By Frank B. Elser ElserLusitania1917 (optional read as a pdf file link)
Nosing the seawall and piled gunwale-high with life preservers, many of them blood stained, five white lifeboats bobbed at their moorings. Each bore in black letters the name Lusitania.
It was 11 o’clock Saturday morning, May 8, 1915. Queenstown Harbor lay shimmering blue in the May sun, as blue as Irish poets say that Irish waters are, and around and above the town the green hills lay, as green as Irish poets say they are. On the hillsides flamed the gorse, as only Irish gorse can flame.
The town’s main street skirts the waterfront, and as we stepped from the railway station into the roadway – we American newspaper men who had come from London overnight – we saw a strange and pitiful throng, one of the strangest and most pitiful throngs that ever trod on any street.
There were men and women and children, some of them with faces bruised and bandaged, some of them with arms in slings; many of them in misfit clothing. A few wore clothes that were still damp and on which the salt water had caked and crusted. A few were weeping, but most of them seemed dazed. Those who wept, we later learned, were those who had before them the ordeal of visiting the morgues, with the hope – is hope the word? – of finding there some one whom they sought and who was not listed among the living.
Eighteen hours previously we had left London, had left before the London papers were on the streets with their stop-press bulletins of the disaster, and now we stood at the end of the street in Queenstown, ourselves a bit dazed, hardly knowing where to begin. For we had argued during our journey across the Irish Sea that the Lusitania could not sink from a torpedo wound. If by any chance she did, it would be so slowly, we contended, that there would be no great loss of life.
I suppose the whole world thus argued at first. It was the picture story, therefore, we had seen ahead of us – a story of the taking to the boats, of the behavior of the crew, of the exciting and perhaps semi-humorous experiences of the prominent Americans abroad. As we had left London, our offices had sent telegrams to these passengers, requesting them to prepare interviews.
None of us sensed the horror we were to find. Not until we reached Dublin at dawn. There we obtained the newspapers and learned with a shock what we were to confirm later from the lips of survivors, that the Lusitania had sunk, and had sunk swiftly, and that with her had perished more than a thousand persons, 142 of them Americans. We were face to face then, as we stepped into the sunlight streaming down on the town sheltering the refugees, with the greatest tragedy and the most dramatic event the war had developed.
At 2 o’clock on the previous afternoon the great liner had gone down, torn wide open by a torpedo from a German submarine. During the night, we now knew, local correspondents had filed thousands of words to London, and there, as we also knew, it had been whipped into shape and, woven with matter obtained from the Canard Line offices in Liverpool, had been rushed to New York, where it had again been rewritten and whipped into shape and woven with such material as the Cunard offices there supplied. But no one on the scene had as yet written a consecutive account of how it all happened. The heart of the story had not been touched.
We began with the first bedraggled survivors. They were the people we had come to interview, both those who sought their dead and those who did not. In the hospitals and hotels and in private homes, in beds and on cots, and on improvised stretchers in hallways other survivors lay, some with broken limbs, many badly bruised, not a few delirious, one or two dying. These we would not disturb, but the others must give us their stories. And theirs were the survivors’ accounts that you read in this country.
During that first afternoon and night, working up and down Queenstown’s main street, in and out of the hotel corridors, in and out of the hospitals, in and out of the morgues, we obtained, bit by bit, the story, which we filed piecemeal at the small telegraph office on the waterfront. In that office at times we wrote standing, paper against the wall. Ahead of us at the telegraph desk survivors stood, five deep. Some of them had never before sent a cable. Unnerved and unstrung, they were engaged now cabling home of the safety or of the loss of some member of their family. Surely we could not hurry them.
Further to congest the cable lines came a stream of messages from the outside world — messages of congratulation to the living, (some of these, to be sure, were sent to people who were dead,) of condolence to the bereaved, and a hundred frantic inquiries from persons unable to get word from some one dear to them. Behind the desk the Postmaster stood, face haggard, clothes untidy. He had been up all night, and there had been dispatched from his office more messages than had been handled in any five years of its previous existence. As we learned subsequently, some of our dispatches were eighteen hours reaching London.
Now death is not new to me, nor is suffering. I reported the landing of the Titanic’s dead at Halifax, when bodies, piled like cordwood, sightless eyes staring into the sun, came in by hundreds on the cable ship Mackay-Bennett. For half a day I watched the assembled undertakers of the Province of Nova Scotia coffin those dead, and I saw the bereaved and heard their sobs. But as a tragedy that disaster cannot compare with the sinking of the Lusitania.
The Titanic’s dead were peaceful; they had died after the ship had struck an iceberg – had perished, if you choose, by the hand of God. The Lusitania’s dead, as their scratched and distorted faces showed, died in panic and in terror; and they died by the hand of man, by the hand of a German. Yet – and this is the strangest of all the impressions that I took away from Queenstown – I heard among the survivors no bitterly outspoken denunciation of the Germans.
When we first learned what a toll of life the sinking ship had taken, I had pictured frantic men and women crying aloud for vengeance; hard-faced men and screaming women, vowing that somewhere, somehow, they would exact retribution. Instead, we found a dazed throng, docile, stupefied almost, it seemed to me. It was as though they did not understand, or as though death and grief and pain, exerting a chastening influence, had brought out in all those who had gone through the ordeal patience, gentleness, forbearance.
Some were temporarily unhinged mentally. One man, smiling, would tell all who listened how remarkable had been his good fortune in saving two out of four children.
“Fifty per cent,” he would keep repeating. “Fifty per cent. That is very good …. Some men lost their whole family.”
Many could not talk coherently; others told us one version of their experience, and when we met them again another widely at variance with that. Some said they had seen the wake of one torpedo, some of two. Some had seen no wake at all. Some spoke rapidly, with a vividness and sureness of detail that smacked less of fact than of a distorted imagination; others spoke falteringly, hazily.
Some said panic of the worst sort had prevailed aboard; others insisted that perfect order had been maintained by both passengers and crew. The truth was that each passenger’s area of observation was limited, as it necessarily would be aboard that great floating hotel.
There were those who were sure they had seen Captain Turner, the Lusitania’s commander, put a bullet through his brain as he stood on the bridge of his sinking ship, Whether these survivors were suffering from a hallucination or whether, hearing the supposed incident related, they had unconsciously woven it into the fabric of the tragedy as they saw it, I do not know. Their conviction was unshakable.
We found Captain Turner, seeking seclusion in his distress, in a small room over an obscure office building. He had gone down with his ship, as all good skippers do, and had been saved by a miracle. When I saw him he had on the uniform with which he had plunged into the sea, streaky with salt water. Surely, thought I, he will have something to say – of this sinking of an unarmed merchant ship with her thousands of noncombatants aboard. But he only shook his head.
“It is the fortune of war,” he said.
We went through the morgues – there were three of them. I say morgues – they were simply rooms where the dead lay. The bodies were ranged side by side, heads to the wall. Walking into the dimly- lighted rooms, reeking with formaldehyde, you passed between rows of dead, along sawdust aisles bordered by upturned feet. In separate groups the children and babies lay, in some cases stacked. like dolls in a shop, one on the other. Some lay on their mothers’ breasts, and nearly all of them were smiling, for truly they had not understood.
Over these silent forms Irish policemen bent, tears streaming down their broad faces. They were numbering the bodies, making identification where possible, taking the trinkets and valuables from the unidentified and placing them in little canvas bags to be-numbered in a manner corresponding to the bodies.
In a corner lay Charles Frohman, his collar open, his face peaceful. He had said, so other passengers told us, if you will remember, “This is life’s great adventure – death.”
There was a ticket, on his breast, but it read, “Mr. Forman, New York, First Cabin.” I had never seen the great manager alive, but I had seen his picture, and I was sure that it was he. So I sent a bulletin to London, saying, “Add identified dead, Charles Frohman”; and then we notified the young American consul, and he had the body removed to an undertaking establishment. It was carried through the streets covered with the Stars and Stripes and everybody who saw bared their heads as they did whenever the dead were passed.
Outside the morgues silent crowds stood. Every now and then they would part and through the line they formed, a man or woman would pass. They were seeking their dead. At the morgue door the woman usually would stop, hesitant, raising her hand to her face or breast, as women do. Could she endure it – looking at those dead? Could she endure it if she found whom she sought!
One woman, especially, I remember. She was young and pretty; that is, she had been young and pretty until terror and grief and pain had touched her face like a blight and made her old. She was looking for her husband, and, not finding him among the injured in hospital or tome, she had come now to the morgues.
At the door of one of these she accosted me. Possibly by my expression she divined that I had not been a sufferer.
“Will you help me?” she asked suddenly, and I noticed that she spoke quite calmly.
“I will try,” I said.
“I can’t go in there,” she went on, “ … but I must.”
She began to wring her hands. I suppose she had long passed the stage where tears were possible.
“Will you find him for me – my husband?” she asked.
No one could have refused. Eagerly she began to give me his description, and as she spoke 1 realized that unless I could find some card bearing his name, or some trinket that she would recognize I should not be able to identify him, for her description, though fervid, was vague.
“He is handsome,” she said, “and he has a fine head, and a high forehead, and his hair is brown.” She used the present tense.
I went through the morgue, but I did not find him. At her request, I went through the other morgues and I did not find him. Then there came to that woman the full realization that, to satisfy her heart, she must look for herself, must view the dead; and her predicament was pitiful.
She would go to the morgue door and pause, trembling; she could not force herself to go inside. She would turn away to steel herself, and return only to pause at the door again. Others inspected for her the rows of dead and they told her her husband was not among them. But her heart would give her no peace. She might be leaving him to be buried unnamed in a common grave. So repeatedly she returned to the morgues, until the crowds came to know her and stood back and whispered.
I do not know whether she ever brought herself to the task of seeing the dead. But I do know that I remained at Queenstown two weeks, long after the unidentified dead were buried, and the man she sought was not among them.
When we came to rest that night at a hotel – I say that night, although it was nearer daylight Sunday – we began to understand how the survivors talked as if they had dreamed rather than experienced what they had gone through. For we could hardly remember what we had written. It seemed a great while since we had begun at the head of the main street in the sunlight among the survivors; and some things we had not thought at all important seemed very vivid now.
