The Heartbreaking Truth Behind the Iconic Death Scene of the Elderly Couple on ‘Titanic’

The Heartbreaking Truth Behind the Iconic Death Scene of the Elderly Couple on ‘Titanic’

Alexander Meddings - December 19, 2017

We all remember the scene. As the incongruously dulcet soundtrack of “Near My God to Thee” stoically played by Titanic‘s band, chaos and confusion reign aboard the foundering giant. Men and women cry out in pain and fear as the icy waters pin them down in Titanic‘s grand stairwell. Below deck, a third class, red-haired Irish mother reads her children a story, holding back the tears in the knowledge this is the last time she will put them to bed. And with water gushing into their cabin, an elderly couple tightly hold onto each other; love’s tender affection an anesthetic to their imminent deaths.

Poignant though the image might be, it is just that: an image, created by James Cameron for his 1997 film. We know that the actors walked away- safe above water – to live happy lives. But before you put away the tissues, there is something important to know: The elderly couple cuddling in bed until the bitter end is based on a real couple. 67-year-old Mr Isidor Straus and 63-year-old Mrs Rosalie Ida Straus. The husband and wife showed considerable courage and devotion in the early hours of April 15 1912, both to each other and to friends and strangers around them. Theirs is a shining example of altruism and self-sacrifice that shone out from the freezing darkness of that fateful night.

The Heartbreaking Truth Behind the Iconic Death Scene of the Elderly Couple on ‘Titanic’
Lew Palter and Elsa Raven play the Straus couple in James Cameron’s 1997 film. Catfly

Isidor Straus was born in Bavaria in 1845. He emigrated with his family to America when he was just nine, settling in Talbotton, Georgia. There, his father started the dry goods company “L. Straus & Company”. Isidor worked as a clerk in his father’s business, maintaining the role when the family—and the business—relocated to Columbus. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, and having just paid off all his debts in Talbotton, a practically penniless Isidor moved to New York with his brother.

He quickly found employment at the jeweller’s R. H. Macy & Co., and years later he would go on to take over the company. A famous philanthropist, Isidor then moved on to a career in politics, serving as New York’s congressman from 1895 to 1897. It was in New York that he met Ida. The two married in 1871, having seven children together. The years did nothing to lessen the intimacy and affection they shared; they would often travel together on business, and when unable to do so would write letters to each other every day.

The Heartbreaking Truth Behind the Iconic Death Scene of the Elderly Couple on ‘Titanic’
Isidor and Ida Straus. Old Magazine Articles

The Strauses had been in Europe throughout 1911 and 1912. They had wanted to travel back to the US on another ship but, because of a coal strike in England, were diverted onto the Titanic. Typical of Titanic‘s wealthy passengers, the Strauses occupied multiple cabins (C-55-57): space enough to accommodate Isidor’s manservant, John Farthing, and Ida’s maid, Ms Ellen Bird. We know exactly what Ida thought about her accommodation because she told us herself in a letter. Sent on Wednesday April 10, four days before the ships struck the iceberg, she wrote to her friend Mrs Burbridge describing her experience aboard:

But what a ship! So huge and magnificently appointed. Our rooms are furnished in the best of taste and most luxuriously and they are really rooms not cabins. But size seems to bring its troubles – Mr Straus, who was on deck when the start was made, said that at one time it stroked painfully near to the repetition of the Olympic’s experience on her first trip out of the harbor, but the danger was soon averted and we are now well on to our course across the channel to Cherbourg.”

The Heartbreaking Truth Behind the Iconic Death Scene of the Elderly Couple on ‘Titanic’
The sinking of the Titanic. Google Images

Ida’s reference to the Titanic‘s near miss with the liner New York while leaving Southampton is poignantly prophetic. On a human level, her comment that the liner’s size might not be without its troubles and her confident proclamation that danger “has now been averted” is, frankly, heartbreaking. You feel it must have been at the forefront of her mind in the late hours of April 14 when she received news the Titanic had struck an iceberg and was going down by the head.

On the orders of Officer Charles Lightoller, Mrs Straus had initially started getting into Lifeboat 8 along with her maid, Ellen Bird, at around 1:00 a.m, just over an hour after the glancing collision. Seeing that her husband wasn’t following, however, she changed her mind. With one foot on the gunwale, she handed Ellen her fur coat, turned back and went to stand behind Isidor. According to eyewitnesses, she explained her rationale by exclaiming: “we have been living together for many years, and where you go, I go.”

