The musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown made Margaret Brown more famous than she was in real life, but the fiction it perpetuated began much earlier. Randy Bryan Bigham explores the beginning of the Molly Brown myth.
Although Kristen Iversen’s 1999 biography Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth is the most thorough to date, documenting Margaret Brown’s commendable contributions to charitable, political and social causes, especially her support of women’s rights and children’s welfare, the book dismisses much of the flamboyant aspects of her personality which caused her good works to be so often overshadowed. Margaret was an extraordinary combination of compassion and arrogance, sincerity and showiness, intelligence and vanity whose life straddled the line between the noble and the ridiculous. She was not quite the caricature painted by the media, stage and screen, but there was a nodding acquaintance with it in the real Margaret Brown. She was, in fact, a magnificent cross between the serious-minded woman described by Iversen and the flashy, brash figure inhabited by Debbie Reynolds.
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That Broadway and Hollywood have slickly defined the legend of Molly Brown to the world is true, but it didn’t start there. It was the press that created the momentum upon which authors and producers constructed the romantic heroine whose exploits are known to all today through the stage and film musical based on the life of Margaret Tobin Brown (1867-1932).
Meredith Willson and Richard Morris wrote The Unsinkable Molly Brown. The original musical enjoyed a two-year New York run (1960-62), winning a Tony Award for Tammy Grimes in the title role. Later, it became a popular Academy Award-nominated MGM motion picture (1964) in which Debbie Reynolds starred.
The play and movie were clever and funny, but Willson and Morris didn’t introduce many of the situations with which so many fans are now familiar. The men mostly built on the colorful chapter about Margaret Brown in 1933’s Timberline by Gene Fowler, a bestselling fictionalized history of the Denver Post in the days of the Gold Rush. Some have attributed the genesis of the Margaret Brown myth entirely to Fowler’s characterization of her as a swaggering, swearing, gun-toting Western lass. Initial use of the nickname “Molly,” which Margaret actually never used, has also usually been traced to Fowler’s book, published the year after her death.
The popular press and Gene Fowler
When Margaret allegedly took charge of the lifeboat in which she was saved from the Titanic, winning for her the notoriety that would define her life, Fowler claimed she did so with a pistol while wearing only underwear, having distributed her outer clothing among the freezing women and children who were in the boat with her.
“At times, when the morale of passengers was at its lowest, she would sing,” Fowler wrote, adding that she told her shipwrecked companions, ‘“The damned critics say I can’t sing… Well, just listen to this.’” According to Fowler’s hyperbole, Molly then proceeded to sing “from various operas” in the middle of the ocean.
Some of Fowler’s depictions of the Denver millionairess and her alleged antics stem from a bountiful imagination, but a good deal of the high jinx attributed to her date to sensationalized feature stories that had been widely syndicated in Margaret’s lifetime.
One in particular appeared in national newspapers in March 1925. “Fire and Water Adventures of a Millionaire’s Gadabout Widow” was the title of this full-page, illustrated piece that appeared in papers affiliated with the International Features Service. Interestingly, Fowler was once employed as a reporter for that agency; might he have penned the outrageous account? The story that embellished the dramatic incidents of Margaret’s life was inspired by another tragedy she had survived that year, the Breakers Hotel fire in Palm Beach. She was called “The Salamander Lady” in the article for her lucky streak and her exploits were compared to silent screen daredevil Pearl White. The account (appearing only a few days after the fire) claimed Margaret survived by dressing so hurriedly she put on one pink stocking and one blue one under her nightgown, calmly walked down the stairs, sticking some cash into a glove as she descended.
Much of what would later constitute the legend of Molly Brown is contained in the 1925 feature: from surviving a tornado as a child (the winds supposedly tossed her into a river from which she was plucked by Mark Twain) to her much-vaunted feat of “manning a lifeboat” amid the “pandemonium” of the Titanic’s sinking. The story concluded with Margaret telling her interviewer that her recent escape from death by fire was really nothing special. “After all I have been through, you can’t blame me if it seemed just a bit routine. I wonder what’s going to happen next?”
How Margaret became Molly
And what of the Molly appellation? Fowler didn’t invent it, either. It also can be traced to tabloid journalism during Margaret’s life to at least the year 1929.
