Titanic disaster's local reach

Kate Mallon-Day looks over posters. She sings in a show this weekend at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Elkins Park memorializing the Widener family, who lost two members on the Titanic. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Kate Mallon-Day looks over posters. She sings in a show this weekend at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Elkins Park memorializing the Widener family, who lost two members on the Titanic. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer (Kate Mallon-Day, who sings in a show this weekend)

Dozens from the area were aboard a century ago. Those who survived lived with the tragedy for decades.

Posted: April 15, 2012

John B. Thayer III's adult life was framed and scarred by two of the 20th century's great tragedies. He lost his father on the Titanic, his son in World War II.

Finally, on Sept. 20, 1945, a rainy night whose gloom mirrored his despair, Thayer parked his car near a Philadelphia Transit Co. trolley-turnaround at 48th and Parkside in West Philadelphia and slashed his wrists and throat.

Although the suicide came long after the supposedly unsinkable Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, exactly 100 years ago Sunday, Thayer was no less a victim than the 1,517 fellow passengers and crew who perished that night in the icy North Atlantic. Those nightmarish hours between the ship's fatal encounter with an iceberg and his rescue haunted him until the end.

A 17-year-old Haverford School student, Thayer left his father on the deck of the sinking luxury liner sometime around 2 a.m. and leaped into the black sea.

"There was one long continuous wailing chant," he would write of the hellish scene that awaited him there. ". . . It sounded like locusts on a midsummer night in the woods in Pennsylvania."

He made his way to an overturned lifeboat and clung to it until, several hours later, he and 703 others were picked up by the SS Carpathia.

The much-ballyhooed 100th anniversary of history's most infamous maritime disaster has reawakened the heartrending stories of Thayer and dozens of other Philadelphians who were aboard the infamous White Star liner that starry night.

Except for New York, no American city was touched as deeply by the tragedy as Philadelphia, which lost civic and social leaders, maids and valets, a teacher, tourists, and immigrants bound for what was then the nation's third-largest metropolis.

And those who, like Thayer, survived would never be the same.

"I cannot describe [it] to you," survivor Eva Hart said years later, "and neither can anyone else."

Now, the centennial of that catastrophe has inspired Titanic commemorations ranging from a new 3-D version of the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster to dinners and cruises that attempt to re-create the ship's legendary opulence if not its fate.

Not surprising, given its connections to the star-crossed voyage, the Philadelphia area will have several Titanic tribute events and exhibits.

On Friday, the Independence Seaport Museum opened a lengthy show, "Titanic Philadelphians," featuring artifacts and memories from those local residents whose lives were affected by the disaster.

The Widener University Art Galley has an exhibit focusing on Philadelphians connected with the tragedy from April 10 to May 12.

Among the 324 guests on its first-class passenger list were names - surnames, maiden names, middle names - that formed a roster of Philadelphia's aristocracy: Widener, Thayer, Morris, Longstreth, Elkins, Dulles, Carter.

At St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Elkins Park, the two Tiffany windows that survivor Eleanor Elkins Widener commissioned to honor her husband and son, both Titanic victims, were rededicated during ceremonies Saturday night. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is showcasing a room from Eleanor Widener's Manhattan town house.

And the Rosenbach Museum and Library is offering an exhibit detailing the special relationship between Titanic victim and bibliophile Harry Elkins Widener and the founder of the Philadelphia institution that specializes in rare books.

"Harry Widener and father lost, Titanic," reads a telegram sent by A.S.W. Rosenbach to London book collector Bernard Quaritch. "Mrs. Saved."

The last night

On April 14, four days after its maiden voyage had commenced in Cherbourg, France, the world's newest and largest passenger liner – 882 feet from stem to stern and nearly 50,000 tons - was steaming toward New York, 700 miles away.

Amid the potted ferns, plushly upholstered chairs and ornately set tables of the B deck's Ritz restaurant, Philadelphia's George Widener hosted a party that night for the Titanic's captain, E.J. Smith.

Widener, who inherited his father's streetcar fortune and was an early investor in such conglomerates as U.S. Steel, American Tobacco, and Standard Oil, lived then in Lynnewood Hall, a 110-room, 70,000-square-foot mansion in Elkins Park designed by famed architect Horace Trumbauer.

The multimillionaire had traveled to France - accompanied by wife Eleanor, son Harry, a maid, and valet - to find a chef for the luxury hotel he was building on South Broad Street, the Ritz-Carlton.

For the April 14 gala, he had instructed the manager of the restaurant, Gaspare Gatti, to spare no expense. The resulting 10-course feast included foie gras, oysters, salmon, filet mignon, chicken, beef sirloin, lamb, duckling, and squab.

Though Widener was the grandest of Philadelphia's grandees, his guests that night included many fellow citizens who weren't far down the Social Register.

Art collector and explorer Thomas Cardeza and his mother, Charlotte, of Germantown, made the voyage along with 14 trunks of clothing. Among the purchases Bryn Mawr's William Carter - who listed his occupation as "big-game hunter" - and wife Lucille had made in Europe were two dogs and a 35-horsepower Renault automobile that was stowed in the Titanic's hold.

R. Norris Williams, the future director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, was on board as was Philadelphia attorney William C. Dulles. Others included Thayer's parents, John B. and Marion Morris Longstreth Thayer, of Haverford; Haddonfield coffee importer Frederick Sutton; banker Robert W. Daniel; and Emma Ward Bucknell, the widow of Bucknell University's founder.

