by Lady Duff Gordon
"A great liner stealing through the vast loneliness of the Atlantic, the sky jeweled with stars, and a thin wind blowing ever colder straight from the ice-fields, tapping its warning of approaching danger on the cozily shuttered portholes of the cabins, causing the lookout man to strain his eyes into the gloom . Inside this floating palace that spring evening in 1912, warmth, lights, the hum of voices, the lilt of a German waltz –– the unheeding sounds of a small world bent on pleasure. Then disaster, swift and overwhelming –– a story of horror unparalleled in the annals of the sea.
Lucy Duff Gordon,
Discretions and Indiscretions, 1932
Lady Duff Gordon, already famous as the dress designer “Lucile,” found notoriety as a survivor of the Titanic.
One of many celebrated passengers aboard the Titanic on that fateful maiden voyage was the fashion designer "Lucile," in private life Lady Duff Gordon, whose salons in London, Paris, and New York were a rendezvous for Edwardian high society and the entertainment world.
In the following account Lucy Duff Gordon discusses her experiences in the sinking of the Titanic and addresses the controversial allegation that she and her husband, Olympic athlete Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, escaped the ship in a lifeboat they commandeered through bribery.
This gripping tale, available online for the first time exclusively on Encyclopedia Titanica, provides compelling insight into what has remained one of the most intriguing episodes in the aftermath of the Titanic catastrophe.
Randy Bryan Bigham has edited and annotated Lady Duff Gordon’s story, which first appeared as three chapters in her autobiography Discretions and Indiscretions. Supplementing this extract are her first press interview about the disaster, published in the New York American four days after her rescue, and her verbatim testimony before the hearings of the British Titanic Inquiry.
As an internationally acclaimed couturiere, Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon (1863-1935) traveled frequently and lavishly. Flitting between the French and American branches of Lucile Ltd, her exclusive London-based fashion house, these junkets aboard the finest vessels of the Cunard and White Star fleets were leisurely and uneventful. But on April 7, 1912, while working in her Paris studio, she received a telegram from her managers in the U.S.A. The wire requested her presence for the leasing of new premises for her expanding New York outlet. "As business called me over in a great hurry," she remembered, "I booked passage on the first available boat. The boat was the Titanic.”
On April 10, accompanied by her second husband, Olympic fencer Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon (1862-1931), the titled dressmaker sailed aboard the ill-fated luxury liner and into the pages of history.
Popular sportsman Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon accompanied his wife aboard the Titanic and into the pages of history
• • •
There had been a good deal of publicity surrounding the Titanic's maiden voyage from Southampton to New York (via ports in France and Ireland), and Lucy, although strangely anxious, seemed excited about making the trip. There was a surprise "send-off" for her in Paris when a delegation of Lucile models and other employees met her at the boat train for Cherbourg and presented her with a bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley.
Promoted by the White Star Line as the ultimate achievement in modern shipbuilding technology, the Titanic was not only the largest vessel afloat but regarded as the safest. It isn’t surprising then that, as Harper's Weekly later noted, the wonder-ship's first sailing attracted a "passenger list which was one of the most distinguished ever carried by an Atlantic liner." The Duff Gordons certainly found themselves in distinguished company. Those in first class included some of the best known personalities of the Edwardian era, and were collectively worth an estimated $500 million. On the day the ship set out, the New York Times featured the names of the elite on its front page –– Lucy and Cosmo were absent from the list because they were traveling incognito to, ironically enough, avoid the press.
The decision was most likely prompted by Cosmo, a handsome but reserved Scotsman who seldom accompanied his celebrated wife on business; the baronet detested reporters and especially loathed the tabloid coverage her Ladyship attracted. On the other hand, Lucy, a lively, witty redhead enjoyed the attention. Wearing long strands of pearls and hats with fluttering veils, the designer was accustomed to traveling grandly, complete with an armful of Pekinese and an entourage of beautiful models dressed in her latest fashions. She didn’t relish foregoing her usual flashy style but consented to Cosmo's terms out of wifely, albeit begrudging, deference. Lucy did, however, bring along for amusement her young friend and personal assistant Laura Francatelli, whom she teasingly called "Franks" and who in turn addressed her formidable employer as "Madame."
Lady Duff Gordon’s secretary-companion Laura Mabel Francatelli, nicknamed “Franks”
The Duff Gordons thus set sail on the Titanic as "Mr. and Mrs. Morgan.” Much speculation has surrounded their choice of this particular alias. It’s been suggested that it was a private joke aimed at elderly American financier J. P. Morgan, owner of the White Star Line, who had cancelled passage aboard his new ship at the last minute, citing illness. The theory isn’t far-fetched; the millionaire's daughter, Anne Tracy Morgan, was a good friend and client of Lucy’s as well as a principal investor in Lucile Ltd's New York franchise. Through Anne, Lucy would probably have known the real reason for old J.P.'s absence on the Titanic, which wasn’t illness, but infatuation with the pretty new mistress he had installed in his villa in the south of France –– hence the pun of Mr. and “Mrs.” Morgan.
Whatever the couple's reason for the pseudonym, their family, at least, was well acquainted with it, as evidenced by a bon voyage telegram they received on board from the Viscountess Tiverton (later Countess of Halsbury), Lucy's daughter by her previous marriage. Sent in care of the Morgan sobriquet, the simple wire read: "Paris, via Marconi - Best love, Esme."