Probably the first time the nickname was used was in another syndicated feature. Taking up half a page in newspapers’ magazine sections, it was titled “The Adventurous Widow Brown to Seek New Fame in Roles of Bernhardt.” It largely concerned her reputed desire to perform on the French stage in parts played by the late actress.
Datelined Paris early in 1929, the article’s author wasn’t cited but it appears it was this unnamed writer who first claimed Margaret’s name was “Mollie.”
“The picturesque widow started life as Mollie Tobin,” claimed the piece.
Margaret, or Mollie, is referred to in the article as an “eccentric” and a “social climber.” This appears to be the truth, judging by column entries by Cholly Knickerbocker and other chroniclers of New York City high life, although the fact is played down in Kristen Iversen’s otherwise thorough biography of Margaret Brown. However, Margaret is praised in the 1929 article for her benevolence, another aspect of the musical Molly that has become iconic.
“While seeking social honors and studying assiduously to overcome the handicap imposed by lack of education,” the story read, “she had the grace to remember her friends of less fortunate days and her philanthropies are many… She has spent much of her time in New York, Newport and the Florida resorts and in world travel. She thinks it an achievement that, having been born Mollie Tobin, she can now consort with royalty.” The latter claim may be an exaggeration of her social connections. But she did number members of European nobility among her friends and family (her sister, in fact, married a German aristocrat).
The inconvenient Molly
While the studious, humanitarian Margaret Brown has been reclaimed, the flighty, sometimes boastful woman she also was has been largely suppressed. Perhaps it’s only fair following so many years of utter mistruths. The personality traits have yet to be completely melded in a book about this remarkable figure; to document the embarrassing gaffes that dogged Margaret has perhaps not been attempted in order not to tarnish the image of the strong, self-motivated woman that she certainly was. While the extent to which the truth that the admirable coincided with the fallible in Margaret’s life lies beyond the scope of this article, it’s important to state that the view of her as a total success, conquering the heights of society, was not the only opinion (or even the dominant one) during her life.
Cholly Knickerbocker was the pseudonym of gossip writer Maury Paul; his column “Tattle-Tales” was followed and feared for more than a generation in New York. While he could be scathing, he at least told the truth about what many people were saying and doing in the smartest reaches of society at the time, whether or not what they said and did were right.
“That she was a social fake no one will deny,” he wrote of Margaret some years after she died. “But even the lady’s most severe critics will admit she never was guilty of being dull or unoriginal. And I have never believed Mrs. J. J. Brown didn’t know all the time that society in New York, Newport, London, Paris, etc., were laughing ‘at’ her and not ‘with’ her. She went merrily along on the theory ‘tis better to be laughed at than to go unnoticed.”
Over the years of her greatest social activity just before and during World War I, Margaret’s troubles rivaled her triumphs. When she sent out an announcement that she would be entertaining the Duke of Westminster on his visit to Newport in 1919, the nobleman had to admit he “didn’t know a Mrs. James J. Brown and certainly couldn’t have accepted an invitation to visit her.”
Of her earlier rescue from the Titanic, Knickerbocker wrote it was “a tale she would recount at the drop of a hint,” adding that she “held forth so frequently, vocally and in print” on the disaster that she became known as “Mrs. Titanic Brown.” One of the Titanic stories Margaret told most often was that she escaped in the same lifeboat as Eleanor Widener and Madeleine Astor. Privately, Widener and Astor probably denied this, as even then it was generally known not to be true, but manners apparently prevented both ladies from publicly contradicting her.
Margaret’s “penchant for publicity” and “flinging important names about” did get her attention and a number of socialites in Newport went “into gales of laughter” at her colorful storytelling. But her lack of decorum hurt her ultimately when at a luncheon in the early 1920s for “the dowager Mrs. Vanderbilt” (Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt) Margaret told her hostess and fellow guests that “with the aid of piano accompaniment she would yodel for them.” The impromptu concert was a flop, Mrs. Vanderbilt excusing herself and other ladies following her lead so that Margaret was unable to present the encore she had planned.