All over the hotel we could hear groans. I could not sleep. I kept seeing dead in endless rows, kept hearing footfalls in the hotel corridors. I got up and dressed and went downstairs. Outside my door I found that the footfalls I heard were real, for nurses and doctors tending the wounded and delirious were passing to and fro, as were a great many survivors to whom sleep would not come.
In a little rack over the hotel desk I saw a stack of undelivered telegrams. Some were for me, from my office, with instructions. But most of them were addressed to the Lusitania’s more prominent passengers – Alfred G. Vanderbilt, Mr. Frohman, Elbert Hubbard, and others. They were undelivered because the persons to whom they were addressed lay in the morgue or had gone down with the great ship and were unrecovered.
Slowly the dead came in. The first great lot had been picked up amid the flotsam and jetsam from the liner’s decks. But others remained, some of them floating feet upward in wrongly adjusted life preservers, drifting with the wreckage, south and east, toward the tip of Ireland. Waiting for the dead I remained in Queenstown. For these bodies fishing boats and smaller naval vessels made search; and day after day they brought to Queenstown what they garnered from the sea.
For miles, so the crews of these vessels told us, the smear of wreckage spread wicker work from the salons, tabarets, deck chairs, boxes, odds and ends of all sorts – and this litter, which despoiled the surface of the sea like refuse on a spotless lawn, the patrol boats followed.
Ahead of them flew the screaming gulls, dipping and rising over the floating dead, at times to perch on their upturned breasts, where they stood swaying with the ocean swell. Thus, those who had not found their dead in the morgues waited, waited some of them for days after the unidentified had been buried in the cemetery over the hill from the town – for days after all other survivors, barring these whose injuries prevented their traveling, had left us. The boats came in at all hours of the day and night. “Trawler Patrick abeam, with 14 bodies, eight women, four men, two children, now docking,” the word would spread through the town. And those whose duty it was to view these would go through an iron gate which barred the way to the Cunard pier, and down to the pier, where they would stand uncovered while sailors bore the bodies ashore on stretchers.
Those who sought a woman would avert their eyes when they saw that the figure on the stretcher was a man; those who sought a man would quickly turn away when a strand of wet hair indicated that it was a woman. They had seen too much of death to gaze upon it needlessly. Toward the last, I remember, a small group, all that remained of those who had not found their dead, stood bareheaded in the rain while the sailors of a torpedo boat brought ashore ten bodies picked up off Fastnet. To expedite identification, it had been the custom to leave the faces uncovered, but that day a cloth covered them even as they lay on the stretchers. When, in the morgue, an attendant removed this covering a shudder ran through all those who looked. I thought of Poe. Sea gulls had picked the eyes from the bodies, and the sockets were full of blood, like wells of crimson ink.
I brought with me from Ireland a copy of The Cork Examiner of Saturday, May 8 – two years ago. Some day it may be historic. As I found it that morning it was unique. The editor had adhered to his make-up of years, notwithstanding that the greatest disaster he would ever be called upon to chronicle had occurred almost within his range of vision. I found the Lusitania story on pages 7 and 8, the preceding pages being devoted to death notices – not of the Lusitania victims – and to classified and miscellaneous advertisements, and a short story.
Beginning on Page 7, under an 11-deck head, three columns wide, I found the account of the disaster. It was well summarized, but when it came to describing the scenes at Queenstown the writer found himself hard pressed for words adequately to express his feelings. He said that the incident had “created consternation among all classes in the South of Ireland,” and that the scenes at Queenstown were “beyond the power of pen to describe.” We, writing for a presumably neutral press, found ourselves scarcely better off in this respect than he.
– Reprinted from The New York Times, May 6, 1917
By: Michael Poirier and Jim Kalafus
Author’s note: (Putting together a puzzle can be frustrating, yet when one puts the final piece in one feels a sense of accomplishment. This story is like a puzzle. Most of the pieces are in place and perhaps someday the final piece will be added. The thrill of the hunt is exciting as is the sense of accomplishment when one puts everything together; especially if you have helped someone along the way. The following is the product of many people’s efforts and hard work. )
We received an email one day from Mary Jolivet. She had seen the authors name connected to Rita and the Lusitania and said that she was her grand niece. She told us that she wanted to put him in touch with her father Lawrence. He was Rita’s only nephew and Mary said that Rita had been “very fond” of him. Reading over her email, she gave us some background info on her dad. “He’s 83,” she said. We then recalled that Beatrice Witherbee had re-married an Alfred Jolivet and had given birth to a son Lawrence in 1920. We sent her a quick reply asking if his mother was by chance named Beatrice and if she also survived the Lusitania. She soon responded in the affirmative that “Trixie”, as she affectionately referred to her, was her grandmother. We had once speculated that perhaps Beatrice married a relative of Rita’s. Mary said she only knew scant details about her grandmother’s past. She described it as being “murky.” We revealed what we had on the two ladies and she said her father would be thrilled as he didn’t know too much about their involvement in the disaster. We were soon in touch by phone and found him to be very friendly and kind. Due to his friendship and his generosity, the story is nearly complete.
The date was May 1, 1915. Two women, whose lives would forever be intertwined, were getting ready to sail on the Lusitania. The tragedy, in which 1,198 people lost their lives, would bring Rita Jolivet and Beatrice Witherbee together.
Marguerite Lucile Jolivet, better known as actress Rita Jolivet, had been vacillating between which ship she should take. She was booked on the liner, New York and her name was on the printed list of passengers published in the New York Times. Her baggage was packed; Stage props, evening gowns, jewelry, and her trousseau worth 2,000 British pounds were ready to be brought to the pier. Yet, in the back of Rita’s mind, she thought the Lusitania would be a more suitable choice. The ship was one of the fastest liners crossing the Atlantic. “I wanted to see my brother before he went off to the front,” she declared. Her younger sibling Alfred was preparing to leave with his regiment, the Somersetshire Light Infantry. The New York was a much slower vessel and she was, “afraid of not seeing my brother.” Her other purpose, she claimed, was to journey to Turin to fulfill her contract with a leading Italian film company. She had just made her film debut in, Fate Morgana and The Unafraid. The presence on board of acquaintances such as Charles Frohman and Alfred Vanderbilt was further inducement for Rita to change her booking. Her friend and fellow thespian Ellen Terry tried to prevail upon her to keep her current booking. The New York, on which she was also sailing, was a neutral ship and would guarantee a safe crossing. The decision came to Rita early in the morning on the 1st. She made arrangements to switch her passage to the Lusitania.
Beatrice Witherbee had much to do when she arrived in New York on April 24th. Her husband Alfred Witherbee, head of Mexican Petroleum Solid Fuel Company, wanted to move his family to London permanently. This included his mother-in-law Mary “May ” Brown and his son Alfred junior. Beatrice had less than a week to finish packing up their belongings and to take care of any final business. Among her possessions were a gold mesh bag, diamond cluster ring, diamond and sapphire ring, solitaire pearl ring, furs, a silver fox, dresses from Maison Paul and Amy Lanker, table linens and silver. She had taken the Lusitania home and was friendly with Charles Hill and his family while aboard. Hill had been accompanying his wife Anita and their children back to the U.S. and was traveling back on the same ship to continue his overseas business. He would act as an informal escort for the trio. The night before the ship sailed, Beatrice and her family were staying at the Hotel Biltmore. Her brother-in-law, Sidney Witherbee, pleaded with her to take another ship. She declined to do so as she felt her chances of getting over safely were better on the Lusitania. The following morning, Sidney saw the announcement by the Germany Embassy and went down to the dock to try to persuade Beatrice not to sail, but she again refused.
The Cunard pier was alive with the excitement of sailing day when Rita arrived; shortly before 10 o’clock as she recollected. She had made it just in time, though she was less than happy when she was shown to her cabin, D-15. “It was a very bad room, because it was last moment, and I had to take an inside room. ” It could have been worse. The previous August, at the onset of the war, Rita had been in Naples. Thousands were fleeing, ships were overbooked, and she was only able to secure an ‘improved steerage’ cabin aboard the Verona. The ship docked, but the actress was detained by the Immigration Inspector as she only had 5 francs. Since she was not an American, she could not land unless she had sufficient funds or friends to greet her. Rita informed him that she had paid $143 for her passage. Her brother-in-law George Butler, whose professional name was George Vernon, was located and boarded the Verona to vouch for her.
The Witherbee family was led to their cabin D-52, an inside cabin. It was located across from the main staircase and the elevators, which offered easy access to the boat deck. Settling in, Beatrice may have had all sorts of well wishes from her husband; May 1st marked their fifth wedding anniversary. Staterooms on sailing day were usually filled with bon voyage telegrams, candy, flowers, and champagne. She had been a prominent society girl from Larchmont when she eloped with Witherbee. She was twenty and he was forty-nine. Alfred’s daughter, Mildred, was less than two years younger than his bride. Their honeymoon lasted till December of 1910, when they arrived in New York on the Caronia. She gave birth to a son, Alfred Scott Witherbee, on June 27, 1911.
Passengers milled about the decks waiting for the ship to sail. The delay lasted till about 1 o’clock, Rita recalled. It gave people a chance to explore the ship and see who was aboard. She marveled at the coincidence that George Vernon was on the Lusitania. “To my great surprise I found my brother-in-law was going back too. I met him on the boat. He had also decided to hurry back to his wife.” According to the newspapers of the time, Inez was ‘seriously ill’ with a severe throat infection. His other reason, which she may not have been aware of, was that he was negotiating a contract to sell Grand Duke Michael of Russia, brother to the Tsar, Westinghouse rifles. His wife Inez Jolivet was acquainted with the Russian Royal family as she had been decorated by the Tsar of Russia and King Edward during her career as a concert violinist. She also performed at the Metropolitan Opera House when not touring. Vernon himself was a tenor soloist, though he originally started out in a career in banking. He had to rush back to New York in order to catch the Lusitania. The day before, he had taken the train to the family homestead on Charlotte Street in Worcester, Massachusetts to help celebrate his nephew John’s ninth birthday. While he was there, he amused his family and friends by performing magic tricks. Rita may not have said much about her stateroom accommodations to George as he was situated in E-62, which was smaller than her own cabin.
