I was saved from the Titanic

A vivid eyewitness account of the legendary shipwreck and its aftermath. Edited by Randy Bryan Bigham


I was saved from the Titanic

Chapter 1 : The Fiercest Sea

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. 1

Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg on the evening of April 10, 1912

It is only now, after so long, that I can bring myself to look back to that terrible last night on board the doomed Titanic. For years the horror was too vivid to bear the searchlight of memory. I had only to close my eyes to see the rows of lighted portholes extinguished row by row, until they sank under the black waters –– to hear the hideous clamor that spread over the quiet sea. I remember thinking at the time how remote and indifferent the stars seemed. I looked up at them with tear-filled eyes, when all was still again, and thought how many scenes of human agony they must have witnessed, and it came to me then that the life and death of Man were very unimportant things.

I had not meant to sail on the Titanic, although urgent business in New York forced me to take the first available boat. To this day I cannot explain my reluctance when the clerk at the White Star offices said: "The only berths we have are on our new Titanic, which will be making her maiden voyage."

"Oh, I should not care to cross on a new ship, " I told him. "I should be nervous."

He laughed: "Why the boat is unsinkable! Her watertight compartments would enable her to weather the fiercest sea, and she is the last word in comfort and luxury."

In spite of his arguments, I refused to book my berth and went home and told my husband 2 of my fears. He laughed, too, but when he realized I was in earnest he offered to come with me. I consented willingly, little knowing that by so doing I was to expose him to a storm of censure that well-nigh broke his heart and ruined his life.

•          •          •

The first days of the crossing were uneventful. Like everyone I was entranced with the beauty of the liner.  I had never dreamt of traveling in such luxury. I remember being childishly pleased at finding strawberries on my breakfast able.

"Fancy strawberries in April, and in mid-ocean," I said to my husband. "You would think you were at the Ritz."

Everything aboard this lovely ship reassured me –– from the captain 3, with his kindly, bearded face and genial manner, and his 25 years' experience as a White Star commander, to my merry Irish stewardess 4, with her soft brogue and tales of timid ladies she had attended during hundreds of Atlantic crossings .

My pretty little cabin, with its electric heater and pink curtains, delighted me so that it was a pleasure to go to bed. And yet, in spite of ridicule, nothing could persuade me to completely undress at night. My warm wrap lay always ready at hand, and my jewel case, with a few of my most treasured possessions, was placed on a convenient table within reach. I have never been psychic so I am loathe to call this feeling of acute fear which I experienced a premonition, yet the fact remains that, though I have crossed the ocean many times both before and since, I have never had it on any other occasion. Something warned me, some deep instinct, that all was not well.

The time passed happily enough. I had my secretary Miss Francatelli 5 with me, as well as my husband, and we both found several friends on board, among them John B. Thayer, a vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and his wife 6.

The day of the disaster dawned calm and bright. The sea was exceptionally still but as the day wore on the cold increased. As we walked round the deck I shivered in my furs.

"I have never felt so cold," I said to Cosmo. "There must be icebergs about."

He made fun of my ignorance and Captain Smith, who happened to be passing, assured me that we were far from the ice zone.

The Titanic’s captain E.J. Smith was Commodore of the White Star Line 

Miss Francatelli and I went into my cabin, shut up all the portholes, and lit the stove to get warm, but it was no use, and when we three went down to the restaurant we kept on our thick clothes instead of dressing for dinner.

I remember that last meal on the Titanic very well. We had a big vase of beautiful daffodils on the table, as fresh as if they had just been picked. Everybody was gay and at neighboring tables people were making bets on the probable time of this record-breaking run

J. Bruce Ismay 7, chairman of the White Star Line, was dining with the ship's doctor 8 next to our table. I recall that several men came up and appealed to him as to how much longer we should be at sea. Mr. Ismay was most confidant, and said that undoubtedly the ship would establish a record. Further along the room the Wideners and the Thayers 9 were dining with the Captain and others and there was a great deal of laughter and chatter from their table. At another table sat Colonel John Jacob Astor and his young bride. They were coming back to New York after a honeymoon in Europe.  I thought how much in love they were –– poor things, it was the last few hours they were to have together. They were joined by Isidor Straus and his wife. These two so openly adored one another that we used to call them "Darby and Joan." They told us that in their long years of married life they had never been separated for one day or night.

