To those on the outside looking in, John Jacob Astor and his young bride Madeleine had everything — looks, fabulous wealth, and a new baby on the way. But behind the scenes, things weren’t quite so perfect. And when they booked a trip on board the RMS Titanic, the couple sealed the fate of their doomed marriage.
In the events that followed, hundreds of people lost their lives — and the face of American high society changed for good. But for Mr.
and Mrs. Astor, the sinking of the Titanic was just the final obstacle in a relationship that was beset by challenges from the start. And sadly, there would be no happy ending for the golden couple.
Born in 1893 in Brooklyn, New York, Madeleine was the daughter of William Hurlbut Force, a prominent merchant with a seat in the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Her great-grandfather, meanwhile, was Thomas Talmage, who had once been mayor of their borough.
In other words, they were a family not lacking in money or influence by the standards of the time.
But Madeleine and her parents could only dream of reaching the upper echelons of New York society — the spot occupied by those known as the Four Hundred. Comprising the city’s richest and most distinguished families, this elite group was presided over with an iron fist by John Jacob Astor’s mother Caroline..
Descended from the original Dutch settlers of New York, Caroline was part of the city’s long-standing aristocracy. And when the economic boom of the Gilded Age brought new money — fortunes that had been earned, rather than inherited — to the streets of Manhattan, she appointed herself the arbitrator of high society..
In fact, it’s said that simply a nod of acknowledgement from Caroline could make or break someone’s position on the social ladder. And while there was plenty of wealth flowing through the city, money alone could not buy you a coveted spot among the Four Hundred.
Madeleine, though, found a way to bend the rules.
Like Caroline, John’s first wife Ava had occupied a prominent position within the Four Hundred. But when they divorced in March 1910 he sought solace in the company of a completely different kind of woman.
Five months after the split, he was visiting the town of Bar Harbor, Maine, when he encountered the 18-year-old Madeleine for the first time.
According to reports, John was impressed by Madeleine’s tennis skills. And after inviting her to join him for a match, he was soon smitten.
From that point onwards, the pair were practically inseparable, attending dinners together and appearing in the Astors’ private box at the Metropolitan Opera House. On August 1, 1911, they announced their engagement.
For Madeleine, John was an impressive catch. Although he was 29 years her senior, he had a fortune of around $87 million — the equivalent of $2.4 billion in today’s money — and was considered one of the world’s wealthiest men.
But while she was busy climbing the social ladder, there were plenty who looked down on this unlikely match.
To some, Madeleine was little more than a gold-digger, using her youth and beauty to take advantage of her older fiancé. And even though many who knew the couple professed that genuine mutual affection existed between the pair, the newspapers poured suspicion and scorn on the relationship.
Meanwhile, the Four Hundred shunned this new member of the Astor family.
Although Caroline had by this point passed away, her successors refused to admit someone of such lowly standing as Madeleine into their ranks. And when the time came for the couple to tie the knot, they struggled to find a priest prepared to take the controversial job.
Eventually, they were married by a pastor in Providence, Rhode Island — although he may have received a hefty sum to perform the ceremony.
The relationship between Madeleine and John, then, had been deeply troubled from the start. But on the surface at least, they continued to live the dream.
After the wedding, the couple departed on a long honeymoon, visiting Bermuda before traveling to Egypt in January 1912. And from there, they made their way to Europe.
By this point, Madeleine was noticeably pregnant, prompting the Astors to book passage back to New York. And for one of the most famous couples in the world, there was only one way to travel: on board the Titanic, at the time the biggest and most luxurious ship afloat.
On April 10, 1912, the vessel left the English port of Southampton to make its maiden voyage across the Atlantic.
Later that day, the Titanic reached Cherbourg, France, where the Astors were waiting to board. In keeping with the standards of the time, though, they were not traveling alone.
While John was accompanied by his valet and his Airedale terrier, Kitty, Madeleine brought both a maid and a nurse along on the doomed voyage.
As the pride of the White Star Line, the Titanic had been big news in the lead-up to its maiden voyage. And as it steamed its way across the Atlantic, some of the most influential people in the world were on board.
From millionaire businessman Benjamin Guggenheim to Isidor Straus, the owner of Macy’s department store, the passenger list read like a Who’s Who of the American elite.
The Astors, though, were in a class of their own. As the richest man on board, John had secured three cabins in first class, considered the best on the entire ship.
Apparently, Madeleine spent much of her time confined to their quarters, hiding from those who might gossip about her delicate condition.