Beatrice made arrangements with the dining room steward to have her son seated next to her at the dining room table and not in the nursery. One wonders how she got the steward to agree. Fellow passenger George Kessler saw young Alfred in the main dining room and noted that “This, of course, is not generally permitted,” but understandable since he was ” a charming little boy “. She was known by her family to get her way. Once, while blotting out her birthdate on her passport, in order to conceal her true age she was questioned by customs. “Oh pooh, everybody does it,” was her reply! Perhaps she used a similar strategy in regards to the seating situation. Charles Hill fulfilled his role as escort and sat with the family every day during meal time.
The two ladies may have met due to the fact that the actress brought her camera on the trip. Rita described the children on board as being, “very beautiful” and that she took many pictures of them. They were also about the same age and their cabins were fairly close. There was also the mutual on board acquaintance of Wallace Phillips. The Jolivet family is not quite sure how their friendship aboard the ship came about; what is known is that Rita was having a good time. She commented that the voyage as an “enjoyable one.” Certainly she relished being in the company of Charles Frohman, Alfred Vanderbilt, Captain Alick Scott, and her brother-in-law. The topics of conversation revolved around everything from theatre to rumors about being torpedoed. She remarked, “During the voyage I was one of a party constantly associated, including Alfred Vanderbilt and Charles Frohman. We often discussed the chances of a submarine attacking us and all laughed at the idea, believing that with the Lusitania’s speed no submarine could even threaten us.” Rita’s table was situated close to the entrance on the portside so who ever entered the dining room caught a glimpse of her.
George Kessler met Beatrice one afternoon, early in the voyage. He stated, “I had been asked by mutual friends to make myself known to her. When I did, Mrs. Witherbee was entirely wrapped up in her little boy, devoting herself in amusing him.” Not everyone appreciated lively children. Theodate Pope described being next to a “noisy family”. Her cabin was D-54, adjacent to the Witherbees’, however, the Crompton family were in the cabins directly behind hers. No doubt, the Crompton children were the offending family. Miss Pope eventually asked the purser to switch her cabin to “A” deck. The Witherbees’ steward Robert Niemann ( later changed to Barnes ) remembered the group. “Her name was Mrs. A.S. Witherbee, and Master A.S. Witherbee aged about 4 years. I think the old lady who was with Mrs. Witherbee and the boy, was Mrs. Witherbee’s mother, as she was very attached to the boy “.
Beatrice and Alfred Scott Witherbee, Jr.
Rita and her friends attended the Seaman’s Charity Concert in the First Class Lounge on the evening of May 6th, which was chaired by Mr. William Broderick-Cloete. She recalled the camaraderie of the last evening, “On Thursday night, I sat next to Mr. Vanderbilt and Mr. Frohman and all were in high spirits.” The May 7th edition of the ‘ Cunard Daily Bulletin ‘ recapped the previous night’s events. “Mr. W. Broderick-Cloete, who occupied the Chair, made a stirring appeal on behalf of the Charities, with the result that the handsome sum of 106 pounds 10s and 5d was contributed. The sale of programmes realized 16 pounds 14s and 2d.” The actress may have helped with selling programs. “I remember that Rita Jolivet, the actress, and I had been taking up a collection for the musicians, ” Rose Ellen Murray said years later. She could have mistaken someone else for Jolivet. Josephine Brandell, an actress and operatic singer, was known to have collected money on behalf of the musicians. Rita eventually went down to her cabin but found she could not rest. She later said, “I had not slept well.” Perhaps it was the euphoria of the voyage coming to a close or maybe, like Josephine Brandell, she was nervous due to the fact they were entering the danger zone. Needless to say, she rested most of the next morning and only got up in time for lunch. She observed that the Lusitania was not going very fast. “I noticed that she had slowed down; she seemed to me to be slowed down. ” The actress finished her lunch and walked, “along the corridor…to my cabin.” Shortly after the disaster, she said the reason she had gone to her stateroom was for a book to read.
Steward Robert Niemann attended to Beatrice and family on that final day, noting, “The ladies and the boy had gone to their cabin or on deck.” Charles Hill left shortly there after. “I had an appointment with Miss Hale, the ship’s stenographer for 2:00 p.m. to dictate some letters. “Moments later, at approximately 2:10 P.M., the Lusitania was torpedoed.
“I was down in my cabin at the time…As soon as I arrived in my cabin the shock came, ” Rita remembered. “I was thrown about a great deal.” She told of all the glasses and everything of a fragile nature going to pieces.” Well, the Germans have got us this time, ” cried the actress. She thought, at first, it was “a loose mine”. Looking out her cabin door, she saw a woman in the corridor putting on her lifebelt. Not needing any further prompting, “I climbed on to my bunk and got hold of the lifebelt; from the top of the wardrobe.”
Lifebelt in hand, Rita exited her cabin and made for the boat-deck. “With great difficulty, I walked through the corridor and walked up the four flights of stairs to deck ‘A’. I had trouble on account of the list; people were coming and going; it was very noticeable. “Finding Beatrice and her family was Charles Hill’s chief concern. ” I made my way through the alleyway and went to cabin 52 on ‘D’ deck, in the hope of assisting Mrs.Witherbee, her mother Mrs. Brown, and her boy Alfred. I found the cabin empty and as the water was already coming in, I chased up the steps back to ‘B’ deck. ”
George Vernon, Charles Frohman, Alick Scott, and Alfred Vanderbilt stood together on ‘A’ deck waiting for the actress to join them. She spied them in the throng of people gathering in the companionway. “I found my brother-in-law, Mr. Charles Frohman, and a Mr. Scott. I believe there was another gentleman behind, that they said was Mr. Vanderbilt.” Looking closer, she found it was Vanderbilt. George Vernon noticed she was only carrying one lifebelt. “Did you bring any others, ” he queried. ” No, ” she replied, ” Because I couldn’t reach the other. ” She realized then that there must have been more, but ” I didn’t know that there were other lifebelts in my room; there were, but I didn’t know at the time. ”
Seeing that the party needed lifejackets, Alick Scott went down to ‘B’ deck, where his cabin was located, to get them. ” He got up four lifebelts, and gave one to my brother-in-law and one to Mr. Frohman and one he kept for himself, ” Rita recounted. ” And while he was helping Mr. Frohman on with his, and my brother-in-law was helping me with mine, someone stole his lifebelt. ” Scott journeyed back downstairs for more, but ended up giving his to an old woman. His friends were impressed with his selflessness. ” We offered him ours, and he said, no, he could swim better than any of us. ” She recalled that his words were to the effect of, ” Why worry? We all have to die sometime. ”
Rita continued to stand, ” near the elevator; near the lift. ” Curious as to what was going on outside, ” I looked out on the deck and I saw a lifeboat being lowered, but the guard slipped; it was not lowered evenly, and the women and children were thrown out. ” Frohman cautioned them all to, ” Stay where you are. This is going to be a close call. We shall have more chances here than by rushing for the boats. ” Having witnessed the upending of the lowering lifeboat, she was inclined to agree. ” We stood talking about the Germans and the rumor which had gained currency to the effect that a man, obviously of German origin, had been arrested for tampering with the wireless, so I am not sure about its truth, but there were good grounds for believing it. ” Perhaps one of them had had spoken to Charles Hill who had related the following story. ” On Tuesday night before the wreck, the Staff-Captain, Anderson, told me that three suspicious characters had slipped past the cordon of secret service men at New York and they had afterward found them and confined them below. ”
Making his way from the portside to starboard, Wallace Phillips encountered the group. ” I saw Alfred Vanderbilt, Mr. Frohman, Guy Vernon, and Miss Rita Jolivet, A. Scott, and three or four others whom I did not know standing close together and spoke to them, stating that there was no chance whatever of getting off on that side of the boat and that they had better cross to the other side and do it quickly. All of the party however decided that they would stay where they were for a few minutes. ”
Frohman must have sensed that end was near. ” You know I have never feared death, ” he stated. ” To my mind, death is the most beautiful adventure which life can offer. The test for us at all time is too meet it as such. ” He then turned to them and said, ” We had better get out. ” Rita remembered the details of those final moments. ” My brother-in-law took hold of my hand, and I grasped the hand of Mr. Frohman who, as you know, was lame. Mr. Scott took hold of his other hand and Mr. Vanderbilt joined the row too… We went out on to the promenade deck and saw the ship was sinking right away, and ( we ) waited till the last moment. ”
Jolivet listened as Frohman spoke again. ” Why fear death? It is one of the most beautiful things that life holds for anyone. ” The Lusitania began its plunge to the bottom of the ocean. ” He had hardly spoken when with a tremendous roar, a great wave swept along ‘A’ deck… and the water swept me away from my brother-in-law and from Mr. Frohman, swept me with such great force that my buttoned shoes were swept off my feet. I was struck under water. I sank down twice. ” While she struggled under the sea, the last of the Lusitania disappeared.
What happened to Beatrice, Alfred, and May during the sinking is a mystery to her family. Any time they asked her about the Lusitania, she would say, ” Aww, you don’t want to hear about that. ” Lawrence Jolivet said that his grandmother Pauline Jolivet once told him that she thought that his mother had held onto Alfred in the water. Many mothers went into the sea with their children; Sarah Fish and her daughters Eileen and Marion; Elizabeth and Edith Brammer; Martha and Winifred Barker; Gertrude Adams and her daughter Joan. Some of the children would be pulled into lifeboats. Others would succumb to the effects of the cold water. Annie Baxter would tell a story about a young boy who clung to her neck in the water. He repeatedly asked her to save him and cried out, ” My father’s a millionaire. ”
There is some evidence that Beatrice and her family were in a boat that overturned. Reviewing the accounts of mothers who lost sons, Margaret Mackworth could only have been speaking about one of only a few women in the following story which took place aboard the rescue ship, Bluebell. ” The Captain of the Lusitania was amongst those rescued on our little boat, but I never heard him speak. The other exception was a woman who sat silent in the outer cabin. Presently she began to speak. Quietly, gently, in a low, rather monotonous voice, she described how she had lost her child. She had, so far as I can recollect, had been made to place him on a raft which owing to some mismanagement, had capsized. She considered that his death had been un-necessary; that it had been due to the lack of organisation and discipline on board, and gently and dispassionately, she said so to the Captain of the Lusitania.