Titanic Restaurant

On the Titanic’s last night afloat, the Duff Gordons dined in the ship’s French restaurant

After dinner we went to the lounge where we met Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Meyer 10.  I had my little autograph book with me and I got them to write in it. It was one of the "confession" books, which were so popular just then. Mr. Meyer filled in his "Likes," "Abominations," etc., and then came to the column marked "Madnesses." He laughed as he said, "I have only one –– to live," and wrote it down. 

We went to our cabins on A Deck. Cosmo went to bed early and Miss Francatelli and I sat chatting by the stove before we undressed 11. I had been in bed, I suppose, for about an hour, when I was awakened by a funny rumbling noise. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. It seemed almost as if some giant hand had been playing bowls, rolling the great balls along. Then the boat stopped and immediately there was the frightful noise of escaping steam. I heard people running outside my cabin, but they were laughing.

"We must have hit an iceberg," I heard one of them say. "There is ice on deck."

I went across the passage to my husband's cabin. He had heard nothing and was very annoyed at my waking him.

"Don't be ridiculous," he said. "Even if we have grazed an iceberg it can't do serious damage with all these watertight compartments. The worst that can happen is that it will slow us down. Go back to bed and don't worry."

However I went and looked over the side of the boat. I could see nothing as it was pitch black. Several other people hurried up on deck but on hearing from a ship's officer that it was "nothing but temporary trouble" they went quietly back to bed. I think to this day that had it not been for this ill-advised reticence, hundreds more lives would have been saved. As it was, the appalling danger we were in was concealed from us until it was too late and in the ensuing panic many lifeboats were lowered half-filled because there was no time to fill them.

I went back to my cabin. Everything outside appeared as usual but I was uneasy and the roar of steam continued to alarm me. Presently it stopped and there came an infinitely more frightening silence. The engines had stopped. Something in the cessation of that busy, homely sound filled me with panic. I rushed back to Cosmo.

"I beg you to go up on deck and see what has happened," I cried, shaking him. He got out of bed rather unwillingly. In ten minutes he was back looking grave.

"I have just been up to the bridge and seen Colonel Astor," he said. "He told me he was going to ask his wife to dress and I think you had better do the same."

John Jacob Astor

Millionaire John Jacob Astor was returning with his bride to the USA after a European honeymoon


I hurriedly put on the warmest clothes I could find 12, covering them with a thick coat. As I was dressing, Miss Francatelli came into the room, very agitated: "There is water down in my cabin and they are taking the covers off the lifeboats on deck." Just as she finished speaking a steward knocked at the door.

"Sorry to alarm you, Madame, but Captain's orders are that all passengers are to put on lifebelts." He laughed and joked, however, as he helped us don them. "Wrap up warmly, for you may have a little trip for an hour or so in one of the lifeboats,” he said.

We followed him out of the cabin. Before the door closed I looked round it for a last time. I shall never forget that glimpse of the lovely little room with its beautiful lace quilt and pink cushions, photographs all around and the big basket of lilies-of-the-valley that my "Lucile" girls had given me when I left Paris. It all looked so pretty, just like a bedroom on land, that it did not seem possible there could be any danger. But as if to give this reassuring thought the lie, a vase of flowers on the washstand slid off and fell with a crash to the floor.

Lady Duff Gordon's Cabin

Lady Duff Gordon’s stateroom was A-20 on the starboard side of the promenade deck

•          •          •

On the port side was a scene of horror 13. Lifeboat after lifeboat was being lowered in a pandemonium of rushing figures. Over the tumult the voice of a ship's officer roared: "Stand back! Women and children first!"

My legs shook so that I could hardly stand and if it had not been for my husband's arm, I should have fallen.

"Come dear," he said," I must get you to the boats." I clung to him with all my strength and although I could scarcely get out the words, I insisted nothing would make me leave him. He saw that I meant it. Besides the crowd round the boats on that deck was so thick that it was useless to try to approach them.

