Reviewed by Inger Sheil
Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage takes its title from Mark Twain’s famous observation that enduringly characterised an era, and the reference is an apt one. “The Gilded Age” is a powerful descriptive of a period in which surface patina could disguise a base metal core, and while Hugh Brewster’s book is an affectionate look at a particular age and the diverse class that inhabited it, it is not an uncritical one. The lives of the first class passengers Brewster writes about might indeed seem lustrous on the surface, but he delves beneath the gilt of wealth and social status to reveal a network of complex stories that often overlap and intertwine in the twilight years of the Belle Époque.
While stories of the lives of many of the wealthy and famous in 1912 had a similar appeal for the public as modern celebrities do today, Brewster centres much of his evocation of the voyage on those first class passengers who were “hardworking high achievers” rather than merely famous (or infamous) for wealth and social status, individuals such as Frank Millet and Archie Butt. Brewster interrogates Lady Duff Gordon’s statement that the Titanic was “a small world bent on pleasure”, noting that while the leisured rich were certainly a contingent on board, so too were the hard workers and innovators like Charles Hays. His stated aim is to delve beyond ‘tags like “millionaire John Jacob Astor,” “crusading journalist W. T. Stead,” and “fashion designer Lady Duff Gordon”’, and in this he succeeds, choosing illustrative anecdotes from their lives, casting light on the society and experiences that moulded them. He explores beyond the romantic or colourful elements that usually dominate retellings of the disaster, like Astor’s controversial divorce and remarriage, to look at details that inform our knowledge of social history, such as the Astor fortune’s links to slum ownership.
The stories of Butt and Millet form a thread to follow through the complex set of dramatis personae inhabiting the pages, a helpful device as not only the first class cabin occupants but crew and passengers from the other classes wind through the story. The emphasis on these two friends as a linking element in the text has its potential pitfalls, as neither man survived the disaster and details of their precise movements during the final voyage and the sinking can at times be obscure, but thanks to the wealth of documentation the author utilises regarding their lives, including their own correspondence up to sailing and the recollections of the many on board who knew them, they function effectively as focal points through which to examine the world Brewster explores, a society not restricted to the ship but spanning the Old and New Worlds.
Between them, the attaché and the artist represent a formidable array of social, political and cultural connections in the United States and Europe, and guide us through political events such White House controversies and the impending 1912 presidential campaign, the cultural zeitgeist and predominating neo-classicism in art, sub-cultural groups such as the homosexual circles both have been linked to (sometimes very speculatively) and the scandals of the age such as the murder of Stanford White. The resulting overview of the period takes us beyond the summary that forms the background to the first class in most Titanic books attempting an overview of the disaster, and the subject matter is more than interesting enough to merit the close scrutiny the author gives it.
Inevitably in this milieu we are introduced to such well known characters as John Jacob Astor IV, an icon of affluence in his own age who endures as such in modern Titanic literature, but it is the dynamic achievers and personalities of the Gilded Age who largely dominate the narrative, men like Millet, Butt, Jacques Futrelle, women like Lucile Duff-Gordon and René Harris. Many of the stories and sources Brewster draws on will be familiar to the students of Titanic biography, but with a wealth of detail re-contextualising them as they are in this book, even some of the more well-known accounts can benefit from being revisited.
The fashions they favoured, the physical spaces they occupied on the Titanic, their significant or insignificant preoccupations, their thoughts on each other – all these components add rich texture to the text. Brewster’s style is lively and accessible without falling prey to sensationalism, which is particularly welcome given the sometimes sensational and dramatic material he covers. If there is a flaw at all I would suggest that it is in the sheer familiarity of some of the stories and images that have been used extensively in Titanic titles, but given that these figures have been the subject of public fascination at least since (and in many cases, before) the disaster, it is unsurprising that these should have been given such exposure. In many instances, such as Margaret Brown’s well-known (and often highly dramatized) story, it would be a notable gap if she were not included. For those new to the subject, the detail on these lives would be welcome when so many texts introduce them with a few, often repetitive, descriptive adjectives.
A welcome window into an age, and an engaging portrait of a class and the individuals who gave it colour and character.