A recently discovered cache of letters seen by the Telegraph absolves Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon of bribery and cowardice
Just when it could safely be assumed that every rivet of the Titanic had been examined, every myth exhausted and every survivor story told, chance has thrown up a rich hoard of new material written by two of the most vilified first-class passengers to escape drowning.
The letters of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and his colourful wife, Lucy, are an extraordinary record of the night of April 15 1912, a century ago tomorrow. They describe not just the unfolding terror of the ship’s sinking, but every detail of how they dressed for the emergency, what they took with them, and their experiences in a perilously small boat before they were picked up by the RMS Carpathia.
There is even a complete inventory of all Lady Duff Gordon’s possessions that went to the bottom of the sea, from feather boas, teagowns and long kid gloves to silk corsets, diamonds and pearls. Head of a famous fashion house, Maison Lucile, she took three fur coats, a large fox fur and seven hats on the voyage to New York. The total value is given as £3,208 3s 6d (around £250,000 today).
The documents have been in a cardboard box in a solicitor’s room for the past 100 years and only came to light when two summer vacation students at the London office of Veale Wasbrough Vizards (the firm that merged with Tweedies, who represented the Duff Gordons) were asked to work through old papers that might be returned to the families of their original clients.
The historical significance of the find is that it contains fresh detail that could finally restore the good name of the Duff Gordons, who were accused of urging, or even bribing, the crew of their boat to row away from the sinking ship and not to pick up survivors, even though the boat wasn’t full. Though they were cleared of all blame by the Board of Trade inquiry in May 1912, they were savagely cross-examined and remained tainted by suspicion that they had acted selfishly.
The box marked simply “Titanic”, which has just been returned to a very surprised Sir Andrew Duff Gordon, Cosmo’s great-nephew, is a time capsule of enthralling witness. “I had absolutely no idea of its existence,” says Sir Andrew. “I am elated that these papers have come to light. I never doubted my great-uncle, who was a most upright and self-effacing person, and his account of that night shows beyond doubt that he acted honourably. But mud sticks and he never really recovered from the allegations made against him. He was deeply upset, and quite reclusive for the rest of his life.”
The couple took the Titanic because Lucy Duff Gordon had couture shops in London, Paris and New York and it was the first ship available to get her to New York to sort out an urgent problem with her lease. They boarded at Cherbourg and travelled under an assumed name, ironically to spare Cosmo unwanted publicity.
Susceptible to premonitions, Lucy describes in one of the documents how she had remarked to her secretary during the afternoon: “It is so awfully cold that we might be passing icebergs.” After a “very merry” dinner, she describes going to bed prepared, as usual, for any eventuality – wearing a pink Japanese padded dressing gown and stockings, with her red curls tied up in a blue chiffon scarf. Half an hour after she retired, she heard a terrific rumbling noise.
“It seemed almost like people playing bowls, rolling the great balls along, and the boat stopped. Then the frightful tearing noise of steam escaping, and I heard people running along the deck outside my windows, but laughing and quite gay.” Her husband, sleeping in another cabin, had heard nothing and was annoyed to be woken up by her.
A steward’s remark: “I hear that we have struck an iceberg but there is nothing the matter,” did nothing to reassure Lucy, and while Cosmo went up on the bridge to investigate, she unlocked her security box and took out a pair of diamond earrings, a diamond necklace and turquoises. He came back somewhat shaken and urged her to dress.
“I took off my nightgown which was underneath my padded dressing gown,” she writes, “put on my chemise and my thick silk drawers and my woollen drawers. Then I put on a warm silk vest with long sleeves. I deliberately thought I would not put my corsets on in case that if I got into the water I should not be able to swim, and put back my warm dressing gown and on top of that… my warm purple dressing gown, and then I put on my little warm motor hat.”
That was not all. Her life jacket was next, topped by her moleskin fur coat with Astrakhan muff. She took a last look at her “lovely little cabin” with its lace, cushions and photographs and a large basket of lilies of the valley. “It didn’t seem possible there could be any danger.” Cosmo took with him into the unknown the Edwardian aristocrat’s survival kit: a flask of brandy, a colt automatic pistol and a handful of cigars, which he later handed out to the seamen in his rescue boat.
The Duff Gordons’ separate, dramatic accounts reveal that Lucy and her secretary Laura Francatelli (known as Franks), far from elbowing others aside, turned down places in two departing lifeboats for women and children because they refused to be separated from Sir Cosmo. Lady Duff Gordon threw her arms around her husband’s neck and stood her ground, a determination that he acknowledges gave him “the opportunity of being saved”.
The deck was empty of people when they saw a third, smaller boat, known as the captain’s emergency boat, appear before them with spaces. This wooden cutter was one of the last boats to be launched. Although it was supposed to hold 40 people, it was full of clutter. Cosmo, in his courteous way, touched an officer on the shoulder and asked: “May we get in this boat?” The three were urged to board, along with two American businessmen, and the sailor in charge was ordered to “pull off” from the doomed ship as fast as possible to avoid being sucked under. There were seven seamen and five passengers aboard.
