If you thought seeing the 1997 film Titanic a couple of times taught you everything you needed to know about Molly Brown, well, think again The real story of Titanic's Molly Brown is nothing like what you've seen in the movies. Mainly, because the "Unsinkable Molly Brown" was actually a myth created for Hollywood — an eccentric character that was portrayed by Cloris Leachman, Debbie Reynolds, and, most notably, Kathy Bates. It's hard to believe, but the true story of Margaret Brown né Tobin, who was called "Maggie" never "Molly," in her lifetime, is actually way more interesting than the movies lead on.
On the 20th anniversary of Titanic, it's worth taking a closer look at a woman who was more than just a survivor of the disastrous maiden voyage of the "ship of dreams." The American socialite, philanthropist, and activist used her unexpected fame to help others live a better life.
Brown's desire to help others likely stemmed from her own humble beginnings. As Rose explains in Titanic, Brown was "new money" because she had grown up modestly in the small town of Hannibal, Missouri, also home to Mark Twain. She was born in 1867, one of eight children to Irish immigrant parents who instilled in her the importance of work. When she was 13, Brown worked in a factory and eventually followed her two older siblings to Colorado where they had gone to work in the mining industry and she found work sewing.
It was there where she met James Joseph Brown, a mining engineer, who she married in 1886 for love, not money. That would come seven years later, though, when James bought stock in the Little Johnny Mine that ended up striking gold.
While she certainly had the money to earn a spot on the luxury liner, the reason Brown was on the Titanic was not for pleasure. She was heading back to America to see her sick grandson, Lawrence Palmer Brown, Jr.
According to Kristen Iversen's 2011 book, Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, Brown — who had separated from her husband in 1909 — had been traveling around Europe with her daughter, Helen when she heard the news of her grandson. She managed to grab a spot on the maiden voyage of the ship carrying over two thousand passengers, which was the first available ship she could take back to America. The last minute plans meant that those who knew Brown actually didn't know she was on the boat until after the sinking.
Of course, they would soon hear about Brown's heroics, which, included her helping others into their lifeboats before getting into Lifeboat 6 herself. It's something Cameron's Titanic hinted at. The AV Club reported that Brown didn't actually board the lifeboat until "a crewman picked her up and dropped her into the boat." When she realized that her boat was under capacity she reportedly urged her fellow passengers to head back and rescue more people.
Not only was the life boat not full, it also included only three men who were able to row. It's why Brown allegedly urged the women in the lifeboat to grab their own oars and start paddling to keep warm until help came. When one of the men on the boat tried to stop Brown, she reportedly ignored him and continued passing out oars and organizing the rowing efforts.
"She really took charge of her lifeboat, got in there and taught women how to row so they would keep warm," Leigh Grinstead, the director of the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver, CO, told CNN in 1998.
Those who were in the lifeboat with Brown would eventually be rescued by the Carpathia, the only ship that responded to the Titanic's distress signal. On that modest boat, Brown helped by handing out food, drinks, and blankets to other survivors. But she also put together a Survivor's Committee, which reportedly raised $10,000 for those passengers who needed it most by the time the ship docked in New York. That was three days after the Titanic sank and just 700 of the passengers were saved.
In a letter Brown wrote to Helen to let her daughter know she was doing fine, she said that after "being brined, salted, and pickled in mid ocean" the other survivors of the wreckage were "petitioning Congress to give me a medal." She also joked, "I must call a specialist to examine my head it is due to the title of Heroine of the Titanic."
That nickname, which, according to Elaine Landeau's book Heroine Of The Titanic: The Real Unsinkable Molly Brown, was printed in the New York Times, didn't quite catch-on like the "Unsinkable Molly Brown" but that didn't stop Brown from earning it. Long after the Titanic, Brown continued her heroism by working for workers’ rights, women’s rights, education, and historic preservation, which included putting up a Titanic memorial in Washington, D.C.
In 1914, Brown became the first woman to run for Congress, eight years before women had the right to vote. This wasn't much of a surprise to those who knew her in Colorado being that she had already helped establish the Colorado Chapter of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. After moving to Denver she also became a founding member of the Denver Woman’s Club, which "advocated literacy, education, suffrage, and human rights both locally and nationally," according to Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.
After Titanic, though, she used her celebrity to go global with her feminist views, organizing an international women’s rights conference in Newport, RI in 1914. When World War I broke out, Brown established a relief station for soldiers in France. In 1932, Brown was given the French Legion of Honour for her relief efforts to help the survivors of Titanic and of WWI soldiers, according to the Denver Post.
With all that she accomplished, there was one thing she didn't get to do that always bothered her. Despite being the Chairman of the Survivors Committee, Brown wasn't allowed to testify in front of the Senate investigating committee about the sinking because she was a woman. According to the Denver Post, Brown would later write down her own story in a three-part article for Rhode Island's Newport Herald.
The movie Titanic only gives you a glimpse at who Brown was, but it relies more on fiction than fact. That may be because the fiction about Molly Brown was more well-known than the facts in the years following her death in 1932.
It all started with novelist Caroline Bancroft who, according to the Denver Post wrote The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown, an "article for a romance magazine that turned into a bestselling tourist booklet," which was sold as being a biography. The book tells "the rollicking story of the Leadville waitress who reached the top of Newport society—and a permanent place in American lore—as a heroine of the Titanic disaster." It also coined the "Unsinkable" nickname, which was created after Brown's death. There's no evidence Brown ever used the term in reference to herself.
But, Denver reporter, Gene Fowler, known for putting his own spin on stories — perhaps, the inventor of "fake news" — printed a story that added on to Bancroft's not-so-true biography of Brown. The Denver Post reported that Fowler's reinterpretation was believed to be his way of getting back at Brown for not offering him an exclusive on her Titanic experience.
In his re-telling, Brown was:
"Born in the eye of a cyclone, in a shack of scantlings and tin cans, and her impoverished father was a drunkard. She couldn’t read or write and grew up to become a 'high-spirited, bosomy girl' who hightailed it to Leadville to marry a rich man.”
Of course, none of this is true, but it does make for a good story. It also attempts to explain where such a fierce, unafraid woman like Brown could have come from. It's easier to believe that she was a bawdy woman who could hold her own next to any man, than just another survivor.
The myth of Molly Brown may just be that, but in some ways it's understandable why people wanted to believe these over-the-top stories. But, Brown's real story is just as triumphant as the one that was created for her. "Really, Molly Brown represents sort of — really, the American Dream," Grinstead told CNN.
Brown was a working class girl, who struck it rich, but never forgot where she came from. She knew how lucky she was to have earned that money and then to have survived such a tragedy, which is why she dedicated her life to using her status to do something more.
It's also why Brown deserves to be known as more than a supporting character. Sure, Kathy Bates is a standout in Titanic, but she's only in a handful of scenes. Funny, being that Molly Brown has become the most famous Titanic survivor due to her strength and resilience when met with such a difficult situation.
There's no doubt that Brown deserves to be known for what she did on April 14, 1912, but it's not the only reason you should know her name. It's time to appreciate Molly Brown for who she really was, which, whether she came up with the nickname or not, was truly unsinkable and definitely remarkable.