"There were, we believe, 40 Philadelphians on board," said Hope Corse, director of marketing and communications at the Independence Seaport Museum. "Many of them knew each other, had attended the same parties together, even were at the same party on the voyage's last night."

As was the Edwardian era's custom, the besotted men lingered for post-meal brandy, cigars, and conversation. The bejeweled women retreated to their cabins, some of them costing the equivalent of $125,000 today for the voyage.

"I had retired to our cabin for the night when the shock of crashing into the iceberg occurred," Eleanor Widener recalled years later. "We thought little of it and did not leave our cabin. We must have remained there an hour before becoming fearful."

Young Jack Thayer was in his pajamas back in cabin C-68 when, at 11:40 p.m., according to the 1940 memoir he would write about that night, A Survivor's Tale, he felt the ship budge almost imperceptibly, "as if she'd been gently pushed."

Curious, he and his father, John Borland Thayer II, a well-known cricket player and Pennsylvania Railroad executive, went to the A deck to explore.

"There was no moon and I have never seen the stars shine brighter," Thayer wrote. "They appeared to stand right out of the sky, sparkling like cut diamonds."

Seeing nothing unusual, they were returning to their rooms when they encountered the Titanic's engineer. He told them the ship was taking on water and likely would sink in an hour or two.

Stunned, the Thayers donned lifejackets as the chaotic evacuation began. When it became clear that there weren't enough lifeboats for everyone, women and small children were given priority.

James Robert McGough, a 35-year-old Philadelphian who was a buyer for Gimbel Bros. department store and who survived, described the moment: Women, reluctant to leave their husbands and older sons, were forced into the boats.

"Officers stood with drawn guns ordering the women into the boats," McGough later wrote. "Women clung to their husbands, crying that they would never leave without them and had to be torn away."

Three Philadelphia matrons, Mesdames Carter, Thayer, and Widener, entered a lifeboat that befit their social standing. One of the other occupants was the wife of John Jacob Astor, New York society's ultimate blueblood.

The elder Thayer had urged his son to flee, but the teenager stayed on as boat after boat was lowered into the water. Finally, when there were no more rescue vessels and the top deck of the badly listing ship had sunk to only 15 feet above the water, he made a desperate dive.

"The shock of the water," he wrote, "took the breath out of my lungs."

As portions of the enormous vessel sank, Thayer saw his 49-year-old father crushed by a falling smokestack. In the water, lifeboats and people were flushed beneath the surface by the force of the submerging vessel. Thayer, briefly, was one.

"The suction of it drew me down and down, struggling and swimming, practically spent," he wrote.

Afloat in the frigid ocean, Thayer could hear muffled explosions on board. Then the rear portion of the great ship rose up, some 250 feet into the air, tilting at a "65 or 70-degree angle," and began hurling huddled passengers into the sea.

They fell, young Thayer would note, "in masses."

At 2:20 a.m., the last of the Titanic disappeared. The Carpathia, notified by signals from the sinking ship's radio room, arrived just after 4 a.m. It would be three more hours before Thayer was pulled on board, where he was reunited with his mother.

A survivor's pain

Three days later, the survivors arrived at Pier 54 in New York. Among the missing Philadelphians were the elder Thayer, George and Harry Widener, Dulles and Sutton. Other local victims included Annie Clemmer Funk, a West Chester State Normal School graduate from Bally, Berks County, who had been teaching in India; Thomas Henry Conlon, a 31-year-old Philadelphian who had been traveling in third class; George Widener's valet, Edwin Keeping; and the Carters' valet and chauffeur, Alexander Cairns and Charles Aldworth.

Nearly two-thirds of first-class passengers survived, compared with 42 percent in second class, and 25 percent in third.

The surviving Philadelphians made the trip from New York in a special car the Pennsylvania Railroad had provided. Railroad detectives and Lower Merion police guarded the Thayers' mansion, Redwood, against reporters pursuing details on what was the young century's greatest news story.

John Thayer III, who had intended to attend Princeton, enrolled instead at his father's alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. He would marry another Philadelphia socialite, Lois Cassatt, the niece of the famed impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, and become a successful banker and later Penn's chief financial officer.

One of his sons, Edward, a 22-year-old Army pilot, was lost in a 1943 mission near the Philippines. A year later, Thayer's mother, the only one with whom he could share his Titanic horrors, passed away.

Finally, at age 50, he could bear no more.

Among the Thayers, his suicide and the Titanic tragedy would be rarely discussed.

"They weren't the kinds of thing that were talked about in polite Main Line society," said John B. Thayer IV, 65, John Thayer III's grandson, who was raised in Haverford but now lives in Albuquerque. "When I was a boy, I wasn't even allowed to watch A Night to Remember [the 1958 film on the disaster]."

Though he served in the Navy and his father was a boating aficionado, father and son never once discussed the Titanic or the tragic death of John B. Thayer III.

He knew his great-grandfather had been a Titanic victim, but he had no idea, or curiosity, about how his grandfather - the 17-year-old who dived from the sinking ship and became a survivor - had died.

Then in 2005, Thayer was visiting his dying mother in a nursing home near West Chester when the old woman pulled him close.

"John," she said, "there's something you need to know about your grandfather."

Contact Frank Fitzpatrick

at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @philafitz.

Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz.

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