FALSE. James Cameron’s 1997 film gave the impression that the majority of First Class passengers were boring and narrow-minded snobs who were disdainful of Mrs Brown’s liveliness and status as a nouveau riche. The film of A Night to Remember also shows a vivid contrast between the vulgarity of ‘Molly’ and the more subdued presentation of First Class ‘grandees’. In fact, this portrayal does a great disservice both to her fellow passengers and ‘Molly’. Although Margaret Brown was undoubtedly nouveau riche, her fortune coming from her husband’s recent success in gold mining, she was no more out of place than a number of other passengers whose fortune was new. These included Isidor Straus, a German Jewish immigrant who had worked his way up from a general store to co-found Macy’s department store with his brother; and Charles Hays, President of the Grand Trunk Railway, who was educated at American state-funded schools and began working as a clerk in the passenger department of the Pacific and Atlantic Railroad at the age of 17.
In fact, Mrs Brown had spent the winter with Col. John Jacob Astor and his pregnant wife Madeleine, in Egypt, before returning home with them on the Titanic. The Astors were one of the oldest and richest families in America, but the Colonel’s sudden divorce and re-marriage had shocked Edwardian society. No doubt there was some snobbishness, but the contrast between Mrs Brown and her fellow passengers as one of new versus old money is a simplistic one. In reality, Margaret Brown was well-connected and well-educated, and not at all the coarse and illiterate character portrayed by the films and by the 1930s Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which christened her ‘Molly’—a name she never used—because it was thought more catchy and easier to sing. The epithet of ‘unsinkable’ came from her own words to reporters after the disaster:
‘The ship can sink, but I can’t; I’m unsinkable!’
The child of Irish immigrants like her husband, in 1901 the 34-year-old Margaret Brown was one of the first students to enroll at the Carnegie Institute in New York, where she studied languages and literature. She spoke French, Russian, and German, and her linguistic skills proved an asset for communicating with immigrants who spoke no English on board the Carpathia, where she also established the Survivors’ Committee and helped to raise $10,000 for those left destitute by the shipwreck, before the Carpathia had even reached New York! She did not leave the ship until she had ensured all the survivors had somewhere to go. A month or so later she presented a silver cup to Captain Rostron and medals to his crew as thanks for their outstanding work in rescuing the Titanic’s survivors.
Margaret was also notable for her lifelong advocacy of women’s and labour rights, literacy and education, and used her post-Titanic fame, combined with her fortune, to speak out about these issues. She was one of the first women in America to run for political office, helped by living in Colorado, where women had had the vote since 1893. She also chaired an international conference on women’s rights in 1914. In 1932 she was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur for her ‘good citizenship’, including her ongoing work on behalf of Titanic survivors and her relief work during the First World War.
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