Titanic Facts About Dorothy Gibson, The Forgotten Survivor

July 27, 2023 | Dancy Mason

Titanic Facts About Dorothy Gibson, The Forgotten Survivor

Of all the famous survivors of the Titanic, Dorothy Gibson is the least known—and the most scandalous.

1. She Was Infamous

Before April 15, 1912, Dorothy Winnifred Brown—AKA Dorothy Gibson—was in the spotlight for her burgeoning acting career and arresting beauty. After that day, everything changed. She was one of the lucky survivors of the Titanic disaster…but in many ways, that meant her nightmares were just beginning. What followed was a life of trauma, deaths, and international scandals.

dorothy gibson

2. She Had Daddy Issues

The beginnings of Gibson’s life were right out of the Old Hollywood starlet playbook. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1889, tragedy struck her at a young age. When she was just three, her father passed, leaving little Dorothy was some daddy issues that she would never quite shake off—judging from the rest of her maladjusted life.Dorothy Gibson painting with large hatHarrison Fisher, Wikimedia Commons

3. She Was A Muse

Dorothy Gibson always craved fame and the spotlight, and before she was out of her teen years she was performing in vaudeville and Broadway productions. But that wasn’t all: With wide eyes and an open, comforting face, she soon became commercial artist Harrison Fisher’s favorite model to draw. This led to a new kind of fame entirely.

Dorothy smiling and holding a   roseRandy Bryan Bigham Collection, Wikipedia

4. Her Face Was Everywhere

Where some women were playing bit parts off Broadway every night, trying to get a manager to notice them, Gibson needed to do no such thing. Thanks to her partnership with Fisher, she was quite literally everywhere—on postcards, posters, magazines, and other illustrations. She was so associated with his work, people called her “The Original Harrison Fisher Girl”.

And just as her professional life skyrocketed, so too did her personal entanglements.Probably Dorothy Gibson sittingEclair American, A Lucky Holdup (1912)

5. She Tried To Settle Down

In 1910, Dorothy snagged herself a man in the form of George Henry Battier. This introduced something new into her life. A pharmacist from the South, Battier may have represented a kind of earthy stability for Gibson, an antidote to her heady days as America’s favorite face. In any case, the pair quickly married. Yet just as quickly, it all fell apart.Dorothy Gibson sittingEclair American, A Lucky Holdup (1912)

6. Her Marriage Was Doomed

Just a few months after tying the knot, Gibson decided the life of a homemaker just wasn’t for her, and she and Battier separated for good, eventually divorcing in 1913. Her rebound was…interesting. Newly single, she stopped posing as much for commercial illustrations and set her sights on a much more scandalous way to fame.Probably Dorothy Gibson and people close to horseEclair American, A Lucky Holdup (1912)

7. She Was A Star

By 1911, Gibson decided to try her hand at film, soon joining up with Lubin Studios as one of their regular actresses, and then with Éclair Studios as a leading actress. It was a crucial and triumphant moment. Audiences lapped Gibson up, and soon agents were promoting her as a “star”—one of the first film actresses to earn that name.

Gibson was riding high…not knowing disaster was just around the corner.Probably  Dorothy GibsonEclair American, A Lucky Holdup (1912)

8. She Made A Fateful Decision

In 1912, Gibson did what many starlets do and took a lengthy, six-week vacation to Italy alongside her mother. For those six weeks, they must have been in heaven, taking in the sun and the atmosphere. But once Gibson needed to head home to film her next movie, her streak of incredible luck came to a screeching halt.

As a true-blue movie star, she decided her return voyage to America would be on the luxurious Titanic. Need I say this did not go well?

Titanic at costR. Welch, Picryl

9. She Went First Class

At first, Gibson’s voyage on the Titanic would have been the height of elegance. She, naturally, bought herself and her mother first-class tickets, and they got on the vessel on April 10th from Cherbourg, France. Gibson was 22 years old, famous, and she had finally “made” it. But days later, just before midnight on Sunday April 14, she had a rude awakening.Titanic first class dinning room by Father Browne,Francis Browne, Wikimedia Commons

10. A Card Game Saved Her Life

Dorothy Gibson wasn’t asleep when the ship hit that fatal iceberg that Sunday. Instead, she had been up playing the card game bridge whist with her mother and two other players and was only just retiring to her cabin. According to the manners of the day, their Sunday game was a naughty “violation of the strict Sabbath rules of English vessels”. But in Gibson’s case, it may have saved her life.

