12 Titanic Survivors: What Happened to Them Next
That fateful night was the beginning of the rest of their lives—for better or for worse.
The night that changed everything
More than a century after the Titanic sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the story of that fateful night continues to linger in our imaginations. We remember the 1,500-plus people who perished, including famous titans like John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, and Macy’s owners Isidor and Ida Strauss. But what about the people who survived, the 706 who were lucky enough to make it into lifeboats and then sail to safety aboard the Carpathia? For some, traumatic memories of the tragedy cast a shadow over the rest of their lives; others found fame in their survivor status or became heroes.
Today, there are no survivors left. The last survivor Millvina Dean, who was just two months old at the time of the tragedy, died in 2009 at the age of 97. Here’s a look back at some of the fortunate few who survived “the unsinkable Titanic.”
The most famous Titanic survivor, “new money” socialite and philanthropist Margaret Brown became known as “the Unsinkable Molly Brown.” There was a Broadway musical based on her and, later, a film starring Debbie Reynolds. On the night of the sinking, after helping with the evacuation efforts, she got into Lifeboat 6. Brown urged the boat’s crewman to go back for more people, something depicted in the 1997 film Titanic, but her pleas were rejected.
Once on the Carpathia, Brown helped the other survivors, giving out food and blankets, establishing a Survivor’s Committee, and raising money for those who’d lost everything. By the time the ship reached New York, word of her selfless actions had made her famous. “After being brined, salted, and pickled in mid-ocean I am now high and dry,” she later wrote to her daughter. “I have had flowers, letters, telegrams, people until I am befuddled. They are petitioning Congress to give me a medal….If I must call a specialist to examine my head it is due to the title of Heroine of the Titanic.”
But Brown certainly didn’t let fame go to her head. She continued her activism for causes including women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, ran for Congress, and assisted with relief efforts in France during World War I, which earned her the French Legion of Honor. She also dabbled in acting before dying in 1932 at age 65. Here’s why we’re still so fascinated by the Titanic.
Upon boarding the Titanic, newlywed Madeleine Astor was in the midst of a scandal. At 18, she had just married John Jacob “JJ” Astor, who was 47 and recently divorced. On a long honeymoon abroad, Madeleine became pregnant, so the couple set sail for home. Unfortunately, JJ Astor wouldn’t survive the sinking. “She recalled, she thought, that in the confusion, as she was about to be put into one of the boats, Colonel Astor was standing by her side,” one newspaper reported at the time. “After that…she had no very clear recollection of the happenings until the boats were well clear of the sinking steamer.”
Although she gave birth to a healthy baby later that summer, the public’s interest in her after the tragedy made life difficult. Reportedly, she was greatly “inconvenienced by the curious.” She didn’t often speak about the Titanic, and a cloud seemed to hang over her life. As Astor’s widow and the mother of his son, Madeleine was entitled to a trust as long as she didn’t remarry, but she did just that in 1916, then later divorced and remarried again, this time to an abusive Italian boxer. She died in 1940 when she was just 46 years old.
Seven years old when she sailed on the Titanic with her family, Eva Hart was the last remaining survivor with memories of the event before she died at age 91 in 1996. Hart, who later became a magistrate and received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), gave a series of fascinating televised interviews about her recollections. She remembers how her mother made her father go up on deck to check out what had happened, “literally pulling him out of bed,” she said, and after he returned, her parents quickly and without a word got bundled to go back up. “If we hadn’t done that at that time, I very much doubt I’d be talking to you today…It was a question of who was there in time to get into the all too few lifeboats.” As her father put her in a boat and told her to hold her mother’s hand, “then it dawned on me that he wasn’t coming, that I wouldn’t see him anymore.” She added that if there had been enough lifeboats, “no one would have died that night at all.”
In a twist right out of 1997’s Titanic, Hart’s father gave her mother his coat, which had in its pocket the only known letter written on Titanic stationery the day of the sinking. Hart’s mother had penned it earlier and intended to mail it to her own mother. Hart scrawled at the end of the letter, which went up for auction in 2014, “Heaps of love and kisses to all from Eva.” Here’s another account of a family’s legend of a “Titanic coat.”
