The story of Margaret Tobin Brown is the story of the Westward Movement, of women’s issues, of family, of social responsibility, of individualism. Each thoughtful person today faces the same issues as Margaret: how to have a meaningful life; how to include all cultures and classes and genders in opportunity and in understanding; how to attend to both self and community.
Margaret went to Colorado to marry money, but found instead a handsome mine supervisor: “I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown.” Their happiness in Leadville—two children, most of Margaret’s family from Hannibal living around them—changed dramatically when James Joseph Brown opened up a played-out silver mine prospecting for gold. Seven years after Margaret married him, the man she loved was rich.
J.J.’s wealth let them move to a fine house in Denver, travel in the United States, then abroad, then around the world, and—for Margaret—twice to India, to Egypt, and several times a year to Europe. Socially active in Denver, they were nevertheless too Irish and too Catholic and too newly rich to be accepted into Mrs. Crawford Hill’s Sacred 36. Margaret was as spirited and as opinionated when she was rich as she had been when she was poor. And in the opinion of Mrs. Crawford Hill, women who had opinions were guilty of “an unfortunate disposition.”
Margaret was such a successful and hard-working fundraiser that she was much in demand. She let her money and energy follow her heart. She raised funds for arts education in the Denver schools, for Italian children, for the building of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. She even jumped claim on a mine and talked the owner into letting her use the proceeds for one of her long-term charities, Judge Ben Lindsey’s projects to help poor and delinquent children. A mine-owner’s wife, during the Ludlow massacre she joined the United Mine Workers union and suggested that Mr. Rockefeller start practicing what he preached in his Sunday school class.
Margaret’s love of the arts showed in her donations to the Denver Art Museum, in her patronage of the theatre, in her study of drama and music. She learned to sing–and even spent two years learning to yodel. She continued to study all her life, attending Carnegie Institute in New York in 1900, the first year women were accepted. Enthralled with Sarah Bernhardt’s Denver performances, she was eventually awarded the Palm of the Academy of France in recognition of her dramatic work, her interpretations of the work of Sarah Bernhardt in France and in New York during the 1920s.
Her clothes and jewelry were extravagant, her floral arrangements profuse, her efforts to express herself and educate herself unending. She held her own with Newport socialites and miners, with European royalty and New York garment workers. She ran for Senate in three times, worked for women’s suffrage, lectured on social and cultural topics. Margaret Brown was what she wanted to be. She had the money and the energy to keep anyone from stopping her. She had a zest which made most wonder at her if not admire her–while the rest wished she would be more reticent and ladylike.
Margaret was enduringly appreciated in France, receiving the French Legion of Honor award in 1932 for “overall good citizenship” in recognition of her work with the Red Cross and in reconstruction in France during World War I; for her efforts on behalf of blind French and American veterans; for helping organize the Alliance Francaise west of the Mississippi; for promoting the Franco-American Art Association of New York; for ongoing work raising funds for the Titanic victims and crew and continuing to serve as chairman of the Titanic Survivors’ Committee; for her work with Judge Ben B. Lindsey on the Juvenile Court of Denver; for the restoration and donation of Eugene Field’s house to the city of Denver.
Margaret Brown certainly never used the street language and grammar of her later media representations, or worked in a bar, or burned money her husband had hidden in the stove, or carried a gun and shot grapefruit thrown from the deck of the Titanic. Margaret Brown was never known as Molly, but she was indeed unsinkable. Self-confident, energetic, talented, generous—she acted as if gender and class didn’t matter. She was an American original
The Unsinkable Margaret Brown
Intellectual Property of Leah Schwartz
I’m called “Unsinkable.” The Unsinkable Margaret Brown. Not Molly Brown. No one ever called me Molly.
I’m unsinkable, of course, because I survived the Titanic disaster. I did accomplish a few other things. Being famous for not dying is at least better than being known for some of the apocryphal stories circulated about me: that I was an uneducated, foul-mouthed barmaid in mining towns in Colorado; that I accidentally burned up the money my miner husband had hidden in the stove one cold winter night in our mountain cabin.
The tallest tale is that I carried a pistol and shot grapefruit tossed from the deck of the Titanic. I was traveling with the John Jacob Astors. I was to be presented the following year at the Court of St. James. I have lectured on human rights, women’s suffrage, the Ludlow incident, on India, Europe, Mark Twain. I am a woman to be reckoned with, but I volley with my wits, not with firearms.
I did have quite an interest in other sports. I loved riding the horses we kept on our ranch outside Denver. I spent time every day in the gym on the Titanic. One of my favorite exercises was boxing, which we thought firmed the upper arms and the torso, making those binding corsets unnecessary. I prefer dresses like this one we wore in 1920. Much more comfortable.
