When the First World War began, in the summer of 1914, the Lusitania was among the most glamorous and celebrated ships in the world—at one time both the largest and fastest afloat. But the British passenger liner would earn a far more tragic place in history on May 7, 1915, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland, with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives.
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The Lusitania was not the first British ship to be torpedoed, and the German Navy had publicly vowed to destroy “every enemy merchant ship” it found in the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland. On the day the Lusitania set sail from New York, the German Embassy ran ads in U.S. newspapers, warning travelers to avoid liners flying the British flag. But in the case of the Lusitania the warnings went largely unheeded, due in part to the belief that the powerful ship could outrun any pursuant. The ship's captain, W. T. Turner, offered additional reassurance. “It's the best joke I've heard in many days this talk of torpedoing,” he supposedly told reporters.
England and Germany had been at war for close to a year by that point, but the United States, whose citizens would account for about 120 of the Lusitania’s victims, had remained neutral; ships sailing under the stars and stripes would not be the deliberate targets of German torpedoes. Though the U.S. didn’t officially enter the war until 1917, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the propaganda blitz that followed, proved a major factor in swaying public opinion in that direction.
Among the prominent American victims were such luminaries of the day as the theatrical impresario Charles Frohman, the popular writer Elbert Hubbard and the very rich Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. But the list of passengers who missed the Lusitania’s last voyage was equally illustrious. Ironically, it wasn’t the fear of a German U-boat attack that kept most of them off the doomed liner but more mundane matters, such as unfinished business, an uncooperative alarm clock or a demanding mistress.
Here are the stories of eight famous men and women who were lucky enough to dodge the torpedo.
The conductor Arturo Toscanini was set to return to Europe aboard the Lusitania when his season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera ended. Instead, he cut his concert schedule short and left a week earlier, apparently aboard the Italian liner Duca degli Abruzzi. Contemporary newspaper accounts attributed his hasty departure to doctor’s orders. “His illness amounts practically to a nervous breakdown due to overwork during the season and also to excitement over the European war,” The New York Tribune reported.
In the years since, historians have offered other explanations, including the maestro’s battles with the Met’s management over budget cutbacks, a particularly bad performance of the opera Carmen and a recent ultimatum from his mistress, the singer and silent-movie actress Geraldine Farrar, that he leave his wife and family. Little wonder he set to sea.
Toscanini, who was then in his late 40s, lived for another four decades, until his death at age 89, in 1957. He recorded prolifically—an 85-disc boxed set released last year represents just a portion of his output—and became a celebrity in the U.S., conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra on radio and later television. In 1984, a quarter-century after his death, he received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, sharing the honor that year with Charlie Parker and Chuck Berry.