The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown

A Few Insights into the Woman Behind the Legend

One of the happiest things about the current staging of The Unsinkable Molly Brown is that the production believes in the story it’s telling. As entertaining as the original 1960 Broadway production was, that show had little interest in the truth. Its reason for being was to show off the fabulously gifted Tammy Grimes in all her glory. But not for one minute did viewers assume they were seeing a complete or even accurate account of Mrs. J. J. Brown.

But in fact, Mrs. J. J. Brown lived a life of such color and event that her real story life could have supplied material for several musicals. This current revised script, while hardly a documentary, is wisely rooted in a trajectory much closer to the facts. Since this flamboyant character is on our minds this week, here is some additional mortar to fill in the cracks and the crevices of her picturesque story.

You don’t have to do much reading to learn that she was never known as “Molly” Brown. (Why the 1960 musical chose to re-name her remains a mystery.)      I’m looking at five obituaries from October 1932, published in five separate newspapers the week she died. No two headlines identify her the same way. She is Mrs. Brown, Mrs. J. J. Brown, Mrs. James J. Brown, the Widow Brown and the “Unsinkable Mrs. Brown.” Never Molly.

One of the obits describes her as the “vivacious Colorado character for whom life was never dull.” Collectively, the obituaries offer persuasive proof of one common denominator: The young girl who became the wife of Leadville Johnny Brown loved to embellish. She loved to embellish her wardrobe, the décor in her homes and the stories of her life. For instance, she liked to recount how, as a child growing up in Hannibal, Mo., family friend Samuel Clemens saved her from death when she fell head-first into a “sink” on an island in the Mississippi River. (Apparently as a youth she was quite “sinkable.”) But the only reliable component of that story is that there are islands in the Mississippi River. Yes, Mark Twain did live in Hannibal between the ages of four and 17, but he left Hannibal in May 1853, 14 years before Margaret Tobin was born. So the notion of their having gone hunting together stretches credulity.

Of course the crucible event of her life – the sinking of the Titanic on April 15 – is awash in legend. Women were not allowed to testify in the public hearing, so she wrote her own account, which was published in the Newport Herald (that posh Rhode Island resort community had become her home-away-from-home) and in the Denver Post. In the article she chronicles how she was dropped into a lowering lifeboat that contained only one man.

Oddly, her story omits an account of her time in Lifeboat Number Six during those dire hours between the actual sinking of the Titanic and the sighting of the Carpathia. Perhaps that experience was too traumatic to chronicle, or perhaps she had blocked it out of her mind.

Over the past century the Titanic disaster has become cloaked in an almost romantic lore. But contemporaneous accounts remind us of how traumatizing the experience was. The most immediate account appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Esteemed reporter Carlos F. Hurd, who had been on the Post-Dispatch staff since 1900, and his wife Katherine were passengers on board the Carpathia, bound for a vacation in Italy, when they woke to discover that their ship was picking up Titanic survivors. Hurd instantly went to work interviewing many of the rescued, including the ship’s officer who was at the helm when the Titanic struck the iceberg. Hurd’s was the only first-hand account written by an on-the-spot reporter. While Hurd was talking to members of the crew, Katherine also became a reporter. She spoke to women survivors. At the end of her article, which ran in the Post-Dispatch four days after the sinking, Mrs. Hurd removed her objective reporter’s hat and wrote, “Words can’t express the horrors, the tragedy of it all. I want to forget it; I wish that the week could be blotted from my memory, but it haunts me sleeping or waking like a terrible night.”

Carlos Hurd’s article reports on a meeting of survivors in the Carpathia saloon. A small committee was set up to provide for a testimonial to the officers and crew of the Carpathia, “those who in heroic self-sacrifice made possible the rescue of so many others.” According to Hurd, the committee included Mrs. J. J. Brown. He continues, “The first subscriptions were for $100 each and amounts were paid largely in traveler’s checks or personal checks, cash being somewhat scarce among the refugees, who kept their currency [onboard the Titanic] in the purser’s safe .” Eventually the fund reached $10,000.

The Carpathia returned to New York, unloaded the survivors, then resumed its journey to Italy. When the ship next returned to New York City in late May, Mrs. Brown and a few other members of the committee were waiting on the dock to present gold, silver and bronze medals to the officers and crew. Mrs. Brown presented Capt. Arthur Rostron with an elaborate loving cup.

She soon nicknamed herself “the unsinkable Mrs. Brown” and proceeded to devote her life to spending her great wealth. Her estranged husband, Leadville Johnny Brown, 13 years her senior, died in 1922. Three years later, in March 1925, Mrs. Brown experienced a second brush with death. While wintering at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, the hotel suffered a devastating fire. Legend would have us believe that she heroically led some of her fellow guests down a back stairway to safety, but such is not the case. She was awakened by the hotel telephone operator and managed to escape with her life – but little else. A report six days later in the Palm Beach Post seems to capture the essence of the unsinkable Mrs. Brown: “Mrs. J. J. Brown, who has not allowed the fire or the weather to affect her spirits, had her usual good time in the surf.”

So we leave her, unsinkable yet again, in her most indomitable pose: afloat in the Atlantic Ocean.