Sometimes, movies based on true events come to be seen as the defining version of the story, regardless of how liberally the movie bends the truth. That is certainly the case for James Cameron’s 1997 epic "Titanic," which is one of the most popular movies of all time. At the time of its release, it was the first film to gross more than $1 billion at the international box office, and it was also the highest-grossing American movie of all time (via Cosmopolitan). The movie was such an undertaking that it actually cost more money to produce than the Titanic took to be built, with the film’s final budget coming in at a whopping $200 million.
It would have been a pretty huge letdown had such an expensive movie not made an impact — both monetarily and culturally — but luckily, it did. Decades after its original release, "Titanic" remains a beloved film, and its stars — Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio – remain cultural icons. Of course, the most defining aspect of the film is the love story between Jack and Rose, and the merits of their relationship continue to be debated today: Could they have both fit on that door? Was Jack actually a time traveler?
But the other semi-historically accurate aspects of the film have long held audiences’ attention as well. Who could forget the ship’s band playing as the Titanic was sinking? What about the mother singing her children to sleep, or the working-class passengers being locked below deck without a chance to escape? As it turns out, some of these dramatic elements were made up for the movie, but in some cases, the truth is even stranger than fiction. Read on to discover what "Titanic" leaves out about the true story of one of the most famous disasters in history.
There was a wealthy lesbian on board with a special cane
While arguably the most famous Titanic survivor is "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" – portrayed by Kathy Bates in the film — there was one passenger on the ship that rivaled Mrs. Brown’s attitude and audacity. Her name was Ella Holmes White, and some have described her as "brash" and "outspoken," so perhaps it’s not surprising that this formidable woman did what she could to help survivors when tragedy struck.
A wealthy resident of New York, White was traveling on the Titanic with her "companion," Marie Grice Young, whom many historians believe was White’s partner of many years. White had injured her ankle several days earlier, and so had brought a cane that contained a built-in electric light — a novel invention at the time (via Encyclopedia Titanica). According to Walter Lord’s 1955 book "A Night To Remember," White used her glowing cane as a beacon to signal nearby ships, while she was wearing nothing but her nightgown and high-heeled, diamond-studded evening slippers (via GayStar News). It’s possible that her cane helped the RMS Carpathia, which eventually rescued survivors, to find the lifeboats.
White’s famous cane, long kept by her family, was finally auctioned off in 2019 for $62,500.
Three dogs survived the sinking, and one is referenced in the movie
While the human lives that were lost — all 1,504 of them — are understandably what is most often considered when we think about the sinking of the Titanic, we often forget there were animals on board too. National Museums Liverpool reports that there were a total of 12 dogs aboard the Titanic when it set sail. Because the fare to bring a dog was expensive — equal to that of a child’s — most of the passengers who brought dogs with them were traveling in first class.
Sadly, only three dogs survived the sinking of the ship. The dogs in question were two Pomeranians and a Pekinese. One of the Pomeranians was named Lady, and she belonged to a 24-year-old woman named Margaret Hays. Miss Hays took Lady on the lifeboat with her and wrapped her in a blanket. The other Pomeranian belonged to a woman named Elizabeth Barrett Rothschild, who also brought her dog on the lifeboat. Reportedly, when the RMS Carpathia initially pulled up to rescue the survivors, they hesitated to take the dog on board, until Rothschild declared that she wouldn’t get on unless the dog came too. Finally, the Pekinese was named Sun Yat-Sen after the President of the Republic of China, and he was brought on a lifeboat by his owner, Henry Sleeper Harper.
You may recall that in the film "Titanic," the elderly Rose owns a Pomeranian by the name of Freddy. While Freddy was obviously not supposed to have survived the sinking himself, the dog breed was likely chosen as a nod to the real-life Pomeranians, who were lucky enough to be rescued.
