn yellow, because you've got the excuse of being old to save face".

There could be something there, but I suspect the truth of the matter was that Mr. Straus was simply an honorable man who would not go before the other men, and having lived a full life was not afraid to die when his time came.
 

Adam Went

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Apr 28, 2003
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I agree with Tim. In ordinary circumstances one might possibly be able to read more into Woolner's comment, but in the heat of the moment with the Titanic going down, I highly doubt that either there was any double meanings intended with what he said, and I especially don't believe that Strauss would have analysed it as such at that point in time. It is important to remember that people had a different way of speaking in 1912; what we might take offense to or at least consider to be a facetious comment in 2013 might not be considered so in the Edwardian era.

I believe the Strauss's would have stayed on board in any case.

Cheers,
Adam.
 

Bob Godfrey

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Nov 22, 2002
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I'm about the same age as Strauss was in 1912, and while I couldn't object to being referenced as 'old' I'd be surprised if anyone thought that I looked frail or vulnerable and in need of special consideration. Would Woolner have thought the same of Captain Smith, who was well into his '60s? I'd be very pleased, however, to be described as an 'old gentleman'. Normally I'm referred to as an 'old fart'!
 

Adam Went

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Apr 28, 2003
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Hi Bob,

Perhaps it depends somewhat on the physical appearance of the person the comment is being made to. Some people in their 60's are still quite robust and physically capable, whereas others appear more frail and elderly. But again, I think too much is being read into what would have been at the time, a quick, off-the-cuff remark in a difficult moment.

Cheers,
Adam.
 

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