It’s a chilling scene: an older man and woman hold each other in bed, silently watching the icy oceans flood into their cabin, rising up all around them. He clings to her hand and gently kisses her on the cheek. They await their heartbreaking fate.
While James Cameron took some artistic license with this moment in his Oscar-winning film Titanic, the ill-fated lovers from the movie are actually based on two very real people: Isidor Straus, 67, and his wife Ida Strauss, 63. The couple owned Macy’s –the famous department store Macy’s – and were two of the richest passengers aboard the “unsinkable” ship. As Cameron depicted them, they were very in love.
That Fateful Night
Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, the Titanic infamously sunk to the bottom of the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. After hitting the iceberg, the “unsinkable” ship began letting seawater in through holes in its hull. When it became evident that the ship was going down, Ida and Isidor threw on life jackets and ran to the deck as they were told.
There were ship officers lowering lifeboats on the deck, prioritizing women, children, and first-class passengers to board first. We all know the tragic story of that fateful night, but not many people know the love story of this couple on that ship.
We Live Together; We Die Together
According to detailed statements from Ida’s maid and Isidor’s co-worker (both happened to be Titanic survivors and eyewitnesses who described the tragedy to newspapers at the time), a third officer told Ida to step onto a lifeboat.
She was wearing a full-length mink coat to stay warm in the icy outdoor temperatures and did as she was told. When the officer told Isidor to follow his wife, he shook his head. He refused to get onto the lifeboat until every woman and child had. He was certainly an old-school gentleman, protecting others before himself.
They Died Heroes
“Isidor said, ‘No, I will not get on the lifeboat until I see that every woman and child has a chance to escape,’” according to the couple’s great-grandson, Straus family historian and professor Peter Kurzman. “The officer said, ‘Look, Mr. Straus, we know who you are, so, of course, you get a spot on the lifeboat.’”
“But, still, he remained on the deck,” Kurzman added. Ida got out of the boat and turned to her darling husband. She said to him, “we have lived a wonderful life together for 40 years and have six beautiful children together. If you won’t get on the lifeboat, I won’t either.”
Swept Into the Ocean
Ida took off her mink coat and gave it to her maid, Ellen Bird. She would no longer need it, Ida explained. She said, “please take this as you get into a lifeboat to keep you warm until you are rescued.”
Then, tragically, “a great wave came over the port side of the ship and swept them both into the sea. That was the last time they were seen alive.” This bittersweet moment is just one of the Titanic’s many final stories. But unlike the other ones, this one was well-documented at the time. James Cameron was inspired to incorporate the couple into his iconic 1997 film, Titanic.
A Deleted Scene
In a deleted scene from Titanic, Isidor tries to convince Ida to get onto the lifeboat without him. “Where you go, I go, don’t argue with me, Isidor, you know it does no good,” Ida responded. Then Isidor hugs her, and the scene ends.
Later in the film, they are seen in bed together, holding hands. This scene was, in fact, included in the film, but neither scene is accurate, according to Kurzman: “James told me that he knew it’s not accurate, but he took some license as a director.”
Screenwriter, Not Historian
Kurzman continued, “I said, ‘As long as you know it’s not accurate. The truth is they died standing on the bridge on the deck of the ship holding each other.” Cameron told USA Today, “I was being a screenwriter. I wasn’t thinking about being a historian.”
“In the case of First Officer William McMaster Murdoch, I took the liberty of showing him shoot somebody and then shoot himself,” Cameron added. “He’s a named character; he wasn’t a generic officer. We don’t know that he did that, but you know the storyteller in me says, ‘Oh.’ I start connecting the dots: he was on duty, he’s carrying all this burden with him, made him an interesting character.”
Love at First Sight
Isidor was born on February 6, 1845, in Otterberg, Rhenish Bavaria, Germany. He and his family immigrated to Georgia in the mid-1850s and eventually ended up in New York City, where his sister Amanda introduced him to Ida. They connected instantly, and 26-year-old Isidor proposed to 22-year-old Ida in 1871.
According to Kurzman, they were in love and not shy about their public displays of affection: “They were often spotted holding hands, kidding, and hugging, which was unheard of for persons of their status and wealth in their day.”
The Perfect Couple
He continued, “One time they were even caught ‘necking’! And that behavior lasted well into their later years. They had something truly special, and it’s something us progeny treasure a great deal.”
