The gathering storm was ominous in the days when a feeble old French woman lay dying within the dull, pastel walls of a welfare ward. The winds from the hurricane that had devastated Rhode Island were now bringing misery to New York. But in her weakened state, barely able to breathe, the murky confusion of wind and torrential rain seemed of no consequence. She had no money left and no relatives even lived on the same side of the Atlantic Ocean. Only one or two friends could even be expected to visit in the last of her days on earth. By the time the blue skies returned and the first cool breezes of autumn blew over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, preparations were made to give her a pauper's burial.
There had been another time a generation earlier when Rosalie Bidois lived in different circumstances. There had been another day in which her name was respected by the foremost families of New York. There had been a night in which her name became etched in one of history's pre-eminent dramas, associated forever with wealth and high society.
In the early 1860's Pierre Bidois of Normandy, France and his young bride, Rosalie Martillet, moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands. Rosalie, their first child, was born there on May 10, 1865. Three sons and another daughter, Augustine Marie, would follow. Rosalie was an attractive young girl while Augustine was plain. When the girls reached maturity, both went to London seeking work as domestics. Gaining considerable respect from their employers, the sisters decided to become even more adventurous. Leaving behind all that was familiar to them, they traveled to Southampton, England and boarded the CEDRIC in the autumn of 1900. They traveled with letters of introduction from British employers and had no trouble finding employment upon their arrival in New York on October 23rd of that year. While Augustine would be a respected employee in her own right, it was Rosalie's name that would become known among the most prominent families. Sought after, recommended, and prized, Rosalie would find herself in the service of very wealthy and important New Yorkers. After only a decade, the 36 year old French spinster from Jersey found herself employed as the personal maid of the new Mrs. John Jacob Astor, IV, surrounded by all the splendor associated with the name. And in early 1912 she prepared to accompany the Astors on the trip of a lifetime to Egypt. After several months of touring and seeing the wonders of the world with her own eyes, Rosalie was enthralled with the prospect of traveling back to New York on the most luxurious ocean liner in all the world.
In mid-April of 1912, in the mansions of Manhattan, sleepy-eyed matrons would awaken to the news that Titanic had foundered. Adding to the shock was the apparent death of J. J. Astor. In the chaos of information and misinformation that followed, the anxious friends and relatives of Madeleine Astor found some solace. People with the eminent names of Lorillard and Stickney engaged in conversation after conversation agreeing that if Miss Bidois had survived, Madeleine's well-being was assured. Rosalie had been recommended to the Astors by A. J. Dickinson, head of an elite Fifth Avenue employment agency that catered to the needs of the ultra wealthy. In an article appearing in the Guernsey Evening Press after the sinking Mr. Dickinson stated:
Just as soon as I heard that Rosalie was saved with Mrs. Astor, I knew the Colonel's bride was in safe hands. I would rather have that little Frenchwoman beside me in an emergency than many a man. I don't believe she ever lost her head in her life. Most French maids are flibbety-jibbety creatures, with brains that don't go much further than a knowledge how to lay out an evening gown and how to dress her mistress's hair, but that isn't Rosalie's sort. It is my belief that Rosalie did more to help rescue Mrs. Astor than anybody knows now. From the first she must have been at Mrs. Astor's side. Probably Mrs. Astor was wearing an evening gown - of course she would have had to dress for dinner on a boat like Titanic. They said she had on only a raincoat, but I doubt that. If Rosalie had time to get anything at all for her mistress, it can be depended on that she found the warmest coat obtainable and the clothing best suited to such an emergency. Miss Bidois has been in America about 10 years. Practically the whole time she has been in the service of wealthy women.
The master and the man went down; the mistress and the maid were saved - a striking commentary on the democratic rule that puts the salaried maid above the millionaire master and the millionaire mistress above the wage earning valet.
Following the Titanic disaster, Rosalie's life becomes somewhat nebulous until the mid 1920's. It is known that she continued to work as a domestic and she and her sister spent as much time together as possible. Both were hard workers and loyal to their mistresses in Manhattan and they frequently enjoyed the company of others in New York's French community. But neither had married, their parents were dead, and their brothers had remained in England. They often visited one another and attended Catholic services together and were intensely devoted to one another.
