Well before it was hotly debated if Jack could or could not fit on that door with Rose, another Hollywood starlet took on the retelling of what happened the fateful night the Titanic sank. Dorothy Gibson, an actress and model from Hoboken, NJ, not only survived the sinking of the ship, but went on to write the screenplay and star in the first film about the ship’s disastrous voyage. Read on for more about Hoboken’s own Dorothy Gibson, her life, and her involvement in the first Titanic movie.
On this day, 111 years ago, the unsinkable Titanic infamously sank when it struck an iceberg. Aboard the ship was 23-year-old Dorothy Gibson, an actress and artist’s model from Hoboken. Dorothy not only witnessed the disaster, but then wrote the script and starred in what would become the first motion picture based on the Titanic’s sinking. In the film, Dorothy wears the very same clothes she’d worn that night when she survived the icy waters, clutching the lifeboat. Upon her early retirement in May of 1912, she was among the top-paid actresses in the world.
^ Dorothy Gibson wearing the same outfit as when she was rescued on the Titanic
On May 17, 1889, Dorothy was born in Hoboken where most people today are born in Hoboken — for her family’s home at 320 Willow Avenue was replaced by the Hoboken University Medical Center.
Dorothy began her career in 1906, as a theater and vaudeville singer and dancer. She became a chorus girl in shows produced by the famous Shubert Brothers, allowing Dorothy to perform at the Hippodrome Theatre in Manhattan. By 1909 she’d become the model and muse for Harrison Fisher — a distinguished illustrator.
^ Dorothy Gibson as illustrated by Harrison Fisher, 1911
Soon Dorothy’s face graced posters, postcards, and magazine covers from coast to coast. She appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post.
She hit the silver screen in 1911 and was immediately heralded as a success while also becoming one of the first “stars” of this new medium — film. At a time when most silent film actors came across as stiff, critics praised Dorothy’s natural subtly, which lent itself especially well to comedy.
Read More: Hoboken’s Hobo Cat Who Cat-ptivated a Nation
Dorothy Surviving The Titanic
As a world-famous celebrity, Dorothy easily secured a first-class ticket on the infamous maiden voyage of the Titanic.
That dreadful evening, Dorothy spent much of the night playing bridge in the first-class saloon — a game credited with saving her life. Dorothy was wide awake at 11:40PM, when the Titanic made contact with the iceberg and she would never forget the sound of the “long, drawn, sickening scrunch,” as she described it. After going to investigate, Dorothy witnessed the Titanic’s deck pitch and careen to one side as water flooded the boiler room.
It wasn’t until 12:40AM that the first lifeboat was launched, and Dorothy was one of 28 people aboard a vessel with the capacity to hold 65. Among others on the boat were Margaret Hays (a New York heiress who brought her Pomeranian, Bebe, with her) and two businessmen, William Sloper and Dickinson Bishop, who were both falsely accused of dressing as women so that they could board the boat.
Once the lifeboat escaped the Titanic, the occupants were not out of danger. The boat was launched without its plug, allowing the arctic water to leak into the hull. Dorothy later recounted how, “this was remedied by volunteer contributions from the lingerie of the women and the garments of men.” She endured hours of sitting in the boat with ice-cold water soaking her feet. Then, at 2:20AM, she heard the sound of people screaming as the Titanic broke apart and sank to the bottom of the sea. Dorothy recalled the sound would “remain in my memory until the day I die.”
Nearly six hours after escaping the Titanic for the Arctic sea, Dorothy and her lifeboat were rescued by the RMS Carpathia at 6:15AM.
Saved from the Titanic: The Film
Far from convalescing, Dorothy decided to forge her trauma into a motion picture.
At the time, Dorothy was in the midst of a six-year affair with Jules Brulatour — an Éclair Film Company producer. Jules spliced together Titanic film footage into a wildly popular newsreel which gained such success that sitting President William Howard Taft obtained a personal copy of the film. The newsreel’s boon convinced Jules and Dorothy to capitalize on the publicity.
Dorothy later said the film allowed her the “opportunity to pay tribute to those who gave their lives on that awful night.” Filming took place in Fort Lee — then the center of America’s motion picture industry — and was completed in only a week, half the time of similar one-reel films.
In an era where little thought was given to mental health, Dorothy exhibited many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, often bursting into tears while filming. The Motion Picture News reported her as having “the appearance of one whose nerves had been greatly shocked.” Adding authenticity to the film, but also adding to her mental strain, Dorothy adorned the very same clothes wherein she was rescued.
Saved from the Titanic was released in the United States on May 16th, 1912, and was internationally released in the United Kingdom and Germany.
^ Saved from the Titanic poster
Many recognized Dorothy’s courageousness in taking on the role. The Moving Picture World wrote on May 11th, 1912:
Miss Gibson had hardly recovered from her terrible strain in the wreck, when she was called upon to take part in this new piece, which she constructed as well. It was a nerve-racking task, but like actresses before the footlights, this beautiful young cinematic star valiantly conquered her own feelings and went through the work. A surprising and artistically perfect reel has resulted.
Unfortunately, the film Saved from the Titanic could not itself be saved from a fire that destroyed the only known copies in 1914, and the project is now considered a “lost film.”
Perhaps due to the trauma inflicted in reproducing the Titanic’s disaster, Dorothy prematurely retired in May 1912, one month after the Titanic’s sinking — and the very month the film debuted.
In her brief film career, she starred in over 20 Éclair films and untold numbers of lost films while at Lubin and IMP studios. She pursued a choral career, even appearing at the Metropolitan Opera House in Madame Sans-Gene (1915).
Dorothy’s affair with Jules Brulatour broke in 1913. Though separated, the affair forced Jules to formally divorce from his wife. Dorothy and Jules were married in 1917, but their marriage was dissolved two years later as an invalid contract. To escape the gossip, Dorothy left New York for Paris where she died in 1946 at the Hôtel Ritz Paris.
See More: How a Car Was Named After the Town of Montclair
Even at the height of her fame, Dorothy sang the praises of Hoboken. The Encyclopedia Titanica reprints a 1911 article where Dorothy quipped: “I am a daughter of Hoboken. There’s pride in that. But as to becoming a favorite in the moving pictures, that remains to be seen.”
All that remains of Dorothy’s career is a lone, surviving adventure-comedy A Lucky Holdup (1912), but audiences across the globe confirmed Dorothy’s hope — she had indeed become “a favorite in the moving pictures.”