I credit my husband with giving me the “Unsinkable” title. When J.J. heard that 1500 persons had gone down with the Titanic but that his wife was safe, he is supposed to have said: “Margaret? Of course. She’s too mean to sink.” That wasn’t a very tender thing to say about his wife, but I’ve been all over the world. I have known more or less intimately the greatest people in the world from the kings down, or up, as one cares to view them, and I’ve never met a finer, bigger, more worthwhile man than J.J. Brown. He was a man without peer, and we continued to be concerned for each other even after our legal separation three years before the Titanicdisaster.
The newspapers perpetuated the label: The Unsinkable Mrs. J. J. Brown. Newspapers take just the little bit of truth that can sell a story. Polly Pry, premier Denver gossip columnist, once described one of my party costumes: “Mrs. J.J. Brown came in looking like a full-blown tiger lily.” I liked to dress colorfully–and always with a hat to match. Perhaps an entirely orange outfit with jewelry wherever isn’t exactly demure, but I have never felt bound by rules I didn’t like. When a friend kindly pointed out that it wasn’t proper to wear diamonds in the daytime, I told her I didn’t think so either until I had some.
If I was going to sink I could have done it in Hannibal where I grew up. Hannibal was a river town, railroads, lots of commerce, but unless you were a man and pretty lucky you couldn’t even work yourself up to the top job of roller in the cigar factory. My father spent his years in Hannibal as a laborer at the Hannibal Gas Works. He led a life of work and sleep. He was sinking, and I didn’t see a job that I could get in Hannibal that would pay enough to let me give my father a respite, let him put his feet up by the fire a few years before he died.
My sisters and brothers were not sinking. One after another they took the train out to Colorado to the silver mines of Leadville. So when I was 18, I went too. But my quest was not for silver but for gold., pure gold. I was pretty, an old-fashioned Irish girl out to make my fortune the old-fashioned way: find myself a rich husband.
I meant to stay true to my purpose, I meant to marry money. But at a church picnic in Leadville that summer, there came James Joseph Brown, big and strong and handsome. He wasn’t rich but at least he had a job as a mine supervisor and he was Irish and he was Catholic and he was so much in love with me. I went out West to get me a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown.
We were married at the end of that summer, September 1, 1886, at Annunciation Church in Leadville, and within two years we had our two children and I had my mother and father and most of my siblings living close by. Those were wonderful years. All my life I’d wanted to learn, so I arranged to be tutored several hours every day–literature, languages, music, drama. I loved it all.
But the wonderful years didn’t last. They got better. In 1893 in the midst of a mining depression in Leadville, Jim opened up a played-out silver mine, the Ibex Company’s Little Jonny Mine, looking for gold. The newspaper said that a thousand miners had 25,000 reasons each why that wouldn’t work, and all were very surprised when Jim struck gold. Jim had dug into a fabulously productive vein.
A lot of hard work goes into what some call luck. J.J. had been mining or supervising mines and studying mining for 20 years by then. The Ibex Company was so grateful they gave Jim a one-eighth share in the company–12,500 shares–and a seat on the board. So seven years after I married him for love, J.J. Brown was very, very rich.
Money creates certain obligations: You have to spend it. That’s when we moved to a big house in Denver, and that’s when I really started to float. I’d known what I wanted all my life. The only difference now was that I could afford it.
And when we began to travel, my eyes opened up to a whole new candy store. Home was wonderful, and we had a ranch outside Denver where we spent summers, where Jim planted over a thousand fruit trees and had his famous chicken village. (Those were good birds.) I gave parties for the children and riding expeditions for our friends and dances in the barn and fundraisers on the lawn. We traveled all over the United States, to Europe, around the world–Japan, India, Egypt, Ireland. I was in love with France, but J.J. couldn’t say a good thing about it. He was soon too busy traveling the Southwest for his mining interests to get away as much as I wanted, so it was Europe with my sister, my cousin–or with our son and daughter–or with the three nieces we brought into our household when my brother Daniel’s wife died. I loved children, and we treated our nieces as our own, but five teenagers in the household at once–that might make a person sink!
I was home enough to give some of the best parties in Denver. Not the most exclusive. We qualified for the Denver 400, but we never made it into Mrs. Crawford Hill’s Sacred 36, her personal count of the creme de la creme of the riche in Denver–who, let’s face it, were all nouveau. We had enough money, but we were always a bit too Irish and a bit too Catholic and just that much newer to Denver than the transplanted Southerner Mrs. Crawford Hill.