The grave of Alfred Scott Witherbee, Jr.
A flurry of thoughts went through Rita’s mind as she rose to the surface. She told reporters that she intended to court, ” a speedy death ” and that she didn’t want to prolong the agony of swimming about. She soon found a lifeboat close by. ” There was an upturned boat on which I put my hand and clung to. We remained out there clinging on to it; we were sinking; and then came from under it a collapsible boat. ” Patrick McGinley, brother of Rose Ellen Murray, maintained that he helped Jolivet and Lady Allan aboard the craft. ” We remained out there clinging to the boat for three hours and a half. ” Eventually, her boat was rescued by the Katrina which was actually the Westborough in disguise. She asserted that they didn’t get to Queenstown till about, ” one o’clock in the morning. ”
Rita was taken to the Admiral’s house where she found a number of acquaintances. ” I took Mrs. Pearl, the wife of Major Pearl, and a Mrs. Thompson… and I went down to Queen’s Hotel, because Lady Allan was ill and there was nobody to take care of the people there. So I took care of Lady Allan. ” The newspapers recorded that the actress “massaged” the ladies to restore them. She didn’t suffer any consequences of being in the water so long, but ” had a slight abrasion and scratches on her face. ” She asked fellow passengers if they had seen George Vernon. Dr. James Houghton was reported to have said that he and Vernon were in the same boat when the latter became delirious and jumped overboard. ” I saw a man named Vernon go crazy and drown himself. ” Similar statements were given to her and the version she accepted was that he came across friends on a crowded raft. They wanted him to come aboard and he was to have said, ” No, I might overload it and bring you all down. ” Vernon supposedly frustrated by their efforts to bring him on to the raft, said as he was going down, ” Oh, don’t bother, I’m perfectly happy. ” Harold Boulton related years later that he met Rita at the hotel after they were rescued. He recalled seeing a curious item she had saved. ” She showed me the revolver. ” It was his understanding that a year after the disaster, ” the lifebelt and the pearl studded revolver were hung up in the entrance to the theatre, ” where she was performing.
Charles Hill met up with his steward Robert Niemann and the two began looking for Beatrice and her family. ” On Saturday morning Mr. Hill and I set out to try and find the two ladies and the boy. We found Mrs. Witherbee at the Queen’s Hotel. She asked us if we would try and find the boy and the old lady as she had not seen them. We searched the town everywhere… but we never saw the boy or the old lady.” Alfred Witherbee received word of the disaster and immediately traveled to Ireland, with an attaché from the American Embassy. The boy was recovered later on, body number 243, and buried in a private grave on June 16th. His stone states, ” Foully murdered by Germany. ” There was a rumor that May Brown had been identified, but nothing further came of it. The Consulate report noted that as of the 15th of May, Beatrice was in London with her husband at the Savoy Hotel. Friends grieved over her loss. ” Imagine the tragedy of this devoted lady. She had been saved and her darling boy and mother have been drowned, ” lamented George Kessler.
Rita did not remain long in Ireland and was soon on her way to her parent’s home;Medmenham, 3 Ennerdale Road, Kew Gardens, Surrey. She readily gave interviews to the press. The headline for her local paper read, ” Kew Actress’s Miraculous Escape. ” Recounting the disaster, she said that she ” felt deeply the loss of so many beautiful children ” and that she had lost everything except her furs and her maid which she had left behind in New York. She sent a telegram to the Butler family that read, ‘George died a hero.’
Two women were now at the crossroads. One was ready to move ahead with a flourishing career and her upcoming marriage. The other contemplated life without her child. Their lives were about to converge in a big way.
The role of Josie Richards in Broadway Jones was to be Rita’s next role. She began playing in theatres less than a month after the ship went down. Her sister Inez was distraught. A friend, Mr. Govin, recalled that the widow had often said she, ” had nothing more to live for. ” George Vernon’s body was recovered and buried in a private grave in Queenstown on May 17th. The property found on his person was forwarded to Inez on June 2nd. The Butler family received a cable from her. ‘ George died and God’s will be done. Am crushed and heartbroken. Hope to sail as soon as possible for America. Love. Inez Jolivet Vernon. ‘ She set sail on the St. Paul with several Lusitania survivors and two Titanic survivors; arriving in New York on June 13, 1915. She died a month later. ( See accompanying article for further details ) Rita traveled to Turin, Italy to fulfill her movie obligations and made a number of films that included; Zvani; L’ Onore di Morire; Monna Vanna; La Mano di Fatma; and Cuore ed arte. One of her directors was Cecil B. De Mille. She and her fiancé Count Giuseppe de Cippico set a date for their marriage. He accompanied her to New York on the Nieuw Amsterdam and arrived on September 30, 1915 and then returned to Italy shortly there after. She began preparing for her new role as Boriska Boltay in Mrs. Boltay’s Daughters. Count de Cippico came back on November 4th to spend the holidays with Rita.
Two days after Christmas, Alfred Witherbee filed claims on behalf of his wife and himself. She declared personal injuries resulting from the sinking. Documents also showed she inherited her mother’s estate. He said that his wife had taken with her $2,060 in cash belonging to him and some personal effects of his valued at $1,500. He also claimed the disaster brought about the ” loss of society and consortium of wife ” for which he wanted to be compensated $10,000. Evidently, she had refused his affections and he felt that the marriage was breaking down. They journeyed to Monte Carlo, despite their strained relationship, where he deserted her on April 15, 1916. He left Monte Carlo, and booked passage on the Lafayette in Bordeaux; arriving in the New York on May 22, 1916. Her new home was an institution!
A quiet marriage ceremony was planned for the Count and his new bride. They were wed by private license on January 27, 1916 at the home of her parents in Kew Gardens. Only a few friends and relatives were present for the occasion. This was a less formal than her first wedding to Alfred Charles Stern; the ceremony, which marked their short lived union, had taken place at St. Dionis’ Church, S.W. on November 14th, 1908. The de Cippicos decided to spend their honeymoon on Broadway and again took the Nieuw Amsterdam from Antigua to New York. She supposedly announced to the papers that would give up the stage for domestic life. She changed her first name to Margherita and also shaved several years off her age. Her promise to give up her career was short-lived. The two returned to Europe for a quick visit before she was due to start filming in the U.S. Rita apparently took pity on her friend Beatrice, retrieved her from the institution and invited her to stay. She convalesced at the Jolivet family home for many months. Lawrence Jolivet believes this was when Rita introduced his mother to his father, Alfred Eugene Jolivet, who was on leave from the army due to ill health caused by war wounds in 1917. The romance was not well-received by Rita who now referred to her former friend as, “that horrible Witherbee woman!” Pauline Jolivet did not like this situation and, as Lawrence remembers, she organized a ” Peace Luncheon “. The two eventually reconciled and got along ” perfectly well ” afterwards.
Rita made two films about the Lusitania. The first, Her Redemption, (1916) is little remembered, but the second, Lest We Forget is perhaps her best known film role. ( See accompanying article ) The movie did cause some dissension in the family because her father, Charles Eugene, gave $20,000 towards the project. Other forays into the movies included; The Honor to Die; Love’s Sacrifice; and An International Marriage. She was very conscientious of her audience. Rita went on tour when Lest We Forget came out and gave talks about her experience on the Lusitania wherever the movie was playing. The actress also related how she witnessed the first invasion of Belgium and Northern France. She made an appearance in Indianapolis on the third anniversary of the wreck. The local paper reported that the previous week she had appeared in Baltimore to help raise bonds. They announced, ” Miss Jolivet has sold more Liberty Bonds than Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. In Baltimore alone, she sold over five million dollars worth of bonds. ” Rita testified in court at the Limit of Liability hearings. She maintained that the portholes were open on the day of the disaster and that the ship was going slower than usual. She and her husband lived at 18 East 60th Street at the time of her testimony.
Rita’s 5th Avenue residence
Meanwhile, Beatrice set out to serve her husband with divorce papers. She made a trip to New York on the Baltic in 1917. Lusitania survivor Archibald Donald was also aboard. She and Alfred Jolivet had fallen in love and she wanted to end her marriage. It took almost two years, but she was finally able to bring him to court where she procured a divorce decree in Philadelphia on July 28, 1919. The war had ended and Alfred Jolivet joined her. They took up residence at 76 W. 85th St in New York City. Their wedding took place at City Hall on November 25, 1919. He described himself as a ‘ farm agent ‘ who was born in London, England and that he was 26 years old. She also claimed to have been born in London and that she was only 27 when in reality she was 29. The following year they traveled to France where his father Charles had a villa and she gave birth to a son, Lawrence Charles La Touche Jolivet. Alfred was troubled with fits of sleeplessness. It was attributed to a wound in his foot received while a Lieutenant in the army. His son believes it was actually shell shock. His doctor advised him that hard work would be the best cure, so he took the La Lorraine with the intention of settling in on a farm in Canada. Manual labor proved to be effective in his recovery and he eventually returned to his family who were living in London.
