Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: Titanic’s First Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster (Review)

When Lucy Sutherland was ten years old, Lillie Langtry dined at Government House on the Isle of Jersey. In 1873, Langtry was a local celebrity, the daughter of the Dean of Jersey who had attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales in London, become a royal mistress and was celebrated as one of the most beautiful women of the late nineteenth century. For the little girl from Guelph, Ontario, Canada who had lived in Jersey since her mother’s second marriage, Langtry’s visit to Government House was an event not to be missed.Lucy and her younger sister Elinor hid under a dressing table in the cloakroom to catch a glimpse of Langtry as she arrived at Government House.

The girls were impressed by her elegant white silk dress and Lucy would design her own gown for her first ball in the style of Lillie Langtry. The debutante gown was the first of many dresses designed by Lucy Sutherland. By the time she sailed on the Titanic in 1912 as Lady Duff Gordon, Lucy had become a celebrated couturier, designing dresses and lingerie for elite customers such as the Countess of Warwick, another one of the future Edward VII’s mistresses and Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Alice of Albany. In the 1997 James Cameron film, Titanic, Rose describes Lady Duff Gordon anachronistically as “very popular with the royals.”

Like many of her fellow first class passengers on the Titanic, Lady Duff Gordon was a self made entrepreneur who had risen from humble circumstances to become a celebrated figure of the gilded age. In Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World, Hugh Brewster brings the stories of Titanic’s first class passengers to life, revealing their circumstances at the time of the voyage and how the sinking of the “unsinkable” ship changed their lives forever.

Brewster is the author of numerous other books about the sinking of the Titanic including The Titanic Collection: Mementos of the Maiden Voyage. In Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, he observes that in most books about the Titanic, the ship itself is the central character, dwarfing the experiences of the passengers aboard. With a few exceptions, such as the famous Molly Brown, the individuals aboard the Titanic are subsumed by broad generalizations about the experiences of people who traveled in first class, second class or steerage. Brewster keeps the focus of the book firmly on the diverse collection of passengers who sailed in first class on the Titanic.

Aside from the financial means to purchase a first class ticket, the richest passengers aboard the Titanic had little in common. The thirty Canadians in first class came from a small business elite based in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Among the wealthy American magnates, John Jacob Astor was solicitous of his pregnant wife Madelaine’s delicate health while Benjamin Guggenheim traveled with his mistress Ninette Aubart, who was discreetly lodged in a separate stateroom. Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon traveled under the pseudonyms “Mr. and Mrs. Morgan” so that Lucy could enjoy the voyage without being inundated with dress design requests from the other female first class passengers.

The first half of the book covers a lot of ground with Brewster balancing the events of the Titanic’s voyage before reaching the iceberg with the backgrounds of the first class passengers. All these themes come together once disaster strikes and the passengers struggle to come to terms with the enormity of the damage to the ship. Despite their different personal histories and traveling circumstances, the first class passengers shared a belief in human progress and viewed shipwrecks as events from a bygone age. This inability to grasp the magnitude of the disaster informed the decisions of the passengers at the time of sinking and during the subsequent inquest.

Brewster concludes with a detailed postscript about the lives of the Titanic’s survivors. Many experienced further hardship after losing loved ones during the sinking. For Lady Duff Gordon, prosperity ended with the sinking of the Titanic. Her testimony during the inquest attracted widespread criticism and changing fashion trends sharply reduced the demands for romantic gowns in the style of Lillie Langtry. For Titanic’s first class passengers, the sinking was the end of an era.

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