Michel and Edmond Navratil
Known as the “Titanic orphans,” almost-4-year-old Michel and 2-year-old Edmond Navratil were reportedly the only children rescued without a parent or guardian. Their father, who was separated from their French mother, had taken off with the children under a false name and set sail for America. He placed the children in the last lifeboat to depart, Collapsible D, but went down with the ship himself. After the brothers’ picture was circulated in newspapers, their mother recognized them and went to America to collect them.
Edmond died in 1953, but Michel was the last male survivor of Titanic, dying in 2001 at age 92. Eventually becoming a philosophy professor in his native France, he spoke philosophically as well about the event that claimed his father’s life. “He dressed me very warmly and took me in his arms. A stranger did the same for my brother. When I think of it now, I am very moved. They knew they were going to die,” he said, according to the BBC. “‘I died at 4. Since then I have been a fare-dodger of life. A gleaner of time.”
J. Bruce Ismay
Portrayed as a coward in the press and as a villain in 1997’s Titanic, the ship’s owner, J. Bruce Ismay, may have gotten a bad rap. “There were a lot of lies in the American press about him escaping on the first lifeboat and dressing up as a woman and things like that, which must have deeply hurt him,” his great-grandson, Malcolm Cheape, told the BBC. Ismay testified that he only boarded a lifeboat after helping others board boats and making sure there were no other women and children nearby. He was cleared of any wrongdoing and retreated from public life. “I suspect he suffered from post-traumatic stress,” Cheape says. “I think longer term, he must have looked back on it and wished he’d never been there.”
His father, John Cheape, said that his grandmother and mother would never speak about the Titanic. “What she did say was that it absolutely shattered his life,” the elder Cheape says. “I think the whole family suffered without any doubt.” Ismay died in 1937 at age 74. His role in the disaster may be one of the Titanic mysteries that may never be solved.
Another controversial survivor was Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon, a fashion designer who made evening wear, tea gowns, lingerie, and movie costumes. Lady Duff-Gordon boarded Lifeboat 1 with her husband, Cosmo, reportedly with only 12 people in it when it could have held 40. Although Cosmo said there were no other women or children present when he entered the boat, rumors persisted that he tried to bribe the crewman not to go back to rescue others. After the press attacked the couple, Lady Duff-Gordon wrote to a friend in a letter that went up for auction in 2015, “According to the way we’ve been treated by England on our return we didn’t seem to have done the right thing in being saved at all!!!! Isn’t it disgraceful.”
Lady Duff-Gordon escaped another sinking when illness prevented her from setting sail on the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by German submarines during World War I. Her fashion house, though, went downhill a few years later. She died in 1935 at age 71.
One could argue that ship stewardess Violet Jessop was even more unsinkable than Molly Brown, as she survived no less than three maritime disasters. Jessop was on board the Olympic in 1911 when it collided with another ship. (The Olympic was able to make it to port without sinking.) On the Titanic, she was saved when she boarded Lifeboat 16. “I was ordered up on deck. Calmly, passengers strolled about. I stood at the bulkhead with the other stewardesses, watching the women cling to their husbands before being put into the boats with their children. Sometime after, a ship’s officer ordered us into the boat first to show some women it was safe,” she wrote in her memoir.
As if that wasn’t enough, she later worked as a nurse on the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, which struck a German mine in 1916. The ship sank, and though 30 people lost their lives, more than 1,000 were saved. “I leapt into the water but was sucked under the ship’s keel which struck my head,” Jessop remembered. “I escaped, but years later when I went to my doctor because of a lot of headaches, he discovered I had once sustained a fracture of the skull!” She continued to work on ships until she retired, and she died at age 84 in 1971. Other lucky people include a family that was supposed to travel on the Titanic, but a last-minute decision saved their lives.