Titanic sinkingHenry Reuterdahl, Wikimedia Commons

11. She Knew Something Was Wrong

At 11:40 pm, when the iceberg hit, Gibson actually heard the impact herself. Unlike the others who were asleep in their beds, then, she instantly knew something was wrong. She later described it as a “long, drawn, sickening crunch”.  She was so sure there was a problem, in fact, that she went to investigate. What she saw followed her to the end of her days.Titanic's Sinking SternCharles Dixon, Wikimedia Commons

12. She Saw It Sinking

The Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable, but Dorothy Gibson witnessed a horrifying sight. It was, indeed, sinking. Even at this early hour in the disaster, she saw that water was beginning to flood the boat in such quantities, the deck was starting to list. Electrified and terrified at the same time, Gibson sprang right into action.

Dorothy Gibson image holding flowerRandy Bryan Bigham Collection, Wikimedia Commons

13. She Was A Quick Thinker

After seeing the carnage on the deck, Gibson acted quickly. She ran down to get her mother and told her they needed to get to a lifeboat, now. The two people who had been their bridge partners were also still up and heard this, and they too scrambled to get ready to leave.

Still, as you might know, the Titanic infamously only had enough lifeboats for half the people on board, and Gibson could have very well been playing a losing game. Except she wasn’t.

Lifeboats of the vessel S&G, Wikimedia Commons

14. She Was First To Leave

Incredibly, Dorothy Gibson, her mother, and their bridge partners were so quick on the draw after the collision, they ended up in Lifeboat no 7—the very first lifeboat that crew members launched on that chilly April night. Then again, it did help that Gibson was a woman and in first-class—other passengers didn’t get so lucky.

Still, Gibson and 27 others launched off in their boat just an hour after the iceberg hit, hoping it was to safety. They had no idea what they were in for.Titanic lifeboats strewn on the deck of the CarpathiaUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Nearly Died Again

Soon after the lifeboat detached from the Titanic, the crew made a terrible realization. In the chaos, no one could find the lifeboat’s plug, which meant they were as good as goners in the chilly Atlantic ocean if they couldn’t find a solution fast. The one they came up with shows the deep desperation of everyone on board.last lifeboat successfully launched from the TitanicJ.W. Barker (Carpathia passenger) credited in The Sphere (London, 4 May 1912), p. 91., Wikimedia Commons

16. She Grew Desperate

It was frigid in the ocean, yes, but it was also freezing in the lifeboat. So when the women started taking out their lingerie and the men pulled off their garments to stuff into the lifeboat’s plug hole, they were all likely chilled to the bone. Nonetheless, they clung onto life. Within hours, they realized it would get so much worse.Lifeboat Carrying Titanic SurvivorsNational Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons

17. She Watched It Go Down

At 2:20 am, almost three hours after Dorothy Gibson first noticed the collision, the Titanic finally sank beneath the ocean. But it was far from over. At that point, half the Titanic passengers—those who couldn’t find a lifeboat—fell into that ice-cold Atlantic and had to fend for themselves. Only, of course, they couldn’t save themselves from hypothermia.

These next moments haunted Gibson more than anything that came before.Titanic's lifeboatsCharles Dixon, Wikimedia Commons

18. She Heard A Hellish Sound

Gibson, sitting safe in her lifeboat, remembered the moment the ship sank and those people floundered in harrowing detail. She later described the "terrible cry that rang out from people who were thrown into the sea and others who were afraid for their loved ones”. Then, there on the black ocean, she must have listened as most of those sounds turned to chilling silence.

Something in her broke that day.Titanic lifeboat found by rescueUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Temporarily Lost Her Mind

As the long night wore on and still no help came—there was no responsive ship anywhere near the Titanic—Gibson’s reaction grew more deranged. She became, according to one of her bridge partners, “quite [frantic]” and kept repeating, at full volume “I’ll never ride in my little grey car again”. When help did come, the damage was already done.Marshall Everett, Story of the Wreck of the Titanic people getting into lifeboatsUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

20. She Got “Lucky”

Eventually, the RMS Carpathia came and rescued what was left of the passengers of the Titanic—but that was precious few. Indeed, just over 700 people survived the sinking, while more than 1,500 people perished of hypothermia in those icy waters, or by other means. Dorothy Gibson was now one of the “lucky” few…but that luck was a cruel, double-edge blade.RMS Carpathia at seaUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

21. Her Studio Was Vicious

When Gibson finally landed in New York, her celebrity had now taken on a dark dimension…and her studio was all too happy to capitalize on it. Reportedly, Éclair Film Company producer Jules Brulatour—seeing the cinematic opportunity in the grimmest of circumstances—even sent several tugboats and camera crews to capture the Carpathia’s arrival with Gibson in tow.