Lucy watched in horror as the ship’s rows of lights gradually disappeared below the waterline. “Each time that I looked up there was one row of lights less.” In an excitable letter to her daughter, Esme, written four days after the sinking, she reveals a somewhat voyeuristic fascination in watching the ship go down and her annoyance at being so seasick that she missed things. Sister of the romantic novelist Elinor Glyn, she was almost as emotionally flamboyant. “Well, my beloveds,” she writes to her family. “You know how I always said I longed for experiences and adventures and sensations, well, I’ve had it this time and no mistake.”
Her flimsy airmail letter includes a small drawing of their boat, snagged at a dangerous angle as it was lowered 90 ft down to the water. “The behaviour of all the people on the poor Titanic is beyond praise,” she writes. “Hearing all the thrilling blood-curdling tales of some of the survivors and all the excitement of the last few days has quite worn me out but I’m perfectly well and have never turned a hair.”
After explosions that split the ship in two, Cosmo recalls “the perfect horror of shrieking” that followed its final plunge. “Even at the distance we were, we heard the most awful cries of agony.”
The idea of going back for possible survivors, he discloses, was not mooted. They were too far away from the wreck, in intense darkness, and it would have been a dangerous and futile gesture because no one could have survived the icy sea for more than 15 minutes. “Cosmo was in no position to give orders,” says Sir Andrew. “He was not in charge of the boat.”
On the boat, the crew said they had lost not only all their possessions but their jobs. Cosmo promised to give them £5 towards restitution – an offer that was deliberately misinterpreted by one of the crew later as a bribe not to return for survivors because the Duff Gordons were allegedly afraid their small rowing boat would be swamped. In a stoical and moving account of the tragedy sent from New York to his anxious siblings, Cosmo writes: “Indeed at that moment I would have given anything that I possessed to anybody who wanted it, as my heart was full of thanksgiving that the two women in my charge and myself were where we were.”
“It was complete nonsense to call it a bribe,” says Andrew Duff Gordon. “My great-uncle was incredibly grateful to survive and what these papers show is that, when they got on the Carpathia, he wrote the seven oarsmen a Coutts cheque for £5 each to replace what they had lost.” His wife, Evie, comments: “One wonders if an act of philanthropy has ever had such dire consequences for its benefactor.”
By the time RMS Carpathia docked at New York with Titanic’s 710 rescued passengers, the press were in full cry – both for survivors’ stories and for people to blame for a disaster that took 1,500 lives. In a handwritten letter to his two brothers and two sisters, Cosmo comments bitterly: “There seems to be a feeling of resentment against any English man being saved.”
He adds: “The whole pleasure of having been saved is quite spoilt by the venomous attacks they made at first in the papers. This, I suppose, was because I refused to see any reporter.” One of the more outrageous rumours was that Duff Gordon had cheated his way on to a lifeboat dressed as a woman.
Though he reassures his family that “all the stories against me have already been contradicted and proved untrue. So I shall sit tight”, his arrival in England was met with another wave of traumatic publicity. Lucy Duff Gordon wrote: “I shall never forget his stricken face when we landed from the RMS Lusitania and caught the boat train for London. All over the station were newspaper placards: 'Duff Gordon scandal’… 'Baronet and wife row away from the drowning’.”
Among the newly discovered papers are Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon’s trenchant “Observations” on evidence given at the inquiry. Point by point, they rebut the “slanders” against them.
“They have both been vilified for far too long,” says Sir Andrew Duff Gordon. “The lovely thing is that it’s now been shown that they behaved very well.”
Saturday, April 14, 2012
THE blame for the sinking of the Titanic lies not with her lookouts or her skipper, but with an iceberg mirage created by Mother Nature.
British historian Tim Maltin has declared "case closed" on the cause of the disaster after discovering evidence that an optical illusion concealed the iceberg that sealed the ship's fate.
After collating sea and air temperatures taken by ships that passed through the area around the time of the sinking, the Titanic expert found atmospheric conditions conducive to a cold water mirage.
The data indicated that at the time of the collision the ship had been in the middle of a high pressure zone, where freezing waters originating in Greenland met the Gulf Stream.
The lookouts would have been searching for large black objects blocking the stars on the horizon, but refraction of light created by the movement of air currents could have made the horizon seem higher than it was, rendering the attempt ineffective.
He believes the same conditions could also have distorted the Titanic's emergency flares and SOS signals, explaining why they weren't picked up by the nearby SS Californian.
"It's almost as if Titanic sank in a killing zone of nature where all these very dangerous elements combined to make it fatal," Maltin said.
The author and filmmaker investigated ships' logs after reading eyewitness testimonies from survivors who reported a sudden drop in temperature before the collision and unusual observations about the ship's lights and the brightness of the stars.
There were also reports about columns of smoke from the ship flattening out like mushrooms, indicating a thermal inversion.
The presence of the mirage, or "false horizon", would have meant the iceberg was effectively invisible until it was right in front of the ship, making it impossible to avoid. Maltin said the findings vindicated the ship's crew and builders, adding his belief that the vessel would have been safer than any ocean liner in existence today.
"Titanic is so amazing because she represented the best that man could achieve and she represents the best of science and technology," he said.
"People believed that technology could triumph over nature, but what the Titanic teaches us is that the universe is always more powerful."
His theory is put forward in Case Closed, one of three National Geographic documentaries screening as part of the Titanic 100 series, produced to mark the anniversary of the ship's sinking.
Case Closed premiered last week on the National Geographic channel.