“READ ALL ABOUT THE TITANIC COWARD!”
“Shouldn’t we try to get into that boat?” Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon asked her husband, Cosmo, as they stood on the top deck of the Titanic shortly before 1:00 a.m. on April 15, 1912. When the order for “women and children only” had been given, crewmen had tried to pull Lucy and her assistant, Laura Francatelli, toward the lifeboats, but they wouldn’t leave without Cosmo. After three lifeboats had been lowered, the crowd dispersed, and Lucy suddenly noticed that a smaller emergency boat was being prepared for loading. Following some prodding by Lucy, Cosmo asked First Officer William Murdoch if they could get in the boat.
“Yes, I wish you would,” he responded. Once the Duff Gordons and Francatelli had climbed in, Murdoch allowed two American men to board as well. He then put two seamen in to handle the oars and, seeing no more passengers on the deck, told five stokers who had come up from below that they could jump in, too. He instructed the seaman at the tiller to row away from the ship and then stand by. On reaching the sea, however, the crewman was shocked to see water creeping toward the name Titanic painted on the ship’s bow and decided to get away quickly. In a lifeboat that could have carried forty, there were only twelve people.
Through the darkness, the small Cunard liner Carpathia raced to the Titanic’s rescue, taking the 712 survivors on board. When the Carpathia arrived in New York on the evening of April 18, a huge crowd clogged lower Manhattan, and throngs of newspaper reporters competed for scoops on the story of the century.
Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon were whisked off to a suite at the Ritz, where fresh clothes and champagne and flowers awaited them. Over dinner with friends Lucy gave a colourful account of their escape, which was relayed to a newspaper reporter — something she would live to regret. Three weeks later, the Duff Gordons returned to England, and Lucy described the scene that greeted them upon landing: “All over the train station were newspaper placards –– ‘Duff Gordon Scandal’ ... ’Baronet and Wife Row Away from the Drowning’.... Newsboys ran by us shouting, ‘Read all about the Titanic coward.’”
With class resentments running high in the aftermath of the disaster, the fact that a titled English couple had escaped in a boat only one third full had roused intense public indignation. In a bid to clear their names, Lucy and Cosmo offered to testify before the British Titanic Inquiry. Lord Mersey, the head of the inquiry, later found in his report that “the very gross charge” against the Duff Gordons was unfounded. Yet this did not clear them in the court of public opinion. “A great deal of the mud that was flung stuck to us both,” Lucy recalled in her autobiography. “For myself, I did not mind … but I minded very much for Cosmo’s sake. The whole affair well-nigh broke his heart and ruined his life.”