Robert Williams Daniel was born 11 September 1884 in Richmond, Virginia to James Robertson Vivian and Hallie Wise Daniel (née Williams). Robert was the great-grand-grandson of Edward Randolph, the first Attorney General of the United States.
Robert graduated from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1903 and embarked on a career in banking and management. He was first employed in the traffic manager’s office of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. He then entered the insurance business around 1905, becoming attached to the firm of Williams and Hart. He would eventually succeed Mr. Williams as district superintendent for the Maryland Life Insurance Company.
In 1906, Robert and a fellow district manager of Maryland Life, Charles Palmer Stearns, formed the insurance firm Daniel and Stearns.
By 1911, Robert Daniel was working as a banker and living in Philadelphia. Business would sometimes cause him to go to Europe. In late 1911 or early 1912, while he was staying at the Carlton Hotel in London, the building caught fire. Robert managed to save the life of a friend who was also staying there.
Robert was en route back to Philadelphia with a newly-purchased French bulldog when he boarded the Titanic in Southampton as a first-class passenger on the morning of 10 April 1912. He survived the tragedy which followed, though the precise manner of his escape remains a controversial matter. Descriptions varied in the press that followed; in at least one account it was claimed he swam completely nude in the North Atlantic for a number of hours before being picked up by a lifeboat. It is possible – and much more plausible – that he simply boarded one of the early lifeboats launched from the starboard side of the stricken liner. His new dog was lost in the sinking.
Robert Daniel, a Philadelphia passenger, told of terrible scenes at this period of the disaster. He said men fought and bit and struck one another like madmen, and exhibited wounds upon his face to prove the assertion. Mr Daniel said that he was picked up naked from the ice-cold water and almost perished from exposure before he was rescued. He and others told how the Titanic's bow was completely torn away by the impact with the berg.
"George D. Widener and Harry Elkins Widener were among those who jumped at the last minute. So did Robert Williams Daniel. The three of them went down together. Daniel struck out, lashing the water with his arms until he had made a point far distant from the sinking monster of the sea. Later he was picked up by one of the passing life-boats.
Sometime during the remainder of the crossing spent aboard the rescue-ship Carpathia, Robert befriended the eighteen-year-old widow Eloise Hughes Smith of Huntington, West Virginia, whose husband of two months had died in the sinking. At Pier 54 in New York, he reportedly carried the young widow down the gangway and handed her over to her father, Congressman James Anthony Hughes.
Robert and Eloise would continue to meet on occasion. The two Titanic survivors would ultimately marry on 18 August 1914. Eloise asked for and was granted a divorce from him in March 1923, citing an “unknown blonde woman” in her claim.
Robert Daniel would go on to marry Margery Pitt Durant later that same year. Margery was the daughter of automobile king William Durant, who formed General Motors in 1908, created Chevrolet in 1910, and founded the Durant Car Company in 1921. Robert became president of Liberty National Bank in New York, which was also owned by his father-in-law. A daughter, also named Margery, was born to the couple around 1925.
Robert and Margery purchased the plantation home Brandon-on-the-James, located along the banks of the James River in Virginia. The history of the plantation dates back to 1616. The main house was reportedly designed by Thomas Jefferson.
The marriage eventually deteriorated, and in July 1928, Margery sued for divorce. The business relationship between Robert and his former father-in-law carried on as usual, with Robert remaining president of the New York branch of Liberty National Bank.
Robert would go on to marry Charlotte Randolph Williams Bemiss in 1929. She bore him a son, Robert Williams Daniel Jr., on 17 March 1936.
Robert Williams Daniel Sr. would not live to see his son become a successful and well-respected politician. He succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver on the 20 December 1940. His first wife, fellow Titanic survivor Eloise Hughes Smith, had preceded him in death that May. He was interred in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
Robert Williams Daniel Jr. would go on to graduate from the University of Virginia in 1958. He worked for a time as a financial analyst, later teaching Economics at the University of Richmond. He also spent four years working for the Central Intelligence Agency. Robert Jr. would go on to serve five terms in Congress representing Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District. He died 4 February 2012 at the age of seventy-five. He too was laid to rest in Hollywood Cemetery.
Crypt of Robert Williams Daniel in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.
(Courtesy of Brandon Whited)