Award-winning author and journalist Elizabeth Kaye gave a very moving presentation on her book, Lifeboat No. 8: An Untold Tale of Love, Loss, and Surviving the Titanic at the Virginia Robinson Gardens on March 22, 2018. On this day of pouring rain, the weather was so fitting to the theme of the lecture. Lifeboat No. 8 rose to No. 1 on the New York Times and Amazon e-book bestseller lists and recounts the adventure of 27 people fleeing the sinking Titanic in 1912.
Beautifully spoken, Elizabeth riveted the audience with her passionate and heart-wrenching tale. The Titanic was built in 1912, at a time “when the advent of machines created this empowering belief that man could be the master of his own destiny…She was a technological wonder and the greatest feat of engineering at that time,” Elizabeth said. She explained that ships are referred to as “she” due to the practice of men naming their boats for their wives, sweethearts or mothers on sea voyages. As exquisite and mighty as she was, nature was stronger; the Titanic collided with an iceberg.
Among the passengers was a British 33-year-old with a distinguished and kindly manner known as the Countess of Rothes. At the time, marriages were not necessarily based on love among the aristocracy. However, the earl and the countess were so fond of each other that they were referred to as “a most unfashionably devoted couple.” They had two sons and lived in a 37 bedroom house on 10,000 acres.
The countess was traveling with her cousin Gladys and planned to join her husband in California where he wanted to purchase and operate an orange grove. Four days into the voyage on April 14 at 11:46 pm, the Titanic struck an iceberg. If the iceberg had breached only five of the watertight compartments, the ship would have been able to float. Unfortunately, six compartments had been slashed, and the sea started to rush in. The ladies and children were told to go on the lifeboats while the men gallantly stayed behind, knowing they would not survive. Elizabeth remarked that we have to admire and aspire to the remarkable grace, nobility, and courage that these men exhibited.
The Countess wore her full-length ermine coat and donned a strand of 300-year-old pearls, a precious heirloom that she had worn to dinner only a few hours earlier, and joined the others in the lifeboat. The captain of the Titanic told Seaman Jones who was manning the boat, “Remember you are British,” referencing a whole world of tradition, history, manners, and expectations of how one should behave in a crisis.
Among the 27 people on the lifeboat were two young crew members who claimed they knew how to row. Soon, it became obvious that they did not know how; it was devastating because many of the men left behind in First Class were accomplished yachtsmen. The countess took charge of the frightened passengers and calmed them. She took the tiller and steered the boat, while Seaman Jones and Gladys rowed. An extraordinary and brave woman, she was an “unlikely vision in her ermine and pearls.” Seaman Jones exclaimed, “She is more of a man than any we have onboard.”
As the Titanic started to sink, the countess, Seaman Jones, and Gladys wanted to go back and save others as there was still room on their boat. But, they were overruled by the other passengers. In fact, two of the 16 lifeboats did go back and were able to pick up eight other people. Finally, towards dawn, a ship called the Carpathia rescued them and the passengers from the other lifeboats. Of the 2,201 people on board the Titanic, only 705 had been saved. The crew of the Carpathia praised her and dubbed her as “the Plucky Countess” and told her, “You have made yourself famous by steering the lifeboat.“ She responded, “I hope not; I have done nothing.“ In fact, all her life the countess felt guilty that she wasn’t able to go back and save other passengers, and she made it clear that it was not her choice not to return.
The countess gave extensive interviews after the Carpathia docked in New York. She and her husband gave up their plans to farm in California, and she joined the Red Cross during World War I. She was involved in many charities, and died at the age of 77.
Following this historic and compelling lecture, the group adjourned to lunch. We were seated at beautiful and dramatic luncheon tables, artfully created by our fabulous Education co-chairs Patti Reinstein, Kerstin Royce, and Ellen Lipson. The dark blue tablecloths were reminiscent of the icy night waters surrounding the Titanic. The containers in the centerpieces were shaped like lifeboats, and the most gorgeous lavender and white roses were nestled within.
The scrumptious luncheon, catered by Joe Monteferante, featured an excellent carrot pot de crème, salmon with asparagus, chardonnay poached chicken, two colorful salads, and luscious lemon tarts with lacy chocolate lollipops.
Thanks to our wonderful co-chairs, every lecture this season has been superlative and captivating. Don’t miss the last one in April on “The Art of Haute Couture.” The combination of the beautiful venue at Robinson Gardens, amazing speakers, and a delicious repast all make for a delightful and enriching experience.
Post by Linda Meadows
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member