A Titanic Love Story featured in the Atlanta Journal Constitution
‘Isidor, my place is with you’
By Bill Hendrick
For the AJC
A half-century before Isidor Straus, who grew up in the tiny Georgia town of Talbotton, died on the Titanic, the future Macy’s magnate tried to join the Confederate army. Turned down because he was only 16, he joined a blockade-running company instead.
His family had emigrated from Germany in 1854, then moved years later from Talbotton to Columbus, 25 miles away. There he met Amanda Blun Rothschild, sister of his future wife, Ida, who lived in New York. It was the genesis of a long love story.
After the war, Straus returned to Columbus. It had been burned by Union troops, so he moved to New York, where he met and married Ida Blun in 1871 as he and his brother parlayed a china and glassware business into eventual co-ownership of the famous department store.
Isidor, 67, and Ida Straus, 63, were returning from an extended overseas trip when they booked first-class passage on the maiden voyage of the giant new luxury liner, buying a ticket that would cost almost $25,000 at today’s prices. They set sail from the British port of Southampton on April 10, 1912.
Four days later, after stops in Cherbourg, France, and Cobh, Ireland, the supposedly unsinkable ship encountered the fateful iceberg off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. At 2:20 a.m. on April 15 — a century ago today — it disappeared into the 12,000-foot depths.
The Strauses were immortalized through eyewitness reports of how they died. Isidor Straus, though a prominent philanthropist, former congressman and man of great power, declined a seat in a lifeboat, holding to the rules of the sea that called for women and children to be rescued first. His wife, with whom he had raised six children, refused to be separated from her husband.
“As we have lived, so will we die together,” eyewitnesses reported her saying. “Isidor, my place is with you.”
June Hall McCash,author of the new book “A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus,” says Ida Straus gave her seat in a lifeboat to her maid, Ellen Bird, then handed the woman her expensive fur coat.
“I won’t need this anymore,” witnesses heard her say.
The Strauses stood on the deck, holding hands, until a wave swept them from the capsizing ship, ending their love story but beginning a legend that endures.
Isidor Straus “was undoubtedly the most famous person from Georgia to die when the ship went down,” says McCash, a retired Middle Tennessee State University professor and part-time resident of Georgia’s Jekyll Island.
Her book continues the telling of the Strauses’ story, which began days after the sinking with worldwide headlines and has been part of both major motion pictures about the disaster: 1958’s “A Night to Remember” and 1997’s special effects-laden “Titanic.”
Also helping to keep alive the fascination with the hubris, angst and romance of the Titanic is another Georgia tie: Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions. The company holds salvor-in-possession rights to the Titanic and has been retrieving and displaying artifacts from the wreck site for almost two decades.
The company’s touring exhibitions have been revamped for the centennial year. A show that opened April 6 at Atlantic Station is one of seven around the United States and in Singapore.
The for-profit company has had its critics, who think the relics should be left where they are. Renewing the controversy is the company’s current effort to auction about 5,500 artifacts, valued at about $189 million, found at or near the wreck.
The Straus Historical Society in New York has taken no position on the sale, says executive director Joan Adler, but some board members, like Caroline Selden Straus, a granddaughter of the Strauses, have qualms.
“I think things need to be left at the gravesite,” she says. “I do not think making a profit is correct.”
Tempering the criticism is the company’s requirement that the buyer keep the collection intact and continue the ongoing shows.
Brian Wainger, an attorney for the company, says Premier Exhibitions, at great risk and with no guarantee of “ever recovering a dime,” literally saved history. “Were it not for the acts of this company, this generation and tomorrow’s would only know about this through books and fictional movies.”
Gordon Jones, senior historian at the Atlanta History Center, says “moral qualms go out the window when you are talking maritime salvage. The basic argument … is that this stuff is going to rot away in a hundred years anyway, so you’re actually saving it.”
Dan Roper, a lawyer, historian and editor of Georgia Backroads magazine, says he believes the sale at Guernsey’s Auctioneers and Brokers in New York is also appropriate, as long as the collection is kept together. Artifacts include fine china, silverware, clothing, diamond jewelry and other personal items from the ship, even a 34,000-pound piece of Titanic itself.
“My uninformed gut reaction would be that the victims on Titanic might be pleased to know that the relics had been recovered and brought to the surface, giving people today a better idea what happened and a new appreciation of the story,” Roper says.
It is a story people never seem to tire of hearing. James C. Cobb, Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia, says the Titanic disaster will endure as a parable of the cost of arrogance.
The Titanic represents “a surpassing achievement in terms of the human ability to innovate gets slapped down by nature,” Cobb says.
John Derden, a retired history professor who teaches part-time at East Georgia College in Swainsboro, says the “Titanic symbolized the power and might of the West,” and to have it undone by an iceberg, a natural force, shocked and demoralized society.
As for the role of the Strauses, Cobb says McCash’s book is a love story that also shows America as a land of both prejudice and opportunity. The Straus family moved to Geogia after encountering anti-Semitism in Germany, and then again in their new American hometown, which sparked their move to Columbus.
Still, McCash says, the family never forgot its Georgia roots. The Strauses’ sons, Jesse, Percy and Herbert, all visited Atlanta after their parents died and had financial interests in Georgia for years.