Esme, Viscountess Tiverton, daughter of Lady Duff Gordon
Another explanation for the Duff Gordons’ crossing on the Titanic under an assumed name was that Cosmo wished to avoid the shipboard nouveau riches who tended to swarm about Lucy like so many lost sheep. One more curious fact about the couple's presence on the Titanic was that they occupied two staterooms located across the corridor from each other, cabins A-16 and A-20 on the forward port side of the promenade deck. Why they booked separate cabins is not known, although it’s likely Lucy's somewhat fiery temperament determined the arrangement. She wasn’t used to having her husband along on business and presumably preferred the independence of her own space. Cosmo, too, one imagines, welcomed time away from her frequent "moods." The pair actually spent little time together on board as Franks was an almost constant presence. There to provide the engaging repartee Lucy demanded and which her mild-mannered husband had little facility for, Franks played well the role of doting protégé, listening to her plans, lighting her cigarettes and pouring her brandy.
• • •
The celebrities who converged on the Titanic for its famous, fatal voyage were an impressive, diverse assemblage. Among the Duff Gordons' illustrious fellow passengers were New York real estate scion John Jacob Astor IV (touted as "the richest man in America") and his recent bride, Madeleine, returning from their Paris honeymoon; British philosopher, social activist, and editor of London's Review of Reviews William T. Stead, on his way to attend a peace rally at Carnegie Hall; Major Archibald Butt, military attache to President Taft, coming back from a mission to the Vatican; millionaire industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, travelling with his mistress, French revue singer Ninette Aubart; the Countess of Rothes, en route to California to join her husband, the 19th earl, who was planning to buy land there; philanthropist, retired Congressman, and founder of Macy's, Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, coming home after wintering on the Riviera ; painter Frances Millet; Henry B. Harris, the Broadway producer, and his wife Renee; Denver society maven Mrs. J.J. "Molly" Brown, fresh from a tour of Eqypt; art and rare book collector Harry Elkins Widener; Wimbledon champion Karl Behr; film actress Dorothy Gibson; and Jacques Futrelle, the detective novelist, and his wife May.
Society maven Mrs. J.J. “Molly” Brown was one of many fellow celebrities who sailed with the Duff Gordons aboard the Titanic
The loss of many of these notables and their fellow passengers stunned the world when on April 15, 1912, the reputedly "unsinkable" Titanic, two hours after striking an iceberg, slipped beneath the sea. Reports bore the startling news that of the more than 2,200 men, women, and children aboard, some 1,500 lost their lives in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Only about 700 people had survived the world's worst maritime catastrophe. Escaping in the Titanic's too-few –– and some only partly-filled –– lifeboats, they were rescued by the steamer Carpathia at dawn.
Ashore the aftermath of the sinking was rife with controversy. In America and England formal investigations into the shipwreck, hearings conducted by the United States Senate in Washington and the British Board of Trade in London, revealed crucial facts. These included the Titanic's inadequate equipage of lifeboats, the failure of the ship's commander, Captain E.J. Smith, to heed wireless warnings from other ships in the vicinity of dangerous ice-flows ahead, and the excessive rate of speed at which the liner was traveling at the time of the collision. Most volatile of all, the inquiries revealed the probable existence of class prejudice aboard which allowed for the preferential treatment of wealthy passengers in abandoning ship.
A flagrant example, newspapers contended, was the case of Cosmo and Lucy Duff Gordon who allegedly secured a monopoly of their under-loaded lifeboat by virtue of their social “ascendancy.” It was claimed that, after the ship sank and others in the boat suggested returning to rescue some of the drowning, the couple had sought to bribe the sailors in charge against considering the proposition, citing their fear of the boat's being swamped in the throng of swimmers. The reports vilifying the Duff Gordons unleashed a firestorm of criticism, fueled by the sensationalistic tactics of the “yellow” press. Eventually the matter came under the scrutiny of the convening British Inquiry, the official government probe into the Titanic disaster conducted by the Board of Trade and presided over by Justice Lord Mersey. Summoned to testify at the Titanic Inquiry in May (the only passengers to be called out of 102 witnesses), Lucy and Cosmo succeeded in clearing themselves of the charges brought against them. Lord Mersey, however, declared at the close of the hearings that, while the whole of the "Duff Gordon Incident" was immaterial and that allegations of bribery were unfounded, it was his opinion that Cosmo ought to have exercised more leadership by organizing a rescue effort.
The Duff Gordons’ testimony at the Titanic Inquiry drew intense press coverage
While the proud sportsman’s reputation faltered as a result of his gossip-ridden role in the Titanic’s aftermath, his glamorous wife's professional and private life proved distinctly undaunted. With the exception of a widely-syndicated (though embellished), interview in William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, which she consented to just after her rescue, Lucy didn’t write or speak publicly of the tragedy for twenty years.
It was in her 1932 memoir that Lucy finally addressed the ordeal at length, and it is from this spirited narrative that the following text is taken. Excerpted from chapters 13-15 of the U.S. edition of Discretions and Indiscretions, this version is faithful to Lucy's original story in all but a few cases of minor inaccuracies, which have been corrected. For a balanced appraisal of the designer’s experiences, her sworn testimony before the British Titanic Inquiry forms an appendix to this article as does her first published account in the American.
Unlike her husband, Lucy Duff Gordon overcame the stigma of the Titanic disaster. Nevertheless, despite her noteworthy career as "Lucile,” she is best remembered today for the sensational part she played in this epic saga.