Miss Gertrude Isabelle Hippach1, better known as Jean, was born in Chicago, Illinois on 1 October 1894, but her birthdate is widely disputed2.
She was the daughter of Louis Albert Hippach (1863-1935) and Ida Sophia Fischer (1866-1940). Both her parents were of German ancestry and hailed from Wisconsin and Chicago respectively, marrying in 1888. Her father was the co-owner of plate glass dealers Tyler & Hippach Co.
She had three brothers: Robert Louis (b. 1889), Albert Archibald (b. 1891) and Howard Henry (b. 1896).
The 1900 census shows Jean and her family living at Circle Avenue, Chicago. Tragedy struck on 30 December 1903 when Jean's two elder brothers had gone to a matinee performance of the musical Mr Bluebird at Chicago's Iroquois Theatre. During the show, sparks from an arc light ignited a curtain and a fire soon spread with all attempts to extinguish it futile. The 1500 capacity theatre had an estimated 2200 persons that day, and the scene soon diminished into chaos with people trying to flee, only to be trapped by blocked exits. Whilst various means of escape were found, the swell of people trying to leave caused many deaths as a result of crushes or trampling. An estimated 575 people died that day, Robert and Archibald Hippach among them.
The 1910 census shows Jean and her remaining family living at 7360 Sheridan Road in Chicago. She and her mother were well-known in social circles and were also noted for being very fashionable and attractive women.
A frequent traveller, Jean had been abroad in Europe with her mother since January 1912. For their return to America they boarded Titanic at Cherbourg as first-class passengers (ticket number 111361 which cost £57, 19s, 7d) and occupied cabin B18. They later claimed they had not wanted to board the ship, not trusting a maiden voyage, but White Star employees had told them that there was only one First Class cabin left, implying that everyone wanted to go on the ship. They felt lucky to get their ticket, only to discover that the ship was only partially full. "Everyone was saying Sunday evening that we were ahead of schedule and that we would break the records," Mrs Hippach later recalled.
Jean and her mother were asleep when the Titanic struck the iceberg but the shock was so mild, Mrs Hippach recalled, that Jean slept through it and continued to do so until the roar of the steam escaping through the funnels woke her. They put on their wraps and rushed out into the corridor and heard everybody asking, "What is that? Did you hear that?"
Mrs Hippach heard someone say that they hit an iceberg, but no one was alarmed or thought there was any danger. She decided to go out onto deck because she wanted to see the iceberg as she had never seen one. An officer, walking past, told them to return to their room. "Ladies, go back to bed. You'll catch cold."
They went back to their stateroom but decided to dress and go back out into the corridor. They were told to return to their room and get a lifebelt.
Jean and her mother came onto deck as they were lowering a lifeboat. They thought they would be safer on the Titanic, so didn't get into one of the earlier boats. They watched the officer try to get people into Boats 2 and 6, noting how few people were in each as they were lowered. Passengers talked to each other, at first saying the boat was in no danger. Then they were told the boat would stay afloat for at least 24 hours and that they were safer on deck than in the lifeboats. Later, they were told that the Olympic was near and some ship's lights were pointed out to her. They had no clue that there were not enough lifeboats.
They were walking by Lifeboat 4 as it was being loaded and Colonel Astor told them to get in, although he said there was no danger; she would later credit him for saving her life. Jean and her mother clambered through the windows and entered the boat, finding that it had a couple of sailors. The boat had a small amount of water in it and a man that Mrs Hippach thought was a third class passenger jumped into the boat (although this was probably a crew member). The women had to help row away from the Titanic and from their position, about 450 feet from the ship, they heard a "fearful explosion" and watched it split apart. Jean would later recall the night sky which was filled with stars and she also commented on the large number of shooting stars she witnessed.
They rowed away, expecting the suction to pull at them. The lights all went out one by one then they all went out in a flash, except for a lantern on a mast. There was a fearful cry from the people in the water. They rowed back and were able to pick about eight men out. In the morning they saw the Carpathia and they rowed about two miles to the ship.
It was uncertain at first to family and friends back home whether they were saved; however by April 17 the Chicago papers announced their rescue. Her father and brother hastened to New York to meet the Hippach women. They arrived in Chicago on 21 April 1912 aboard the Twentieth Century Limited.
Undaunted by her experiences on Titanic, Jean soon made another trip to Europe in late 1913 and returned to the USA aboard the Kronprinz Frederich Wilhelm on 11 November that year. Tragedy was to again strike the family on 28 October 1914 when her younger brother Howard was killed in a road accident when the automobile he was travelling in overturned into a pond in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. In the summer the following year, Jean was a passenger in an automobile when her chauffeur struck and killed an eight-year-old boy, John Dredling.
Jean was married in the Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago on 3 January 1920 to Hjalmar Egil Unander-Scharin (b. 1 September 1894), a consul, businessman and resident of Stockholm, Sweden. Born in Västerbotten, Hjalmar was the son of Karl Egil Nikolaus Unander-Scahrin and the former Jenny Maria Johansson and had first come to the USA in 1914. This was his second marriage, his first being in 1918 to Gertrude Linnéa Johansson. He declared intention for US citizenship in November 1917.
Jean and Hjalmar made their home in Chicago and had three children: Howard Hjalmar Hippach (1921-1996), Jean (b. 1925, later Spalding) and Louise Diana (b. 1929, later Moss). The 1930 census shows the family living in Chicago and it is believed they maintained a summer home in Somerset, England.
In June 1930 Jean sued for divorce, she citing the charge of her husband’s infidelity. Hjalmar returned to his native Sweden where he died in his native Västerbotten on 28 January 1940.
In a surprise to her friends a family, Jean remarried quietly in Lake Forest, Illinois to Dr Budd Clarke Corbus Jr(3) (b. 1 April 1907) on 25 January 1942, this also being his second marriage. At the time Corbus was a senior lieutenant in the medical division of the naval reserve corps and stationed in the Lakes but resigned in March that same year on account of ill health.
Jean’s second marriage lasted just over a year and in February 1943 she filed for another divorce and petitioned for the restoration of her maiden name, this time citing her husband’s desertion as the cause. Her husband Corbus was by then living in Colorado.
Jean remained an avid traveller and was shown on passengers lists for: Ile de France, Uruguay, Roma, Aquitania, Kungsholm, Champlain, Berengaria, Nieuw Amsterdam and Queen Elizabeth. Her 1919 passport describes her as having a large mouth and round chin with a full face, high forehead and straight nose. She stood at 5’ 3” and had brown hair and hazel eyes.
She never cared to discuss the Titanic disaster in later years but would occasionally open up about the subject to a few family and friends.
By 1939, when Jean travelled aboard the Washington, she gave her address as 770 Westleigh Road, Lake Forest, Illinois and the 1940 census shows Jean living with her mother at Sheridan Place in Evanstown, Illinois. Following her mother's death that same year Jean relocated to live in Osterville, Massachusetts where she would spend the rest of her life. She was a lover of dogs and was noted for being a particularly inept driver.
Jean Hippach died in Wianno, Massachusetts on 14 November 1974 aged 80. She was buried with her parents and siblings in Rosehill Cemetery in her native Chicago.