Mrs Irene Renee Harris


Kyrila Scully

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I'm researching Renee Harris for a script and I'd love everyone's input into information about Renee that isn't readily available in the usual places. I have several books and resources, which have provided a solid foundation. There's a lot I already know about Renee, but I'm looking for rare information that could add personality to my script. Randy, I'm sure you have a lot of anecdotes that might prove useful. Thanks to all of you in advance.

Kyrila
 
Apr 27, 2003
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Kyrila,
See if you can find anything inew in the following:
HARRIS, MRS. IRENE R, (NEE WALLACH). Saved in Lifeboat D. Cabin C83. European address c/o Fraulein Woolf, Kapellenstrasse 81, Wiesbaden. Germany.
(Born 15th June 1876, died 2nd September 1969).
Buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.
Insurance claim number B121. Property: $27,700.
Marconigram sent 18th April 1912 to: Hudson Theatre, New York. ''Am safe, praying that Harry has been picked up by another steamer, arriving Carpathia. - Rene.''
American Inquiry page 887:
One lady (Mrs. Harris) had a broken elbow bone. She was in a white woollen jacket.
Mrs Henry Birkhardt Harris (Irene Wallach), 36, from New York City boarded the Titanic at Southampton with her husband Henry Birkhardt Harris. They occupied cabin C-83 (ticket #36973, £83 9s 6d).
Mrs Harris was rescued in Collapsible D. When she boarded the Carpathia she was accomodated in a cabin vacated by the artist Colin Campbell Cooper and his wife Emma. Mr Campbell would later record the rescue in two paintings.

Best regards

Brian
 

Kyrila Scully

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Thanks, Brian. The forwarding address in Germany is very interesting. Was this a relative of Rene's? I'm curious about Rene's voice... Would she have an accent? What sort? I know her personality was outgoing and she had a good mind for business. I know that Lucy Duff-Gordon had outfitted the stars of their Broadway productions, and that she was good friends with Lily May Futrelle, who was berthed in the cabin across from theirs. (Were they traveling together, I wonder? Or just returning home together?) What would her sling have looked like when she was wearing her evening gown (I have such a dress I made from a design of Lucy's)? I know that she preferred to pronounce her name in the masculine style (REN-ee, rather than ren-NAY), but where did she come from? What was her upbringing? I know she was studying law when she met Henry, and that he spoiled her. Where did she attend school? What were her parents like? Did they approve of her show business lifestyle? What shows were they producing at the time they were on Titanic? I know they were considering a show in London, as a vehicle for one of the actresses in their stable of stars, but did they have any shows currently running on Broadway? Who performed in them? Oh, I have a ton of questions, but as you can see, they go deeper than the information in Walter Lord's books, or Judith Geller's book or Craig Stringer's profile. I want to bring Rene Harris to life when I portray her, and I want to get it right. All suggestions much appreciated.

Kyrila
 

Kyrila Scully

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And if any of you gentlemen can act and are inclined to come to Orlando for the anniversary memorial and would like to portray Henry B., I'd be delighted to make your acquaintance and put our heads together for the event.

Kyrila
 
Mar 20, 2000
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Hi, Kyrila:

First of all, as I've mentioned elsewhere, "Rene" is how she preferred to spell her name in 1912. She reverted to the French feminine spelling only after 1933. It's been suggested that she was naive and unschooled and didn't realize she was using the wrong spelling for a woman. I don't think this is true. I believe she chose the spelling on purpose. She was highly intelligent. In fact, she would have been a lawyer had she not married Harry, as she called him. His career became her own, quite literally in fact, following his death.

Much of what I have on Rene is going into my article so I can't cite specific facts and stats but I can give you an overview of her personality and some anecdotal pointers for how you can flesh her out in your script. I have to thank Don Lynch, though, for supplying most of the documents I'm drawing on for my study of her. Without the virtual archive he shared with me, I wouldn't be able to tell her story accurately.

In a word, "fiery" would best describe Rene Harris, a truly incredible lady. She was a whirlwind of energy and brooked no interference in her work or private life. She spoke her mind always, usually with tact and grace, but with notable exceptions. She showed extraordinary courage (not just in the personal travail she suffered in losing her husband) but in her career.

