Excerpt from “I Took a Voyage on the R.M.S Titanic,” Yankee Magazine, June 1981.
Marjorie Newell Robb of Westport Point, Massachusetts, was one of the last survivors of Titanic disaster. Here’s her story:
At the age of 56, Mr. Arthur W. Newell of Lexington, Massachusetts, had finally attained that station of life to which he had long aspired. Born in Chelsea to poor parents, he had risen by dint of his unquestioned integrity and single-minded attention to detail to be Chairman of the Board of the Fourth National Bank of Lexington. A somewhat distant, austere man with a Van Dyke beard, a student of the Bible, a mediocre-to-poor keyboard player, he had a tendency to bring the office home with him. When that happened, his wife and three daughters would form a quartet and play some classical music to relax him and bring him out of his shell.
In 1909, Newell had taken his family on a European trip, one of those leisurely three-month junkets that people had time and money for in those days. Late in 1911 he decided to repeat the adventure, but his wife, who had a delicate disposition, and a daughter, who shared her mother’s temperament, begged off, having found the arduous embarkings and disembarkings infinitely wearing.
So it was that in February of 1912, Arthur Newell and daughters Madeline and Marjorie set sail for Europe. They traveled to the Pyramids (Marjorie Newell celebrated her 23rd birthday in Cairo), and made exhaustive investigations of the Holy Land: Port Said, Jaffa, Bethlehem, Jericho. After taking a ship to Marseilles and traveling thence up to Paris, the Newells arrived in Cherbourg, where they were to start the long voyage home.
There the daughters found one more surprise awaiting them, for A. W. Newell had booked first-class passage for himself and his daughters on the maiden voyage of the world’s largest ship. She was 11 stories high, a sixth of a mile long, weighed over 46 tons, and had a top speed of 24 to 25 knots. Their trip home would encompass another week or so of sumptuous luxury and a triumphant arrival in New York harbor before the glorious vacation would be over.
The Newell girls would certainly have something to tell their grandchildren: what it was like to sail on the world’s greatest ship, to travel in the company of some of the world’s richest men, like John Jacob Astor, or Isidor Straus of Macy’s Department Store, or Benjamin Guggenheim. In short, Marjorie and Madeline Newell would have had the inestimable pleasure of having sailed on the White Star Line’s crowning achievement, one of the jewels of the post-Edwardian age, the R.M.S. Titanic.
It was a most beautiful ship,” says Marjorie Newell Robb today in her low-ceilinged 200-year-old house, originally built for a minister, in Westport Point, Massachusetts.
She is 92 years old now only slightly hampered by her years, endlessly gallant and feisty about life and frankly hesitant to recall the events that irrevocably altered that life. Even now, almost 70 years later, a feeling of intense melancholy comes over the former Marjorie Newell as she recalls the last days in the short life of the ship they called unsinkable.
“The Titanic was a massive affair in every way: four enormous smokestacks, carpets that you could sink in up to your knees, fine furniture that you could barely move, and very fine paneling and carving. Everything on the ship was of the finest quality.
“We were, I think, five days out of Cherbourg; I do know that it was Sunday night. We had finished a lavish dinner in the corner of the magnificent dining room and had gone up to one of the foyers. We just sat there for a while, feeling very refreshed and invigorated after this lovely trip. My father smiled and said, ‘Do you think you can last till morning?’ You see, we had rather large appetites, and he was kidding us about whether we’d need more food. While we sat there in the foyer, I distinctly remember that John Jacob Astor and his wife walked by, looking very affable and distinguished.
“Well, as the evening wore on, my sister and I decided to retire, so we went to our rooms.
“I don’t honestly remember how long we’d been down in our rooms, but we suddenly felt and heard a great vibration; its size was just staggering.”
It was 11:40 P.M. on April 14, 1912, latitude 41°46′ N, longitude 50°14′ W. The grinding, tearing sound that had awakened Marjorie Newell and her sister was made by an iceberg shearing a 300-foot gash in the Titanic‘s bow, helped along by the ship’s rapid 22.5-knot speed and the fact that a half-dozen warnings about drifting ice had been more or less ignored.
Marjorie Newell sat up in bed, wondering what had happened. Far below, in the ship’s boiler room, what seemed like the entire starboard side of the ship collapsed, the sea flooding in over the watertight bulkheads.
On the upper decks, little seemed to be wrong at first. The Titanic lay dead in the water, three of her four funnels blowing out steam with a large, thundering noise. Yet somehow Marjorie Newell’s father knew something was terribly wrong.