It was ice cold—but it wasn’t the only underhanded trick he had in his bag.Dorothy Gibson in a promotional photo for Saved From the Titanic (1912Eclair, Wikimedia Commons

22. An Executive Forced Her Into A Movie

On April 22, just a week after the sinking, Brulatour put out a newsreel based on the footage he captured that day, which became a smashing success. That’s when he made Dorothy Gibson a chilling offer. Well aware that he had golden narrative on his hands in the form of a lead actress who had lived through the disaster, he asked her to make a new film, Saved from the Titanic, that would recreate the sinking.

Yes, this was as greedy and horrific as it sounds. But then he twisted the knife in.Dorothy Gibson in Saved from the Titanic (1912)Éclair Film Company, Wikimedia Commons

23. She Did It For The Money

Later on, when the dust had settled, Gibson claimed that she agreed to the film because it was an "opportunity to pay tribute to those who gave their lives on that awful night”. The reality, though, was a lot crueler. It’s likely Brulatour pressured his still-traumatized actress, telling her it would help her career in a big way.

Even so, if Gibson had been aware of what was ahead, she likely never would have said yes.

Saved from the Titanic movie  posterEclair Film, Wikimedia Commons

24. She Was On A Whirlwind Set

Production on Saved from the Titanic began immediately—after all, Brulatour needed to strike while the iron was hot. They filmed at both Éclair’s studios and on an old transport vessel in New York Harbor. They went at such a break-neck pace that the studio finished the 10-minute-long, one-reel film in just a week, putting it out one month and one day after the Titanic sunk.

It was rabid opportunism at its worst, and when audiences saw Gibson on screen, they must have gasped.Jules Brulatour, film magnate and his charming wife, Hope HamptonBettmann, Getty Images

25. Her Trauma Took On New Dimensions

Saved from the Titanic had made Dorothy Gibson relive her trauma that horrific night. She had not only written the script for the film based on her exact experiences, but Brulatour had also made her wear the same clothes she had on that night; a silk evening dress, cardigan, and polo coat. You know, because authenticity is much more important than mental health. And the derangement kept coming.

Dorothy Gibson in dress and jewelsHeritage Images, Getty Images

26. She Looked Horrible On Screen

In the end, this was a role that broke her. One reporter who watched the film described her as having "the appearance of one whose nerves had been greatly shocked”. There were also reports at the time that she’d spend much of her time on set in tears. It wasn’t long then, before the backlash hit.Dorothy Gibson speaking on the phoneEclair American, A Lucky Holdup (1912)

27. The Press Condemned Her

Gibson had given one of the most gut-wrenching performances in history, but instead of awe, many felt sickened. The New York Dramatic Mirror wrote that the whole film was “revolting,” and even took Gibson herself to task for “commercializ[ing] her good fortune by the grace of God”. Then again, Gibson’s punishment for starring in the film was far worse than her crime.Dorothy Gibson getting in a roomEclair American, A Lucky Holdup (1912)

28.  She Had A Brief Golden Period

Once Saved from the Titanic came out, Dorothy Gibson was truly on top of the world. She was already one of the very first stars on film before the sinking, and in May 1912, just as the movie premiered, she was the highest-paid actress in the world alongside Old Hollywood darling Mary Pickford. And then it all came crashing down.Mary Pickford on a black backgroundRufus Porter Moody, Wikipedia

29. She Had A Total Breakdown

In the wake of Saved from the Titanic, Gibson’s life changed forever—in a horrific way. In truth, the stresses of living through the Titanic sinking all over again on set burdened her beyond all reason. Afterward, one newspaper reported “She had practically lost all her reason, by virtue of the terrible strain she had been under”.

