Written by Naomi Wallace
No film has transformed the cultural significance of an historical event quite like James Cameron’s Titanic. The 1997 epic is an outstanding piece of cinema that sets a devastating, class-driven romance in the foreground of the infamous and disastrous sinking of the so-called “unsinkable ship” in 1912. But while the films’ protagonists Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater are fictional, one of the minor characters is based on a real survivor of the RMS Titanic. Margaret Tobin Brown, better known as “the unsinkable Molly Brown”, was an actual first-class passenger onboard the Titanic, whose actions both surrounding the tragedy on the ship and more broadly, were remarkable. As much as the film certainly deserves the celebration it gets, the real historical account of Margaret Brown is equally fascinating.
Despite travelling in the luxury of first class on the Titanic, Margaret Brown was not born into wealth. Her parents were Irish immigrants and she worked both in a Tobacco factory and a mercantile store growing up. She married a miner, James Joseph Brown, and in their new town she worked to open soup kitchens and immersed herself in the fight for women’s suffrage. It wasn’t until her husband received a considerable promotion that the couple came into wealth, finding themselves in the world of high society. It is frustrating that, seemingly as a result of this, Margaret is labelled merely as a “socialite” by some, when, in reality, her philanthropic work continued to be the focus of her life and she channelled her efforts particularly into improving conditions for women and children.
Arguably the most memorable account from Margaret’s life, and undoubtedly the one that defines her historical legacy, was her role during the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. The lifeboat that transported her, one of only twenty, had room for sixty-five passengers. It departed with only twenty-four. This was grotesquely common in the shambolic evacuation of the ship, with far too many, especially third class, passengers being left onboard while lifeboats left carrying far below their capacity. Margaret was appalled by this and begged the crew to return to save more people from the fatally cold water. Her cries fell on deaf ears. Over 1500 people died in the disaster, and it is evident that human error and neglect exacerbated this figure.
Onboard the RMS Carpathia, the ship that rescued survivors of the Titanic, Margaret Brown proved herself once again as an exemplary, selfless figure. She suggested that a survivors’ committee should be organised to raise money for crew members and lower-class passengers, and communicated with charitable organisations, such as the Women’s Relief Committee, to arrange emergency funds. These efforts helped to raise $10,000 before the Carpathia even reached the shore. Additionally, she used her language skills, which she had gained from studying at the Carnegie Institute, to talk with and comfort non-English speakers onboard. It was after this that a journalist referred to Margaret as “the unsinkable Molly Brown”, a nickname earned for her stoic resilience and determination.
But Margaret’s work did not end with the Titanic. She advocated for miner’s rights following the Ludlow disaster in April 1914, which was a confrontation between labourers and guards, one of the most violent of such conflicts in American history. Later, she became close friends with Alva Belmont, the President of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, together with whom she campaigned for women’s labour rights, for women of all classes. During the First World War, Margaret worked with the American Committee for Devastated France, contributing to war relief efforts, for which she received the French Legion of Honour in 1932.
Margaret Tobin Brown was a dedicated philanthropist and activist. Her work aboard the Titanic was one of many examples of her devotion to helping others and achieving greater levels of social equality. Her story is compelling, and it is wonderful that the 1997 film paid tribute to her. As enthralling as the Jack and Rose storyline is, it is important to remember the real individuals aboard the Titanic, and the impact they had.
Cimino, Eric. “Carpathia’s Care for Titanic’s Survivors.” Voyage: Journal of the Titanic International Society 101 (2017): 23–31.
Landau, Elaine. Heroine of the Titanic: The Real Unsinkable Molly Brown. New York: Clarion Books, 2001.
Iversen, Kristen. “Molly Brown | American Parvenue.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, January 12, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Molly-Brown.
Molly Brown House Museum. “About Molly Brown,” December 14, 2015. https://mollybrown.org/about-molly-brown/.
Featured image credit: Portrait of Margaret “Molly” Brown, 1890. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mrs.James_J.%22Molly%22_Brown,_survivor_of_the_Titanic,_three-quarter_length_portrait,_standing,_facing_right,_right_arm_on_back_of_chair_LCCN92521036.jpg. Public domain.