In late 1924, after 24 years in the United States, Rosalie filed a Declaration of Intent to become a citizen. She described herself as a "ladie's maid," 59 years old with a ruddy complexion, gray hair, brown eyes, 137 pounds and 5 feet, 3 inches tall. She was naturalized in Manhattan on December 5, 1927.
Shortly before Rosalie was naturalized, tragedy struck when 52 year old Augustine Marie Bidois was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her death on April 27, 1926 left Rosalie bereaved and without family in America. She bought a single gravesite in St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx and Augustine was buried there. Rosalie and her brothers, Eldert, Alfred, and Jules, shared in the small estate, valued at only $800.00. After this great loss, Rosalie spent time with friends in New York's French community whenever possible, but the sense of Augustine's absence was profound. Although she had always been considered a good-looking woman, she had never found love and marriage. And now she was getting old and feeling very much alone.
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When the vessel LaTouraine arrived in New York City from Bordeaux, France on January 6, 1916, it brought a dapper Frenchman named Francois Courtinade. He had been born in L'Isle Jourdain, France on April 6, 1874 and had married Louise Masbatin on August 19, 1914. In New York he worked as a cigarette manufacturer for Milan Pichler in the Bronx. Louise Courtinade was a domestic and the couple had a happy, though childless marriage. Mrs. Courtinade suffered from rheumatic heart disease and she died at the couple's apartment at 215 East 55th in Manhattan on May 1, 1928. She was 48 and left only a brother in Limoges, France.
Rosalie Bidois was a 66-year old spinster when she was introduced to the still dapper Francois Courtinade in the latter part of 1931. He was 9 years her junior with dark hair and a full moustache. He had a reputation of being something of a lady's man and Rosalie was flattered that this younger Frenchman seemed to be paying attention to her. Their unlikely courtship would lead to marriage on February 6, 1932 at the Church of St. Vincent de Paul in Manhattan. The marriage ceremony was followed by a large dinner given in their honor and many friends from the French community were in attendance. For Rosalie life had reached an apogee, a delirious time in which she could thrill in the knowledge that all events of her past had led upward to this time. Looking forward to the years of wedded bliss, she moved into the apartment on East 55th that Francois had shared with his first wife.
But in the giddy, school-girlish pleasure of those days, Rosalie wouldn't realize that if all events of her 66 years had led to an apogee, there would necessarily come a falling away from it. On September 22, 1932, after just seven months of marriage, Rosalie came home from work unexpectedly and caught Francois in the act of adultery with a woman she had never seen before. Friends sympathetically informed her that this sort of thing had been going on since shortly after her marriage and that other women were involved as well. Four days later Rosalie filed for absolute divorce, citing adultery.
The quality of Rosalie's life would only deteriorate after her separation from Francois. She was approaching 70 and had developed arteriosclerosis and was also suffering from diabetes. Unable to continue working, and facing mounting medical bills, life offered little to look forward to. She continued to encounter Francois from time to time, and for unknown reasons the divorce would never be finalized. But there would not be a reconciliation. In 1940 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States but disappeared after World War II, perhaps returning to spend his final days in France.
On August 23, 1938 Rosalie was admitted to Metropolitan Hospital, Welfare Island, in Manhattan as a charity patient. Her diabetes and arteriosclerosis had rendered her helpless and she required constant care. The empty time spent lying in a drab and sparsely furnished hospital ward was a far cry from her days among the Lorillards and Astors. In mid-September she developed lobar pneumonia and died alone in the wee hours of September 24, 1938 at the age of 73. Her body was taken to Walter B. Cooke Funeral Home but when no one came forward to assume responsibility for funeral expenses, the body was prepared for a pauper's burial in the City Cemetery of New York. At the last minute, someone among her friends remembered that Rosalie's sister had been buried in St. Raymond's Cemetery and suggested that her body should be taken there and placed in the grave with Augustine. There the two sisters came together again for eternity. Today a stone marks the site but no inscription appears on it.
Rosalie Bidois had given her best years to the wealthiest families of Manhattan. The newspapers of April 1912 spoke of the enormous respect her employers held for her and they rejoiced that she was aboard the Carpathia to care for Madeleine Astor in her time of greatest need. But none of them would be there for Rosalie in her final days. Perhaps none of them even remembered her name.