"We will go round to the starboard side," Cosmo said. "It may be better there. It can't possibly be worse." 14

It was better, for although there were crowds there was no confusion. The lifeboats were being quietly filled with women, while officers and male passengers helped to launch them. Even in that terrible moment I was filled with wonder at the American wives who were leaving their husbands without a word of protest or regret, scarcely a farewell. They have brought the cult of chivalry to such a pitch in the States that it comes as second nature to men to sacrifice themselves and to women to let them to do it. But I had no such ideas about my husband and when two officers came up and tried to force me into one of the boats, I refused. Cosmo pleaded with me while three or four boats were launched 15 and the crowd thinned. But I only said, "Promise me that you will not let them separate us," and I clung to him until at last seeing there was no use resisting, he gave in, and we stood waiting there with Miss Francatelli, who refused to leave us.

Suddenly we saw that everyone in the vicinity had dispersed, except for some sailors who were launching a little boat. We found out afterwards that it was the Captain's "emergency" boat 16. The men who were to man it were all stokers with the exception of one seaman whom the officer placed in charge of it. Seeing nobody else about my husband asked the officer 17 whether we might get into it and on receiving his permission we were helped in 18, followed by two American men who came up at the last moment. I shall never forget how black and deep the water looked below us, and how I hated leaving the big ship for this frail boat. Just beside us was a man 19 sending off rockets and the ear-splitting noise added to the horror of being suspended in mid-air while one of the lowering ropes got caught and was only released after what seemed an interminable time. 20

Women and Children First

Artist Fortunino Matania depicted a scene of confusion and pathos aboard the Titanic as lifeboats began to be launched

The officer called out his last instructions to our crew: "Pull away as quickly as possible, at least two hundred yards!" Just as we touched the water I looked back. I could still see the man sending off rockets 21. We rowed out into the darkness.

I have often noticed that on the heels of tragedy comes an absurd anticlimax. In my case it was dreadful seasickness, which was nothing less than torture. To try to keep my mind off my physical suffering I fixed my eyes on the ship. I could see her dark hull towering like a giant hotel, light streaming from every porthole. As I looked, one row of shining windows was suddenly extinguished. I guessed the reason and turned away. When I forced myself to look again, yet another row had disappeared.

A sharp exclamation from my husband roused me from the stupor into which I was falling.

"My God! She is going now!" he cried.

I turned and saw the remaining lights of the Titanic burning with steady brilliance, but only for a moment and they were gone.  A dull explosion 22 shook the air. From the doomed vessel there arose an indescribable clamor. A louder explosion followed and the stern of the great ship shot out of the water. For a few seconds she stayed motionless while agonized cries from her decks grew in intensity. Then, with one downward rush, she plunged to her grave and the air was rent with awful shrieks 23. Then silence, which I felt I could not bear; I felt my very reason tottering. Cosmo did his best to comfort me but I lapsed into a sort of unconsciousness from the dreadful seasickness, which persisted at intervals through the night. Between bouts I could see the dark shadows of icebergs surrounding us.

Titanic Sinking

The Titanic’s last moments as illustrated by Matania


1. The title of this story “I Was Saved From the Titanic” is derived from an article in Coronet (June 1951), excerpted from Lucy Duff Gordon’s memoir, Discretions and Indiscretions. At least two of the three chapters about the sinking in Lucy’s autobiography were based on an account she wrote privately on April 21, 1912. "This description of how I got on the Titanic and our subsequent rescue,” she prefaced her story, “was written in New York three days after we landed from the Carpathia. I wrote it while all the facts were vividly on my mind. I thought it wise to do so and it has proved very useful. I have the original document now."

2. Sir Cosmo Edmund Duff Gordon, 5th Baronet. of Maryculter, was a founding member of the London Epee Club and a tournament coordinator for the International Fencing League. He was also a star member of the British Fencing Team that won the Silver Medal in the 1906 Olympic Games in Greece and was an appointee to the Olympic Council for the 1908 Olympics in London.

3. Captain Edward John Smith, R.N.R. (1850-1912), was Commodore of the White Star Line.

4. Stewardess Sarah Stap (1865-1937) was Ship's Matron, having many of the more distinguished first class ladies under her personal care. Aside from looking after Lucy, she attended to Madeleine Astor. Stap escaped the Titanic in Lifeboat 11.

5. Laura Mabel Francatelli (1880-1967) served Lucy alternately as business and social secretary between about 1909 and 1921. Nicknamed “Franks” by her employer, she wed hotel executive Max Haering in 1913.