Officer William Murdoch likely wasn’t the villain the movie makes him out to be
Like any dramatic Hollywood movie, James Cameron’s "Titanic" contains a number of villains and heroes. On the heroic side, there’s Jack, of course, who sacrificed himself so Rose could live, and the unsinkable Molly Brown, who attempted to get more passengers on her lifeboat. On the villain side, there is arrogant businessman J. Bruce Ismay, who ordered the ship to go faster, and Officer William Murdoch, who shot two men trying to board lifeboats before shooting himself.
But, while this has become the defining story of Murdoch’s life, it’s very likely it never happened at all. There were numerous accounts from survivors about an officer shooting two men and shooting himself, but none of the witnesses could agree on who the officer was. Gunshots were in fact used to control the crowds, but it remains unknown if anyone was actually shot, as eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable.
According to Alexandra Klingelhofer, vice president of collections for Premier Exhibitions, Inc, Murdoch came from a family of sea captains, and all evidence points to the fact that he did everything he could to save as many passengers as possible before perishing. Following the release of "Titanic," several people from Murdoch’s hometown of Dalbeattie, Scotland, demanded an apology from Cameron and 20th Century Fox. In National Geographic’s "Titanic: 20 Years Later with James Cameron," Cameron discusses his decision to cast Murdoch as the villain: "I was being a screenwriter. I wasn’t thinking about being a historian, and I think I wasn’t as sensitive about the fact that his family, his survivors might feel offended by that and they were."
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The Titanic musicians played happy music while the ship was sinking
One of the most memorable moments in "Titanic" occurs during the sinking of the ship, when a group of musicians continue to play, as the ship goes down. While this story may seem too good to be true, eyewitness accounts suggest that this did actually happen, but the music they played that fateful night wasn’t what you might expect. It has been reported that the musicians played for over two hours after the iceberg initially hit the ship, while the passengers hustled to get onto the lifeboats (via BBC). "Titanic" suggests that the last song the musicians played was the hymn "Nearer My God To Thee," but there are conflicting stories about whether or not this is actually true.
The band leader was a man named Wallace Hartley, and according to Titanic scholar and author George Behe, Hartley had previously told a colleague that if he were on a sinking ship, he would play either "Nearer My God To Thee" or "Oh God Our Help In Ages Past." Though there was a witness who claimed "Nearer My God To Thee" was the final song played on board, archivist Simon McCallum tells BBC News that this passenger was able to get on a lifeboat long before the ship sank, meaning they wouldn’t have heard the final song. Another passenger, wireless operator Harold Bride, has suggested that the final song they played was a hymn called "Autumn."
Regardless of what the final song was, there are many accounts that suggest what they played for most of the night was actually quite upbeat. Many witnesses recall hearing the band play ragtime, joyful waltzes, and other popular music. Composer Peter Yang notes to BBC News that much of what the band played that evening "would have been jolly stuff."
There was a ship nearby that could have helped
As the story in "Titanic" goes, the surviving passengers on the ship were finally rescued after several hours by another boat that came to their aid. Although Rose’s survival thanks to a floating wooden door is the work of fiction, the rescuing of survivors by another ship is in fact true (via BBC). As the Titanic was quickly taking on water, the ship’s crew sent up flares and SOS messages on the radio. The RMS Carpathia, which was more than 50 miles southeast at the time, picked up the messages and rushed to the scene. Sir Arthur Rostron, Captain of the Carpathia, ordered the crew to go as fast as humanly possible, and they eventually arrived on the scene three hours after it sunk, rescuing 700 people.
But, as it turns out, there was a ship that was much closer when the Titanic sunk, which could have gotten to the disaster site much quicker than the Carpathia. The RMS Californian was located just 20 miles north of the sinking Titanic. However, the captain of the RMS Californian, Stanley Lord, had suspended progress for the evening because they were stuck in an ice field.
Lord was woken up and alerted to the flares of the Titanic, but he believed that they were simply "company rockets," meaning they were meant for ships from the same line. He had shut down the wireless office for the evening and didn’t get the SOS messages from the Titanic until the following morning. Upon returning to port, Lord was investigated by the Board of Trade and was later fired by his employers. Sir Rostron, on the other hand, was honored as a hero upon his return.
