Marjorie Newell Robb
There were family members who had no idea that, at the age of 22, Aunt Marjorie had survived the Titanic. She kept quiet about it for more that seventy years, and she was 95 when the robot Argo first revealed Titanic’s prow standing in frightful majesty on a gravely plain some 2.5 miles below the Atlantic. She made a pilgrimage, then, from Fall River, Massachusetts to a cemetery in Litchfield, England, and visited a granite marker memorializing Captain Edward J. Smith. AI heard some music that day, she wrote in a record for her family – music, coming from somewhere. It was then I decided to end my silence, to finally say what I had kept inside for so many years:
There was nothing like Titanic. It was the first voyage, you know, and it was a splendid ship. . . I can still smell the fresh paint, the new sheets. . . The suites were luxurious, elegant – and what food, the menus.
If you were first class, you had the best of everything. Our first class cabins were located on what was called the Private Promenade deck [B Deck, a suite apparently forward of the Grand Staircase, under the first smokestack]. Those accommodations cost $2500 in those days [$75000 U.S. in year 2002 dollars]. Being privileged . . That had everything in the world to do with why I am here today, to tell you about that awful night, and of names that have become synonymous with Titanic: people like the Astors and the Strauses. Mr. and Mrs. Straus [too] were on the Private Promenade [deck]. Mrs. Straus went down [with the ship]. She wouldn’t leave her husband. Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor were there. I was their dinner guest. I knew these people. Mr. Astor – he, [too] went down [into history].
There was always something really odd about first class passengers. They had different ways. They never looked over to third class, not even in the worst moments. They were apart. The amazing thing is that we who were in first class barely felt the collision [with the iceberg]. Many did not even know we had hit an iceberg. We did not know we were in danger, because nothing [about the impact] felt dangerous. So we didn’t know. Not at first. Not until I heard the screams.
I was being placed in a lifeboat by my father. It was the second lifeboat to go into the water. [Actually Boat 6, in which Marjorie Newell Robb departed with Helen Churchill Candee and Molly Brown, was the first boat to leave the port side, at about 12:55 am, 1 hour 15 minutes after the impact and 1 hour 25 minutes before the disappearance of the stern.] Into the water, and then I heard the screams.
How ironic. My father felt he was safer [on the Titanic] than we were [in the lifeboat]. He thought the lifeboats were dangerous, that we really were in more danger than he. The lifeboats. The horror. My anger and my horror. The horror and the guilt. There weren’t enough of them [not enough for half aboard]. Some people had to die, and we realized that, finally. [I] saw [from the water] my father go off – somewhere- and [I] never did see him again. I wondered for a long time, did he wander about the ship? What was he contemplating in his last moments? We’ll never know.
Ismay and Gracie, and the newspapers of the time, painted a picture of heroic calm, and of selfless efforts to save all the women and children. Fallacy. Mythology. Those in the third-class area had the lights turned off on them. In the third class you had no light. But in first-class you had all the light you wanted. Money talked. In the darkness, the passengers in third-class could not find their way out. They couldn’t see anything at all. The women and the children were trapped in the dark. They were screaming. It was the single most callous, inhumane act.
And in the midst of all this, we heard music – beautiful, soothing music, alternately soft and comical strains. The Merry Widow Waltz. . . Turkey in the Straw drifting to us over the water. I don’t remember, as has become almost synonymous with Titanic, any such hymn as Nearer My God to Thee being played. I don’t remember that at all. But there was a lot of Irving Berlin – One O’clock in the Morning I Get Lonesome was played (I think shortly after we rowed away from Titanic, at one o’clock in the morning). The band played Irving Berlin, one song after another, to distract people from the horror. I remember hearing Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Now that was definitely one of the hits of the day. We were in the boat and we could hear the all-string band playing. . .
I rowed. I had never rowed a boat in my life, but that morning I rowed. I did not see the Titanic finally go. I just turned my back to her and kept rowing. I did not want to look back. Could not look back. . . The end, I did not see. . .
When dawn came I saw the icebergs, cold, cheerless, frightful looking. We were hungry and cold. All around us were pieces of wood. Debris. What looked [in the distance] like an entire story of the Grand Stairway sticking out of the water, surrounded by cakes of white ice, all the same size – which turned out to be lifejackets – scores of lifejackets enclosing the dead. . . In the night so many of the men who were not in the boats . . . clung to the boards and all the debris, but they couldn’t hold on. Most of the men died that night.
From the day my father went down with the ship, a period of constant family mourning began. We were diseased with grief from that day. Our lives became something completely foreign, strange, detached. It was truly almost a disease. My mother mourned all the rest of her life, and she died at 103. Under her pillow she kept my father’s watch all the rest of her life. When his body was discovered, his watch and signet ring were intact. Now I have both, since my sisters have also passed on.
There are indeed things stronger than all of mankind’s attempts to conquer the elements. To this day, when I hear of a great earthquake, such as the ones in Mexico and Iran, I think of a sentence my daughter once said to me: Man’s efforts are useless compared to the power of nature.
Marjorie Robb, born in 1889, was older than Madeline Astor when they dined together on that last great night. Marjorie lived on beyond the Astors, the Guggenheims, and their children – beyond all of them – to see the surround sound IMAX film of 1991’s Keldysh-MIR expedition to Titanic. She remarked that such technology would have seemed beyond the imaginations of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells when she last saw the ship, alive and new and freshly painted. . . and foundering. She was 101 years old, and the once silent survivor never ceased telling her story, never ceased during the next three years, to warn anyone who would listen that the past leaves it’s fingerprints on the future. She did not fall silent until June 1993, at the age of 104. She had said she wanted to be cremated, and to have her ashes sprinkled at sea, where they could mingle forever with the ghosts of the abyss.
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