Nov 6 2017 11:00am

The Romantic and Tragic Last Voyage of the Titanic

The It Girls by Karen Harper

Today we're thrilled to welcome Karen Harper (The It Girls) to Heroes and Heartbreakers. In April 1912, the Titanic took its first and final voyage. The event was a horrible tragedy, and yet many people were able to survive and tell their story of the harrowing day. One of those people was Lucile Duff-Gordon and her husband, Cosmo. This is their story. Thanks, Karen!

I am not alone when I say I have a fascination with the maiden and final voyage of the steamship Titanic in April of 1912.  The massive, glamorous luxury liner sailed from Southampton, England toward New York, but disappeared into the depths of the Atlantic—and into the nightmare fascination of people even today. 

When the wreck of the great ship itself was discovered, probed and photographed in 1985, the legend of the Titanic rose again.  But for many of us, the 1997 film by James Cameron starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet made the romance and terror of the sinking of the great ship really hit home on an intimate level.  I remember not being able to sleep for several nights after seeing the film, and that was “just” about a fictional couple and their story.  So I was thrilled to find a real-life romance and tragedy set aboard the Titanic for the novel I was writing. 

Over 1500 people aboard the ship died that night and not just the steerage passengers.  The entire first class lost-at-sea list reads like a who’s who of famous people of that day, including John Jacob Astor IV, Isador Straus (Macy’s Dept Store), Benjamin Guggenheim, even Captain Edward Smith, who went down with his ship.

Who didn’t go down with the ship?  The “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” an American socialist and philanthropist who inspired a Broadway musical.  But I was surprised to find that the real-life Victorian/Edwardian woman I was researching as the heroine for a historical novel was also on the doomed ship with her husband—and lived to tell the story and face a terrible scandal.

Lucile Sutherland, Lady Duff-Gordon, was a fabulous fashion designer with stores in London, Paris, Chicago and New York.  A bold innovator, she helped to get women out of corsets and dared to put slits in skirts so women could walk freely.  She had earned a racy reputation by designing silky, sexy lingerie to replace the stiff cotton and linen undergarments (often referred to as ‘unmentionables’).  And she insisted in showing her fashions on live women who walked in ‘fashion parades,’ not on sawdust-stuffed dummies. 

After a rocky courtship, Lucile had met and married her handsome, Scottish husband, Lord Cosmo Duff-Gordon, an early Olympic athlete, and was excited to have him travel to New York with her on the Titanic’s first voyage.  They were a real love match and were awed by the stunning beauty of the ship they could enjoy together almost as a second honeymoon.

They danced the night away to the music of the orchestra, which would go down with the shipThey dined on caviar and lobster at the doomed captain’s table.  “Who needs the Ritz or the Waldorf Astoria when we have the Titanic?” Lucile says to Cosmo in my novel of her and her scandalous sister’s life, The It Girls.  Cosmo says he enjoyed the Turkish baths on board while she perused the specialty shops.  They have a charming, luxury cabin.  But that cold night, the horror begins.

Lucile tells her own story of that tragedy in her 1932 biography, Discretions and Indiscretions, one of the books I used for research for The It Girls.  She writes that, when she first woke Cosmo, he told her to go back to sleep because they must have bumped something.  But when they went out on deck, they saw the horror of crowded lifeboats including the tipping of an overloaded one into the icy Atlantic. Cosmo wanted her to board a lifeboat in the women-and-children-first rule, but she refused to go without him.

They went to the other side of the listing ship and came upon a nearly empty lifeboat setting out, one the captain had ordered to leave.  Again, Cosmo tried to get Lucile to board, but she would not desert him, so he climbed in too.  When the crewmen rowing said they’d left behind all their possessions, Cosmo promised to give them each ‘a five spot to replace their kit’ if they survived.  When they were eventually saved and taken onto the deck of the rescue ship the Carpathia, he sought out the men and gave them each a small check.

A scandal followed, targeting Lucile and Cosmo.  Had they bribed the crew to escape when so many died?  The media attack on them nearly sank them too.  Cosmo was accused of cowardice and faced a notorious trial.  People spit at them in the streets, as if they were to blame for the ship going down.  But they and their love were unsinkable.  Lucile stood up for Cosmo in court.  After all, was not a greater percentage of first-class passengers lost than steerage passengers?  And why should a lifeboat being immediately launched at the captain’s orders have empty seats in it?

In the turbulent life of Lucile and her equally scandalous sister, author Elinor Sutherland Glyn, I found many exciting events, but few can compete with the sinking of the unsinkable ship.  It is so central, even symbolic of these sisters that the cover of The It Girls has both women and the Titanic itself.  Actual tragedy and a real romance—what a great combination for a story.


Learn more about or order a copy of The It Girls by Karen Harper, available now:

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Karen Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of romantic suspense and historical novels. A native Ohioan, Karen is a former high school English teacher and English-and-writing instructor at the Ohio State University. (Go Bucks!) The Harpers are avid Ohio State football fans, but they have a serious side too. They were on the 10-year committee which revamped the main library on campus. The Ohio State Library houses her author collection in Rare Books and Manuscripts.

The Harpers love to travel, and Karen often uses her favorite places as settings for her novels. She’s recently written books set in Edwardian England and South Florida, the latter where she lived for 30 winters. Her latest trilogy is THE SOUTH SHORES NOVELS, with forensic psychologist Claire Britten and criminal lawyer Nick Markwood. Her most recent historical is THE ROYAL NANNY. These bring her published books to over 60 in a 34-year writing career.

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1. TitanicChannel
Very nice to see support for Titanic history! Discover more stories on The Titanic Channel:
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