Isidor eventually became the owner of Macy’s and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1894. According to Kurzman, he was a dear confidant to many presidents and was friends with Grover Cleveland. Whenever Isidor needed to go on a business trip without his wife, he made sure to write to her every single day.
My Darling Papa
Ida, whose nickname for her husband was “my darling papa,” responded to those letters right away. “Here is a good kiss for my dear papa,” she wrote in a letter from July 25, 1890. “Nathan intends taking us all picnicking today… it is very nice indeed now, but I will be ever so much pleasanter with you here.”
Isidor and Ida had their first baby, Jesse Straus, in 1872. They went on to have five children together: Percy, Sara (Peter’s grandma), Minnie, Herbert, Nathan, and Vivian. In 1912, the couple spent their social season in Europe near the French Riviera.
A Fateful Switch
Initially, they booked a ticket home on the Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic. However, since that ship was delayed, they chose to board the Titanic instead. In June Hall’s McCash’s book, A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus, she writes that the couple stayed in a “well-appointed suite on a C deck, consisting of cabins 55 and 57. Ellen Bird stayed across the hall in a smaller cabin.
On the ship, they were neighbors with the Lamson sisters – the daughters of the wealthy Charles Lamson, a senior partner of the shipping house of Charles H. Marshall & Co.
Their Final Evening
On April 14, Isidor and Ida dined in the first-class dining room, where they indulged in a 10-course meal before heading to the upper deck arm-in-arm. After a pleasant evening, the happy couple went to their room. We all know where this is going…
Before midnight, 400 miles east of Newfoundland, the Titanic hit that fateful iceberg that would ultimately sink the ship. Over 1,500 tragically lost their lives, including Isidor and Ida. Sadly, Ida’s body was never found, but Isidor’s body was recovered and brought back to New York City for a memorial service.
Ida’s Body Was Never Recovered
Everything on his person was sealed and sent to his sister Sara, including a gold locket found in his pants. The sentimental piece of jewelry contains an onyx embalmment with the initials I.S. (the “I” standing for both Ida and Isidor) and includes photos of Jesse, their eldest son, and Sarah, their eldest daughter.
“It’s remained in my family ever since,” Kurzman explained. “It was given to Sara, who gave it to her eldest daughter, my mother, who handed it down to me. When she gave it to me, she said this must remain perpetually in our family for generations. And so it will.”
A Beautiful Memorial
On May 12, 1912, over 6,000 people showed up to honor Ida and Isidor at their memorial service at Carnegie Hall. The Mayor of New York, William Jay Gaynor, and Andrew Carnegie himself delivered a eulogy for the loving couple.
A memorial park was dedicated to Ida and Isidor near their home on 106th Street. The pair is memorialized in a Bronx cemetery with a monument inscribed with, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”
A Romantic Tragedy
This story isn’t based on the main characters in the movie. As we know, Rose didn’t die on the Titanic, while Ida tragically did alongside her husband. Additionally, Jack Dawson was not a wealthy man and certainly didn’t own Macy’s. However, it’s evident that Isidor and Ida’s love story is just as romantic as Jack and Rose’s.
Many people quickly assume that Jack and Rose are based on real people, but that isn’t the case. There was a man on the ship named Jacob Dawson, and his tombstone says J. Dawson. So many people assumed that this was the character of Jack, making his grave the most visited of all Titanic victims. Unfortunately, there is no connection. The name is a mere coincidence.
A Love Story
“This is a love story,” expressed Kurzman, a standing member of the Straus Historical Society. “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.”
Although Jack and Rose are fictional characters, Ida and Isidor aren’t the only characters in James Cameron’s Titanic that real people inspired. In fact, we’ve got them all for you! Here are all the Titanic characters who were based on real Titanic victims and survivors.
Jack Dawson and Rose Bukater
James Cameron modeled Kate Winslet’s character Rose after Beatrice Wood, an American avant-garde artist and potter who co-founded The Blind Man magazine in New York City. Although she was loosely based on a real person, Wood had zero connection to the ship.
The character of Jack came solely from James Cameron’s imagination. As we mentioned, there was a man named J. Dawson on the boat. However, the “J” stood for Joseph, and he was a coal trimmer who was a part of the ship’s crew. Cameron didn’t even know this guy existed until the film was complete.
