A Titanic Love Affair
The real-life romance that ended in the icy Atlantic
By STEFANIE COHEN – New York Post
Last Updated: 1:43 PM, April 2, 2012
Posted: 7:46 PM, March 31, 2012
In James Cameron’s “Titanic,” Rose DeWitt Bukater, the devoted heroine, dramatically sacrifices herself to be with the man she loves, Jack Dawson. Cameron made up Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) when he wrote his script, but there was no need to fictionalize. Such a woman did exist, and (unlike Rose) she chose to drown at her husband’s side rather than live the rest of her years without him.
Ida Straus, the 63-year-old wife of Isidor Straus, 67, millionaire owner of R.H. Macy’s department store, made headlines around the world by refusing to take a seat on a Titanic lifeboat without her husband.
On Wednesday, to mark the 100th anniversary of the April 15 tragedy, Cameron is releasing a 3-D version of his film, which includes a brief tribute to the Strauses.
Although Isidor was offered a seat on a lifeboat due to his age and stature as a prominent philanthropist and former congressman, he declined, holding steadfast to the rules of the sea that insisted women and children be rescued first. And his wife and the mother of his six children was just as principled.
“I will not be separated from my husband,” other passengers heard her say. “As we have lived, so will we die together.”
Isidor begged his wife to go. “Please, please, dear. Go into the boat,” he said, stroking her head, but she resisted again and again, until the crew gave up.
“Isidor, my place is with you. I have lived with you. I love you, and if necessary, I shall die with you,” she said. With those words, she immortalized one of the great love stories in American lore.
She gave her expensive fur coat to her maid, Ellen Bird, who was given a seat on one of the lifeboats. “I won’t need this anymore,” Ida told her.
Those who rowed away to safety in the small wooden lifeboats saw the couple “standing alongside the rail, holding each other and weeping silently,” writes June Hall McCash in her new book, “A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus.”
Survivor Archibald Gracie said later: “When the ship settled at the head, the two were engulfed by the wave that swept her.” No one saw the couple again. Isidor’s body was recovered at sea; Ida’s was not.
In the wake of the wreck, they captured the nation’s imagination.
More than 6,000 people braved a rain storm to attend a memorial service at Carnegie Hall on May 12. Millionaire steel magnate Andrew Carnegie delivered a eulogy, along with the mayor of New York, William Jay Gaynor. A memorial park was dedicated to the couple near their home on 106th Street, and newspaper articles around the world heralded Isidor’s bravery and Ida’s devotion.
“A Sublime Sacrifice,” wrote the Times. “Mrs. Straus refused to quit husband,” announced the World.
Isidor Straus was a German emigre who settled with his parents in Georgia when revolts swept through Europe in 1848. After the Civil War, he moved to New York and set up a crockery import business with his father, which later took a small space in R.H. Macy’s store. Eventually, he and his brother Nathan bought the store and transformed it into a behemoth where quality goods were sold to the middle class under a new business plan: repeat customers.
“Straus felt that the retailer had an obligation to the customer,” says Daniel Allen Butler, author of “Unsinkable: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic.” “Most businessmen at the time wouldn’t care if they sold something that fell apart five minutes after the customer left the store.”
Although he excelled at business, and was a congressman briefly, his true love was his wife, as evidenced by the many daily letters he wrote her whenever they were separated. The two met when Ida was still a girl; Isidor was friends with her older sister, Amanda. The girls’ family had also left Germany after the revolution and settled in New York City. Isidor and Ida delighted in the fact that they shared a birthday, Feb. 6, and tried to spend it together every year. In 1871, when she was 22 and he 26, he proposed.
“The intimacy between them was truly exceptional,” their great-grandson, Paul Kurzman, 73, tells The Post. Kurzman grew up listening to his grandmother, Sara, tell stories about Isidor and Ida.
When separated, the two constantly wrote letters to one another, especially when Ida retreated to the Adirondacks in the summer.
“In no respect is my imagination so fertile as when it wanders in the direction of my darling,” she wrote in one letter. In another, she told Isidor that she expected “hugs and kisses with compound interest and [I] will pay you back in spot cash.”
“It’s clear from the letters that being together is the most important thing in both their lives,” McCash says. “I see why she would never have left him behind.”
The couple spent the social season of 1912 in Europe, staying on the French Riviera to revive Ida’s poor health. They booked passage home on the opulent Olympic, sister ship to the Titanic. But when the Olympic’s voyage was delayed, Isidor chose to travel on the Titanic.
Along with their maid and valet, they were booked in a Regency-style parlor suite on the first-class C deck, writes McCash. “What a ship!” Ida wrote to a friend upon boarding. “So huge and so magnificently appointed. Our rooms are furnished in the best of taste and most luxuriously as they are really rooms and not cabins.”
During the day, Ida played bridge while Isidor and friend Archibald Gracie IV strolled the deck exchanging war stories.
On April 14, the pair sent a telegraph to their son, Jesse, who happened to be on another ship, the Amerika, en route to Europe with his family. Ship-to-ship telegraphs were a novelty, and the parents sent the 1912 equivalent of a text message: “fine voyage fine ship feeling fine what news.”
That night, they feasted in the first-class dining room on a 10-course meal. Afterward, they strolled arm-in-arm on the upper deck, according to her maid, and then likely retired.
When the ship struck the iceberg, they rose from the jolt and left their state room in bathrobes. Ida seemed to realize the danger and began to dress, and asked Isidor to do so as well. They reappeared and mingled with other passengers on deck. Ida wore her engagement and wedding rings, plus a little pouch that contained special gifts from Isidor, including a little gold purse he’d bought for her in Paris, McCash writes.
They watched as mostly first-class passengers boarded the paltry 20 lifeboats on board, nowhere near enough to save all 2,224 passengers.
Even though many lifeboats departed only half full, Isidor and Ida refused seats, choosing instead to remain together.
“I often asked my grandmother, ‘Would you make the decision that your mother and father made?’ ” says Kurzman. “She said, ‘Paul, I’m not sure. But I’m not surprised it was the decision of my parents.’ ”