The Tragic True Story Of The Real-Life Lovers Who Inspired James Cameron’s Titanic

More than 25 years after James Cameron’s 1997 epic Titanic hit theaters, Jack and Rose’s ill-fated romance continues to captivate people the world over. And though the characters were entirely fictional, their tragic tale wasn’t all that different from that of a real couple on board the Titanic in 1912. But who were they, and what makes their story so heart-rending, even a hundred years later?

The star-crossed voyage

It was midday on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, in the port of Southampton, England, when the RMS Titanic lifted her anchor for the first time. She was the quickest, largest, and grandest ocean liner of her time.

And after three years in construction, she was finally ready for what was set to be a historic journey. But, as we know, the iconic vessel would never complete her maiden voyage.

No one could have foreseen its fate

Measuring an impressive 882 feet 9 inches in length and weighing more than 46,000 tons, the Titanic was celebrated worldwide as a phenomenal feat of engineering. When she set off, the ship was carrying around 2,200 people — barely half of her full capacity.

But none of those passengers — including movie stars, millionaires, and immigrants looking for a fresh start — could have foreseen the dreadful fate that would befall this “unsinkable” ship.

A tale as old as time

There are probably thousands of tales from the night of April 14, 1912, when the Titanic struck the fatal iceberg that would cause her to plunge to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean within just three hours. But one story has surfaced that’s quite unlike any other.

The story of Isidor and Ida Straus has been known for a while, but in 2017 Paul Kurzman shared the astonishing account of his great-grandparents to Country Living. They were a couple whose extraordinary exhibition of unwavering love mesmerized their fellow passengers.

A journey like no other

Isidor and Ida Straus, a wealthy husband and wife from New York. Having enjoyed a luxurious winter vacation in Europe, the pair boarded the Titanic in Southampton for their lengthy journey home across the North Atlantic.

Apparently, a coal strike in England prevented the pair from boarding another ship home. And after they boarded the Titanic, of course, they would never make it to the Big Apple.

They were used to luxury

The Strauses were among the richest passengers who boarded the Titanic that day. Back in the U.S., they enjoyed a lavish lifestyle thanks to Isidor’s career: he was a former Congressman and the owner of the world-famous department store Macy’s.

He had bought the store with his brother some two decades earlier. Such extravagant voyages were presumably not uncommon for the couple, then. This particular trip, though, would prove to be unlike any other.

They had lived a happy life

Isidor and Ida had been married for over 40 years when they climbed aboard the ill-fated Titanic in 1912. He was 67, she was 63, and they had six grown children.

Both originally from Germany, their families had subsequently emigrated to the U.S. And after meeting through Ida’s sister, the 20-somethings immediately hit it off, and they married in 1871.

"They were often spotted holding hands"

Among friends and family, the couple was known for their loving relationship. As their great-grandson Kurzman told Country Living, “They were often spotted holding hands, kissing and hugging, which was unheard of for persons of their status and wealth in their day.”

The pair shared quite a bond, then. It was their journey on the Titanic, though, that would prove just how unbreakable that devotion really was. Their story still has resonance today, too.

A trip for rest and recovery

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday, April 17, 1912, revealed what the Strauses plans had been before they boarded the Titanic. A cousin called Mrs. Samuel Bessinger revealed that Isidor "had been in ill health for some time and had gone to Europe to recuperate."

She said, "[Ida and Isidor] had reached the period where they could sit back and live in peaceful old age. Theirs was the love of husband and wife so beautiful among old couples who have weathered life’s storms together."

A history-making ship

And so, blissfully unaware of the fate that awaited the ship, the Strauses arrived in Southampton to board the world-famous passenger liner. They had been able to afford first-class tickets, which had set them back £221 each.

This is the equivalent of roughly $39,525 today. Accompanying the couple were Ida’s maid, Ellen Bird, and Isidor’s manservant, John Farthing.

Luxury beyond your wildest dreams

The Strauses stayed in what was reportedly the most extravagant suite on the vessel. Their room was, in fact, the inspiration for the lavish abode occupied by Kate Winslet’s Rose in Cameron’s movie. As first-class passengers, they benefited from more luxurious facilities than any other boat of the period

These included a swimming pool and an enormous dining room complete with live entertainment. And yes, these services of the band whose musicians famously continued to play as the ship began sinking into the icy sea on the night of April 14.

The fateful impact

Isidor and Ida reportedly spent much of that fateful evening enjoying a ten-course dinner. Afterward, they took a walk on the deck before returning to their suite. It was a clear night, and the temperature was fast approaching freezing.

Just before midnight, the Titanic collided with a block of ice that ripped its way through five of the ship’s watertight compartments. Tragically, the ship could only stay afloat without four of the compartments.

"Two more devoted lovers could scarcely be found"

So, as the grandest ship ever built began its descent beneath the waves, Mr. and Mrs. Straus were called from their beds and instructed to report to the deck. There, onboard officers had begun hurrying women and children into lifeboats.

And, as per the unwritten rule of the sea, men were to wait until last. But not Mr. Straus — even when he had a chance to save himself. As Bessinger told the San Francisco Chronicle, "Two more devoted lovers could scarcely be found."

