The sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 had a seismic impact on contemporary society, dominating news media worldwide for the rest of the year and beyond. For a 21st-century equivalent, think 9/11.
Other ships had sunk with greater loss of life, so that alone wasn’t responsible for the huge shockwave the Titanic created in its wake. The fact that it was the most luxurious ship ever built, said by some (although never by its builders) to be unsinkable played a part. The rumours that those in charge had been pushing the ship to reach New York in record time created villains to revile. But at least part of the overall disbelief and fascination was because of the sheer number of the rich and famous who perished.
There was Major Archibald Butt, an influential military aide to US President Taft and before that to President Roosevelt. President Taft himself sent a Marconigram to the Carpathia to enquire if Butt had survived but the radio operators were too busy to reply and he only found out his friend was dead when the survivor lists were transmitted to shore.
There was multi-millionaire property owner John Jacob Astor, so rich that it was feared the New York stock exchange might collapse when he was reported to be among the missing. He’d been honeymooning with his teenage wife Madeleine, and before they left New York they had been pursued relentlessly by photographers because of the scandal of his remarriage following divorce from his first wife.
There was Benjamin Guggenheim of the famously wealthy mining family; George Widener, who owned a streetcar firm in Philadelphia and was a director of the company that owned the Titanic; Isidor Straus, owner of Macy’s department store in New York; and artist and war correspondent Francis Millet. On the British side, there was William Thomas Stead, a well-respected investigative reporter and former editor of the Pall Mall Gazette.
Among survivors, there were actresses, such as Dorothy Gibson (who starred as herself in a film about the sinking just a month after the tragedy); French singer Léontine Aubart, the mistress of Benjamin Guggenheim; Edith Russell, a well-known fashion journalist; and members of the British aristocracy such as Lord and Lady Duff-Gordon and the Countess of Rothes.
Politics, finance, fashion, the arts and the upper classes – all were represented on the Titanic.
When a celebrity dies, the shock is magnified by the fact that our emotions are echoed around the globe. We ask questions like “Do you remember what you were doing when you heard that Kennedy/Marilyn Monroe/John Lennon/Princess Diana died?” For those on shore hearing the first reports of the Titanic tragedy, it must have been like all those rolled into one.