Her status as a Countess meant alot to Rita. Her nephew said that she had a calling card with a five point crown. He explained that on a scale of one to seven, seven points was the highest in terms of royalty. She became the stepmother to Giuseppe’s son Romano. Whether it was being photographed watching the races in Paris or making another movie, Rita frequently appeared in the news. Some of her more notable films were; Theodora, the Slave Princess; The Bride’s Confession; and Messalina. Yet, all was not well with Giuseppe, or ” Beppi ” as her family called him, and Rita’s marriage. They often took trips, but not together. The two eventually separated. She maintained a place in Monte Carlo where friends came to call on her. Amy Pearl and her daughter Audrey, survivors of the Lusitania, were among the visitors. Anthony Cunningham interviewed Audrey ( now Mrs. Hugh Lawson-Johnston ) for his book on shipwreck survivors. She fondly recalled the actress, ” My mother and I often went to visit a survivor called Rita Jolivet who was an actress. Believe it or not she made two films about the disaster. She lived in Monte Carlo at the time and was retired by then. She was utterly charming. ”
Alfred Witherbee passed away on June 19, 1922. Another chapter in Beatrice’s life was closed. She had been his third wife. His first wife was an orphan named Marie Antoinette
” Nettie ” Dunlap. Nettie had broken up the marriage of Lee Borden, a much older man, who in turn ” adopted ” her. She met Witherbee in Washington, D.C. and they were soon married. ” The invitation read, ” Mr. H. Lee Borden announces the marriage of his daughter, Marie Antoinette Dunlap, to A. Scott Witherbee.” Soon after their wedding, he discovered Nettie registered at a hotel with another married man. Alfred married again, but his second wife Mabel divorced him. His daughter Mildred Witherbee Gray, as Administratix of his estate, continued the case against Germany. She was eventually awarded $3,560 for his lost possessions. Beatrice on the other hand decided to withdraw her claim. She wrote to her private counsel, ” It is my deepest wish that the tragic death of my little son is not turned into profit or made a matter of money consideration. ” Lawrence once came across a picture of Alfred junior and asked his mother who the boy in the photo was. ” He was your half brother, ” she said. ” What happened to him, ” he inquired. ” Well, he drowned, ” she replied. That was the end of the conversation.
Following her divorce from the Count, Rita became engaged to James Bryce-Allan. He lived at the ” The Cliff “, Wemyss Bay, Renfrewshire, Scotland and was a cousin of Sir Montagu Allan, who owned the Allan Steamship Line. Again, we see that Rita kept in touch with another Lusitania survivor. Lady Marguerite Allan was the wife of Sir Montagu and most likely introduced her to ” Jimmy. ” Count de Cippico did not wait long to remarry. He met Mrs. Helen Hinman Leary, former wife of Mr. James Leary, and the two were wed in January 1927. The Jolivet family learned of Giuseppe’s death in 1941. Supposedly, he had been on vacation near the Alps and was riding his bicycle when he was hit by a car. Rita decided to end her film career around the time of her divorce. One of her final films was Le Marchand de bonheur which was produced in 1926.
Trixie Jolivet in San Remo
Beatrice’s health declined around 1924. She spent much time in bed due to an arthritic condition. Doctors said it was similar to infantile paralysis. She was sent to Switzerland for rest and fresh air. This complete, she traveled to Acqui, Italy for herbal and water treatments. One disquieting after effect was that her hair turned gray. Her son said she actually looked quite beautiful with gray hair. She returned to London in good health. Lawrence remarked that his mother was quite tall for a woman back then; she was 5’8. Though, she spoke with an English accent, she had American habits. He recalled that she ate corn on the cob, which was hard to find in England. Corn was referred to as maize and used for feeding cattle. She also ate her hard boiled eggs differently; she broke the shell and ate it in a small bowl versus chipping off the top. Beatrice also had copies of the New Yorker sent to her home in England.
Studio portrait of Rita circa 1920
Keeping her age a secret was important to Rita. Traveling on the Paris with her mother in 1924, they claimed to be 28 and 56 respectively. They were actually closer to 38 and 68. She told Jimmy and others that she was much younger than she was. Rita’s practice of introducing him as ” her much older brother ” was a constant irritation to Alfred. Lawrence said that his father found her to be ” too theatrical and overly dramatic”, but he never gave away her secret. Beatrice was always present when she introduced her ” elder ” brother. The two were about the same age, but anytime Rita referred to Alfred as being much older, the implication was that Beatrice was much older as well.
The marriage of James Bryce-Allan and Rita Jolivet was celebrated with much fanfare. Alfred Jolivet brought his family to Paris for the occasion. His son was to be the pageboy during the ceremony. Lawrence said that his outfit made him resemble ” Little Lord Fauntleroy. ” He got into a bit of trouble on the morning of the wedding. He somehow got into an elevator after dressing. Much to his parents chagrin, his clothing was splattered with grease from the machinery of the elevator. The ceremony took place on April 26, 1928 at the Church of Scotland in Paris. Unfortunately, the father of the bride had passed away a few years before the wedding. According to Lawrence Jolivet, there was a large reception in Scotland. He said that by tradition, the Lord of the manor was taken to his countryseat in a cart towed by his employees.
Grouse hunting with the Jolivet family
The principal residence of the Bryce-Allans was a castle called ” Ballikinrain “. It sat on 4,000 acres and employed 25 inside servants and 25 outside servants. When the help were not gardening, they worked on the ” grouse moor ” to prepare for grouse shooting. The Jolivets and the Bryce-Allans looked forward to September 12th, the start of the season which they referred to as ” The Glorious Twelfth “. The women came along, not to hunt, but for picnics. Rita went all out during the Christmas season. Alfred Jolivet and family traveled from Euston station to Scotland aboard a train called the, ” Flying Scotsman. ” Rita’s favorite pastime was organizing the Christmas pageant in Glasgow. Begrudgingly, the family would pile into two large Rolls Royces to see the plays. The cars were very large, like carriages, and the constant swaying caused Lawrence to be carsick. One of Rita’s productions was that of Peter Pan. Perhaps a nod to her friend Charles Frohman. All this was new to Jimmy, as he preferred to live simply. Rita also insisted on having apartments in Monte Carlo, a flat in Paris and a yacht named Scotia . The yacht was in the shape of a destroyer, about 4,000 tons and had a crew of 27. They used the Scotia to travel to Monte Carlo.
Rita and Jimmy Bryce-Allan aboard the Scotia
People began living less extravagantly in the 1930s, after the stock market crash. Jimmy and Rita sold their castle and moved to New York. He took the position of director of Coates; a cotton spinning company. Their new address was Central Park West. Alfred found the taxes in England to be getting very high and made the decision to move to Canada. So in 1938, he and Beatrice journeyed to British Columbia. They bought a home, which they staffed with a maid, a cook, and a chauffeur. Pauline Jolivet continued to alternate between her homes in England and France. Her grandson remembers her as intellectual and artistic. She ran a salon in Paris where authors, artists, and composers came for tea. Lawrence worked for an aircraft plant during the war and was sent to the east coast to look for parts. He let his aunt and uncle know he would be in the area and they invited him stay with them while he was in New York. He said they had a wonderful week together and that they took him to his first ice hockey game. The war ended and the Bryce-Allans’ took up traveling again. Ships or automobiles were not her only modes of travel, Lawrence recalled a picture showed her riding atop a camel. They bought another castle in Scotland, but it was smaller than ” Ballikinrain “. There were parties thrown with royalty, heads of state, and other famous people on the lengthy lists of guests.
Lawrence Jolivet joined in his parents in Canada and rose to prominence as a businessman and as the President of the British Columbia Federation. He also held a ranking position in the National Party. His grandmother, Pauline Jolivet lived to be 100 years old. Alfred Jolivet passed away on July 1, 1958. Lawrence married a woman named Patricia and they had two children, Mary and Timothy. Patricia was surprised to learn that her husband knew nothing of his mother’s past. She thought perhaps that after a few drinks she might be more agreeable to talk about her life. She did speak a little about the past. She was born in London and her full name was Beatrice Wilhemena Theodora La Touche, though her family and friends called her Trixie. Supposedly, she had two uncles William and Theodore, which is where her two middle names came from. Her father was James La Touche and she said that he was a Professor in Dublin. She was under the impression he was somehow involved in the uprising in Ireland. Her mother’s maiden name has been listed as Cummings.The family is also in possession of a painting by May Brown where she signed it as May Cummings. Her mother and her ” guardian, ” Mr. Brown, lived in New York; alternating between their home in Larchmont and the Jockey Club on East 19th Street. She recalled that there were two figures of jockeys as newel posts. Her school years were spent at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. It was on Hudson, she said. Mildred Witherbee said that by the time her father met Beatrice, the man she referred to as her ” guardian ” had been long dead. Alfred Witherbee must have been entranced with her. She remembered that he had a full scale portrait done of her. What became of Beatrice’s portrait after the divorce, is not known. They lived in Larchmont, during the early days of their marriage, on Prospect Avenue and were members of the Larchmont Yacht Club. Coincidentally, Titanic survivors Harry Anderson and Frederick Hoyt were also members. Riding in a cab one day, she accidentally left her sable coat behind. Did she try to find it, they asked? ” Aww, Witherbee would have bought me another one, ” she replied. He could definitely afford it. Beatrice asserted that her ex-husband was in direct competition with Charles Schwab. The couple used to travel frequently. The Lusitania had been a favorite of theirs and both often sailed on her. One time, she mentioned that she was on a ship going in one direction and Witherbee’s ship passed hers going in the other. She met Guglielmo Marconi on a ship and the two became good friends. She and her then-husband were frequent guests at the Marconi estate. He was, in fact, on the Lusitania with her when she sailed to New York in April 1915. Marconi gave a brief interview after the disaster to the New York Times where he lamented the loss of Beatrice’s mother. The Witherbees’ address at the time of the sinking was 222 W 72nd St in New York City. She and her husband also maintained suites at the Savoy and the Waldorf Astoria. And what about the Lusitania? ” Aww, you don’t want to hear about that, ” she declared and that was the end of that subject.
Was the Lusitania far from Beatrice’s mind? Someone who visited her after the disaster wrote, ” The combination of losing her only son and mother, together with the personal shock suffered by Mrs. Witherbee not only incapacitated her, but, to be perfectly frank, has created such a situation in Mrs. Witherbee’s mind that it has been practically impossible to get her to bring her mind to the Lusitania affair. ” As much as she tried to push the incident out of her mind, there were always reminders. Her sister-in-law was a survivor. She also had two close friends, Wallace and Ann Phillips who used to visit. Wallace Phillips being a fellow survivor of the shipwreck. Was Lawrence aware that her friend was aboard the Lusitania’s last voyage? He had no idea. All he knew was that he owned a fire-extinguisher company called Pyrene. Rita on the other hand, did talk about the disaster. She even wrote a letter, in later years, to her friend, playwright, Morehouse Ward describing the events. She spent most of her time in France where she kept busy as a theatre critic. Her reviews appeared in the Herald Tribune among other papers. James Bryce-Allan met an untimely end in 1961. He was pouring gas into a running car that backfired; he caught fire and died. Rita also died after a bizarre accident. She was entertaining a friend and claimed she could still do the jig. While dancing about she fell and was rushed to the hospital. Ever conscious about her age, she told her doctors, ” I’m only 77 years old. ” Marguerite Lucile Jolivet Stern de Cippico Bryce-Allan passed away in Nice, France on March 2, 1971, her age closer to 81. Her nephew said that her friend Bobby Chapelle carried out all the arrangements and her ashes were strewn. She did not retain much regarding her past though she was proud of her bond selling days and kept a large scrapbook of her wartime achievements.