He could have got on a lifeboat

You see, thanks to the businessman’s elite status, this rule could have been wavered. Apparently knowing who Mr. Straus was, an officer offered him a seat on board lifeboat number eight — next to his wife.

Kurzman told Today in 2017 that his great-grandparents were told, "'Well, Mr. Straus, you’re an elderly man… and we all know who you are... Of course you can enter the lifeboat with your wife.'" However, the Macy’s owner declined the chance of escaping.

A man of principle

It seems Mr. Straus simply refused to be given special treatment. He reportedly informed one of the officers, Colonel Gracie, "No. Until I see that every woman and child on board this ship is in a lifeboat, I will not enter into a lifeboat myself."

A heroic move indeed, yet it’s the choice that his wife made thereafter that makes their story so astonishing. Her actions fly in the face of the popular myth that the upper classes didn't care for their staff.

Mrs. Straus' heroic move

As soon as Mrs. Straus realized that her beloved husband would not be joining her, she made a remarkable decision. According to eyewitness accounts, the 63-year-old promptly exited the lifeboat and rejoined Mr. Straus on deck.

Ida apparently insisted that her maid remained on the lifeboat, though. She even removed her fur coat and passed it to Ellen Bird, her maid, announcing that she no longer required it.

"We die together"

“As we have lived together, so will we die together,” are the words that Mrs. Straus apparently then said to her husband. Other reports state her words were, "We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go." Titanic survivors later claimed they’d seen the pair as the boat went down standing alongside the rail.

They were said to be holding each other and weeping silently. Of the estimated 2,400 people on board, more than 1,500 died when the Titanic finally sank at 2:20 a.m. — including Mr. and Mrs. Straus.

"Many waters cannot quench love"

Mr. Straus’ body was later recovered from the water, along with about 340 other corpses. Ida’s body was never found. And on May 12 that same year, some 40,000 people congregated to pay their respects to the brave couple at a service in New York.

The Strauses’ heroism has been celebrated with a plaque in Macy’s as well as a monument in the Bronx cemetery where Isidor was laid to rest. Its inscription reads, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”

A homage on film

And so, although Isidor and Ida Straus weren’t the actual basis for the fictional Jack and Rose in Cameron’s Titanic, their story has nonetheless inspired many — including the filmmaker himself. There is even a tip of the hat to the couple in the film.

Indeed, the elderly couple pictured at the end of the movie, clinging onto each other as the waters swirl around them, are a homage to the Strauses in their final moments.

"This is a love story"

“This is a love story,” the Strauses’ great-grandson Kurzman told Country Living. “And I hope that in a time when this world needs a little more love, a little more inspiration, the lasting story of Ida and Isidor Straus will give people hope.”

After all, people have many changing views of those who boarded the Titanic. For instance, there are plenty of lingering questions surrounding the man who captained the most famous ship in history. Captain Edward J. has, of course, been the subject of many myths, legends, and outright lies. But who was he, really? And why was he trusted with the Titanic?

A seasoned sailor on an "unsinkable" ship

Captain Edward J. Smith was 62 years old when he took command of the Titanic. By that point, he had 40 years of sailing experience and was the most senior of all of the captains working for White Star Line.

He was born in England in 1850 to a lower-middle-class family and had dropped out of school at age 12 to work, which was typical for Victorian children. Smith started sailing at the age of 17 — and he never looked back.

Rising through the ranks — full steam ahead

Smith's apprenticeship started on a boat called Senator Weber in 1867. He earned a certificate to become a second mate in 1871 and a first mate in 1873. The first trade ship he captained was the Lizzie Fennell, and he began working for White Star Line in 1880.

Five years later, he achieved the role of first officer on the Republic. His private life thrived, too, as he married Eleanor Pennington in 1887 and had a daughter in 1902. It wasn't all plain sailing, though.

His navigating skills were deemed a failure

In 2012 the website published the database UK and Ireland, Masters and Mates Certificates, 1850-1927. That's when researchers realized that Captain Smith failed his Master's exams on the first attempt.

He apparently didn't have adequate navigating skills. He tried again in 1888, at the age of 38, and made the cut. In fact, he went on to become one of the most beloved captains of his time.

A commander of the biggest ships

In 1904 Smith became the captain of one of the largest vessels in the sea at that time. It was called the Baltic, and her maiden voyage went without a hitch. He commanded that vessel for three years before White Star Line installed him as captain of its next "largest vessel in the world."

This was called the Adriatic. The Adriatic also had an incident-free maiden voyage under Smith, who stayed as captain until 1910. Then Smith joined the Olympic... and ran into a little trouble.

A run-in with the Navy

On 20 September 1911, the Olympic — under Smith's command — had a significant accident. The ship collided with a British warship called the HMS Hawke, and both ships suffered major damage.

The Hawke came away without a prow, and the Olympic was left with a mangled propeller shaft and two compartments filled with water. No lives were lost in the incident, though, and the Olympic made it back to port.

A reputation in ruins

Afterward, the British Royal Navy said the crash was the Olmpic's fault because it was so big that the Hawke was pulled into its side. And while everyone on board arrived home safe, the accident proved to be a headache for White Star Line.