In other words, she had a complete mental breakdown. There was only one thing for her to do.Titanic's first classUnknown author, Picryl

30. She Quit Acting

Dorothy Gibson had an extremely promising career before the Titanic, but there’s a reason we don’t know her as well today as her contemporary Mary Pickford: She quit acting entirely after her ordeal on Saved from the Titanic. Instead, she tried to jump-start a career in the opera, with some initial success.

But that doesn’t mean drama was done with her—one more violent event would break open all the secrets she had left.Dorothy Gibson in dress and a hatUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

31. She Killed A Person

Just a year after wrapping Saved from the Titanic and quitting the silver screen, a new disaster struck Gibson. This time, it was even more ruinous. She was driving a sportscar through the New York City streets, zipping around like the celebrity she was. Then suddenly, she fatally struck a pedestrian. It was a whole different trauma, and it turned into a fiasco.New York City 1913 image with cars driving on streetLibrary of Congress, Picryl

32. She Was In An Infamous Court Battle

Gibson’s fatal accident splashed her all across newspaper headlines and gossip columns, but that was the least of her worries at the time. A lawsuit about the case also landed the actress in a New York Court room to defend her actions that day. And as lawyers began digging around the circumstances, they made a very scandalous discovery. lawsuitUlf Wittrock, Shutterstock

33. There Was A Strange Detail About Her Case

As it happened, the car that Gibson was driving when she hit the pedestrian wasn’t her own—and this caused a domino effect of probing questions and shocking answers. Because instead, the car belonged to Éclair Studios executive Jules Brulatour, the man who had convinced her to film Saved from the Titanic. And why was she driving his car? Well…old car  from 1913Sicnag, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

34. She Was The Other Woman

When the courts discovered that Gibson had been driving Brulatour’s vehicle, they unearthed her most shameful secret. As it turned out, she and Brulatour had been having an affair for years, since before she made Saved from the Titanic—which may be another reason why Gibson felt pressured to do the horrific film. But that was far from all.Hope Hampton and Jules BrulatourBettmann, Getty Images

35. She Was A Homewrecker

See, Brulatour wasn’t just a high-profile film executive at the time, he was also married with children. Although he and his wife Clara had separated by the time the truth came out in court, it was such a scandal that Clara rushed to divorce him rather than sully her name one second longer.

Gibson and Brulatour were now out in the open, and it forced them to make a big decision.divorce proceedingsGAS-photo, Shutterstock

36. She Got Her Wedding At Last

Society at the time demanded propriety, especially of its celebrities. So as Brulatour’s power continued to grow—he eventually became a millionaire and a member of a film committee in Washington—he knew if he wanted to go any further in his career, he’d have to legitimize his illicit relationship.

So, in 1917, Gibson finally married her affair partner. It was not happily ever after.Engagement ringTranStudios Photography & Video, Pexels

37. Her Rival Tried To Ruin Her

The traditionalists around Gibson and Brulatour might have been happy about their union, but Brulatour’s ex-wife certainly wasn’t. Her revenge was vicious. Clara went after the legitimacy of the marriage with everything she had, claiming that it was invalid for various minute legal reasons. Was she grasping at straws? Maybe. But she sure got what she wanted in the end.Jules Brulatour image in a suitRandy Bryan Bigham Collection, Wikipedia

38. The Stress Destroyed Her

Whether or not Gibson’s marriage to Brulatour was legitimate or not didn’t matter in the end. After the humiliation of her first court case, these legal threats were enough to scare Gibson to her core—and the stress ruined whatever happiness she could have found with Brulatour. Within two years, they had dissolved the union.

The fallout of their split was more lasting than the relationship itself.woman holding divorce documentRDNE Stock project , Pexels

39. She Ran Away

Although Brulatour gave Gibson a generous alimony payment and even let her use his last name after they parted ways, it was cold comfort. The former screen actress was mortified at all this airing of her dirty laundry and had to get the heck out. She fled to Paris with her mother, where she would stay for nearly the next three decades.

However, Gibson still had some dark secrets even then.Two elegant ladies in ParisYanterrien, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

40. She Was In The Middle Of A War Zone

While Gibson was over in Europe, you might think she was gallivanting about and having fun. Well, no. In fact, by the late 1930s, all of the continent was rife with tensions that would lead to WWII. Gibson’s reaction was heartbreaking. According to one report, she didn’t leave Europe and go back to the safety of America because, given her experience on the Titanic, she was too terrified of the sea journey. Then again, there is a more chilling explanation.WWII Europe, FranceNational Archives and Records Administration, Picryl

41. She Had Dark Beliefs

While Gibson might have claimed that she was just too scared to leave, the truth is she might have been quite, er, comfortable living in territory controlled by the Third Reich and the Axis Powers. Reports from around this time say that both Dorothy and her mother had become sympathizers with Benito Mussolini and his ilk.

