Liner enthusiast recounts 1968 meeting with Renee Harris
Until the death in 2009 of Millvina Dean, the oldest living Titanic survivor, meeting a passenger who sailed on the legendary ocean liner was an honor coveted by scholars, collectors and history enthusiasts. Today those encounters are fond memories for a fortunate few, and it is this kind of reverie that’s evoked in the following first-hand account of the meeting between a teenage Titanic fan and a famous survivor of the 1912 disaster.
In the late 1960s New Hampshire native Gregg Jasper, now a California resident in his fifties, befriended one of the Titanic’s best-known survivors, Renee Harris (1876-1969), whose husband, Broadway producer Henry B. Harris, lost his life in the sinking. Gregg’s correspondence with Renee lasted until a few days before her death at age 93 but he only met his elderly pen pal once.
Over the last 42 years, Gregg Jasper has collected memorabilia relating not only to the Titanic and other ships but items celebrating the extraordinary career of Renee Harris, who took over her husband’s business after his death to become the American theatre’s first woman producing manager. Jasper’s interest in Harris has become a book, Broadway Dame, which he is writing with journalist and biographer Randy Bryan Bigham. The authors have arranged for a six-chapter excerpt from Broadway Dame to appear in The Commutator, the journal of the Titanic Historical Society; the first installment of the three-part series is featured in the current issue of that publication.
Exclusively for Encyclopedia Titanica, Gregg Jasper relates his emotional first––and only––meeting with Renee Harris. He’s always cherished that special day in 1968, and his narrative recaptures the thrill of an experience that the current generation of Titanic aficionados can only imagine.
• • •
|Renee Harris as she appeared in the heyday of her career as Broadway's first woman producer (1913).|
My interest in the Titanic began Sept. 9, 1966, about 8:30 p.m. That’s when Dr. Tony Newman found himself aboard the Titanic after hurling himself through The Time Tunnel on the premiere episode of ABC’s weekly television series. I was 13 years old.
When the show was over it left such an impression on me that I had to find out more about this huge ship that hit an iceberg and sank in the middle of the Atlantic. My family had a copy of the Reader’s Digest condensed version of Walter Lord’s book A Night to Remember so I pulled it off the shelf and dove into it. The more I read, the more fascinated I became. I couldn’t believe the story was really true.
Next up was a trip to the local library where I checked out the unabridged version of A Night to Remember. When I saw actual pictures of the Titanic I was ecstatic that so many existed. While reading Lord’s book I knew I would have to own a copy, so I ordered one from my local bookstore. After reading A Night to Remember and Home from the Sea by Captain Rostron of the Carpathia, the Titanic’s rescue ship –– along with a few magazine articles –– I wasn’t able to get any more information on the Titanic, so my interest started to wane.
Then the next year, Renee Harris, a survivor of the Titanic disaster, made an appearance on The Merv Griffin Show as a “mystery guest” and the host was supposed to guess why she was famous. Mrs. Harris and her late husband, Henry B. Harris, were returning home on the Titanic’s maiden voyage after an extended European vacation. I was intrigued by her story so I wrote to the show and asked how I could get in touch with her. The staff sent me a postcard, and told me if I wrote her in care of their studio, they would forward my letter to her. I sent my first letter out and was amazed that she replied. I was 14 years old when I started writing to Mrs. Harris in late 1967. She was 91.
After writing back and forth for about six months, Mrs. Harris invited me to come to New York to visit her. My parents talked it over and said they would take me to see her sometime during the summer after school let out. When they told me the news, I couldn’t wait. I was going to meet a real survivor of the Titanic! My mom, stepfather, brother Jim, and I left New Hampshire for New York on July 1, 1968, my stepdad driving the 250 miles it took to get there.
We arrived in the afternoon and registered at the Empire Hotel on West 63rd Street, close to Mrs. Harris’ apartment on West 69th Street.
I called up Mrs. Harris and we agreed to meet late morning the next day. I don’t think I slept all night. The next morning, July 2, we walked over to the Spencer Arms Hotel, went up in the elevator to her apartment and knocked.
Mrs. Harris’ niece Carol Burton opened the door and introduced herself; behind her I could see Mrs. Harris sitting in a chair, smiling. I immediately went over to her and hugged and kissed her. (I can’t believe I did that!) I introduced her to my family and we all sat down. She told me that Carol had met her at the dock in 1912 when the Carpathia brought the Titanic survivors to New York. I was amazed to be in the same room with Mrs. Harris –– and her niece, a witness to the Carpathia’s historic arrival.
The friend I had written to for months and spoken to several times over the phone looked much more frail than I had expected. Mrs. Harris was very small, and her hands were badly bent from arthritis. She fidgeted with them, and I wondered whether they were hurting her, but she didn’t complain. She just smiled. That’s what struck me most about Mrs. Harris –– her smile. She smiled even when she talked, and she had a warm, gentle laugh.
|Renee Harris, 92, with Gregg Jasper, 14, on July 2, 1968.|
Despite her apparent fragility, she had a bright, clear voice and as she conversed in a cultured, affable way I realized she was used to entertaining. Once rich, her dress and apartment were modest but hardship hadn’t dimmed her abilities as a hostess. Although she was the star of this gathering, Mrs. Harris was more concerned about her guests getting to know each other than she was in being the center of attention. But in her gracious deference, I could sense a quiet self-assurance. It occurred to me that after all she had been through, her confidence never left her.