Captain Edward John Smith
Captain Smith is based on the real captain of the Titanic: Captain Edward John Smith. He was portrayed with a look-alike, actor Bernard Hill, so there shouldn’t be much confusion. There are a lot of opinions on whether Captain Smith was responsible for the sinking and if he was at fault for the collision.
But ultimately, Captain Smith went down with the ship. Ironically, the Titanic’s maiden voyage was intended to be Smith’s final post. He was chosen by White Star Line to captain the latest addition to their Olympic-class ocean liners.
Margaret “Molly” Brown
Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) was a real person, and she is famous for convincing a rescue boat to go back and look for survivors. Bates’ character in the movie tries but to no avail. Brown was actually a lower-class woman whose husband worked hard building their wealth, making her “new money,” as she was referred to on the ship.
After surviving the shipwreck, she was given the nickname “the unsinkable Molly Brown.” She became a socialite, philanthropist, actress, and activist. She eventually passed away in 1932 at the age of 65 due to a brain tumor. There is also a 1964 film called The Unsinkable Molly Brown, starring Debbie Reynolds.
John Jacob Astor IV
The fourth in line of the Astor family is John Astor IV, portrayed by Eric Braeden. He died when the Titanic went down. The Astor family were the first millionaires in America, and John worked as a real estate builder, investor, inventor, writer, and lieutenant colonel in the Spanish-American war.
He was married to an 18-year-old (he was 41) during the Titanic’s maiden voyage. The age gap was a major scandal at the time but never mentioned in the film, perhaps because it didn’t connect much to Jack and Rose’s love story.
John Jacob Astor IV
With an incredible net worth of $87 million, Astor was the richest man in America when he died in the sinking in 1912. It goes to show, no amount of money matters in the end. His body was found and identified by the initials stitched into his jacket.
In today’s money, his son Vincent inherited $69 million of his estate, which is an estimated $1,686,217,241. His wife and the rest of his children received trust funds with the rest of the money. In the film, Astor was depicted as a villain, but his on-screen persona was exaggerated.
As we know from the movie, Rose was engaged to a man named Cal, played by Billy Zane, in an arranged marriage through family. The fictional character was created for the movie but was modeled after the son of a Pittsburg steel tycoon.
It’s possible to suggest that he was designed to be the fictional heir of Andrew Carnegie. In real life, Carnegie had no son. Since Rose’s love story was fictional, no one was engaged to her. Multiple different rich men likely inspired Hockley’s character at the time.
Another real-life character, Andrews, portrayed by Victor Garber, was the builder of the Titanic, as shown in the film. He reportedly did say that it was a “mathematic certainly” that the ship would sink once he assessed the iceberg damage, which is one of the most memorable quotes from the iconic film.
He was last seen sitting in the smoking-room of the ship, the same place he’s last seen with Rose in the film, convincing her to get on a lifeboat. It seems his personality was captured in the movie, with Garber urging everyone to get on a rescue vessel without worrying about his safety.
Another movie character is Ismay, portrayed by Jonathan Hyde. In real life, Ismay was chairman and managing director of the White Star Line of steamships. He was also the highest-ranking White Star Line official. . Basically, he was a pretty big deal as the owner of the Titanic.
Ismay often boarded White Star Line ships on their maiden voyages, and the Titanic wasn’t supposed to be any different, just another day at the job. Gérard Piouffre’s “Le Titanic ne répond plus” explained that Ismay was consumed by guilt because of all the lost lives on the ship.
He sent a message to White Star Line’s office in New York, which read, “Deeply regret to advise you Titanic sank this morning after collision with iceberg, resulting in serious loss of life. Full particulars later.” The press had a field day bashing him, though.
The newspapers dubbed him the “Coward of the Titanic” since he boarded a lifeboat and abandoned hundreds of people. His respectable reputation never recovered, and he kept a low profile for the rest of his life. He eventually died of a stroke in 1937 at the age of 74.
William McMaster Murdoch
Ewan Stewart portrayed William McMaster Murdoch on screen. He was the First Officer aboard the Titanic and was part of a generations-old seafaring family. We see him as the officer on the bridge when the ship hit the iceberg in the movie.
Later, he is seen shooting himself in the head as the ship was going down. The first part has been confirmed. He was the first officer on board and the bridge during the collision. However, the suicide rumors are a controversial subject.