Even in her later years, toward the end of the ‘20s, Margaret’s sense of humor remained intact although it seems others were seldom in on the joke. In addition to issuing press releases that she wanted to become an actress, she claimed to be engaged to a titled Frenchman but got caught in the lie when reporters found out that no such title existed. She couldn’t resist telling stories and behaving unconventionally, a propensity that seems harmless today but wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm by the set she cared to move in.
“It cannot be denied she gave society an amusing time,” Knickerbocker recalled, “even though she was, judged from all angles, a burlesque of a social leader.”
The Molly myth
Although newspapers started the legend of Mollie/Molly Brown, it was indeed Gene Fowler’s book Timberline that touched off a literary trend that led to the performing arts hits that would carry Margaret’s story to millions around the world. The sobriquet “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown” had possibly been around since shortly after the Titanic disaster (and was definitely in use by 1923), but it was the chapter by that name in Timberline that made it stick. The chapter was serialized in papers across the country and its popularity led to a novel, Lewis Graham and Edwin Olmstead’s The Unsinkable Mrs. Jay, which was not only well-reviewed but earned the attention of Hollywood as did Fowler’s book.
Helen Goeddel in The Pittsburgh Post penned an especially positive review of The Unsinkable Mrs. Jay, a title surprisingly little known among Titanic memorabilia collectors. She knew the book was drawn “slightly from fact and largely from fiction,” but found it “splendid,” praising the authors for accomplishing the “gigantic task of building a memorial” to this “forerunner of modern womanhood’s ideals and individualism.” In The Unsinkable Mrs. Jay, Margaret Tobin Brown became Molly Moynahan Jay.
“Constantly climbing by her own strength and the power of her personality,” Goeddel wrote, “she reached the pinnacle of all her chosen fields – art, literature, society – without becoming an autocrat and without forgetting her humble origin.” Margaret’s triumphs as a celebrity were exaggerated, but her robust spirit was captured. The reviewer found the book’s treatment of the Titanic disaster “epic in itself” and concluded that the tale of her daring escapades “leaves us breathless, gasping, ‘What a woman!’”
While Timberline was published earlier, it may have been The Unsinkable Mrs. Jay that attracted Hollywood before Fowler’s chapter started making the rounds there. A June 1934 New York column by Charles Hastings claimed that “it is stated on unimpeachable authority that one of the authors, the said ‘Lewis Graham,’ is none other than Lou Goldberg, a publicity expert in charge of the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre.” Whether Graham was really Goldberg isn’t known, and if his inside connections helped him along the path to Tinseltown, interest there in his book never surpassed the appeal of Timberline.
By the end of 1934, talk of a movie about Margaret Brown based on Fowler’s Timberline chapter was being mentioned on various entertainment pages. Metro Goldwyn Mayer supposedly owned Timberline, but Paramount “was trying to buy rights to the Unsinkable Mrs. Brown chapter” as a vehicle for Mae West. The idea fizzled, according to gossip, when West learned the studio originally had conceived of it as a slapstick comedy with Marie Dressler in the title role. “Mae is burning,” one writer wrote, “because she considers that a subtle form of criticism.”
As both books continued in popularity, the familiar slogan “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” emerged in the press by 1935. However, Fowler’s chapter, now a script, was still called “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown.” Columnist and radio broadcaster Walter Winchell recommended it in a piece he did about books and plays he thought should become movies. “I’d produce Gene Fowler’s Timberline immediately, which is chockful of grand stories,” he said. “The first chapter I’d do would be The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown. Is it good? Pardon me for repeating myself. It’s merely wonderful.”
Molly on radio and TV
For all the success of the book Timberline, as a motion picture nothing seemed to materialize. Eventually, Fowler wrote “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown” as a radio play, but even that seemed to go nowhere. It wasn’t until 1942, nine years after the book was published and his story of Margaret Brown, in particular, became such a hit with the public, that it aired as a radio program.
It was presented by CBS on Dec. 20, 1942 as part of the Radio Reader’s Digest show with none other than Helen Hayes, already lionized as “the first lady of the American theatre,” portraying Margaret/Molly. It was a success and a year later it was presented again by CBS with another Broadway legend, Tallulah Bankhead, in the role.