Tennis pro and future Hall of Famer Karl Behr sailed on the Titanic in pursuit of the woman who would become his wife, Helen Newsom, who was on vacation with her family. After the collision with the iceberg, Behr woke Newsom’s family, and they all were able to board Lifeboat 5. “Although the sinking of the Titanic was dreadful…the four days among the sufferers on the Carpathia was much worse and more difficult to forget,” Behr reportedly said, referring to the shock and grief experienced by the survivors. Onboard the Carpathia, though, Behr met fellow tennis ace Richard Williams, who had severe frostbite on his legs; the two would play in a tournament only a few months later.
Behr went on to have success in tennis and in banking, as well as married Newsom and had four children. But his granddaughter Helen Behr Sanford says memories of the sinking haunted him. “He wished he had saved someone from the water so that at least an act of heroism could have resulted from his survival,” she wrote in an account of the aftermath. “He was crushed by inarticulate sadness beyond anyone’s understanding.” Behr died at age 64 in 1949.
The Countess of Rothes
Lucy Noel Leslie, better known as the Countess of Rothes, is remembered as one of the heroes of the disaster, helping to row Lifeboat 8 and manning the tiller. Reportedly, the crewman in charge of the boat, Able Seaman Thomas Jones, said, “She had a lot to say, so I put her to steering the boat.” The Countess also consoled passengers in the lifeboat and cared for them after being rescued by the Carpathia.
Jones and the Countess, as well as another survivor the Countess helped, would go on to correspond with one another until her death in 1956, after which time the letters were found. “It’s hard to believe now, but my great-grandmother never talked about the Titanic disaster after she arrived home,” wrote her great-granddaughter Angela Young. “It wasn’t until she died that we discovered these testaments to her courage and selflessness on that terrible night.” After the Titanic, the Countess continued her noble pursuits in philanthropy and as a nurse in World War I.
Another true hero was the most senior crewman to survive the sinking. Charles Lightoller, the Titanic’s Second Officer, was in charge of lowering lifeboats on the port side during the disaster. He stayed on board until the end and was sucked down by the ship. “I was drowning, and a matter of another couple of minutes would have seen me through…when suddenly a terrific blast of hot air [from a boiler explosion] came up the shaft and blew me right away from the airshaft and up to the surface,” he later recounted in his book, Titanic and Other Ships. He was able to climb onto an overturned lifeboat, where he remained with others until he was rescued.
After distinguished service in World War I, he and his wife set up a guesthouse in England and bought a yacht, which he would end up using to rescue stranded British soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during World War II. He died in 1952 at age 78.
Molly Brown wasn’t the only fascinating and inspiring woman on Lifeboat 6. There was also Elsie Bowerman, an advocate for women’s suffrage both before and after her fateful voyage on the Titanic. Here’s what she later wrote about that night, according to Biography.com: “The silence when the engines stopped was followed by a steward knocking on our door and telling us to go on deck. This we did and were lowered into lifeboats, where we were told to get away from the liner as soon as we could in case of suction. This we did, and to pull an oar in the midst of the Atlantic in April with icebergs floating about is a strange experience.”
Bowerman later became a nurse in World War I and also witnessed the Russian Revolution while she was stationed there in 1917. And after women got the vote in England in 1918, she was allowed to study law and became the first barrister to practice at famed London Courthouse the Old Bailey. During World War II, she served in the Women’s Royal Volunteer Service, and afterward, she helped organize the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. Bowerman died in 1973 at age 83. Here are another 16 amazing women you didn’t learn about in history class.
A silent film actress on vacation with her mother, Dorothy Gibson was saved on Lifeboat 7. According to Smithsonian Magazine, she later recounted that when the ship went down, “suddenly there was a wild coming together of voices from the ship and we noticed an unusual commotion among the people about the railing. Then the awful thing happened, the thing that will remain in my memory until the day I die. No one can describe the frightful sounds.”
Gibson went on to star in the first movie about the disaster, Saved from the Titanic, which premiered just a month after the sinking. But she was haunted by the disaster and soon left the movie business and moved to Europe. Tragedy struck again for Gibson during World War II, when she was imprisoned in a concentration camp. She survived but died in 1946 from a possible heart attack at age 56.