“The Unsinkable Molly Brown:” Great Sluts of History

Margaret Tobin Brown via Wikimedia Commons

Happy birthday, Maggie! July 18 was the birthday of Margaret Tobin Brown, now historically famous as, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” In her lifetime, however, she was Margaret Tobin or Mrs. J.J. Brown (Maggie to close friends), and never called Molly until after her death in 1932.

Your Fake Name Will Go Down in Posterity

Broadway composer/playwright Meredith Wilson apparently decided that “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was easier to sing than “Maggie Brown,” so that’s how the musical play opened, in 1960. It ran for 532 performances, and was adapted into a 1964 movie starring Debbie Reynolds.

The play and movie were fun, the character was true to life in that she was extremely lively, funny, and likable, BUT… quite a bit was adapted, changed, and fictionalized in the (unnecessary) name of making a better story.

Margaret Tobin Brown’ was reported to be an excellent dancer,
but almost certainly not so acrobatic.

Maggie is responsible for the “unsinkable” part of her reputation, though. She acquired that part of her famous nickname after delivering a sly quote to reporters soon after the Titanic disaster: “Typical Brown luck. We’re unsinkable.” (Titanic Universe)

From The History Chicks:

Imagine that you followed your heart to live an honest life doing what you felt was right: working hard, marrying for love, aiding others, traveling and always, always learning. You were a wife, a mother, a socialite, an activist, a suffragist, and a citizen of the world. You were adored by many, inspired more and lived life in the fullest, kindest way that you could imagine. And, when you died, your impressive life story was altered to one that was almost beyond recognition. Often for the worse!

Mind you, Mrs. J.J. Brown wasn’t above spinning a bit of legend about herself:

I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown. I thought about how I wanted comfort for my father and how I had determined to stay single until a man presented himself who could give to the tired old man the things I longed for him. Jim was as poor as we were, and had no better chance in life. I struggled hard with myself in those days. I loved Jim, but he was poor. Finally, I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than with a wealthy one whose money had attracted me. So I married Jim Brown. (via Wikipedia)

Just The Facts, Ma’am

Birth: July 18, 1867, in Hannibal, Missouri (also birthplace of Mark Twain), a middle child to Irish immigrants John Tobin and Johanna Collins, each of whom had been previously married and widowed with a couple of kids.

Family of Origin: Frugal, but not dirt-poor, either. Her mother insisted she get an eighth grade education (3 years more than the average for a woman of that era, and in those days, families had to pay tuition to send a child to school). Her father was once an abolitionist involved with the Underground Railroad.

Moved to Leadville, Colorado at age 18: Why? To keep house for her brother? Work in a department store sewing curtains and carpets? Catch a husband? Different stories give different reasons for her relocation, but in fact, she did all three.

The Hubs: James Joseph Brown, better known as J.J. Twelve years older than Maggie, he was not a rank-and-file miner, but was considered an engineer and was a mine supervisor, if not yet wealthy. So, J.J. was clearly an up-and-comer, as opposed to Maggie’s rags-to-riches tale that he “had no better chance in life.” They married September 1, 1886, when Maggie was just 19.

The Kids: Lawrence (Larry) born in August 1887, and Catherine Ellen (called Helen) born in July 1889. Since the Browns were Catholic (met at a church picnic), the kids were born closely together not long after the wedding, and the Browns’ Denver house boasted separate bedrooms for the Browns, we can make an educated guess as to the level of physical intimacy later in their marriage. Maggie also raised her three nieces, after her brother’s wife died in a mining camp.

The Money: Leadville was originally a silver mining town. The Browns were considered middle class, not poor. While they did start in a two-room cabin, they moved to a house in Leadville shortly after Larry’s birth. They had enough money to hire domestic help and tutors. While in Leadville, Mrs. J.J. Brown was part of the Colorado Chapter of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, as well as working in local soup kitchen to assist families of Leadville miners, who suffered horribly (90% unemployment) when the silver market crashed.

After the crash, J.J. devised a method of shoring up sand that allowed deeper mining than had been previously possible – and the Little Johnny Mine struck gold. He was granted substantial stock in the Ibex Mining Company and the Browns became (relatively) rich. In 1894 the Browns purchased a posh house in Denver that is a museum today, and Margaret became a founding member of the Denver Women’s Club and socialite.

Love of learning: As stated, both Browns loved to learn. JJ had gone from the Dakotas to several sites in Colorado to study mining techniques prior to moving to Leadville; Margaret would go on to attend the Carnegie Institute in New York where she studied literature, language, and drama. In Denver, Maggie worked with tutors for three hours each day. In Switzerland, she hired a master yodeler to teach her to yodel; in Spain she learned classic guitar. At the time of the Titanic sinking, she spoke five languages including French, German, and Russian.

Love of travel: Together Maggie and J.J. went on a world tour that included Ireland, France, Russia, and India. But eventually J.J. gave up on traveling, while Maggie was still gung-ho (and also wrote travel articles during her trips). The Browns also decided that separate bedrooms were not far enough apart, and legally separated (though they did not divorce) in 1909. Mrs. J.J. Brown kept the posh Denver house plus a generous monthly allowance.