And there’s my mouth. Education meant a lot to me. I continued my daily tutoring in Denver. I even enrolled fulltime in the Carnegie Institute in New York the first year they opened and admitted women when my children were in boarding school. I thought a lot–and what’s a mind for if you can’t speak it? In Mrs. Crawford Hill’s opinion, women who had opinions were guilty of “an unfortunate disposition.” So if you go by Mrs. Hill’s definition, you couldn’t really call me a lady. But I had so much verve–and I had such a good time. That was close enough to lady for nearly everybody else.
Ladies were supposed to be nice. Nice just means following somebody else’s rules. I had made enough risky choices early on that letting someone else decide never sat right with me. I made up my own mind and I put my considerable energy behind whatever I thought good to do. I was happy enough when other people approved, but I didn’t let it bother me if they didn’t.
Fundraising was one of the nice things that ladies could do, and you could call me a fundraiser. I set records. That was one of my greatest joys: Liberating the money of the rich to give to the poor. There were plenty of both in Colorado. Those mines gave, and I was one of the getters. I tried to give back, though, because the men that worked the mines gave their health in too many cases, even their lives. J.J. was one of them. He was sick most of his later years, couldn’t even tolerate a visit to an elevation high as Leadville. His temper may have had something to do with his health problems, but I blame the mine work more. And the widows of miners, children. Judge Ben B. Lindsey was a brave pioneer reformer of juvenile justice in Denver. He ran a children’s camp that was always in need of money. That was one of the many charities I helped out for years, ladylike, with fundraisers–but I finally jumped claim on a deserted mine at Cripple Creek, had the ore assayed, and got the owner’s consent to open it up and use the proceeds for Ben Lindsey’s boys for two years. It wasn’t a ladylike thing to do, but it worked.
I’ve been called a whole lot of nasty things–for siding with the miners in the Ludlow massacre, suggesting to Mr. John D. Rockefeller that he put into practice what he preached in Sunday school class about caring for his fellow men (1914), for advocating woman suffrage, for running for Senator from Colorado (1909, 1911, 1914) three times–unsuccessfully. I went with the National Women’s Party delegation to Rapid City to lobby President Calvin Coolidge for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (1927). President Coolidge said Nope.
People will think anything they want of you. You can’t stop them. You may as well go ahead and live the life you have the way you think best. All of conservative Denver got stirred up by the Carnival of Nations festival I organized that raised enough money to build the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Denver (1906). I invited the Irish, the Negroes, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, Italians–everybody to set up living history exhibits–like those we had seen at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis two years before. It was a Carnival of Nations, for heaven’s sake. The Chinese had built the railroads, but they were still ostracized. And the Indians. Well, this was Denver, and plenty who’d grown up thinking the only good Indian is a dead Indian still hadn’t changed their mind. But the Denver 400 came. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. I learned that when I raised so much money at the Catholic Fair one year that I had to think hard to find a way to top it. The next year I invited the Jewish people.
I wanted to help. I did help. Maybe the idea of organizing a women’s company to fight alongside the men against Pancho Villa was extreme, but it got people’s attention. War broke out in Europe, though, so instead I offered to donate my Newport, Rhode Island, cottage for hospital service, and to equip it, and I joined the Red Cross in France. I was at home in France, spoke French as well as German and Italian. I worked hard in hospital service and then in reconstruction after the Great War in Europe. I’d grown up working hard. You don’t forget how if you stay in practice.
I loved the arts. The Denver Art Museum was always richer when we came back home from abroad. And theatre and music were my specialties. I learned to sing. I spent two years learning to yodel. I was much in demand at parties. J.J. and I both loved theatre, went to everything that came to Denver and everything we could see when we were in New York. I idolized Sarah Bernhardt. She came to Denver twice to perform. I took up acting myself only late in life, but I spent several years studying and teaching acting, and performing in New York and in France. I did others, but my specialty was the interpretation of Sarah Bernhardt’s roles, for which I received the Palm of the Academy of France.
I’ve been called some complimentary things, too. You could call me a survivor. The Titanic is the disaster you might know about, but I survived typhoon on the Indian Ocean, fire aboard ship, hotel fire at the Breakers in Palm Beach. There were a few domestic disasters–serious embarrassment over several alienation of affection suits brought against J.J. by the husbands of women he had allegedly consorted with. I guess he was right when he said we didn’t need to know all the details of his mining trips to the Southwest.