6. nee Marian Longstreth Morris (1873-1944). Thayer and her son Jack were among the rescued. She escaped in Boat 4; he swam away from the ship as it foundered and was picked up by Boat B.

7. Joseph Bruce Ismay (1862-1937) was saved in Boat C. Ismay resigned his position as head of the White Star Line in 1913.

8. Dr. William O'Loughlin (1851-1912) was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and the Royal Institute of Surgeons, London.

9. George D. Widener (1861-1912), a Philadelphia multimillionaire, sailed on the Titanic with his wife Eleanor Elkins Widener (1861-1937), and their son, noted bibliophile Harry Elkins Widener (1885-1912). Only Eleanor survived, escaping in Boat 4.

10. Edgar Joseph Meyer (1884-1912), a mechanical engineer, was lost in the sinking. His wife, Julia Saks Meyer (1886-1957), was the daughter of Andrew Saks, founder of the New York department store Saks Fifth Avenue. Julia escaped in Boat 6.

11. Laura Francatelli occupied a separate stateroom, E-36.

12. Lucy's full-length fur coat, reportedly either of squirrel or moleskin, covered a negligee and two peignoirs. She also wore a pair of satin mules and a crepe scarf draped turban style over her head. She carried a small coral-colored velveteen satchel containing an assortment of small jewelry and toiletries. An uninsured $50,000 string of pearls that Lucy had on approval from a jeweler in Venice was not among the pieces she saved. Her grand niece, Susan, Lady Glyn (b. 1923), the only immediate relative old enough to remember Lucy, told the story of her great aunt’s lost necklace: “It was lodged in the Purser’s safe. Of course she couldn’t get it out in the middle of a shipwreck so she had to escape without it, leaving it to go down.” Glyn added that having to pay for the pearls put Lucy “in the red” over the next year.

13. The Duff Gordons came out on the port side at approximately 12:30 a.m. (April 15), when there was some initial confusion as to whether lifeboats would be launched from the boat deck or the A Deck promenade, just below. Crowds of women and children were being corralled to A Deck, then ordered back up again, causing some commotion. In his testimony before the British Titanic Inquiry, Cosmo did not mention being on the portside during the evacuation.

14. Lucy and Cosmo arrived on the starboard boat deck shortly before Lifeboat 7 (capacity 65, occupants 28) was lowered away at about 12:45 a.m.

15. After Boat 7, Boat 5 (capacity 65, occupants 41) was launched at 12:55 a.m.. Boat 3 (capacity 65, occupants 40) followed at 1:00 a.m.

16. Boat 1.

17. First Officer William Murdoch (1873-1912) superintended the loading and launching of lifeboats on the Titanic's starboard side.

18. Fifth Officer Harold Lowe (1882-1944) assisted First Officer Murdoch in loading the starboard boats. He testified at the British Titanic Inquiry that it was he who lifted Lucy into Boat 1. Lowe was afterwards assigned command of port Boat 14.

19. Quartermaster George Rowe (1880-1974) later took charge of Boat C

20. Boat 1's falls became entangled in a guy wire extending abreast of the promenade deck. Perhaps between five and ten minutes were spent in releasing the boat.

21. According to official transcripts of the British Inquiry, Boat 1 (capacity 40, occupants 12) was launched at 1:10 a.m. However, taking the above-cited mishap into consideration, it would seem the time was at least 1:15 to 1:20 before Boat 1 actually cleared the side of the Titanic. Lord Mersey, president of the Court of Inquiry, ventured during the hearings his opinion that Boat 1 cast off no earlier than 1:15 a.m. Although Lucy admits in her memoir that Boat 1 was rowed at least 200 yards away, she and Cosmo later claimed at the British Inquiry that the craft was more than a thousand yards away when the Titanic sank. But the preponderance of evidence, taking the observations of crewmembers into account, suggests the boat was closer to the distance ordered by Officer Murdoch.

22. The explosions heard were probably the sound of the ship breaking apart amidships, which occurred at approximately I 2:15-2:18 a.m.

23. The ship went down at 2:20 a.m. Lucy’s memory that “the air was rent with awful shrieks” following the sinking contradicts her British Inquiry testimony that “after the Titanic sank I never heard a cry.”

Related Biographies:

Cosmo Edmund Duff Gordon
Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon

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