Titanically Troubled Trip

In 1912, Maggie and her daughter Helen had been traveling in Europe and North Africa, and were in Cairo with the John Jacob Astor party (in Kristen Iversen’s book there’s a wonderful picture of Margaret and Helen, camelback, in front of the pyramids), when Mrs. Brown received a telegram that her young grandson was seriously ill. She booked last-minute passage on the very next ship leaving, Titanic, for a quick trip back to the States. (Thus her name was not included on the passenger lists, though she was most definitely aboard.) Helen decided at the last moment to stay in London. Mrs. Brown and the Astors boarded the Titanic in Cherbourg, France.

While there was a contemporary story that circulated after the wreck about a male passenger jokingly calling for ice after the ship hit the iceberg, it wasn’t Mrs. J.J. Brown. And there is no evidence that she was ever snubbed by the American or European social elite as a parvenu. She was frequently listed in the Denver Social Registry; in fact, she dominated it. Also, according to her account at the time, at the time of the iceberg collision, Mrs. Brown was reading (which will not surprise anyone), not drinking.

However, IMO Titanic (and Kathy Bates) did an excellent job of portraying Mrs. Brown’s robust personality, leadership skills, and clear-headed actions. She did organize passengers and helped them to board the lifeboats. She did encourage the passengers in lifeboat #6 to return to take on more passengers, and to row their boat to keep warm. Once on board the rescue ship Carpathia, she organized a Survivors’ Committee, served as its chair, and shook down solicited donations from the wealthier survivors for the benefit of the destitute ones, to the tune of almost $10,000.00. (That’s $10k in 1912 money, folks.) She remained on board the Carpathia until all Titanic survivors had been met by family, friends, or were otherwise assisted off the ship, and was royally ticked off that, as a woman, she was not invited/allowed to testify at the US Senate Titanic hearings.

If there had been a “Jack Dawson” on board Titanic, it’s easy to imagine that the kind-hearted and generous Maggie Brown would have taken him under her wing, loaned him clothing she’d bought for her son, and offered a bit of etiquette coaching.

Maggie also had a wonderful sense of humor, sending a wire to her Denver attorney which read:

Thanks for the kind thoughts. Water was fine and swimming good. Neptune was exceedingly kind to me and I am now high and dry.

When someone tried to enlist her in catty sniping at another woman, pointing out that it was not considered appropriate to wear diamonds in the daytime, Mrs. J.J. Brown replied, “I didn’t think so either, until I had some.”

Yes, They Did Wear Hats That Could Double As Beach Umbrellas

Mrs. J.J. Brown, Titanic survivor, presents a trophy cup to Captain Arthur Roston, of the Carpathia
via Wikimedia Commons

I’d always thought the hats as depicted in the Cameron movie Titanic were a trifle exaggerated, but no. They actually wore those things. Check out this picture of Mrs. J.J. Brown presenting this thank you token to the Captain of the Carpathia.

She also made sure that every single crewman on the Carpathia got a token of appreciation, later dubbed “Molly Brown medals.”

If The Spotlight’s On, Make Use of It

Margaret Tobin Brown was one of the first women in the United States to run for political office (before women were even permitted to vote!). She ran for the Colorado state senate in 1901, the U.S. Senate in 1909 and 1914, but she abandoned her (longshot) 1914 run with the start of The Great War (WWI), to focus on other causes.

via Encyclopedia Titanica:

Margaret used her new fame as a platform to talk about issues that deeply concerned her: labor rights, women’s rights, education and literacy for children, and historic preservation. During World War I, she worked the the American Committee for Devastated France to help rebuild devastated areas behind the front line, and worked with wounded French and American soldiers (the Chateau of Bierancout, a French-American museum outside of Paris, has a commemorative plaque which bears her name). In 1932 she was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her “overall good citizenship” which included helping organize the Alliance Francais, her ongoing work in raising funds for Titanic victims and crew, her work with Judge Ben Lindsey of the Juvenile Court of Denver, and her relief efforts during World War I.

She Cared About Miners and Minors

Besides her early efforts in the Leadville soup kitchen, she was a prominent figure following the Ludlow Massacre in April 1914. She publicly pressured John D. Rockefeller Jr. to resolve the mine dispute, and sent supplies and nurses to Ludlow. She walked picket lines with the United Mine Workers and the United Garment Workers.

In Denver, she founded the Denver Dumb Friends League (one of the first US humane societies), and raised money for St. Joseph’s Hospital, as well as the local Catholic Cathedral.

Working with Judge Ben Lindsey, Margaret Tobin Brown pioneered a system of punishment and rehabilitation for child offenders (instead of simply locking them up with adult prisoners) that is still the basic blueprint of the US Juvenile Court system.

Final Curtain Call

In her sixties, Maggie returned to her love of drama. Why not? She studied acting in Paris in the Sarah Bernhardt style, and taught it in New York. She also performed in Paris and New York, even reprising a Bernhardt role in L’Aiglon.

After her death of a brain tumor in 1932, aged 64, Margaret Tobin Brown was buried next to J.J., who predeceased her by ten years, in Long Island’s Holy Rood Cemetery. Although separated, they had remained friendly, with her stating at the time of his death, “I’ve never met a finer, bigger, more worthwhile man than J.J. Brown.” They share a headstone to this day.

I don’t know that Margaret Tobin Brown was ever specifically called a slut, but I wager, in the course of her amazing and vibrant life, she got called many insulting names (if never to her face).

Can you tell I have a serious girl-crush on this woman? What do you think about the “unsinkable” Maggie Brown?

(This post originally written in 2013.)