Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega tells the amazing story of Dorothy Gibson, an actress who survived the sinking of the “Titanic” and then starred in a movie about the disaster. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
Everyone loves a good story. True stories that include eyewitness accounts help a story become even more riveting. So, what happens when a famous-for-her-time actress experiences a disaster and then is able to tell her story weeks later via a motion picture? That’s exactly what happened to Titanic survivor Dorothy Gibson.
Dorothy Gibson, Survivor
Today, it’s not unusual to have movies or television shows depict events “ripped from the headlines.” Capitalizing on the event, the sooner they are filmed and distributed the better, or so it’s thought for ratings and profit. We know that today’s movies and documentaries about the Titanic are sure to be hits, but what about a movie that debuted a month after the sinking – and starred an actress who survived the tragic sinking of the huge ship?
American actress Dorothy Gibson was a passenger on the ill-fated Titanic. Born Dorothy Winifred Brown in 1889, she was a dancer and singer on Broadway between 1907-1911. She was famous as a model for illustrator Harrison Fisher, and was well known to Americans who saw her face in numerous print media, including magazine covers. (1)
In the spring of 1912, Dorothy was vacationing in Europe with her mother when she received word that she was wanted for a number of films and needed to return to the United States. Dorothy and her mother traveled to Paris, bought return tickets on the Titanic and boarded the ship on April 10th in Cherbourg. (2)
The Titanic’s Sinking
On the night of April 14th, Dorothy and her mother were enjoying their evening onboard the Titanic playing cards with two fellow passengers. Her mother had returned to their stateroom and at about 11:40 p.m., Dorothy too made her way to the stateroom. Before she got there, she heard a “sickening crunch.” When she went to investigate, she noticed that the deck was lopsided. (3)
Two of the lucky ones, Dorothy and her mother, made their way to Lifeboat 7 and were eventually rescued. More than 1,500 people were not as fortunate.
After Dorothy made it safely back to the U.S., she was asked to recreate that fateful night by starring in the first movie made about the Titanic. (4) This movie, Saved from the Titanic, was completed quickly and premiered just 31 days after the sinking. While Gibson wasn’t sure about reliving the horrific event so soon, in the end she decided to do it and played herself in the movie, even wearing the same clothes she had on when the ship sank.
The 10-minute silent feature included archival footage of the Titanic and its captain, as well as icebergs. (5) Gibson helped to write the script, which depicted her retelling her tale of the sinking to her fictionalized parents and fiancé. Filming took place in New Jersey and on a “derelict ship” in the New York harbor. (6) Although there’s no doubt that some Americans may have felt the movie was in poor taste opening so soon after so many lost their lives, it seems to have received favorable reviews that even encouraged Americans to see it.
In all, Gibson made about 20 movies, Saved from the Titanic being her last. She left the movie industry to start a career in opera, which was short lived. (7) Saved from the Titanic is now a lost film, as are all but one of Gibson’s movies.
Gibson’s years after Saved from the Titanic were embroiled in scandals. At the time of the Titanic sinking, she was having an affair with a married man, Jules Brulatour. This affair was discovered when Dorothy fatally struck a man while driving Brulatour’s car. Brulatour and Gibson married in 1917 but the marriage was over by 1919. (8)
Dorothy died in Paris in 1946 at the age of 56. (9)
(1) “Dorothy Winifred Gibson, Encyclopedia Titanica (https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/dorothy-gibson.html: accessed 25 March 2022).
(5) “Saved from the Titanic,” Imdb (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0002475/: accessed 25 March 2022.
(6) “Saved from the Titanic,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saved_from_the_Titanic: accessed 25 march 2022.
(7) “Dorothy Winifred Gibson,” Encyclopedia Titanica (https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-survivor/dorothy-gibson.html: accessed 25 March 2022).
(9) “Dorothy Gibson,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Gibson: accessed 25 March 2022).