An article in the Washington Post traces the Jolivet family back to the French Revolution. Rita’s great-great grandmother was supposedly the only one in her family not sent to the guillotine. Her grandmother Vaillant was described as one of the beauties in the court of Napolean the III and was said to be an ” exquisite singer. ” Pauline Helene Vaillant, herself was a concert musician. No doubt, her parents Amadee and Caroline fostered her talents. She decided to give up her career when she married Charles Eugene Jolivet. He was a widower, aged 39 who owned ‘extensive’ vineyards in France and she was a ” maiden ” age listed as 22. Their ceremony took place on September 11, 1879 at the Church of the Transfiguration in New York City. Charles was described as being from Carmansville, New York. It does not exist on any current map, but Lawrence heard that his grandfather had some connection to Schenectady. Their first child was Inez Henriette, followed by Marguerite Lucile and finally Alfred Eugene. The papers said that Inez was born in New York, while Rita was born in France ( though some sources indicate New York ). Alfred listed his birthplace as London.
Rita was taught French and English simultaneously and at a young age appeared in concert, reciting in both languages. Her mother sent her to London to study under Mrs. Kate Crowe ( also known as Kate Bateman ). Other mentors were Madame Thenard and Therese Kolb of the Comedie Francaise. She was trained in the art of pantomime and learned to dance at the Opera Comique. Rita’s first stage appearance was as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; This was produced by William Poel of the Elizabethan Stage Society in 1903. Another early role was that of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. She was constantly on tour with the group giving performances at University towns in England. She was also cast in Much Ado About Nothing and Two Gentleman of Verona. Rita began appearing in leading roles at the Haymarket Theatre; as Marie in Lady Flirt; as Lucy in Beauty and the Barge; as Catharine in Jasper Bright; as Angele in The Cabinet Minister.
There came a period when Rita did not take any major roles between 1906-1908.
She traveled to Paris to perform with Gallipeaux, a distinguished comedian. She may have had to finish her schooling as well. Finally, she returned to the stage at about the time of her first wedding anniversary in 1909. Rita starred in Eccentric Lord Comberdene as Grand Duchess Ina Drovinski. Harrison Grey Fiske was in the audience one night while trying to coordinate the American production of Kismet. He engaged her for the role of Marsinah, daughter of Hajj the Beggar. The papers wrote that the part, ” demands abilities not only in the line of romantic and emotional acting, but in dancing and singing as well. ” The play opened at the Knickerbocker Theatre in 1911 and as another paper said, ” immediately scored an overwhelming success. ” She stayed in the role for two years before branching out. Her first part after Kismet was Gertrude in Where Ignorance is Bliss Rita then starred as Chinese Princess Turandot in A Thousand Years Ago at the Shubert Theatre. The Lancaster Daily Eagle referred to her as, ” The dramatic favorite of two Continents. ” Her final stage performance before sailing on the Lusitania was as Julia in What it Means to a Woman. She received rave reviews for her acting abilities. ” She scored a hit of the first magnitude and was hailed by all the metropolitan critics as one of the truly great artists and truly unique personalities of the present day. ”
Rita as Princess Turandot
Beatrice continued to live quietly in Canada with her cat Snoopy. Her granddaughter Mary mentioned that one of her hobbies was cutting out little stories about animals and Snoopy comics, as she was fond of them. ” She was the most vibrant, cheery person, ” Mary said of her grandmother, who died on December 16, 1977.
( Authors note: This article is the result of hard on the part of many people. First, we would like to dedicate this article to friends Lawrence and Mary Jolivet who graciously helped in any way possible. Janet Butler Haugaard, George Vernon’s grand niece, who shared her hard work on the Butler family history; Paul Latimer who tracked down Rita and Beatrice’s dates of death and provided other important information relating to the family; Jean Richards Timmermeister who also did research on our behalf; The staff at the Surrey Library; Josh Graml at the Newport Mariners Museum who gave permission to use Robert Niemann’s account, Lusitania Collection MS45; National Archives; Anthony Cunningham; Peter Kelly; Shelley Dziedzic; Hildo Theil, http://www.elginhistory.com/dgb/ch19.htm , Robert. R. Roberts; Roslyn Bernstein; Brittany Bailey, Frank and Charlotte DuBreuil; and Cheryl Grayko. )
The following article appeared in Titanic International Society’s Voyage, issue 46, Winter 2003-2004. It was formerly the content for Robert Rankin’s biography, which has since been reformatted. This article has been reproduced in its entirety with permission from the author.
“When G.E. Co. claims Bob, the electrical world may expect a shock.”……Cornell 1904
That prediction came from Robert Rankin’s class year book. As he spent his last days in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Rankin could look back and smile at life filled with promise well fulfilled. His life began as the first son born to George and Sarah Rankin of Ithaca, New York on March 23, 1882. He came along at a time when progress almost seemed to be made on a daily basis and at a young age he wanted to be part of it. The boy was fascinated with electricity and when he graduated high school he enrolled at Cornell University. When he was not studying, he was actively involved in sports which resulted in scholarships. So much so, that his friends used to joke that he was bankrupting the Cornell treasury.
Rankin began working for Westinghouse soon after college, all the while experimenting with electromagnets and their properties. His work paid off and in two years after graduating he discovered the principal of electromagnetic in a vacuum. He sold this discovery to General Electric in 1910. He began working for San Paolo Electric Co. of Brazil which meant frequent travel. He met socialite Enid Scott on a voyage to South America whose father Simon Scott, was a New York merchant and art collector. They married the following year after a whirlwind romance. He also became friends with Dr. Frederick Stark Pearson, whose company was Pearson Engineering Corporation. His dealings with Dr. Pearson led him to take the Lusitania on her last voyage. Pearson and his wife had already booked passage, and recommended to Rankin that he should take the Lusitania as well.
May 1st was a dull, overcast day and Rankin was ready to take possession of his cabin and begin the voyage. He was lead down a maze of corridors to E-43, which was an inside cabin. To his disappointment, the ship did not sail immediately as she was taking on passengers from the Cameronia. Sailing was best described in an account by first class passenger Michael Byrne. He says in part, “So at 12:15 P.M. the Lusitania moved out into the stream and after the tugs had straightened her out, we moved down the river under our own power. Then after our pilot left us in the usual way, we steamed ahead for perhaps a half hour when I noticed we were slowing up. I focused my marine glasses over the bows of the ship and saw a warship off our starboard bow and what looked to be a passenger steamer lay off our port bow. On coming closer, I saw it was the Cunard steamer Caronia, now a converted auxiliary cruiser. Then I saw a boat leave the Caronia in charge of an officer who had three gold bands around the cuff of his sleeve. When he came along side I could not see whether any officer on our ship handed him anything or not. However in a few minutes we were underway again.”
The inventor found his table companions to be agreeable and became fast friends with Clinton “Bill” Bernard who told him that he was on his way to Greenland on a geological expedition. Rankin also spent time with the Pearsons, Robert Dearbergh, and Thomas Bloomfield. The afternoon of the 7th was a clear, sunny day and about twelve noon, Rankin went to the writing room to write his wife Enid a long letter. As he was writing, Dr. Pearson passed through and stopped to talk with him. They discussed the sudden alteration in the ship’s course. He later said that,” the ship turned northward from the course she had been holding making a huge semicircle and heeling well over to port “. He finished the letter and took a quick walk along the boat deck before lunch. He saw Fred and Mabel Pearson taking a stroll as well. By 2:00 P.M. he was standing on the starboard side with Thomas Bloomfield and Robert Dearbergh when one of them caught a glimpse of something. “There’s a whale,” he heard. Looking out onto the dazzling blue sea, he knew at once what the black ridge was. Instantly, a white, foamy streak shot out from the submarine. “It looks like a torpedo,” Dearbergh exclaimed. “My God, it is a torpedo,” said Bloomfield. The three watched as it cut through the water. Rankin described the excitement of the moment in great detail, “It came straight for the ship. It was obvious it couldn’t miss. It was aimed ahead of her and struck under the bridge.” They stood there and for a brief moment waiting for it to detonate, there was a delay and they all hoped it would not explode. He then went on to say that, “The explosion came with a terrific crash, clear through the five decks destroying the boiler room and the main steam pipe….A mass of glass, wood, etc came pouring on our heads, 200 feet aft. We ducked into the smoking room shelter and I never saw my companions again.”
The man felt that the Lusitania was doomed from the start and crossed the smoking room to the portside. He aided some men who were trying to push a lifeboat over the side, but thought it was a useless task as the ship was listing too far to starboard. Abandoning this effort, he entered the companionway and made his way down stairs, trying not to bump into people who were rushing up the stairs. He got as far as “D” deck and heard the disconcerting sound of water very close to where he stood. Looking down, he saw that “E” deck was already flooding. He crossed the darkened passageway on “D” deck to a porthole and to his horror saw that the water was within twelve inches of the port! He came across Clinton Bernard in the stairwell who asked him, ” have you a life preserver? ” to which Rankin shook his head. They tried a few cabins and found that they were all gone. The two decided that if they found one they would share it, “fifty-fifty”. As the friends walked along “B” deck they found quite a few passengers millling about waiting to be told what to do. They mounted the stairs to “A” deck and watched the boats on the starboard side begin loading. To their dismay, boat number one drifted away with what appeared to be just one person aboard. Rankin came across one of those ”doughnut life preservers ” attached to the rail and presented it to Bernard. They prepared to jump overboard with it when a steward claimed that there was an old lady who needed it. The gentleman unselfishly gave it away.