“Very soon after the noise, there was a knock at the door. It was Father. ‘Put on warm clothing and come quickly to the upper deck,’ he said. We obeyed. We always obeyed Father.”
Several minutes later, the Newell sisters arrived on the top deck. There was no moon that night, but through the thickish fog that surrounded the ship, it could be seen that the sky was full of stars, and she remembers that the water was perfectly clear, perfectly smooth.
On the starboard well deck, near the foremast, lay several tons of ice that had been shaved off the iceberg by the collision.
“When we arrived on the top, there were really very few passengers about; I believe we were among the first. And it was quiet; everybody was so stunned and frightened that hardly anybody was speaking at all.”
Slowly the decks began to fill with people wearing incongruous combinations of clothes: bathrobes, evening clothes, turtleneck sweaters, fur coats.
About 25 minutes after the crash, the ship’s crew began preparing the wooden lifeboats, 16 of them, eight to a side, as well as the four collapsible canvas lifeboats. If filled to capacity, the 20 boats would hold 1,178 people. But on that cold April night, there were 2,207 people on board the Titanic.
Distress rockets began to be fired and the ship’s “CQD,” the forerunner of SOS, was picked up on the Cunard ship Carpathia at 12:25. The Carpathia was 58 miles away and radioed that she was “coming hard.”
By one o’clock in the morning, the bow of the Titanic was slowly moving deeper into the water and the ship had developed a nasty list to port. Passengers and crew alike moved over to the starboard side in an attempt to restore her balance. Slowly the wounded ship gained its equilibrium. Still there was no panic; rather, the busy, scurrying silence had taken on an intense, dreamlike quality. And Marjorie Newell was about to leave the Titanic under considerably less glorious circumstances than her father had anticipated.
“I believe we were in the second boat to be lowered. The ship was listing rather badly and we were at a great height. The boat we were on had only one boatman. There were no supplies and everything was ill-prepared. My father said, ‘It seems more dangerous for you to get in that boat than to stay here,’ but he hustled us into the boat anyway. Father stood there just as stately and calm as if he were in his living room.
“We were lowered. Most of the people in the boat were women and they were very frightened; nobody was saying anything. I thought to myself, ‘You have to help where you can,’ so I took hold of an oar and rowed and rowed. I was young then and strong.
“We got a distance away and we could see the ship was listing very badly; people were in the water, gasping and yelling for help; one rocket after another was going up.”
At 1:55, the last distress rocket was fired and all the lifeboats but one had been launched. By this time, the ship was at something approaching a 25- degree angle, with the forecastle head very close to the water, and the remaining passengers and crew moving towards the stern of the ship. In her lifeboat, Marjorie Newell looked on with mingled horror and fascination.
“In a way, it was beautiful; every light on the ship was on, and each porthole was illuminated. And then, across the water, came this enormous, awful roar.”
As the bow had plunged deeper, the stern had tilted higher. The sound resembling some monstrous metal beast in battle that came across the water to the waiting lifeboats was nothing less than everything on board the ship breaking loose. As Walter Lord describes it in A Night to Remember, “Twenty-nine boilers . . . 800 cases of shelled walnuts . . . 15,000 bottles of ale and stout . . . tumbling trellises . . . the fifty -phone switchboard” – everything went tumbling end over end:
Now, finally, the Titanic rose up, almost majestically, perpendicular to the water, sending people on board catapulting, skidding, sliding, and screaming into the water. The lights of the ship flickered once, flashed again, and finally went out.
And there, after a minute or two at a 90-degree angle, the ghastly rumbling roar mixing with terrified screams, the hull outlined now only by the red and green running lights and the clean white light of the stars reflecting on the placid water, the Titanic began to go. down, moving at a slant, picking up speed as she went. When the water closed over the flagstaff on the Titanic‘s stern, it was 2:20 A.M.
“I can remember, to this day, the noise the ship made as it went under,” says Marjorie Newell, trying hard to maintain her composure. “You could actually feel. the noise, the vibrations of the screams of the people, and the sounds of the ship.
“I don’t really know what happened on board after we left. People have asked me if the ship’s orchestra was playing ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ as the legend has it, but I don’t think so. I know I didn’t hear it, but that may be because we were far away by that time, as far away as we could get.”
As the morning broke, the Carpathia arrived, and the survivors, some 705 rowing, floating, sobbing, shocked men, women, and children, could at last see just where they were.
