Millvinia Dean, the last surviving passenger of the RMS Titanic, died in 2009. She’d lived a full life of 97 years, but that meant that she’d been only two months old when the famously luxurious and innovative ship hit the iceberg that sent it to the bottom of the Atlantic in the middle of its maiden voyage. Despite being humanity’s last direct link to the Titanic, she would have retained no memory of the ship or its sinking. That’s very much not the case with the survivors interviewed in the 1970 British Pathé documentary footage above. One of them, Edith Russell, remembers the Titanic as having been “so very formal.” The “coziness” of other ocean liners, the “get-together feeling — it didn’t exist.”
A celebrity stylist and Paris correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily, Russell was traveling first-class: one stateroom for her, and another for her luggage. Not so Gurshon Cohen, who’d been “sleeping six in a bunk” down below. Unlike many of the Titanic‘s third-class passengers, prohibited as they were from entering the upper decks, Cohen managed to find a place on a lifeboat (after jumping ship first).
Whatever the differences in their situations, Russell and Cohen had congruent memories of the disaster, especially as regards the popular notion that the ship’s band continued performing until the bitter end. As Russell puts it, “when people say that music played as the ship went down, that is a ghastly, horrible lie.”
Eva Hart, interviewed in 1993, does recall hearing music — specifically, a rendition of “Near My God to Thee” — right up until her escape. The vivid images she retained from the lifeboat also included the ship’s breaking in half, an event widely denied until it was proven decades thereafter. You can hear more stories of how the Titanic really went down, as it were, from the 1956 and 1970 BBC interviews with Kate Gilnagh Manning, Maude Louise Slocombe, and Frank Prentice (the latter two of whom were working on the ship) just above. They all remember the incongruously “slight bump” of the impact, the “dead calm” of the sea, the perilous sight of lifeboats dangling 70 feet above the water — and the feeling of impossibility that the “unsinkable” Titanic could really have met its end.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.