Third-class passengers were not locked below deck
One of the most famous sequences from the sinking-of-the-ship portion of "Titanic" is the one where third-class passengers are locked below deck, while the first-class passengers are allowed to access the lifeboats. While this is a compelling idea and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if something like this had happened, it didn’t quite go down like that.
According to cultural sociologist Richard Howells, there were gates in between the third-class quarters and the rest of the ship, but they weren’t to prevent these passengers from leaving during an emergency. Instead, these gates were in place due to U.S. immigration laws, which prevented immigrants from mingling with other passengers due to fears about the spread of infectious diseases. Immigrants on board included those from Armenia, China, The Netherlands, Italy, Russian, Scandinavian countries, Syria, and the British Isles. The idea was that these immigrants were to be kept separate from other passengers prior to entering Ellis Island, where they would then be given a health check.
These separations between classes meant that each class of passengers had their own decks and lifeboats that were assigned to them specifically. But, while there was no "outright" discrimination against third-class passengers, there were inequities in place that would have made it more difficult for them to evacuate. Most notably, there were no lifeboats actually stored in the third-class section of the ship, which meant that these passengers would have had to wind their way through numerous corridors in order to make it to where the lifeboats were located.
The richest person aboard the Titanic was thought to be the richest man in the world
The disparities of class are a major theme in "Titanic," and research shows that the distance between the richest and the poorest passengers aboard the ship was just as vast as it appears in the film. While many passengers in the third-class section of the ship were immigrants looking for a better life in America, the richest man on board was in another arena entirely.
John Jacob Astor IV, who was portrayed by Eric Braeden in the "Titanic" film, was an American businessman and real estate developer on board the Titanic. Astor was widely regarded as the richest man in the world at the time of the ship’s sinking, but it is hard to verify the veracity of this claim due to the fact that income taxes weren’t implemented until the following year (via CNBC). It’s estimated that his wealth at the time was around $150 million, which would be equivalent to more than $3.5 billion today.
Astor was traveling with his wife, Madeleine, who was 18-years-old and pregnant. They had initially left the country on an extended honeymoon in order to avoid the scandal that arose after Astor divorced his previous wife and married Madeleine (via Encyclopedia Titanica). Reportedly, Astor was one of the first people to hear about the crash. According to Insider.com, he deposited his young wife on a lifeboat — wearing all her jewels — and supposedly told her, "The sea is calm. You’ll be alright. You’re in good hands. I’ll see you in the morning." Astor was last seen on the deck of the ship, and his body was identified several weeks later.
A stewardess and nurse survived the sinking of two ships
Unsurprisingly, the most famous survivors and victims from the Titanic were also some of the wealthiest passengers, like Molly Brown and John Jacob Astor IV. But there was one woman aboard the Titanic who has quite the story, despite not being memorialized in Cameron’s "Titanic." On board the ship was a young woman named Violet Jessop, who was 25 at the time of the disaster. Jessop was a nurse and a stewardess, and she had the good luck to survive the sinking. This was not Jessop’s first brush with maritime disaster, however, as she was working on board the Olympic when it collided with the HMS Hawke in 1911. The Olympic did not sink, though its hull was damaged, and Jessop escaped unharmed.
Her good luck (or bad luck, depending on how you look at it) continued when she began working on the HMHS Brittanic — dubbed "Titanic 2" – which began traveling in the Aegean Sea just before WWI. In 1916, the Brittanic hit a mine that had been planted by the Germans. The ship sank, and Jessop only escaped with her life by jumping overboard. It wasn’t until years later that a doctor informed Jessop that she had fractured her skull during the incident. Amazingly, Jessop continued to work on ships after these harrowing incidents, finally retiring at the age of 61. She lived to be 84-years-old.
One woman did survive after going overboard
One of the most contested aspects of "Titanic" is whether or not Rose could have survived for as long as she did, while balancing precariously on that door in the freezing ocean. While it’s true that no one survived in exactly the manner Rose did, one woman did survive after jumping ship.
