Saturday, February 13, 2016

That Sinking Feeling

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt stood at the railing of the stricken ship, fully aware that it had only minutes left to stay afloat.  The heir to the massive Vanderbilt fortune was certain that when it finally did sink, he would die like most of the other passengers gathered alongside him on the crowded, sloping deck.

Just a few minutes earlier, he had believed that he might have a slim chance of survival, because he had put on his life preserver as soon as the ship's steward had advised him to do so.   Both he and Ronald Denyer, his valet, had gathered on the boat deck to wait while the women and children boarded the lifeboats first.

As one of the wealthiest men aboardindeed, one of the wealthiest men in the worldhe was well-known and his face was familiar to most of the first-class passengers gathered around him.  Perhaps that is why a young woman, Alice Middleton, had asked him to help her, and the young child she was holding, to safety.  The poor woman had no life preserver, so Vanderbilt tried to find a crewman who might locate a spare, but every available member of the ship's crew seemed to be struggling in the attempt to lower one of the remaining lifeboats.

With no other recourse (and as dozens of passengers watched), the gallant multi-millionaire removed his own life vest and carefully tied it around the young woman's shoulders as she tearfully clutched the infant to her breast.

Vanderbilt knew that this act almost certainly guaranteed his own death, since--despite enjoying an international reputation as a sportsman--he did not know how to swim.  As the ship's deck continued to tilt, it was increasingly obvious that not all of the ship's lifeboats could be launched before the ship foundered.

As Vanderbilt stood beside his valet, with his eyes fixed on the impossibly cold water he would soon be forced to enter, he had only a few minutes left for personal reflection.  He had followed the news about the building of the RMS Titanic with great interest.  After all, his family had been in the shipping business for generations and--with both business and personal interests on both sides of the Atlantic--he made the crossing several times a year.

Everything he had heard about the Titanic had impressed him:  the ship's size, speed, and opulent grandeur were deliberately planned to compete with the rival Cunard Line's RMS Lusitania.  His friend, J. P. Morgan held controlling interest in the International Maritime Marine which controlled the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic.  Morgan had convinced him to book passage on the great ship's maiden voyage.  The men had each reserved passage in the largest suites, each of which came with such amenities as custom cigar holders and a private promenade deck.

But shortly before the ship left port, J. P. Morgan decided to stay in France to enjoy the sulfur baths and did not sail on the Titanic.  This decision quite literally saved his life.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt had looked forward to the crossing, but before the ship could set sail, his mother had begun having premonitions and nightmares about his drowning at sea.  Though the ship was billed as “unsinkable”, he finally decided to please his mother andat the last possible momentcanceled his reservation, too.  His unclewho was to have accompanied himcanceled as well, but could not claim his luggage before the great ship sailed.

This decision not to sail on the Titanic came so late that Alfred's name remained on the passenger manifest, so that when the first newspaper reports of the ship's sinking were printed, his name was listed among the missing.  This caused considerable grief to his family and friends for several days until telegrams arrived, reassuring them of his safety.

Now, three years later, Vanderbilt knew that his family would not be spared the anguish a second time, for he was sure to be listed (correctly, this time) among the victims of the RMS Lusitania's sinking.  On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, a German submarine fired a torpedo into the shipwhich sank in less than 20 minuteskilling 1,198 of the 1,959 passengers aboard.  Sinking by the bow and listing to starboard, the ship had been able to launch only six of her 48 lifeboats before foundering.

When word of the ship's sinking reached Alfred's wife, Margaret Vanderbilt, she refused to accept the news of Alfred's death.  Locking herself in her suite at the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York City, she stated, "I will not believe Alfred is dead until I get conclusive proof."  However, as the days went on and no good news reached her, she eventually had to accept that Alfred was among the lost.  

Even though the Vanderbilt family offered a $5,000 reward for its recovery (a princely sum at the time), his body was never found.  

And I bet you thought this was another Titanic story.


  1. I think I'll take my chances by plane. Too many passenger ships end up badly.

  2. Although a friend of mine, an American soldier with a fear of flying, was returning to the states from Europe. When he went to arrange his travel, he asked the sergeant if he could travel by ship rather than by plane. The sergeant pointed out that ships can sink.

    "But I CAN swim," he replied.