About ten years ago, a Big Deal (TM) was happening in Denmark. It was the television premiere of “Titanic,” the epic film which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and to this day holds a special place in my heart. For days leading up to the television premiere the same channel had been broadcasting various other film and TV productions of the same story. I don’t remember the names of any of these productions, although I do recall that one of them was in black and white which just goes to show that Titanic’s story is an endless source of fascination for the public.
So, for this TV premiere a good friend and I had begged our parents to let us stay up late (I think the showing began around 9 PM and ended around 12 PM which was SCANDALOUSLY late when you consider that we were like 12 years old.) Furthermore, my friend’s mother was out of town so we were alone in the house and got pizza and candy and had a grand old time, only slightly sabotaged by the fact that she had new braces in that hurt her teeth and I couldn’t laugh because I’d hurt a rib during P.E.
I was mightily excited for the TV premiere, and I watched all of the other Titanic (and in my opinion lesser) productions in the days leading up to it. Because I am a Type A personality, I also researched Titanic until I was blue in the face.
Among the books I found was one that focused primarily on the class divide on the Titanic. It went into great detail describing the first class, second and third class accommodations. It also picked out real-life examples of people who travelled on the different tickets and ultimately their fates. Because I was 12 and already at that point more than normally interested in historic fashions (which is to say, interested at all) I fixated on the upperclass women with their amazing clothes and ridiculous hats. For some reason, one name in particular stood out to me (I have my speculations as to why, but they’re best left out of this blog post), and for some reason, ever since then, her name still stands out to me.
Yes, reader, you may have guessed it. It’s Madeleine Talmage Astor and I suspect my fascination has to do, in parts, with some morbid romanticism I’d rather not own up to.
Most recently, in all this brouhaha surrounding the Centennial (which I guess I’m buying into since it is, in fact, today) I’m excited to see how she is portrayed in Julian Fellowes new Titanic mini-series.
Sadly, I imagine that Madeleine will be mostly overlooked except for some short mention about her scandalous marriage to John Jacob Astor. But to me, Madeleine remains the most interesting person involved in Titanic’s disaster.
Madeleine was born June 19th, 1893 and grew up the second child of William Hurlbut Force and his wife Katherine Arvilla Talmage. She had one older sister, also named Katherine. William Force was the head of a shipping and forwarding firm in Brooklyn, and they were not “old money” but he supported his family well enough to enter his daughters into New York’s good society. Growing up in Brooklyn, Madeleine attended Miss Spence’s Finishing School, which to this day remains a Brooklyn institution of higher learning, and by all accounts was a popular and well-liked young woman. She would ride horses in Central Park, played tennis and put on plays with her schoolmates.
By the time Madeleine was entered into society, during a debutante’s ball in December 1910, she had already met John Astor, and this meeting would shock good society all across the world for many different reasons.
The name “Astor” may be familiar to some of my readers. If it is, it’s because at one point the Astor family was the richest family in the world. The Astors built an American empire on real estate, business and investing. John Jacob IV’s grandfather, the original John Jacob Astor, was the first multi-millionaire in the United States. There are several buildings in New York that bear the name Astor. The most famous is probably the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
By the time Madeleine met John Jacob he was 45 years old and newly divorced in a time when divorce was still hugely taboo. There is some evidence that Mrs. Force, the mother of Katherine and Madeleine, wanted Katherine to marry Astor, but he instead took a liking to Madeleine. Astor was 29 years her senior, and his oldest son from his previous marriage, 1 year older than Madeleine.
Today it might be hard to understand that attitude towards divorce in the early 1900s, but divorce was extremely hard to obtain even when instigated by the husband. We don’t know whether it was John Jacob or his first wife, Ava Lowle Williams, who instigated the divorce proceedings but I am fairly certain that Astor’s wealth helped smooth over the process.
However, the troubles didn’t end with Astor’s divorce. After meeting Madeleine in the summer of 1910, Astor announced his intention to marry her in the fall but due to his divorce, not many ministers were willing to marry the couple.
Another objection to their marriage apart from the age difference and the divorce was the class difference. Astor, the richest man in America, came from a family of “old money” and Madeleine, although a socialite, a member of good society, and the child of a rich father, did not, nor did she have an old name or illustrious connections.
There isn’t much known about Madeleine and John Jacob’s courtship, except that they met in Bar Harbor, Maine during the summer of 1910. They were married the September 9, 1911 at The Beachwood, an old Astor estate in Newport, Rhodes Island, foregoing a traditional church ceremony. Astor had approached first one clergymen, Rev. Edward A Johnson, to officiate the wedding but this man had refused (and was, by many, applauded for his decision. This led to Astor offering another clergyman, a methodist, 1,000 dollars to officiate the wedding. He also refused, but someone at last was found.