Yes, dark. But there’s more.Benito Mussolini with Italian soldiersBundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, Wikimedia Commons

42. She Went Above And Beyond For The Bad Guys

Now, details about Gibson’s life in this period are necessarily hazy—these aren’t things you exactly want to broadcast—but other information indicates she really went in for the cause, even becoming a spy for the Axis countries. Oh, Dorothy.

Still, this wasn’t the end. As the conflict wound down and Gibson perhaps saw she was on the wrong side of history, she made a rash announcement.Mussolini with German paratroopersBundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE , Wikimedia Commons

43. She Went Behind Bars

In 1944, at the tail-end of WWII, Gibson reportedly denounced all her former shady sympathies. But her declaration got her into near-fatal trouble. She was, after all, still in Italy at the time, and authorities threw her behind bars in San Vittore in Milan for being an “agitator”. As if her life really needed any more drama added to it. But she was about to get another helping.San Vittore in MilanMssddmit, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

44. She Experienced A “Living Death

Gibson’s life now resembled a villain’s in an Indiana Jones film, but this was no fiction—and her reality was terrifyingly harsh. She described her stint in the holding cell as a “living death,” and feared she would perish behind the bars, forgotten and defeated. Yet just like with the Titanic all those years ago, luck was with her.Titanic Belfast 1912Unknown, Picryl

45. She Made A Great Escape

Dorothy Gibson didn’t stay anywhere she didn’t want to be, and she did not want to be in San Vittore. It wasn’t long before she planned a successful jailbreak with two other detainees, thanks in part to interventions from a resistance group. Free at last, Dorothy fled to Switzerland. But if she was expecting a hero’s welcome, she didn’t get one—she got a brutal interrogation.SwitzerlandLondo Mollari, CC BY-SA 2.0 , Wikimedia Commons

46. She Was Under Investigation

The Allied Forces were very much onto Gibson’s movements during this time, though they couldn’t tell if her sympathies for Mussolini and his friends were a survival tactic, or if she really was an Axis spy. American government official James G Bell did the honors and grilled Gibson about her time in Italy to find out. He came to a bizarre conclusion.

Benito MussoliniBrazilian National Archives, Wikimedia Commons

47. She Had A Fatal Flaw

We may never know what was really in Dorothy Gibson’s heart during this time, but her interrogator dealt her a cruel insult anyway. According to Bell, Gibson couldn’t possibly have been an Axis sympathizer, mostly because she was “too stupid” to be a spy. Of course…maybe that’s how Gibson wanted to come across.

Whatever the truth, karma was coming for her anyway.woman in jacket and sunglasses with a gun in her handAnna Demianenko, Shutterstock

48. She Went Out In Style

After going through the wringer with Bell, a 56-year-old Gibson settled in Paris for the post-war years. Except she barely got to see them. Her many traumas finally caught up to her, and in 1946 she passed, either from a stroke or a heart attack, in her apartment. Nonetheless, she did it in celebrity style: She was staying at the Ritz at the time.

Oh, and she had one more surprise.7988276139d8e71def26b-1.jpg

49. She Had A Fiery Affair

When Gibson’s will came out in the wake of her passing, it contained one juicy detail. She left 50% of her estate to her mother, which everyone expected. But the other 50%? That went to her international lover Emilio Antonio Ramos, who worked as a press attaché for the Spanish Embassy in Paris. Get it, Dorothy.last will and testamentKaspars Grinvalds, Shutterstock

50. She’s A Lost Artist

With a life chock-full of some of the biggest events, scandals, and tragedies of the 20th century, it’s a wonder that Dorothy Gibson isn’t more well known today. Then again, perhaps it’s not: Even though Saved from the Titanic has an infamous origin, the film itself is now lost. A fire on the Éclair Studios lot destroyed it in 1914.

More than that, most of Gibson’s other filmography is lost too. Her only surviving work is the 1912 adventure comedy A Lucky Holdup.

A Lucky Holdup (1912)Eclair American, A Lucky Holdup (1912)

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