For four days, the voyage passed as normal, with the first-class passengers entertaining themselves in the gymnasium, swimming pool, or smoking room. But then, at around 11:40 p.m.
on April 14, disaster struck. Hundreds of miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, the Titanic struck an iceberg and began to sink.
At first, nobody believed that the damage was bad. After all, the press had called the Titanic “practically unsinkable.” But deep in the bowels of the ship, the water was flowing in fast.
In first class, John roused his sleeping wife and went in search of answers directly from Captain Edward Smith.
What the captain told John is unclear, but he reportedly returned to his cabin with a solemn expression. Getting dressed, Madeleine headed out on deck with her husband, where the couple were met with an atmosphere of some confusion.
By that point, lifeboats were already being lowered — but few realized the gravity of the situation.
As passengers of all classes flooded onto the decks, the Astors retreated to the Titanic’s gymnasium, where they whiled away the time sitting on mechanical horses. Eventually, though, they could deny the situation no longer.
And in the small hours of the morning, John helped Madeleine through a window into lifeboat number four.
According to the testimony of Archibald Gracie IV, who was one of the few who went down with the ship and survived, Astor asked to be allowed into the lifeboat alongside his wife. But when Second Officer Charles Lightoller refused, he took the decision in good grace.
Instead, he simply asked for the number of the boat so that he would be able to locate Madeleine later.
Did Astor know then that Titanic was doomed? It’s certainly possible that he was simply putting on a brave face so as not to scare his young wife. Back in 1912 women and children first was the moral standard of the day, and many men on board would rather have drowned than face the shame of abandoning ship..
As John stood and watched from the deck, the boat carrying Madeleine was lowered into the icy water. According to reports, he attempted to reassure his distressed wife, telling her, “The sea is calm and you will be all right.
You are in good hands and I will meet you in the morning.”
Tragically, those were the last words that Madeleine ever heard her husband speak. If witness reports are to be believed, John took his impending doom in his stride, cooly smoking a cigarette on deck while those around him panicked.
And at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, the Titanic disappeared beneath the waves — with some 1,500 souls still on board.
From her lifeboat, Madeleine watched as the Titanic went down — presumably taking her husband with it. But there was little time for grieving for those in the tiny vessels struggling to row clear of the sinking ship.
And in desperation, several first-class women — including Mrs. Astor — took up oars themselves.
As the lifeboats drifted in the Atlantic Ocean, the British liner RMS Carpathia was steaming through the ice field at top speed to reach the Titanic’s last known location. But by the time it arrived, there was barely any trace of the great liner.
Instead, the crew focused on the 700 survivors, keeping them warm and well fed as they attempted to process the tragedy.
On board the Carpathia, some were lucky enough to be reunited with their loved ones — but Madeleine was not among them. Three days after the sinking, she arrived with the rest of the survivors in New York, where she disembarked in a dazed state.
On doctor’s orders, she was placed on strict bed-rest to recuperate from her traumatic ordeal.
Four days after the Carpathia reached New York, John’s body was recovered from the wreck site. At just 18 years old, Madeleine was now a widow — and pregnant to boot.
And on top of that, she found herself at the center of a media circus that dwarfed anything she had previously experienced during her marriage.
In the aftermath of the sinking, the Titanic made headlines around the world. For the men who had managed to survive, it was the start of a lifelong ordeal — and many of them would never escape the accusations of cowardice.
Meanwhile, high-profile victims such as John were held up as heroes for sticking to the women-and-children-first rule.
But Madeleine would not remain in her husband’s shadow for long. Less than two months after the sinking, she hosted a luncheon in honor of the Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Rostrom, to thank him for coming to the liner’s aid.
And on August 14, 1912, she gave birth to John Jacob Astor VI, who would soon acquire the nickname Titanic Baby.
Meanwhile, much newspaper attention was focused on the matter of John’s will. Although he had left most of his assets to his first-born son Vincent, Madeleine received the hefty sum of $100,000 — equivalent to $2.75 million today.
On top of that, she was granted full use of the couple’s New York City home and access to a trust fund totaling $5 million.
But John’s generosity was not without its caveats. Despite the young age of his wife, he had effectively barred her from remarrying, including a clause that she would lose both the house and the trust fund if she did.
Playing the role of the dutiful widow, Madeleine retreated from society, raising her son in relative seclusion.
For more than a year after the disaster, Madeleine stayed out of the spotlight, choosing to focus on her family instead. Then, towards the end of 1913 a photograph of her appeared in the press.
As if a spell had been broken, she re-entered public life, becoming a regular fixture in the gossip pages.
Madeleine, though, was not content to remain a famous widow forever — even though it came with financial security and an influential name. Despite losing her trust fund and her home, she remarried in June 1916.
