Unsinkable Molly Brown, Tougher than Titanic The Life and Times of the Amazing Maggie
By: John Shepler
Late in the evening of April 14, 1912, Maggie Brown was absorbed
in her reading, anxiously nearing the end of her book. Suddenly,
something crashed at the window overhead and threw her from her
brass bed to the floor below. The "unsinkable" Titanic
had just grazed the side of an iceberg, ripping a 300 foot gash
in the ship's hull. "Get your life-saver," gasped a
man in the hall, his face a ghostly white.
Before she knew it, Maggie was on deck and being dropped four
feet into a lowering lifeboat. There were 14 women in the boat
and one shivering quartermaster who insisted that the Titanic,
now listing before its final plunge, would surely suck them down
no matter how hard they rowed away. Maggie took a dim view of
his tirade. She grabbed the oars and took command, ordering another
young woman to help her row.
who knew Margaret Tobin Brown would have expected nothing less
from the flamboyant "uncrowned queen of smart Parisian Society."
She was a spunky American who once boasted that she knew "everyone
worth knowing from Moscow to the Bosphorus." She corresponded
with Edward, Duke of Windsor and studied at New York's Carnegie
Institute. Among her closest friends was the Princess Dolgorouki,
an exiled Russian princess who was sister-in-law of the Czar.
Margaret "Maggie" Brown owned the best of everything
and traveled in some of the highest social circles. Yet, it might
have been her working class background more than anything that
saved her that night on the icy Atlantic.
Margaret Tobin wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth.
It's unlikely anyone in her family even owned one. She grew up
in Mark Twain's home town of Hannibal, Missouri, in a one bedroom
frame house near the Mississippi River with five brothers and
sisters. Her father, John Tobin, had emigrated from Ireland as
a boy and worked at the Hannibal Gas Works. What Maggie lacked
in material wealth growing up, she made up for in ambition and
an active imagination. She claimed to have been childhood buddies
with Mark Twain, an unlikely story, although she may have met
Twain while she worked as a waitress in one of the town's hotels.
When she and her brother Daniel took off to seek their fortune
in the mining boom town of Leadville, Colorado, Maggie reported
that their wagon train had been attacked and robbed by no less
than Jessie James.
The excitement and romance of gold-rush Leadville suited Maggie,
and it wasn't long before she was courting a handsome mining
engineer named James J. Brown. She and J.J. began their married
life in his two-room log cabin near the mine and had two children,
Lawrence Palmer known as Larry and Catherine Ellen, also known
as Helen. By then, most of her family was living in Leadville.
These were happy times for the Tobins and Browns, as J.J. advanced
in the Ibex Company and applied his engineering skills to solve
a problem of cave-ins in the Little Jonny Mine. His success helped
open what was called the world's richest gold strike. Suddenly
Maggie and J.J. Brown were literally swimming in money. Maggie,
who always wanted to marry a rich man and live the high life,
In 1894, the Browns bought a mansion in Denver's chic Capitol
Hill neighborhood. She was 27 and yearned to be accepted in Denver's
snobby social circles. Initially rebuffed as unsophisticated
nouveau riche, she persisted with gusto. Her clothes were the
best, her parties the most lavish. This is when the family began
traveling the world, learning about art and culture and making
high class friends abroad who could come and impress the stuffed
shirts of Denver. The Browns did become listed in the city's
social directory, but never were invited into the elite "Sacred
36," the creme de la creme of the town's old guard. Their
dirt-poor beginnings and Maggie's outspoken personality were
greater factors than their almost limitless wealth.
Maggie's European tour of 1912 was interrupted by news that
her grandson, Lawrence Palmer, Jr., was ill. She immediately
booked first class passage on the Titanic, ready to enjoy the
privileged six day crossing that $4,350 could buy. Five days
into the trip, Maggie found herself almost instantly transported
from reclining in a luxurious stateroom to bobbing around in
a tipsy lifeboat in pitch black and freezing cold, with an officer
who was ready to declare them all dead people. Maggie was used
to rejection, used to dealing with odd characters, but not used
to failure. If this man wasn't going to save the ship, she was,
with his help or in spite of it.
Maggie kept them warm by rowing and their hopes high with
her indomitable spirit, until the lights of the Carpathia appeared
to save them at 4:30 a. m. On board that ship she helped organize
the rescue efforts, made survivor lists and got them radioed
to the families, and formed a committee of other wealthy survivors
to raise money for destitute victims of the sinking. By the time
they reached New York, she had collected almost $10,000 in pledges.
So how did Maggie Brown acquire her famous nickname? Asked
by reporters how she managed to survive the Titanic disaster,
Maggie quipped "Typical Brown luck. We're unsinkable."
She never did go by the name Molly. That was added decades later
when her life was dramatized by the Broadway stage play and movie
called "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." Although the script
bears only a passing resemblance to her real story, it makes
her larger than life and a household name. She would have liked
it that way.
Books of Interest:
Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth by Kristen Iverson,
with a forward by Muffet Brown, Maggie's great granddaughter.
This is an extensively researched biography, the first really
serious study of this fascinating woman who rose from humble
beginnings to become one of the most talked about people of the
Titanic Survivor The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet
Jessop Who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters
by Violet Jessop and John Maxtone-Graham. Violet Jessop was
probably the only rescued person with a toothbrush after the
Britannic struck a mine and sank. But then she had been on the
Titanic four years earlier and remembered what she had missed...
In 1934, she wrote her memoirs. Few, if any, ocean liner stewardesses
ever wrote their memoirs; hence, Violet Jessop's life story is
doubly valuable - one of a kind as well a articulate, authoritative
and informative. From her unique vantage point, whetherin pantry
or glory hole, on deck or in a lifeboat, we are suddenly privy
to below-stairs life aboard the great ocean liners.
CQD Titanic - The Start of Wireless Disaster Communications.
Titanica - An in-depth resource for anyone interested in
the Titanic. Contains over 2,000 biographies, 700 related documents,
1,000 photos, ship's deck plans, movies and animation. Serious
researchers and casual browsers will find what they are looking
Note: Photo of Molly Brown after her rescue from the sinking Titanic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.