She spoke up in behalf of actors during their famous strike, severing ties with other managers and producers, and in fact resigned from the board of the theatre consortium (of which she was the only woman member, known as "The Skirt") to show her solidarity with the artists.

During this same time (World War I), it was Rene who organized the first troupe of performers to entertain soldiers overseas and out of this inspired effort was born the USO tours.

In addition to producing plays and managing her theatres (three of them with interest in others), she managed the careers of many performers who went on to greatness.

She had a wide circle of influential friends on Broadway but almost as many enemies. She had to fight to be counted and took to task many bigwigs who tried to impede her.

Despite a close friendship with George M. Cohan, whose greatest hits took place in her theatres, the pair had a falling out over a play of his that Rene refused to book, telling him it "stunk." He never forgave her.

Rene once fought with David Belasco for rights to represent Dame Judith Anderson (whom she discovered) and made the great showman submit to her terms in a management deal.

She took broadcaster Walter Winchell to task when he accused her of barring him from her theatre because he criticized one of her plays. She also had a long-standing public feud with Variety magazine, which published erroneous stories in retaliation, including a claim that Rene was a racist and refused to book black acts (which is untrue; I have found she booked a play with an entire black cast and also gave initial exposure to Fats Waller in her productions).

Despite her fierce, headstrong personality, she was by all accounts a charming, vibrant, hysterically witty woman with a great sense of fairness and duty. She was also colorful and eccentric, but without being loopy. She cursed, smoked, often drank too much, yet did it with such class that no one ever doubted she was anything but a lady.

Rene was superstitious (carrying a yellow handkerchief for good luck to every premier) and cut a striking figure on opening nights as well, dressed in black, with a string of pearls and a mink coat.

She adored men and flirted with abandon. Although a small woman and not classically pretty, she was very attractive to men and had many admirers. Everyone seemed to remember her smile and her wisecracks. She liked pulling pranks on friends and was a good sport when the joke was on her. And here's a neat bit of trivia - she was shamelessly hooked on crossword puzzles and was a fanatic about listening to the radio. She'd sent a visitor away if a program was coming on that she wanted to hear.

In her old age she had this to say about her life: "I have been able to laugh, often to hide the tears, but for the most part I have been able to laugh with real glee." I think that really shows her resilient nature and positive attitude.

But there's another quote that I think sums up her irreverent personality. Asked at a party about her many marriages, Rene replied: "My first husband was a Jew, my second was half French-half Irish, the third was a yankee and the fourth was a son-of-a-bitch."

Randy
 

Kyrila Scully

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Oh, Randy! I knew I could count on you. I'll have to get a yellow handkerchief to tuck into my sling. I almost hate to cover up Lucy's gown with a sling, because it's so beautiful, but in keeping with the truth, Rene did break her arm and wear a sling to dinner the night the Titanic struck the berg. Should I make the sling to match the gown, or would you know of anything different I should do with it? I haven't made it yet, so I'm open to ideas.
I suspect Rene used the masculine spelling of her name in order to avoid preconceptions as she tried to make her way in a man's world. Much as female doctors would use their initials instead of their names so their applications wouldn't be thrown out as they applied to medical school, etc. I'm interested in knowing what kind of voice I should use... I have George's mother's voice (from Seinfeld) in my head. Somebody stop me! Or save me! LOL

Kyrila
 
Mar 20, 2000
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Kyrila's questions:

"...I'm curious about Rene's voice... Would she have an accent? ..."

She was from Washington, D.C. but acquired the bravado, if not the accent, of a New Yorker. A member of this board, Gregg Jasper, was a friend of hers and if he sees this thread, he can tell you what her accent was like, if she had one that was noticeable.

"...I know that Lucy Duff-Gordon had outfitted the stars of their Broadway productions, and that she was good friends with Lily May Futrelle, who was berthed in the cabin across from theirs..."

Lucy actually only dressed a few of Rene's shows and only one of Harry's. They were friends, however, until Lucy's book came out and Rene got mad at her about some of her statements regarding American women on the Titanic. Interestingly, neither Lucy DG nor May Futrelle are mentioned in any of Rene's private papers, letters or in her memoir.