The lifeboats were scattered over four square miles of water. Surrounding them and separating them were dozens of small icebergs as well as three or four large ones 150 to 200 feet high. Off to the north and west, five miles away, there began a field of ice that stretched on forever. The spot where the Titanic had gone down was marked only by flotsam: crates, deck chairs, rugs, a few lifebelts, and one dead body, all rapidly being dispersed by the gentle waves.
Slowly, the survivors began boarding the Carpathia.
“Seeing all the icebergs around shocked us; it proved how dangerous our passage had been, and how irresponsible the Titanic‘s Captain Smith, who went down with his ship, had been. Anyway, we wanted to get aboard the Carpathia as fast as we could, so we could be reunited with our father. It never occurred to us that Father hadn’t gotten off; we didn’t realize how few had been saved.
“We climbed onto the ship and there was a silence like a funeral. The Carpathia by that time was loaded with Titanic survivors. People were lying all over the deck, just trying to find someplace to rest.
“Father wasn’t there. But I was so proud of him, that he’d abided by the rule of the sea: Women and children first. Some men didn’t. I know I sat beside a man on the Carpathia who had shoved aside Women and children to save his own life. Why, even John Jacob Astor got his wife on a boat, but never got off the ship himself.”
Shortly after nine o’clock the Carpathia had picked up everybody left alive and turned towards New York. Arthur Newell, who just 12 hours before had paused to muse on his daughters’ healthy appetites, was listed among the missing.
“We reached New York on Thursday and were hurried over to the old Manhattan hotel where my mother and other sister were waiting. My mother had seen lists of those who had been saved, but she was hoping that there had been an oversight. I can see her now in the hotel corridor, her arms outstretched, giving a howl of despair when she saw that only her two daughters had been saved and not her husband.
“Mother turned down an offer of a settlement from the White Star Line. No, she never asked us for details; she didn’t want to talk about it, and she forbade us ever to speak of that night. She wore black or white for the rest of her life. When she died, at 103, she was still in mourning.”
Two weeks after the Titanic disaster the body of Arthur Newell was washed up on a Newfoundland beach. Identified by some distinctive jewelry and a pocket diary, he was buried in Lexington’s Mount Olive cemetery.
Six years later, Marjorie Newell, who had been misidentified as “Alice” on the list of survivors, married and began her own family, her own life. Throughout her married and professional life, raising her children, helping to found the New Jersey symphony, she respected her mother’s wishes and refused any and all inquiries about her experiences on the Titanic with a polite but firm, “I don’t like to talk about it.”
And, in truth, she doesn’t. A most definite-minded, jut-jawed, matriarchal woman, whose strength of character is complemented by a distinctly coquettish femininity, Marjorie Newell Robb still grows noticeably upset, almost distraught, when she recalls that endless night of almost 70 years ago.
Still, there are some things that have to be faced, and the daughter was not at all like the implacably brooding, isolated mother.
In 1960, after the deaths of both her mother and her husband, Marjorie Robb took a trip to Europe where the itinerary included Litchfield, England; the home town of the Titanic‘s Captain Edward Smith.
“Of course, as far as I’m concerned, Captain Smith is a very unpopular man. I wanted to see the statue of him they have at Litchfield, but the main reason I was going there was to see the exquisite cathedral they have there, with its gorgeous carving.
“As I went into the cathedral, the organ, a favorite instrument of mine, burst forth into magnificent music, flooding the church,
“I walked down the aisle and stood there, terribly, terribly moved. I didn’t even seem to be on earth; I was somewhere else. It was as if I was ascending. I felt that here, at long last, was the end of the Titanic story. My father had given his life to save me” and now that I was free of everything else, it was up to me to make the decisions as to what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. But the Titanic? For me, it was over with.”
So now, Marjorie Newell Robb, like Melville’s Ishmael, is left to tell of the mighty ship. Considered unsinkable, it sank on its maiden voyage, taking with it all the interlocking assumptions about modem man and the perfectability of his works, the smug, hubristic self-assurance of the Gilded Age. For along with A. W. Newell and 1,502 others, the Titanic took with it an entire insulated way of life.
“The irony of it all is so striking,” says Arthur Newell’s last surviving daughter. “The unsinkable ship, all the money that those men had that was of no use to them at all. And the irony even touched my father. One of the ways we identified his body when it washed up was an onyx ring that he always wore. One of my grandchildren wears it now. And on that ring, you see, is a carving of Neptune, King of the Sea.”
Read another tale of survival on the Titanic: Going Down with the Titanic in Third Class