A third-class passenger, Rosa Abbot, was on board with her two sons. Abbot and her children were on the stern of the ship when it went under and crashed into the water below (via Encyclopedia Titanica). Sadly, Abbot’s two sons were washed away at sea, but Abbot survived after being rescued by a passing lifeboat (as Rose was in the film). Abbot’s legs were so badly damaged from the effects of the cold water that she reportedly didn’t move for many days and was hospitalized for weeks after the disaster. She eventually made it back to her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, where she was cared for by her church.
Two young children were rescued without their parent
Two passengers on the Titanic have a tale that sounds almost too outlandish to be true. As the story goes, two young boys, Edmond and Michel Navratil, aged 2 and 4, were on board the Titanic with their father. Michel Sr. had separated from his wife, Marcelle, who had custody of their kids. He kidnapped the boys during one of their visits and taken them on board the ship, so they could start a new life in America without Marcelle. When the ship began to sink, Michel Sr. put the boys on a lifeboat, and that was the last time they ever saw him, as he died in the disaster.
The boys, who were French and spoke no English, weren’t able to identify themselves to rescuers. While their mother was being tracked down, the boys — known as the "Titanic Orphans" — stayed with a French-speaking passenger. Finally, a full month later, their mother was able to reunite with them after seeing their photographs in the newspaper.
As Michel Jr. recalled years later, they were seated next to the daughter of a banker. That woman turned out to be Margaret Hays, the French-speaking passenger, who cared for the boys before their mother could be located. Hays also happened to be the owner of the Pomeranian named Lady, one of only three dogs that survived the sinking.
Eight men died while building the Titanic
While most people know that more than 1,500 people died when the Titanic collided with the iceberg, you might be surprised to find out that these weren’t the only casualties associated with the famous ship. Construction work is always dangerous, and that was certainly the case in the early 1900s, when the Titanic was being built.
As a matter of fact, it’s been recorded that a total of eight people died while the Titanic was being constructed. Five of these men have been identified, while the identities of the other three remain unknown. The first casualty was a fifteen-year-old Irish boy named Samuel Scott, who was finally honored with an official headstone in 2011, more than 100 years after his death in 1910.
Though eight deaths seem like a lot for one construction project, it was actually less than was expected. For a project of this size — which cost $7.5 million to build — it was expected there would be fifteen deaths during construction, based on a calculation of deaths per cost (via The Building Safety Journal). In addition to the eight deaths, there were also 28 serious accidents and 218 minor accidents recorded during construction.
The final dinner on the Titanic was a ten-course meal
One aspect of life on the Titanic that James Cameron makes clear is the opulence that was present on board, especially for the ship’s first-class passengers. Nowhere is this wealth more visible than in the ship’s food. In "Titanic," we see Jack and Rose dining on caviar and champagne, and the reality of the meals on board was just as extravagant.
As it turns out, the final meal for first-class passengers was an extremely lavish affair. The April 14 dinner was a ten-course meal that included "oysters, filet mignon, poached salmon, chicken Lyonnaise, foie gras, roasted pigeon, lamb with mint sauce and Punch Romaine, a palate-cleansing ice flavored with oranges and drenched in champagne," according to NPR. In fact, you can get recreated versions of this meal in places around the world like London, Houston, and Hong Kong.
Second-class passengers also ate quite well, while third-class passengers had meals more in line with working-class food culture at the time. The kitchen crew on the Titanic included "113 cooks, 15 first cooks, 12 pastry chefs, 6 bakers, 5 butchers, and 5 sous chefs," and an astounding 6,000 meals came out of the Titanic kitchen, says food writer Dana McCauley. Almost all of the kitchen staff perished in the disaster, with one exception being Chief baker Charles Joughin, who famously saved many others before being pulled down into the water with the ship. Supposedly, he survived thanks to all the alcohol he drank once he realized the ship was sinking and he’d need a bit of liquid courage.