The last minutes were a blur to Rankin, of which he said the following, ” By this time the boat was sinking rapidly and Bernard said, ‘Goodbye old chap’ and grabbed me by the hand at the same time pulling out his money and throwing it away. The sixty foot deck was, by now, within six to ten feet of the water and I pulled off my coat and jumped, feet first, as far as I could and started to swim on my side. Looking straight up I saw the funnels coming over and thought that I would certainly be hit on the head. Then the funnels went back and the bow plunged and the ship went down. “. He found the water to be like ice and that he was covered with a layer of soot from the funnels. He came across boat eleven packed with sixty odd people, but the assistant deck steward pulled him in anyway. They drifted about at the mercy of the wind as they had no rudder. Finally, the Wanderer of Peel came to the rescue and pulled them aboard. They were then transferred to the Flying Fish and taken to Queenstown. The moment was surreal as the wet and weary survivors walked between a line of townspeople. The crowd cheered and applauded as they made their way forward. Rankin felt a lump in his throat as the magnitude of the tragedy hit him. A “jacky-tar” gave him a drink of hot whiskey and put him to bed. The next day, he made his way through the town looking for friends. He found Clinton Bernard who had swum to a collapsible and rescued many people among them Stanley Lines and Dorothy Conner. Rankin saw Dr. Pearson lying in a makeshift morgue and arranged for his embalming. That Sunday, he and another shipboard acquaintance Robert Timmis motored over to Kinsale to help identify bodies, but found none that they knew. He also gave a brief description of his experiences to the American Counsel which was sent to the state department in the form of a depositon.
He arrived in London, Monday afternoon to keep his business appointments though he had lost all his papers. He took the ship, St. Louis back home along with Oscar Grab, Charles Hardwick and Fred Pearson’s son. They arrived in New York on June 7,1915. The Lusitania incident did not deter Rankin from traveling and after leaving San Paolo Electric, he and his wife moved to Peking, China when he was made vice president of Anderson Meyer and Co and the Willard Straight Co. He also took on the position of director of the Chinese American Bank of Commerce. Unfortunately, relations between Robert and Enid were breaking down and they separated. He retired in 1920 and began travelling to forget about his failed marriage, and to relax after many years of hard work. He met a woman named Hilda Master Rigby and on February 24, 1923 they were wed. The two settled in Angmering on Sea, Sussex, England. His ex-wife moved back to New York and wrote a book called, “Dominion of Sea and Air”. It examined the causes of war and offered suggestions on preventing future wars. She passed away a few years later at age forty-three.
He filed a claim for compensation for lost effects and on February 21, 1924 he was awarded $1,362.00. Not content to settle down, the Rankins moved to St. Catherine’s, Ontario where they stayed many years. He finally became a father, at age fifty-two, to a girl whom they named Virginia. Feeling he had much to contribute during World War Two, he went to Washington, D.C. to work as an engineer with US Government. He became a technical adviser to Evans International Corp after the war. Rankin eventually settled back into retirement back in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. He began vacationing in Provincetown, Massachussetts towards the end of his life and passed away there on August 10, 1959 at age 76.
by Michael Poirier
As we lead up to the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, TIS will be featuring a daily post about the ship and her crew and passengers. This first tribute was published in VOYAGE and written by Michael Poirier. Mrs. McDermott attended the 2003 and 2004 TIS conventions in Newport and Groton. She was greatly-loved by all who had the good fortune to meet her, and sorely missed.
“Stunned by that loud and dreadful sound,
Which sky and ocean smote,
Like one that hath been seven days drowned
My body lay afloat;
But swift as dreams, myself I found
Within the Pilot’s boat” … From the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Funerals are a time to reflect on the life of the person you are paying tribute to. I had much time to reflect on the lifeof Barbara McDermott, when I received the call that she had passed away on April 12, 2008. I thought about the firstletter I had written her in 1998. I asked her about what she remembered about the Lusitania and also a bit about her lifein general. Her reply came quickly and was signed, ‘All my love, Barbara’. Our correspondence continued, not really about the Lusitania, about life in general. Early on, I asked her if she would liketo be my penpal. She said that she had never had one before and would be, ‘delighted’. Soon letters became phone calls. Birthdays and holidays were always remembered and always ended with, ‘I love you.’Many people who came to know her will tell you the same thing. Once you had met her, you felt like you had known her all your life and that was her way and her key to a long life.
How does one describe someone who was genuinely sweet, unpretentious, full of faith, and an easy going wit? If we all had her wonderful qualities, life would be much simpler. I recall my very first visit to her house. Shelley Dziedzic and I came to her house in Wallingford on a warm summer’s day, July 21, 2002. The weather was perfect and before long we encountered Barbara running and waving to greet us. Shelley asked me, “Is this the daughter, Elizabeth?” No, it was Barbara. Her youth and vibrance were incredible. She gave us huge hugs and what a grip it was! She just loved people.
I remember Titanic survivor, Lou Pope being the same way. Her apartment in the lower part of the house was charming with a mixture of family portraits, antiques, stuffed ‘kitties’ and beautifully crocheted items that she had made herself. Her prize item was a full size poster of her favorite actor, Tom Selleck, who her husband had termed her, ‘boyfriend’. Her cooking was amazing and those that have attended her picnics can attest that she made an excellent potato salad, and a cake injected with jello.
We learned quite a bit about her life that day. Her parents, Rowland Anderson and Emily Pybus had been childhood sweethearts from the Darlington area of England. He emigrated to the US first aboard the Carmania on May 20, 1910. His original destination was Providence, Rhode Island where his brother Percy lived, but settled in Connecticut where he found work as a machinist. Emily then sailed on the Caronia and arrived June 28, 1911. They soon married and on June 15, 1912, Barbara Winifred Anderson was born in Derby, Connecticut.
The family moved again, and took up residence at 35 Morningside Drive, Bridgeport, Connecticut. Life was very simple for the family and there were trips to the park and to the beach. Emily became pregnant again in early 1915 and it was decided she would take Barbara to visit the Anderson and Pybus families back in England. How long she intended to stay it is not known. The timing was not good for Rowland and he had to remain behind to work. The ship booked was the Lusitania and unbeknownst to the couple, it was to be a prize target for German submarines. Barbara later said to me, “If my father had seen the warning from the Germans, he would not have let us sail.” A further inducement was that Cunard has reduced the rate to $50 for second class.
The day before mother and daughter were to embark, “I remember being taken to visit neighbors and friends to say goodbye. Suitably, I was dressed in a blue sailors suit.” The following morning, they proceeded to New York City and went to Cunard’s pier 54 to board the ship. People have found over the years that if you directly question someone about an event, they freeze up and the memories are not forth coming. However, in the course of a friendly conversation and with gentle prodding, perhaps something will come to mind. Barbara once said, “I have images in my head. Like snapshots.” That being said, she once remembered “standing beside my mother at the rail looking back at all the people on the pier. I tried to find my father in the crowd, but could not see him. I imagine he was there. After awhile, I remember leaving the rail and entering the deckhouse.” Following the disaster, her mother was quoted in the local Darlington paper that upon sailing from New York they saw, “many warships about and they anticipated seeing many more when approaching England, but saw none…” Emily would describe it as a “splendid passage” and that the weather “was fine all the way”.
Little Barbara, aged 3
There were a number of pregnant women on board like herself and many with children. One woman she became friendly with was Margaret Cox, an Irish woman who settled in Canada. She had a son Desmond with her, who was about a year younger than Barbara.
Second class on this voyage was over-booked and a section of first class cabins forward on E-deck were used to accomodate the excess passengers. Barbara once said that they were in a cabin where the beds were “one on top of the other”. The dining room was also crowded and it was deemed necessary that meals would be in two sittings and that open balcony would be fitted with tables. Emily and Barbara were given one of these.”It was a small table just for two and it overlooked the balcony. Looking back the entrance to the corridor was right there.” Another visit made to Barbara’s brought forth another detail, “There was a table nearby, with nothing but men.” At one point, Emily or one well-meaning steward gave her a souvenir spoon from the barbers shop with the name ‘Lusitania‘ engraved on it.
The ship steamed along and people amused themselves with deck games, whist drives, and concerts. May 7 arrived and Emily described it as a “glorious day”. They proceeded to their table for the second seating at lunch. As it came to a close, Barbara’s strongest memories about the voyage came to the forefront. “We had just finished lunch, and I hopped out of my chair and stood next to my mother and looked over the rail. The people were still eating their lunch at the long tables below. Suddenly, the torpedo struck.”
A torpedo struck the Lusitania at about 2:10p.m. Emily continues the story. “I was in the saloon at the time and I made for the boatdeck at once. Someone carried my little daughter up the stairs to the boat deck, or I might not have got there. The deck was at such an angle we slid down towards the boats. I got into one with the covers on, but I was ordered into another one, which was ready.” This was lifeboat 15, in which First officer Arthur Rowland Jones was in charge. He filled it way beyond capacity in the hopes of saving as many people as possible. The man who helped carry Barbara was assistant Purser William Harkness. He had also helped ready the boat and assist in the lowering. When he was done, he joined Emily and Barbara. The ever- tilting deck caused problems for many and people had trouble staying on their feet. As Emily noted about Mrs. Cox and her son, “One little boy was badly bruised for this reason. His mother, a native of Ireland, was rescued with him.” The lifeboat was finally ready to cast off and they were “touching the water… they simply cut away the ropes from the davits.” The boat was so near the side of the liner, the young mother was afraid they would go down with the suction. Looking up, she was also afraid of the funnels, “which seemed to be coming right upon them.”
The skill of the oarsmen helped the boat get away, but they encountered another danger, the wireless antenna came across their boat. Another passenger in the boat watched as Harkness heaved one overboard and as another snapped and broke off. The Lusitania made her final plunge and disappeared.