“Tallulah Bankhead must love the mike, because the mike, in turn, is certainly good to her,” cooed the New York Daily News of May 3, 1943. “Her husky throatiness, her rich depths of emotion and her glowing vitality combined in a memorable performance.”
Unfortunately, this episode is lost, so the visual in the mind’s eye of Bankhead as Molly, stripped down to a petticoat and running a lifeboat with a gun, is all that can be enjoyed. Hayes’ 1942 skit is also lost, but luckily her reprisal of the role for NBC’s Cavalcade of America program in 1946 survives today.
The show premiered May 6. The following advertisement ran in national newspapers that day:
Helen Hayes in ‘The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown’ finds a role different than any she has yet portrayed. Tonight is a thrilling radio drama on the Du Pont Cavalcade of America. Miss Hayes brings to life a fabulous woman who sees her fortune go up in flames, her boat go down in a shipwreck, only to become great through dauntless faith and rollicking good humor. Listen and thrill to Helen Hayes in Cavalcade of America tonight at 6.
Margaret Brown continued to fascinate after the radio plays ran their course, but it was still far in the future that Fowler’s dream of a movie would come to fruition. The newspapers continued to feature excerpts from the Timberline chapter about his irrepressible Molly, as did Coronet magazine in 1949, the same year The American Weekly told of her exploits in a series called “The Heartbreaks of Society,” again mixing fact with irresistible fiction. In 1955, Margaret’s story made it into Walter Lord’s best-selling account of the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember, while her name and photograph, along with the usual exaggerations of her heroism, sold U.S. Savings Bonds in full-page ads in Life magazine.
Finally in 1957, the script Fowler wrote was filmed – but it wasn’t for the big screen. It appeared on the Telephone Time television show, narrated by John Nesbitt. It starred Cloris Leachman as Molly, although that name was changed to the equally erroneous Maggie. (Leachman would play Margaret again in the 1979 movie S.O.S. Titanic)
“Similar to other Titanic-related shows of the decade, Telephone Time’s ‘Unsinkable Mrs. Brown’ borrowed extensively from the 1943 Nazi propaganda film Titanic and a few scenes had to be dubbed in English,” said Gregg Jasper who is researching the impact of the Titanic on the media in the 1950s. “Among the myths perpetrated by this presentation were that Margaret Brown ‘…took charge of one of the lifeboats, and is credited with bringing it and its passengers to safety’ (declared in the TV Guide listing) and that Captain Smith related to the ship’s passengers that the Titanic was ‘…certain to pick up The Blue Riband’ (quoted from the show).”
The author of the book chapter that delighted the country drew so much of his story from the tabloid press of the day, but it was Fowler’s dedication to telling that story that brought it to radio and TV. While ultimately it would conquer the stage and motion pictures, he didn’t live to see either the play or the film of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Gene Fowler died in 1960, only a few months before his beloved caricature of Margaret Brown bowed to Broadway.
I want to thank Gregg Jasper and Mike Poirier for their assistance in providing research material, including films, photographs and archival documents.
Bancroft, Caroline, The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown, Boulder: Johnson Books, 1963.
Fowler, Gene, “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown,” Coronet, October 1949, pp. 116-121.
_____. Timberline, New York: Covici-Friede, 1933.
Herndon, Booton, “The Heartbreaks of Society: The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown,” The American Weekly, April 17, 1949, pp. 6-7.
Iversen, Kristen, Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, Boulder: Johnson Books, 1999.
Lord, Walter, A Night to Remember, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1955.
The San Francisco Examiner, “The Adventurous Widow Brown to Seek New Fame in Roles of Bernhardt,” March 24, 1929, n.p.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, “Fire and Water Adventures of a Millionaire’s Gadabout Widow,” May 3, 1925, n.p.
Whitacre, Christine, Molly Brown: Denver’s Unsinkable Lady, Denver: Historic Denver, 1988.
The New York Daily News, The New York Sun, The New York Tribune, The Boston Herald, The Rocky Mountain News, The Pittsburgh Post, The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Brooklyn Times Union.
Images courtesy of the author, Gregg Jasper and Mike Poirier.