Family meant so much to us. My mother and father lived with us in the big House of Lions when we moved to Denver. I really did get to give my father a few years to put his feet up by the fire. He and J.J. loved to sit and talk for hours in the evening, and my children loved my father’s stories. My mother was a help especially after we added my three nieces to our family. She wouldn’t keep her pipe in the kitchen, though. She was her daughter’s mother. I had told her she could smoke her pipe in the house if she kept it to the kitchen, but when I came home I could smell that in my absence she smoked wherever she pleased.
My son Lawrence eventually married, and it was my first grandson who put me on the Titanic. My daughter Helen and I had been traveling in North Africa and Europe with a party from Newport, where I had rented a cottage for years and made many friends. I had intended to stay longer in Paris, but when I received a telegram that my grandson was ill, I booked passage on the fastest ship available. Helen, thank God, stayed on in London with friends.
You see, I wanted speed. I took safety for granted. Unfortunately, that was the position of the White Star Line as well. They discounted reports of the ice field and sped ahead, hoping for a record Atlantic crossing. I was reading in my bed shortly before midnight that Sunday night, April 14, 1912, when I heard a crash overhead and was thrown to the floor. And three hours later, from where I sat rowing on Lifeboat Six, there was nothing more to be seen of the Titanic and nothing to be heard but a few scattered voices in the dark. And nothing to be felt but cold and desperation–and contempt for the ship’s quartermaster, Robert Hichens, who held command of our lifeboat but was incapable of reasonable action, unable to inspire or to lead. He refused to go back for survivors. We could hear that some must still be alive.
What we endured that night was horrible, but you know that we were rescued by the Carpathia, a light on the horizon shortly before dawn. And with the sunrise we could see the ice field, mountains of bluish white, the source of that pungent, musty odor we had sensed all around us in the darkness. By then the seas were heavy. Again and again we bounced against the side of thathuge ship until we finally caught a rope and held. Then we were drawn up one by one on a kind of rope swing, up to safety.
It colored the rest of my life. So many sunderings. The law of the sea, “women and children first,” meant that husbands and wives were put on the lifeboats separately–and if they weren’t put on at their first opportunity, that meant in most cases that they were not put on at all. So the Carpathia held many widows, bereft and without income for their own lives and for the upbringing of their children. The law of the sea conflicts with my belief in equal rights for men and for women. And you can appreciate just how capriciously the law of the sea is administered when you note that Mr. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic, though neither woman nor child, he was among the saved.
And on the Carpathia, at least there was work to do. Those 20 lifeboats held persons who had almost all lost a loved one aboard the Titanic. Some spoke no English and faced an uncertain welcome in the United States without documents or possessions. There was grief and fear and physical need, and some of this I could help with since I spoke several languages. We set up a committee to aid survivors–which I have chaired ever since–and by the time we docked in New York, $10,000 had been pledged.. And I can’t say enough to praise Captain Rostron and his crew on the Carpathia.
There was madness at the docks when we came to New York–the press trying to buy stories from survivors, relatives waiting in hope because there had been conflicting lists of names. I stayed overnight on the ship to comfort and to make arrangements for some, mainly steerage passengers, who had nowhere to go. My brother Daniel met me, and it turned out my grandson wasn’t sick after all–just some disagreement with the milk they were giving him. I was on dry land, but without a stitch of clothing in my possession. After a few more days in New York to help settle survivors, I went back home to Denver by train.
I was hoarse. I felt like I had been talking non-stop for a month. But people wanted to hear about the experience, and I was eager to expose the perfidy of the White Star Line. The Titanic disaster was a tragedy as unnecessary as running the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver into Pike’s Peak. I hold Mr. Bruce Ismay indirectly responsible for the accident due to his mania to break all records on the water. And the officers and crew were woefully unprepared for anything out of the ordinary. Not once was there a drill of any sort on that vessel before we had to face the real thing. I volunteered to share my views with the Senate committee investigating the disaster, but I was never called.
There were other audiences curious to hear the details, though, and I was happy to tell them as soon as I had wardrobe enough to appear in public. And on May 2 back home in Denver, not only was I invited but I was the guest of honor at a luncheon at the home of Mrs. Crawford Hill. That singular distinction was eclipsed, however, by the French Legion of Honor award I received years later for a lifetime of humanitarian and philanthropic activities. Not bad for a little Irish girl from Hannibal.
When J.J. died in 1922, he left no will, and I’m ashamed to say that my children and I spent the next six years in court trying to settle the little that remained of his estate. I could no longer afford to live in the big house in Denver by then or to rent the cottage in Newport, so I lived on in France or in New York in rented quarters or with friends. I had always lived as if there’s no point dying with money in the bank, but I admit, in my later years I was cutting it awfully close. But really: What’s life for if you can’t live it?