This time, the choice of groom was less controversial: William Karl Dick, a banker whom she had known since childhood.
Perhaps fittingly, the ceremony was held in Bar Harbor — the same place where Madeleine had met her first husband six years earlier. Afterwards, the couple decided not to tempt fate with a sea voyage, spending their honeymoon in America instead of overseas.
The following year, she gave birth to their first son.
Two years later, another son arrived — John Henry Dick, who would go on to become a renowned ornithologist. Reportedly, Madeleine’s oldest son was on good terms with his stepfather, and the family enjoyed a period of relative peace and calm.
But on July 21, 1933, the couple’s union ended in divorce.
Within months, Madeleine was married again, this time to the Italian boxer Enzo Fiermonte. By then, John Jacob Astor VI was 21 years old and did not approve of his mother’s choice of partner.
But that didn’t stop her from leaving New York City to live in Palm Beach, Florida, with her new love.
Like her previous two marriages, though, Madeleine’s union with Fiermonte did not have a happy ending. And on June 11, 1938, she divorced for the second time.
Having seen off three husbands, she spent the rest of her life alone in her Palm Beach mansion, where she died of a heart condition on March 27, 1940. She was just 46 years old.
Even Madeleine’s death, though, did not bring peace to the fragmented Astor family. And when John’s oldest son Vincent died without an heir in February 1959 he did not leave a penny to his half-brother.
After a long legal campaign, John Jacob VI managed to wrangle $250,000 from the estate, although he missed out on the bulk of his late father’s fortune.
When the Astors set sail on the Titanic, they had their whole lives ahead of them — and the world at their feet. But fate had something different in store.
There’s still a lot of mystery surrounding what it was actually like to be on board before the ship went down. But Madeline's story and others from real survivors of the RMS Titanic shed new light on that doomed voyage.
Many third-class passengers were locked in their quarters as the Titanic took on water. According to a third-class passenger, Elin, many of the passageways were also locked as she desperately struggled to escape. .
Eventually, Elin was allowed onto a lifeboat, but her husband wasn’t so lucky. After watching the sea for hours, hoping he would arrive at the rescue ship, she realized she’d never see him again. .
A single, 53-year-old feminist, Helen Churchill Candee, was amazed at the heroism of many of the ship’s workers in the face of utter disaster. Even as they feared for their own lives, they were willing to sacrifice it all to rescue others. .
Helen vividly remembers a group of steam engine workers making it out of the labyrinth of submerged decks below only to be ordered back down to save several passengers from drowning. Unfortunately, many of them never returned. .
After Michel Navratil, a young Frenchman, was separated from his wife, he bought himself and his two children second-class tickets on the Titanic. Even though things between Michael and his wife were strained, some of his last words included a heartfelt message to her. .
One of Michael’s boys recalls his father instructing them to remind their mother just how much he cared for her. “Tell her I loved her dearly and still do,” he said to his two and four-year-old sons as the ship went down..
“Women and children first” isn’t just an old saying. According to Annie McGowan, it was one of the rules the workers on the Titanic used to sort out which passengers would get priority on the lifeboats. .
Only a teenager at the time, Annie remembers seeing several men putting on dresses so they’d be mistaken for women and allowed onto the lifeboats. Some even threatened to tip whole lifeboats over if they weren’t allowed on..
When the Carpathia ultimately arrived to save the passengers from the icy ocean waters, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. A young British secretary, Laura Mabel Francatelli, still had to make it up the side of the massive ship on rope swings..
Laura could barely hang onto the rope swings, and she wasn’t sure she’d make it all the way to the top as they hauled her up. Ultimately, she had to close her eyes and wait for an arm to pull her aboard..
Getting onto the lifeboats was a mission in itself, but once aboard, chaos ensued. A 40-year-old governess, Elizabeth Schutes, recalls the sound of drowning passengers surrounding the boat as they rowed. .
With ordinary passengers in charge of navigating the frigid water, Elizabeth wasn’t sure they’d make it to their rescue ship. Before long, two of their oars had been lost in the black waves. .
Even though the wreck of the Titanic was full of tragedy and horror, some passengers like Ruth Becker recall a strange beauty as the ship slowly sank below the surface of the dark sea. .
Only 12 years old at the time, Ruth never forgot the sight of the Titanic as the lights dipped into the ocean and illuminated the surface for just a brief moment before disappearing into the abyss. .
It wasn’t immediately apparent that the Titanic would go down after it hit the iceberg. A 33-year-old fashion stylist, Edith Russell, saw the side of the iceberg towering over the ship without realizing just how bad of a situation she was in..