The sea was dotted with people and bodies. One woman who Emily met said that she went under twice and described the sensation of drowning as ‘dreadful’. She sat near Robert Leith, the wireless operator and he told her that he sent out distress messages for 14 minutes, before abandoning his cabin. Boats from Queenstown harbor could be seen be them on the horizon, but it would take hours before they were rescued. Their boat drifted along and came across another boat with just two men. Officer Jones transferred people from his boat into that one to even the load and both went in search of more people to pick up. Barbara’s only memories of being in the boat was of facing her mother and that it seemed like they were lost. Finally, the majority of survivors arrived in Queenstown and were immediately brought to the various hotels. The loss of life was staggering. Almost 1200 people had perished. The two were in fairly good shape and made their way to England soon after. Barbara’s last memory of the incident was that they were going through a long yellow tunnel and at the end, her aunts and other family members were waiting for them.
Newspaper clipping photo of Emily post sinking
As soon as they arrived at her parent’s home in Woodside Gardens, a reporter from the North Star came to interview Emily. “Mrs. Anderson looks none the worse for her terrible experience and her charming little daughter was prattling away merrily with the innocence of childhood… She lost all her belongings. It would be difficult to imagine from Mrs. Anderson’s pleasant chat that she had passed through such a terrible experience. She is possessed of strong nerves and a cheerful temperament, and is supremely grateful for her narrow escape.”
Despite the war, the initial first months about their visit was pleasant. Barbara recalled her maternal grandfather, Robert taking them for a carriage ride. “We were going along when all of a sudden it began to rain. My mother laughed and we returned home.” Yet, all was not well. Emily’s health became precarious with her pregnancy.
She gave birth to a son, Frank Roland, in September 1915 who was not well. He lingered on till March 1916, and to Barbara’s regret she never had a chance to see him. Her mother’s health continued to deteriorate. A TB- related illness had taken effect. When she caught this is a matter of debate. It was once claimed by her daughter, that she was ill when she boarded the Lusitania. Other times, it was felt she caught it by being exposed in an open lifeboat for many hours. Emily was put in a separate small cottage on the property. Barbara was taken to see her on Christmas and her mother had a present to give her, a new doll carriage. Finally, the end was near, and Barbara was taken to see her mother one last time.
“She held her arms out to me and just hugged me and held me. That was the last time I saw her.”
Emily Mary Anderson died on March 11, 1917. Rowland received word in Bridgeport and the local paper wrote a loving tribute to her. It said, “her unusual cheerful dispostion made for many friends in this city.” Her husband continued on and worked for the Winchester Repeating Arms in New Haven. He did not visit England, but it can be assumed with the dangers of torpedoing, it was not deemed wise to travel and might have possibly left Barbara an orphan.
Barbara cherished her childhood in England. She was surrounded by both sets of grandparents, aunt and uncles who fussed over her. One grandfather worked for the train station and they were always given complimentary rides to wherever they wanted to go. Despite her young age, she was allowed to travel alone, by foot, to visit her father’s parents. She would wander through the main city and look in all the shops and marvel at the chocolate store. Barbara remembered having a good friend, Eileen and one time, they were taken to the movie theater to see a Charlie Chaplin film. Another visit was to the beach. She was placed in a cart with a donkey, but after a short distance, the donkey tipped the cart and she fell out. Some of her favorite memories were watching her Granny Pybus cooking over an open hearth. “Granny used to show my Lusitania spoon to people when we had company.”
Her faith was strong early on and she attended the Quaker church which she found quite peaceful. The war did cause some struggle and there was no Christmas tree, but that did not matter to her. Her strongest recollection of the war was the German soldiers who had been captured and were forced to work on her grandfather’s farm.
“I sat at one end of a long table and the German soldiers sat at the other end during lunch.”
The war finally came to a close and Rowland requested that she be sent home. His sister Annie was reluctant and offered to adopt Barbara. However his sister Edith declared that Barbara would be sent home. She arranged for passage for her niece on the Mauretania and her companion was to be a family acquaintance.
“I did not like the woman,” Barbara said. “She wasn’t very nice. We got off the ship at one point to walk around and this woman got down in a ditch, hiked up her skirt and went to the bathroom!
I was not well on the voyage and the doctor was sent for. He came to the cabin with another man. He was a handsome man and I can still see his face. He asked me if I would like to be his dinner companion one night in the diningroom. His name was Arthur Rostron, and as it turns out he was the Captain of the Carpathia, that rescued the Titanic survivors.
The people at the table that night were all so nice and he was so kind and I had a good time. I was in the writing room aboard the Mauretania and when I looked out I could see whales spouting. We arrived in New York and when we disembarked I said to my travelling companion, ‘There’s my Daddy! That’s my Daddy!’ She replied, ‘Oh how do you know.’ Well as it turns out, I was right. He met me and we went to my new home. My new stepmother Helen, gave me a doll that had been hers as a child which I named Eileen, after my friend in England.”
The compensation of being a survivor of the Lusitania was determined during the next few years, with Rowland filing suit. She was awarded a sum of money, but it may not have been honored by the German government as Barbara didn’t know anything about it.
Adapting to a new life was rough at first. Her stepmother was not used to having a child and when she had her own child, it was clear that there was awkwardness with Helen favoring her son Dickie. Despite this, Barbara had a normal childhood of playing and going to Morris Cove for swimming. She attended the Nathan Hale School in East Haven and from there to the local high school. She worked at one of the historic homes giving tours as a part-time job. A love of acting and performing came naturally to her and she remembered dressing up as a ghost, sitting on stage and” we all screamed our heads off.” Looking through an album a photo showed her dressed as ‘The Queen of the Nile’.
She was proud of her job at the store, WT Grant’s and while on a blind date, she met her future husband, Milton McDermott. They were married and she gave birth to two children, George and Elizabeth. When in her apartment with George, the hurricane of 1938 struck. She recalled the long hours of driving winds and rain while nursing her infant son.
Her husband supported them by working as the doorman for the Taft Hotel. She prided on herself on being self-reliant and painted rooms, put up wall paper, repaired things and even mowed the lawn. When her children were older, she returned to WT Grant’s. She first worked on the floor, but her friend, Mrs. Champagne ‘Champy’ took care of her and with her help Barbara became personnel manager. ‘Champy’ also gave her rides to work, but Barbara finally took lessons and learned how to drive which she continued to do until she was 89 years old.
The years flew by and soon she was a grandmother and she enjoyed spending time with her grandson Paul and when he and his wife Terri had children, she became attached to his children P.J. and Michael as well. A chance arose to travel back to England and in 1974 she did. Her favorite aunt, Annie was still alive and it was a joyous reunion. When questioning her niece as to why she married so young, and finding that wanting to get out of the house was a factor, her aunt shouted, “I knew it! I knew it” A tour of the area showed her childhood home at her grandparents still existed and she was allowed inside to view it. All-in-all it was a carthartic experience. Her father moved to Pennsylvania and died there. Some of her prized possessions were paintings he did himself of the English countryside.
When WT Grant’s closed, she found out through a friend at the Old Stone church they attended together, that there was an opening at the East Lawn Cemetery in the office. It was easy for her as she only lived around the corner on Martin Street. She kept herself busy after Milton died in 1981. She shared a house with her good friend Betty, another widow, also from England. She eventually came to stay with her daughter Liz and her husband Jimmy in Wallingford where she lived over twenty years. She continued her favorite past times while there such as tending to the garden, cooking, and attending her church. When she no longer could drive, family and friends took her. She made sure she prayed every night before falling asleep and one thing she gave thanks for every night was being saved from the Lusitania.
Emily’s locket worn on Lusitania
The Lusitania sinking was sporadic throughout her life. When she would tell people, “they wouldn’t believe me as I didn’t look that old.” Newspapers occassionally interviewed her over the years and also the local news. She graciously agreed to be the speaker at the Titanic International Society convention in Newport, Rhode Island. She was a hit with the large crowd and everyone had a good time. It was repeated again the following year at the Mystic convention. She was able to tour a submarine and look at an actual torpedo which she found fascinating. Between that and also being interviewed by National Geographic, she developed a large fan following. She received many letters and phone calls regarding her story and she was always happy to share her story. The moral of the story was that she was thankful for being saved and given a second chance at life. She especially loved children and enjoyed helping them with school history projects regarding the sinking.
What did she think of the wreck being salvaged?
“Well, I wish they would find our things and bring them up.” She saw no need for those items to sit on the ocean floor and hoped that they would be properly conserved for the public to see. One of her wishes was to have a German medallion made after the sinking which a man in England sent to her. She also wished to find the Harkness family. A quick search of the UK records showed he died in 38. However, it was harder to locate his four children. Eventually I received an email from his grandson Leigh, who put me in touch with his aunt Muriel. The two called Barbara and she was finally able to say ‘thank you’ to the family of the man who saved her life.
Barbara’s Lusitania medallion
Visits by myself and friends continued, but one day, after the anniversary of the sinking, she fell at church. She broke her hip, but she surprised everyone by healing very quickly. The one side effect was that her vision began failing. Not to be detered by that, she continued to cook, and when she couldn’t read her Bible, she listened to it on tape. Barbara also gave her final television interview to the BBC, but this has yet to air. My last visit with her was still one of her picnics. It was a cold buffet, but she did what she could and it was very enjoyable, especially since she still gave one of those big hugs. Regrettably, she took several more falls, and around Christmas 2007 she entered the hospital. She contracted pneumonia, but seemed to overcome that. Although her health was precarious. She entered the Skyview Nursing home and gently passed away on the evening of April 12, 2008.
The funeral service at the Old Stone Church, was simple, and fully attended by the family. The theme by the pastor was salvation and the Lusitania was used through out to show how Barbara had been saved for greater things. A long chat with her family came afterwards and promises to keep in touch. We then took to the road and traveled around East Haven.
As if guided by Barbara herself, we saw various points in her life… Morris Cove beach, the Nathan Hale School, her house on Martin Street, and the place where she was to be at rest. The national press did not deem it news, but the New Haven Register gave her the front page. I am sure she would have been pleased. It really marked the end of an era. Those of us who were priveleged to meet and to know survivors of the Titanic and Lusitania; those that had actual memories of being aboard those famous liners and relating their experiences are now gone. Yet, they still live on in our memories. People like Marjorie Robb, Marshall Drew, and of course Barbara, will always be part of our thoughts and those thoughts will always bring smiles.