“My most tragic memory of my seventeen year trip around the world is the Titanic sinking. I’m 83 years old, but it is an hour [a moment] of my life that I will never forget.” So begins a letter purportedly written by Rose Amelie Icard in 1955, the longest living French survivor of the disaster. At age 38, Icard boarded the Titanic as a lady’s maid.
Mike Delgado bought her 10-page letter at an auction and posted it on Reddit, asking for help with translation. Icard may have written the letter 43 years after the events described, but decades could not fade such harrowing memories.
Commander Smith himself helped her into a lifeboat, and she heard him yell his famous,”Women and children first!”
Icard detailed the mad scramble for lifebelts and lifeboats and the quiet heroism of some well-known passengers who remained aboard the doomed ship, like Ida and Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy’s department store; billionaire John Jacob Astor; and Benjamin Guggenheim, who was a model of stoic savoir faire in the face of death.
He and his valet/secretary, Victor Giglio, returned to their cabin and donned evening wear, then lounged by the Grand Staircase in deck chairs with cigars and brandy. “We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen,” said Guggenheim. “Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down, tell her I played the game out straight to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.”
You can read a translation of the entire handwritten letter on Reddit, but here are some of the passages that stood out for me:
“We felt beneath our feet the deck lean towards the depths. I went back belowdecks to retrieve the jewels of Mrs. Stone [but] fortunately, I choose the wrong stairwell and returned to the deck halfway there. Fortunately for me, for I would have never come back up again. At this moment we witnessed unforgettable scenes where horror mixed with the most sublime heroism. Women, still in evening gowns, some just out of bed, barely clothed, dishevelled, distraught, scrambled for the boats.”
“The officer said, ‘Row strongly, you only have twenty five minutes to save your life.’ I took the oars and rowed with so much energy that my hands were bleeding and my wrists were paralyzed; because we had to hurry to escape the huge chasm that was going to be opened when the Titanic would sink. It was at this moment that I noticed that someone was hidden underneath me. I didn’t have the strength to reveal his presence. I’ve never known who the man who saved his own life this way was.”
They rowed back at dawn to where the ocean liner had sunk and saw a lovely, calm vista in stark contrast to the nightmare of the previous night.
“Alone, in front of us, two cathedrals of ice which were pinkening under the first sunlight offered a spectacle of rare beauty.”
Imagine the passengers of that rowboat, stunned, shivering, exhausted, looking out over the sea where the world’s largest ship had disappeared just hours ago. And beautiful, indifferent nature was pinkening icebergs in the morning sun.
I once visited an exhibit of Titanic artifacts, which included a gigantic slab of ice with the instructions to touch it to feel how cold the water was that April night.
The Smithsonian National Postal Museum recently ended an exhibition called Fire & Ice: Hindenberg and Titantic. You can still view many of the items virtually on their website.