After all, the Olympic was out of commission and unable to ferry passengers around the world. But more than that, the repairs needed meant that a new ship had to be delayed.

The Titanic was meant to travel sooner

Harland and Wolff was the company tasked with both repairing the Olympic and building the Titanic. The company had to pull resources and parts from the Titanic so that the Olympic could get back in the water.

And even then, the Olympic managed to lose a propeller blade in February 1912. This resulted in more repairs — and the Titanic pushing its maiden voyage from March 20, 1912, to April 10, 1912.

The Captain was confident

Smith attested to the public that he was a safe and trustworthy sailor — even when others may have doubted him. The BBC reported that, five years before the Titanic sank, some people questioned if he was too confident in modern ships.

"When anyone asks how I can best describe my experience in nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say, 'uneventful,'" he reportedly replied to the doubters. But his next words proved prophetic.

Haunting words

"Of course, there have been winter gales, and storms and fog the like, but in all my experience, I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about," he said.

"I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort." These words would come back to haunt him.

A captain accustomed to luxury

But before the Titanic set sail, Smith was known in some circles as “the millionaire's captain.” This was no doubt in part because he was in charge of all of White Star Line's large passenger ships.

These ships frequently played host to the rich and famous. But it seems that some travelers even insisted on having Smith as their captain because he was seen as such a good and safe man.

A favorite among guests

“[Smith] was the ideal dinner guest and made himself available to passengers and crew,” wrote P. B. Lound in his book RMS Titanic Made in the Midlands. This account was backed up by writer Kate Douglas-Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

It seems that Douglas-Wiggin was a seasoned traveler and traveled with Captain Smith across the Atlantic more than 20 times. Frances Wilson recorded Douglas-Wiggin's take on the captain in her book How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay.

The grand voyage at the Captain's table

“There were no electric lights then, nor 'Georgian' or 'Louis XIV' suites, no gymnasiums or Turkish baths, no gorgeous dining salons and meals at all hours, but there were, perhaps a few minor compensations," Douglas-Wiggin explained.

"I can remember certain voyages when great inventors and scientists, earls and countesses, authors and musicians and statesmen made a 'Captain's table' as notable and distinguished as that of any London or New York dinner."

He had quite the reputation

“At such times Captain Smith was an admirable host; modest, dignified, appreciative; his own contributions to the conversation showing not only the quality of his information but the high quality of his mind.”

And this high opinion of Smith didn't change after the Titanic disaster. The book Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith quotes one couple coming to a particularly strong defense of the man.

"We always felt so safe with him"

The couple said, “We always felt so safe with him, for one knew how deeply he felt the responsibility of his ship and of all on board. He has been a deeply cherished friend on sea and land all these years..."

"And we hold him in love and veneration and are proud that we could count so noble a man among our closest friends,” he finished. Yet there have been conflicting reports about Smith's actions on board the Titanic.

The good reports

There were those who said that the captain did everything he could to try to deal with the sinking ship. For example, Major Arthur Godfrey Peuchen spoke highly of Smith when questioned for the Board of Trade inquiry that followed the tragedy.

He said, "[Smith] was doing everything in his power to get women in these boats, and to see that they were lowered properly. I thought he was doing his duty in regard to the lowering of the boats."

"The biggest hero I ever saw"

Robert Williams Daniel was also a first-class passenger who survived the Titanic. He told the inquiry, "Captain Smith was the biggest hero I ever saw."

He continued, "He stood on the bridge and shouted through a megaphone, trying to make himself heard." But others were not so quick to praise the captain — and painted a very different picture of his final hours on the Titanic.

Was the captain indecisive?

The charges that people have leveled at the captain since the sinking of the ship include: Smith failed to coordinate his crew; he didn't tell everybody the vital things they needed to know; he failed to order people to abandon ship...

People said he didn't let everybody know at once that the ship would sink as well. Some historians have also claimed that he didn't pay adequate attention to the warnings that there were icebergs in the water.

The final crisis

Even Smith's final moments on the Titanic have been called into question. Steward Edward Brown told the Board of Trade inquiry that he saw the captain at 2:10 a.m. telling his crew, "Well, boys, do your best for the women and children, and look out for yourselves."

He said the captain then went onto the bridge — and that is thought to be the last trustworthy eyewitness account of his actions. There have been conflicting stories about his death, though.

Died a hero

A popular account of Smith's death came from Colonel Archibald Gracie, a Titanic survivor who wrote about his experiences on board the ship in his book, The Truth About the Titanic.

He said that he saw a man in the water approaching a capsized lifeboat that was crowded with people. The man told them, "All right boys. Good luck and God bless you." People later identified the man as Captain Smith — but no one will ever know for sure.

A popular part of the movies

Smith has appeared as a character in at least 17 different productions recreating the Titanic story for film, TV, and theater. You probably most fondly remember Bernard Hill's portrayal of him in 1997's Titanic.

In that film, Smith is heroically shown going down with the ship. But historians still argue whether this was actually the case, and it's not the only thing that historians disagree on, either.