I had already asked Mrs. Harris many questions about the Titanic in my letters, so I didn’t want to worry her too much on the subject. It’s different asking questions face to face than when you’re asking them somewhat anonymously through the mail. Anyway, she was more interested in me, and in what courses I was taking at school, than in discussing the Titanic.
As I looked around the room, I saw a huge portrait of a distinguished looking man. I asked her who he was. She said with a grin, “He’s Henry B.,” and I realized it was the Henry B. Harris, her husband and a very famous producer and theatre owner in his day. She said, “The picture used to hang in one of our theatres and it was all I was able to save.” (The last of the Harris theatres folded during the Depression.) I was in awe – not only of her but of the portrait of this great man I had only read about and whose image I had never seen until that day.
As she spoke of her husband, she wasn’t at all sad. She seemed happy to talk about him. That’s the overall impression I had of Mrs. Harris that day –– her happiness. She was content in her little apartment, satisfied with her long life. The big picture of her husband that dominated the small space was obviously a comfort to her; she had made peace with her loss. “Henry B.” was alive to her, at least in her memory, and she enjoyed discussing him. But she never mentioned his death, or their last moments together aboard the Titanic, and I didn’t question her about it.
After drinking all this in, I asked Mrs. Harris if she would mind if I took her picture with my camera. She said it would be “okay” and she sat down at a desk where she told us she had been writing her memoirs. I snapped a photo of her with her beautiful smile and a twinkle in her eye. When I had the picture developed I saw my copy of A Night to Remember was sitting on the desk in front of her.
Mrs. Harris afterwards signed the book and circled her picture in one of the photos. She said that she was in the back of Collapsible D –– the last lifeboat to leave the Titanic –– as it pulled alongside the Carpathia. She wrote: “To Gregg for whom I hold admiration and deep affection. Renee Harris - July 2/68.” I was touched by that inscription. I felt the same way about her.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Carol opened it and a very tall man walked in. It was Walter Lord. I knew Mrs. Harris and Mr. Lord were friends, but I never imagined she’d secretly ask him to come over to meet me. He walked in and said, “Hello, Renee. Hello, Carol.” I said, “Walter Lord!” and he came over and shook my hand. I was awestruck. Not only was I in the same room with a famous Titanic survivor, but I was meeting the author of A Night to Remember. I later realized that surprising her friends was something Mrs. Harris loved to do. I’m flattered she considered me a friend.
|Gregg Jasper with Walter Lord|
Walter sat down and we all talked for a while. When there was a lull in the conversation, he said, “Okay, Gregg, now let me ask you a question about the Titanic. Which one of the Titanic’s officers fired the gun?” He was testing me with a game of Titanic trivia.
My mind went blank. After giving me the same amount of time that Art Fleming would give any Jeopardy contestant, the imaginary buzzer went off and he said, “Fifth Officer Lowe! Come on, Gregg!” I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m sure now that Walter’s mentioning Lowe had a special meaning for Mrs. Harris. He was the officer who led a flotilla of lifeboats, including Mrs. Harris’ boat, to the safety of the Carpathia.
We continued talking for quite a while after which I had my picture taken with Mrs. Harris and another one taken with her, my brother, and me. At this time Mrs. Harris got up, walked into her kitchen and prepared cake and ice cream for everyone. I thought that was the nicest thing. Here she was –– 92 years old –– waiting on us! I was thinking we should have served her. My mother felt so, too, and she went to help her bring the food out from the kitchen. We talked some more and then Walter asked my family if we wanted to go over to his place for a while. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Mrs. Harris couldn’t go with us, so before saying goodbye, I told her I would never forget this wonderful day and I kissed her on the cheek again. I thanked Carol, and promised Mrs. Harris I would write and send copies of the pictures I had taken as soon as I got back home.
Walter Lord led us to the street and we hailed a taxi to his home on East 38th Street. It was a great New York apartment filled with books and Titanic memorabilia galore. He let me look at his original notes for A Night to Remember. He also told me about how the 1956 Kraft Theater TV movie of A Night to Remember was made, sharing amusing stories on the trouble the director had putting the movie on live television which had me laughing. One incident Walter related about the production was slightly irreverent but shows his sense of humor. He said in the smoking room scene in which builder Thomas Andrews awaits the end of his ship, a chandelier was rigged to fall. It did so right on cue but struck a mannequin that was standing in for the actor portraying Andrews. “The head came off,” Walter laughed, “and rolled across the floor like a football!”
Walter was very generous. He gave me some memorabilia from the British film based on his book, including the movie’s souvenir program. He also let me have three sheets of A Night to Remember stationery, and a plastic swizzle stick that had the Titanic at the end so that, as he explained to me, “When you stir your drink, there’s the Titanic under ice!”
I kept asking Walter questions as if he was a survivor, and he had to remind me that whatever answers he gave were based only on what survivors had told him. He seemed to know a little bit about everyone, which was good enough for me. I then took his picture and had my picture taken with him. After Walter served my family some cold drinks, it was getting to be late afternoon, and we said we had to go.
I packed up my souvenirs, said my thanks and farewell, and tried to collect my thoughts about the most thrilling and memorable day a teenage Titanic fan ever had.
Today I realize my visit with Renee Harris was more important than that. I learned a lot from her that day –– to be nice to everyone, to share even when you're down to practically nothing, and to never give up on life.