This was followed in 1997 by the release of James Cameron’s blockbuster film, Titanic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as two lovers from vastly different backgrounds who meet on board the doomed ship. Suddenly, in old age, Millvina was famous once more. “The telephone rang all day long,” she told me. “I think I spoke to every radio station in England. Everybody wanted interviews. Then I wished I had never been on the Titanic, it became too much at times.”
Of course, Millvina had no memories of the disaster—she was only 9 weeks old at the time—but this did not seem to bother either her legion of fans or the mass media. As the last living survivor of the Titanic Millvina Dean became an emblem for every survivor. She stood as a symbol of courage, dignity, strength and endurance in the face of adversity. The public projected on to her a range of emotions and fantasies. In their eyes, she became part Millvina Dean and part Rose DeWitt Bukater, the fictional heroine in Cameron’s film, who, in old age, is played by the elderly Gloria Stuart. “Are you ready to go back to Titanic?” asks modern-day treasure hunter Brock Lovett, played by Bill Paxton. “Will you share it with us?” Rose stands in front of one of the monitors on board Lovett’s ship, her hand reaching out to touch the grainy images of the wreck sent up from the bottom of the ocean. For a moment it all seems too much for her as she breaks down in tears, but she is determined to carry on. “It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint,” she says. “The china had never been used, the sheets had never been slept in. Titanic was called the ship of dreams and it was, it really was.”
In the same way, Millvina was often asked to repeat her story of that night, but her account was secondhand, most of it pieced together from what her mother had told her, along with fragments from newspapers and magazines.
“All I really know is that my parents were on the ship,” she told me. “We were emigrating to Wichita, Kansas, where my father wanted to open a tobacconist’s shop—and one night we were in bed. My father heard a crash and he went up to see what it was about. He came back and said, ‘Get the children out of bed and on deck as quickly as possible.’ I think that saved our lives because we were in third class and so many people thought the ship to be unsinkable. I was put in a sack because I was too small to hold and rescued by the Carpathia, which took us back to New York. We stayed there for a few weeks, before traveling back to Britain. My mother never talked about it, and I didn’t know anything about the Titanic until I was 8 years old and she married again. But from then on, the Titanic was, for the most part, never mentioned.”
The Titanic came to represent a ship of dreams for Millvina, a vessel that would take her on a surreal journey. She transformed herself not only into a celebrity but also, as she freely admitted, into a piece of “living history.” “For many people I somehow represent the Titanic,” she said.
After a short illness, Millvina died on May 31, 2009; at 97, she had been the last survivor of the Titanic.
A few weeks after the Titanic disaster, Thomas Hardy wrote “The Convergence of the Twain,” his famous poem about the conjunction between the sublime iceberg and the majestic liner. First published in Fortnightly Review in June 1912, it articulates the “intimate wedding” between a natural phenomenon and a symbol of the machine age. The marriage of the “shape of ice” and the “smart ship” is described as a “consummation,” a grotesque union that “jars two hemispheres.” One hundred years after the sinking we are still feeling the aftershocks of the wreck as the “twin halves” of this “august event” continue to fascinate and disturb us in equal measure.
Indeed, the disaster has become so invested with mythical status—it’s been said that the name Titanic is the third most widely recognized word in the world, after “God” and “Coca-Cola”—that it almost seems to be a constant, an event that repeats itself on a never-ending loop.
Andrew Wilson, based in London, drew on unpublished sources and archival research for his new book on the Titanic saga.
Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Wilson. From the forthcoming book Shadow of the Titanic by Andrew Wilson to be published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.