"...(Were they traveling together, I wonder? Or just returning home together?)..."

They were not travelling together on purpose. Harry and Rene were coming back early from their London business trip in order to attend a "roast" for a friend at the Lamb's Club in New York. They had also been to North Africa during their trip. I believe they had been abroad since Nov. 1911.

"...What would her sling have looked like when she was wearing her evening gown..."

I have no idea but Rene's broken arm definitely made her a hit with passengers. I think in her 1932 article for Liberty magazine, she mentions everyone crowding about her to console her in the restaurant on April 14. By the way, Rene had a "clumsy" steak. She had previously fractured her wrist and before that had broken an ankle, slipping on wet pavement.

"...What was her upbringing?..."

She had a modest, middle class upbringing. Her father, who ran a jewelry store on Pennsylvania Ave (between 13th and 14th Streets), died when she was young. She had nine brothers and sisters. She was the seventh child. The family was Jewish by heritage but not by faith. She was born in a house on Indiana Avenue, where the family lived for some time.

"...Where did she attend school?..."

She doesn't say in her memoir and it's not mentioned in any letters that I have seen. But she got her first job as secretary for Rep. John Wesley Gaines of Tennessee, who was on the Ways and Means Committee. From his letters to her, the two seem to have had an affair (platonic), which may have prompted her moving to New York in 1899. There, Rene got a job as secretary for Dahlberg-Kerngood Attorneys and while working there began taking "clerkship examinations."

"...What were her parents like?..."

Rene had few memories of her father to relate but she recalls fond things about her mother, who appears to have been a very doting, kindly, simple woman who was proud of her big family.

"...Did they approve of her show business lifestyle? ..."

The family fell in love with Harry Harris as much as Rene did so they were very supportive of her helping him in his work. They were just happy that she got married as there had been some concern that she wouldn't.

"...What shows were they producing at the time they were on Titanic?..."

There were several touring companies of Harris shows on the road at the time of the Titanic sinking in addition to Harry's Broadway offerings, most notably "The Quaker Girl," with Ina Claire in her debut starring role. This was a huge hit, which the Harrises needed as they were in financial straits owing to the collapse of Harry's "Folies Bergere" project. (BTW: Ina Claire wore Lucile dresses in "The Quaker Girl.")

"...I know they were considering a show in London, as a vehicle for one of the actresses in their stable of stars..."

Harry was buying rights to several London shows and arranging for the London appearance of his star Rose Stahl in a production. He was also "acquiring an option" to show the movie "The Miracle." Harry's last interview was given to "The London Standard" just before he left on Titanic.

Sit tight Kyrila, my article is nearly finished and many of your questions will be answered. I think it will be an eye-opener for many. The stuff I've found on Rene Harris has certainly fascinated (and surprised) me.
 

Kyrila Scully

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Oh, goodie, goodie, goodie! The show is in April on the anniversary of Titanic striking the berg, so I now have lots of stuff to incorporate into my character portrayal. Thank you, luv! You're the best!

Kyrila
 
Jun 11, 2000
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If she got through four husbands, I think her family were worrying needlessly about her marriage potential. Assuming Harry was the first husband, what happened to the other three? Didn't Walter Lord used to visit her when she was old and penniless, and take her some caviare, which she used to charmingly spurn on the grounds of quality?
 
Mar 20, 2000
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Hi, Monica:

You wrote: "If she got through four husbands, I think her family were worrying needlessly about her marriage potential."

I'm sorry I wasn't very clear about that. The family wasn't worried that she didn't have marriage potential. It's just she was very headstrong and independent and they feared she wouldn't be interested in ever getting married.

"...Assuming Harry was the first husband, what happened to the other three? ..."

Harry was her first husband but she was not his first wife. I haven't tracked down what happened to her ex-husbands, though others here may have. She was divorced from all three. She speaks very little about them in her "book" except to make jokes about them. She had no children by Harry or any other of her husbands but No. 4 had a daughter whom she remained close with after the divorce.

"...Didn't Walter Lord used to visit her when she was old and penniless, and take her some caviare, which she used to charmingly spurn on the grounds of quality?..."

He did visit her often and kept in touch by phone and letter. I am not sure she was as poor in her last days as he described but she certainly wasn't living in a manner anywhere near her former grand lifestyle.

