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History vs. Hollywood: The Real Voyagers of the Titanic

 The tragedy of the Titanic is one of the most infamous disasters in history. Although the technical reason why the ship sank was the collision with an iceberg, it has been later confirmed that design flaws and hubris played a crucial part in the unfolding of this devastating event as well. That is partly why the story remains a source of fascination even today and why it inspired numerous adaptations. None was more successful than the 1997 movie Titanic, directed by James Cameron.

Although the two main characters, Jack and Rose (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are fictional, a great many of the other characters are based on real-life voyagers of the Titanic. Not all of their stories were depicted accurately in the film, and it’s time to find out the facts.

1. Margaret “Molly” Brown

What Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life?, Margaret “Molly” Brown

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Brown (played by Kathy Bates), also known as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, was an American socialite, philanthropist, and activist. In the film, she was portrayed as a kind character, supporting Jack’s attempts to impress Rose’s family by lending him a suit to wear to a fancy dinner.

In reality, Molly was indeed deserving of every praise - she helped others reach and board the lifeboats, and even when she was away from the sinking ship, she tried to convince the boat's officer to go back and save the less fortunate ones. Later on, she even raised funds to assist the disaster's survivors. For all her hard work, she received the Order of the Legion of Honor.

2. Ida and Isidor StrausWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? Ida and Isidor Straus

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Ida (played by Elsa Raven) and Isidore Strauss (played by Lew Palter) were real people, a married couple whose memorable moment in the movie was the scene of them hugging as they await their fate. Reportedly, both of them chose to remain together by staying on the Titanic.

The known details about Isidor are that he was a Bavarian-born American Jewish businessman, politician, and the co-owner of Macy’s department store with his brother Nathan.

3. Captain Edward John SmithWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? Captain Edward John Smith

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

The real Captain Edward John Smith was one of the most trustworthy captains of White Star Line. When he was chosen to stand at the helm of the Titanic, Smith already had 40 years of experience. While both the real and the screen version of the captain perished on the sinking ship, in real life, Edward assisted the terrified passengers and helped the crew. 

4. Wallas HartleyWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? Wallas Hartley

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

One of the most memorable and heartbreaking moments in the film was the band’s decision to stay behind and continue to play music as the ship was sinking, in an attempt to help the passengers calm down. The scene was based on true events. None of the musicians made it off the ship and continued playing until the ship was submerged.

5. Colonel Archibald Gracie IV

What Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? Colonel Archibald Gracie IV

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Colonel Archibald Gracie IV (played by Bernard Fox) helped the fellow passengers and, after returning home, he wrote a book about his experiences. It has become a valuable source of information for historians and researchers of the disaster. It is said that the Titanic's catastrophe never left the Colonel and his last words were, “We have to put them on boats. We have to put them all on boats."

Related: 10 Items From the Titanic That Were Sold For Exorbitant Amounts

6. William McMaster MurdochWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? William McMaster Murdoch

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

William Murdoch (played by Ewan Stewart) was the first mate on the ship. In the movie, his portrayal wasn't exactly heroic - his character accepted a bribe, held panicking passengers at gunpoint, and eventually turned the gun on himself. In reality, however, he did his duty to the best of his ability, and even tried to avoid the collision with the iceberg (even though that decision came too late). 

William’s remaining family members were outraged at the film’s portrayal, and the filmmakers even went to his hometown to apologize personally.

7. Thomas AndrewsWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? Thomas Andrews

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Andrews (played by Victor Garber) was the creator of the Titanic. It is likely that Andrews was confident in his design, but he was also aware of the ship’s shortcomings. It is said that he helped the passengers and even threw the sun loungers off the deck hoping that they could be used as floats by those in the water. Andrews didn't make any efforts to reach the lifeboats himself.

8. Noël LeslieWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? Noël Leslie

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Noël Leslie (played by Rochelle Rose), the Countess of Rothes, was a first-class passenger. She escaped the sinking Titanic in one of the lifeboats. It is said that she took the tiller of her lifeboat and helped row the craft to the rescue ship Carpathia.

Related: Inside Titanic II: The Replica of the Titanic We All Know

9. Charles LightollerWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life?  Charles Lightoller

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Charles Lightoller (played by Jonathan Phillips) was the second mate on the Titanic. As the officer in charge of loading passengers to lifeboats on the port side, Lightoller strictly enforced the women and children only protocol, not allowing any male passengers to board the lifeboats unless they were needed as seamen. After the disaster, he helped improve the quality of passenger ships by incorporating more lifeboats and improving the communication between ships.

10. Joseph Bruce IsmayWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? Joseph Bruce Ismay

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Bruce Ismay (played by Jonathan Hyde) was the chairman and the director of the White Star Line Steamship Company. In his quest to create a ship of unparalleled luxury, he reportedly made the tragic decision to reduce the number of lifeboats from 48 to 16. While he was depicted as a true villain in the movie, it is said that the real-life Ismay actually helped other passengers during the disaster. He survived, but his reputation was forever tarnished.

Related: 6 People Who Survived the Titanic

11. John “Jack” Phillips

What Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life?  John “Jack” Phillips

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

John "Jack" Phillips (played by Gregory Cooke) was the radio operator on the Titanic. Sadly, during the trip, Jack was overworked and didn't pay much attention to the warnings from nearby ships that spotted icebergs in the water. After the impact, Jack was seen to be doing his utmost to contact other ships for assistance. In fact, he continued to broadcast the distress signal, right until the cabin was flooded. Sadly, he didn’t make it.

12. Harold Bride

What Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life?  John “Jack” Phillips

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Harold Bride (played by Craig Kelly) worked with Jack Phillips and was the junior wireless operator. He helped send out personal messages from the passengers, and when the disaster struck, it's likely that he assisted Jack with his work. Eventually, Harold left for the lifeboats and survived the sinking. His testimonial was important during the investigation inquiry.

13. John Jacob Astor IVWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? John Jacob Astor IV

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

John Jacob Astor IV (played by Eric Braeden) was an American real estate developer and the richest person on the Titanic. In fact, he was presumably one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time. Astor perished in the disaster.

14. Benjamin GuggenheimWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? Benjamin Guggenheim

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Guggenheim (played by Michael Ensign) was a businessman onboard the Titanic. He perished with the ship together with his valet, Victor Giglio. According to eyewitness reports, he and his valet were last seen on the deck, listening to the orchestra playing.

15. Frederick FleetWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life?  Frederick Fleet

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Fleet (played by Scott Anderson) was on the lookout when the ship hit the iceberg. In his testimony, Fleet admitted that they were given no binoculars, further reducing the ability to see anything in the dark. Frederick survived and rowed the same boat Margaret Brown was on.

16. Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon What Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon 

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon (played by Rosalind Ayres) was a fashion designer and the wife of Cosmo Duff-Gordon. She survived with her husband by boarding the first of the lifeboats before the panic set in — that's the reason why both of them were allowed to board it.

17. Sir Cosmo Edmund Duff-GordonWhat Were the Characters of Titanic Like in Real Life? Sir Cosmo Edmund Duff-Gordon

Image Source: Titanic / Paramount Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

Cosmo Duff-Gordon (played by Martin Jarvis) was an Olympic silver medalist in fencing. He survived the sinking, but there was a rumor attached to his name that he bribed the crew in the lifeboat to escape by violating the "women and children first" rule. He was later cleared of the rumor.

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