The Heartbreaking Truth Behind the Iconic Death Scene of the Elderly Couple on ‘Titanic’
Their cabin as it looked before the disaster and how it looks now. Wikimedia Commons

The couple sat themselves down in a couple of deckchairs on A Deck. Passing passengers entreated Ida to board a lifeboat, even offering her husband a place. Isidor was having none of it though. Adamant he wouldn’t seek advantage over other men, he remained seated. He wasn’t the only male first class passenger to make such a noble sacrifice. At about 1:30 a.m., the 46-year-old businessman Benjamin Guggenheim appeared on the boat deck. You might remember him from Cameron’s film—”we are dressed in our best, and are prepared to go down as gentlemen. But we would like a brandy!” Indeed, wearing white tie and tails he did relay a message to his steward, saying:

I think there is grave doubt the men will get off. I am willing to remain and play the man’s game if there are not enough boats for more than the women and children. I won’t die here like a beast. Tell my wife… I played the game out straight and to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.”

Without wanting to play down the nobility of their sacrifice, it’s worth remembering that many of Titanic‘s passengers never got the chance. Especially Titanic‘s third class passengers. Kept below deck away from the other passengers because of American immigration laws, the gates were only unlocked at 12:30 (and then so they could lose themselves in the vast labyrinth of Titanic‘s internal corridors). In the aftermath, much noise was made about the heroic acts of the Strauses, Mr Guggenheim and, in the water, the “unsinkable” Molly Brown. One feels, however, this was at least in part to distract from this ugly truth (as well as other unpopular acts of self-preservation that of the White Star Line’s managing director J. Bruce Ismay).

The Heartbreaking Truth Behind the Iconic Death Scene of the Elderly Couple on ‘Titanic’
Married for 41 years, Isidor and Ida Straus stayed together until the end. Wikimedia Commons

Among the pandemonium on deck in Titanic‘s final moments, the Strauses’ last movements (and those of Isidor’s manservant John Farthing) are lost to history. The final eyewitness report came from the Washington DC-based writer, Helen Churchill Candee. As she was being rowed away from the foundering giant, she remembered Mr. and Mrs. Straus standing on the upper deck. The fact that Isidor’s body was recovered from the water by the Mackay-Bennett the day after the disaster suggests he did remain on deck until the end. Ida’s body, however, was never found.

When the Carpathia docked in New York on April 18, Helen Candee was amongst the first to share what she had seen with reporters. She was, therefore, instrumental in establishing and circulating the Straus story. But she wasn’t alone. Amongst others, Colonel Archibald Gracie confirmed Candee’s version of events. He testified before the Senate Inquiry Committee that he had seen the Strauses discussing how if they were going to die, they would die together. Gracie also reports that he and a number of others did their best to change Ida’s mind, but that she would not be moved from her husband’s side.

The Heartbreaking Truth Behind the Iconic Death Scene of the Elderly Couple on ‘Titanic’

Memorial at Straus Park, Broadway and West End Avenue at 106th Street, Manhattan. Flickr

Ida’s decision to stay with her husband was one of the biggest stories to emerge from the Titanic disaster. Curiously, this was particularly the case in the United States, where accounts of heroic women as well as heroic men were given considerable airtime (unlike in Britain where the focus was almost entirely on the men). Ida came to the fore as an exemplary woman; an embodiment of wifely virtue and loyalty in an age of failing marriages and higher divorce rates. As the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported:

In this day of frequent and scandalous divorce, when the marriage tie once held so sacred is all too lightly regarded, the wifely devotion and love of Mrs. Straus for her partner of a lifetime stands out in noble contrast.”

Isidor was buried in New York at Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, a memorial to Ida affixed to his grave, while in Straus Park at Broadway and 106th Street stands a memorial statue reading: “Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives, and in their death, they were not parted”. But this isn’t where their story ends. As you’ll remember, Rosalie refused to take up her place in the lifeboat, offering it instead to Ellen Bird. In the true sense of self-sacrifice, she died so another could live. And live life she did.

She immediately set about seeking out the Strauses’ eldest child, Sara Straus Hess, so she could return the fur coat Ida had given her. Sara insisted that it had been given to her, however, and she should keep it. Ellen soon found employment with another affluent family who had also been aboard the Titanic, the Speddens of Tuxedo Park, New York. She worked for them until her marriage to Julian Edward Beattie, an English-born hotelier in June 1914.

They had a daughter together, Gwendolyn, but tragically she never made it to her third birthday. Ellen and Julian had no more children together after Gwendolyn’s death. Instead, she worked for a series of families, and he for a series of businesses in the hospitality trade, travelling from New Jersey to Boston, Rhode Island, and New Bedford, Massachusetts. She died in 1949 and was buried in Bristol, Massachusetts. Her husband was buried beside her when he died 10 years later.