Randy
 

Inger Sheil

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Kyrila, in addition to what Randy and Brian have written, I don't know if you've read much of the background on Harris' relationship with Harold Lowe. In the wake of the disaster she developed a tremendous respect for the Fifth Officer. This extended to a May 1912 interview in which she first characterised him as 'The Real Hero of the Titanic'. He refused to accept a monetary reward from her on the Carpathia or in New York, but she later achieved the recognition for him that she desired by sending him a set of nautical equipment. In her 1932 Liberty magazine article she characterised him as one of the finest men she had ever met. Her name was one of the few Titanic names that I found in his personal address book.

If you need information on any of these points I'd be happy to elaborate.
 
Mar 20, 2000
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Inger is definitely the one to go to for information on the Harris-Lowe connection, which I have not shared here as it's one of the more special (and by that I mean emotional) parts of her story. Lowe's gentle solicitude to Rene whose plight affected him deeply, is one of the most beautiful testaments to the high calibre of manhood representing the White Star Line.

Rene's admiration for Lowe's bravery and the extent to which she proved it publicly are also extremely touching. I only hope my words can do justice to this very moving chapter in her life. Only with the help of researchers like Inger, George Behe, Don and others, do I feel equipped to attempt as indepth a story as I've undertaken with Rene.
 

Kyrila Scully

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Oh, do tell! You've whetted my appetite, now. Although my part in the memorial will basically take place prior to the crash, it's always interesting to know the backstory and forwardstory of the person you portray.

Kyrila
 

Vicki Logan

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Randy, your information on Rene is wonderful, and I can't wait to read your article. Kyrila I hope you will post a picture of you wearing the dress from Lucy's design. Have a wonderful time at your Titanic Anniversary. Sounds wonderful!
Vicki
 

Kyrila Scully

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Well, I'll give it a try. This photo is from last year. The costume was designed from a painting by Ken Marschall of the Grand Staircase, which you can see in the book, Titanic An Illustrated History on page 51. After I completed the gown, Randy informed me that Lucy Duff-Gordon had designed the original gown that inspired the illustration in the painting.

Kyrila
85562.jpg
 

Pat Winship

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I have always been intrigued by the fact that Rene described Harold Lowe as being six feet tall, which Harold was not-- not even close.

Did she actually see him as a tall fellow herself, or was she "cutting the cloth to fit the corner news stand?"

Pat W
 

Vicki Logan

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Thank you Kyrila! Picture looks great. Your Titanic event looks to be a wonderful event from what I've read on previous posts. Have a wonderful time. I would love to see more pictures if you can post. Thanks again, Vicki Logan
 
Mar 20, 2000
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David:

You're right, Don's story is a good one. I have quoted him in the article as well as quoted the original source (which he supplied). It may be one of the sweetest and funniest first meetings I have heard of. Their last moments together, after Harry had handed her into boat D and knelt down beside her to comfort her, patting her head and whispering words of encouragement, were all the more poignant by his recalling that first special meeting.

Kyrila:

Great photo. I don't think I ever saw this one. Are you still the "Titanic Lady" out there in Florida? I have followed with much interest all the press you have gotten. Do the papers do a feature on you every week or what?! I think it's great what you are doing to keep the history of Titanic's passengers and crew alive for your audiences.

As to the Lucile dress depicted in Ken's painting, I may be getting my sources mixed up but I think I recall Don saying that he and Ken went to the V&A to see the original of that dress, which is on permanent display there (or was!)and that it was that visit that inspired him to illustrate that gown. The original, which was designed by Lucile for socialite Heather Firbank (sister of novelist Ronald Firbank), is a very simple cream and black but Ken reinterpreted it as a more eye-popping rose color.

Vickie:

We need to get together some day soon when I am down Austin way!

Pat:

In Rene's eyes Harold was as tall as a mountain, and that's understandable. He was her hero. Rene was also quite tiny so he may have just seemed larger to her than he was. And of course she knew how to tell a story!

Randy
 

Vicki Logan

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Randy, when do you think you will publish your article. I look forward to reading it! Let me know when you get down this way. Love to see you again and visit.
Vicki
 

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