The lack of a church was not the only unorthodox part of the marriage service as Madeleine also deigned to wear white, and instead wore a blue semi hobble-skirt and instead of a veil, a peach basket hat. With the Astor family the closest thing the United States at the time came to a royal family, the couple were treated like the celebrities of the day. Encyclopedia Tritannica’s pages on John Jacob and Madeleine has press clippings from the New York Times that describe the couple well before their marriage, and they read like a more polite version of today’s glossy magazines.
To escape the gossip surrounding their marriage, Madeleine and Astor went away immediately after the wedding, to Egypt (there was a huge Egyptian revival going on at the time) as well as Paris where they travelled for several months. Abroad, they met Molly Brown (later dubbed The Unsinkable Molly Brown) who unlike many Americans didn’t shun them because of the circumstances around their marriage, and ended up travelling them before they decided to return home.
About 8 months into their honeymoon, Madeleine and John Jacob decided to return to America. The reason was very simple: Madeleine had fallen pregnant and they wanted their child to be born in the United States. The timing of this pregnancy turned out to be exceedingly unfortunate as the quickest boat home turned out to be the Titanic. Naturally, they travelled on a first-class ticket, in suites C-62-64, along with Astor’s manservant, Mrs. Astor’s maid and Astor’s dog, Kitty.
As we all know, Titanic’s journey took a turn for the tragic when two days in on its journey, it hit an iceberg. By this time of night Astor was at the cardtables and Madeleine already in bed. Reports have many witty things to tell about Astor and one story goes that upon hearing they had hit an iceberg promptly replied “I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous.” It has later been refuted, as apparently, Astor was not the kind of man who made jokes. Another story goes that he went to free the dogs, kept in kennels, away from their human companions.
It is certain that he went first to his wife’s aid and helped her dress warmly. The couple went first to the upper decks as instructed, where it is said that Madeleine lent her shawl to a cold child. After a while, they went inside the gymnasium where John Jacob cut up the lining of a life vest to reassure his wife that it would work as promised.
Eventually, they moved back outside where Astor tried to persuade his frightened wife to go into a lifeboat, along with her maid and nurse, and after a while managed to persuade her. In the book “Lost Voices from the Titanic” by Nick Barrett it is relayed how he originally asked a member of the Titanic crew whether he could accompany Madeleine into the life-boat due to her delicate condition. Being denied, Astor didn’t despair but instead set about getting as many women as possible into the lifeboats before they were lowered into the sea.
From a letter (shared in “Lost Voices from the Titanic”) by W.H Dobbyn writes of a meeting with Madeleine Astor after her return to New York.
She got into the boat, thinking he would follow her for there were a number of vacant places, and the deck about them deserted. He asked the officer if he might go with her, and was refused. She was terribly frightened when she found herself alone, and the boat being lowered. She remembers his calling to her if she was alright or if she was comfortable, and that he asked the officer the number of the boat, and he said something she could not hear. Her boat had gone but a little way when the Titanic sank. She thought she heard him calling, and she stood up and cried that they were coming, but the people in the boat made her stop, and apparently they made no effort to go back toward those cries for help. There was no light in her boat, and anyone in the water, only a few feet away, could not see them. You would be terribly sorry for her if you could see her and hear her tell the awful tragedy. She is so young and she cared so much for him.
John Jacob Astor’s body was never recovered. Madeleine gave birth to their son, John Jacob Astor VI, on the 19th of August, 1912. In his will Astor stipulated that Madeleine should have full use of the different houses belonging to his estate, as well as giving her a very generous inheritance. However, should she remarry she would lose all entitlements to the Astor fortune.
As it happened, she did re-marry, first to her childhood friend William Hurt whom she later divorced. Her third husband was boxer and film-star Enzo Fiermonte whom she also later divorced before she died of a heart ailment in 1940.
There is something about Madeleine’s story that is endlessly fascinating to me. Perhaps it was the way this girl was treated like the celebrities of today. Perhaps it’s her marriage to a man so much older than her and the shortness of their marriage. I wonder what might have happened to them if they hadn’t boarded the Titanic? Would they have been able to withstand a return to America, having their marriage dissected by society and the newspapers? Would Madeleine have been endlessly accused of marrying him for the money?
UPDATED: Because WordPress refusedd to post this at a scheduled time, the date of this post says the 13th of April but rest assured it was posted, with some difficulty, today the 14th of April.