Edith blissfully took off chunks of the iceberg and made snowballs, even having a little snowball fight with her fellow passengers before calls to abandon ship were raised all over the deck of the Titanic..
One of the most devastating parts of the sinking of the Titanic is how many people were separated from their loved ones in the tragedy. Newlywed Charlotte Collyer experienced that pain as she lost her husband during the shipwreck..
Though Charlotte was stricken with grief over the loss of her husband, she pointed out that there was hardly a soul on the ship who wasn’t separated from their spouses, friends, or children. .
While many of the survivors of the Titanic went on to be haunted by the shipwreck for the rest of their lives, passengers like Eva Hart, who was just 7 years old at the time, didn’t let the trauma drag her down..
Though her family expected Eva to be scared of travel — whether by plane, train, car, or boat — she never gave in to fear. “Life has to be lived,” she’d said.
Director James Cameron even included a small character based on Eva in his 1997 flick, though there were plenty of details he got wrong.
Although this wouldn't make for a very good romance for Titanic, in reality Jack and Rose would never have met, since she was in first class. This separation was meant to curb the spread of diseases from lower class passengers..
Speaking of Rose's privileged background, her proper upbringing meant that she likely wouldn't have worn makeup, and definitely wouldn't have donned that signature red lipstick. At the time this look was associated with lower-class female protesters, not prim English ladies..
While Rose's makeup was slightly off, she was based on a real person (albeit one not at all associated with the Titanic). Jack didn't exist at all in real life, and there's no records of anyone with his name on board the ship..
Regardless of his existence or lack there of, fans are obsessed with one Jack-related theory that claims he could have survived had Rose only moved over to give him some room on the door. Unfortunately, the added weight would have sunk them both..
In fact, Rose wouldn't likely have survived either. The paper-thin dress she wore would have been way too skimpy to protect her from the icy chill of the water.
She'd have been better off wearing Jack's clothes.
But forget the famous death scene. Given that they had to escape from the third class, there's no way that the doomed love birds would even have made it.
They would have met their ends while still on board the colossal boat.
One scene particularly beloved by those who appreciate a little romance is the part when Jack and Rose share a steamy kiss inside the boiler room. In reality this little tryst would have left both of them covered in soot.
Not a great look.
In the same vein, the scene where the two get to canoodling in a stranger's car was impossible. While there were cars stored aboard the Titanic, they would have been locked away and not free to access for any random person..
The film took liberties to highlight the class divide. While Titanic shows the chairman of the White Star Line masquerading as a woman to sneak into a lifeboat, in real life, he exhibited bravery and helped save many lives..
Another detail that alleviates a little blame from those in charge was that the boat technically did have enough lifeboats, contrary to how it was portrayed. Not nearly enough to save everyone, but they did have the legal minimum..
One misconception that plays a large role in the movie was that people at the time believed the Titanic was in fact unsinkable. Although the ship was undoubtedly impressive, this infallibility was a myth that arose years after its sinking..
Another plot hole was discovered by famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He noticed that the constellations were not consistent with what passengers would have witnessed, so he provided the director with an accurate version for the 3D release of the movie..
On the subject of appearances, the water also would have looked different. Rather than clear and blue, it would have been dark, murky, and filled with nasty sea creatures.
While the latter is more accurate, it likely wouldn't have made for great cinematography.
At one point, things get dark as Rose considers committing suicide. Jack talks her down in part by telling her a story that never could have happened: he speaks of going ice fishing on a man-made lake that wouldn't be built for another six years.
Another piece of nonsense that comes out of Jack's mouth happens when he speaks longingly of his plans after arriving back on land. Among them? Riding the rollercoaster at the Santa Monica pier, an attraction that also didn't exist back in 1912..
A true fact that the movie neglected to mention was that the creator of Hershey's chocolate, Milton Hershey, nearly sailed on the ill-fated vessel. Luckily for those of us with a sweet tooth, he ultimately decided to take a German liner instead..
While James Cameron's rendition is the one everyone remembers, the first Titanic movie was actually way earlier — it was released a mere 29 days after the event itself. Too soon?.
Even earlier, a book was released with some eerie similarities to the deadly crash. It told of a luxury cruise ship that met a devastating fate in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.
And this was written before the Titanic was even built!
One thing that wasn't lost to the wreckage were famous paintings by Monet and Picasso. Although the movie depicts these works of art being on board the liner, in reality they were safe at home with the artists who created them.
In the movie version of the event, crew members are depicted using flashlights when loading people onto lifeboats. In actuality there were very few lights, and any that were available would have been the property of lucky passengers..