William McMaster Murdoch
There are witness reports of people seeing an officer committing suicide during the sinking after shooting down a lower-class passenger trying to get on a lifeboat. However, it has never officially been confirmed that this officer was William Murdoch.
It’s also been widely debated whether his decision to instruct the ship to turn “hard right” after colliding was the actual reason the ship sank. A head-on collision may have been less damaging. The truth about Murdoch and his involvement remains unclear.
Spicer Lovejoy certainly sounds like a fictional name. Portrayed by David Warner in the film, he was Caledon Hockley’s right-hand man, personal valet, and bodyguard. He was also a former Pinkerton detective and the second villain of the movie.
He is the one who beats our beloved Jack and handcuffs him to a pipe while the ship was sinking. He died when the ship broke in half, falling into the opening between the two main sections. It turns out that the character was a James creation. He and his fancy, engraved Colt M1911 were included in the film for narrative purposes.
Real or Fiction
Many of the other minor characters detailed in the film were taken from real-world history. Even some of the various, unnamed third-class passengers were inspired and modeled by actual people. For example, the ship officers and ships musicians were represented accurately. James Cameron certainly did his research.
The director wanted to depict the Titanic story as accurately as possible while creating a fictional story that happened during the tragedy. He was inspired by the notion of real victims and survivors while putting spins on their historical legacies to serve the film’s storyline.
People Died on the Titanic Before Its Maiden Voyage
Throughout the 26 months of constructing the Titanic at the Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, 28 serious accidents and 218 minor accidents were recorded. Eight workers were sadly killed. This was a smaller number than expected for the time, which was one death of every £100,000 spent. At the cost of £1.5 million to build, 15 deaths could have been predicted.
Most of the eight killed people died of injuries from either falling from the ship or standing around it. Although it was a relatively low number of deaths, many people believe that the deaths (and sinking) have something to do with a “White Star Line Curse.”
The White Star Line Curse
This theory suggests that White Star Line was cursed, which is why the Titanic sank and her two sister ships, the Olympic and Britannic. But maybe it’s not a curse, just a spooky coincidence. Either way, one of the victims was James Dobbin, a 43-year-old shipwright.
On May 31, 1911, at 12:10, approximately 10,000 people watched as the gigantic ship slid from the yard onto the River Lagan. Unfortunately, Dobbin was crushed during the process of removing timber stays that were holding the Titanic upright.
The Largest Liner in the World
The Titanic was the largest movable artificial object during its launch, standing at 882 feet and nine inches tall. Because of her considerable size, it was assumed that the Titanic should have four exhaust stacks.
However, Thomas Andrews’ original and efficient design only contained three. Therefore, the ship essentially had one decorative stack. But the reason for the massive size of the ship was due to intense competition between White Star Line and Cunard Line. Both ship lines were aiming to be the leading shipping company in the world.
White Star Line vs. Cunard
The Mauretania and the Lusitania built by Cunard in 1906 were significantly faster than the Titanic and its sister ships, the Olympic and Britannic. White Star Line didn’t plan to compete for speed and focused instead on size and comfort.
Ultimately, the Titanic was the biggest ship globally. Still, the sinking didn’t necessarily help White Star Line earn a reputation as the leading boat company since their “unsinkable” ship proved to be sinkable. Ironically, in 1934, White Star Line and Cunard Line were suffering financially and decided to merge, creating the “Cunard White Star,” By 1949, the company reverted to Cunard.
One of Three
Famous business tycoon JP Morgan was the main investor in the White Star Line Olympic-Class ocean liners. As we mentioned, the Titanic had two sister ships. Due to her size and the new equipment required, building just one ship was way too expensive.
The RMS Olympic was built first and launched on September 20, 1910. The almost identical but slightly smaller ship was the largest liner sailing the ocean for the next year.
The Other Sisters
The Titanic and Olympic used the same aesthetic and were virtually identical. After the Titanic sank, the Olympic received improvements like more lifeboats and an installation of watertight inner skin. In 1914, the Olympic rescued soldiers from the sinking British Battleship Audacious and served as a troopship bringing Canadian soldiers to the European front.
She was the only ship of the White Star Line Olympic-Class ocean liners to last more than half a decade. The youngest and biggest sister ship, the Britannic, was under construction after the Titanic sank and served as a British hospital ship. Sadly, she met the same fate as her sisters and sank in 1916 after hitting a mine.
Traveling in Style
To become the leading ship company, White Star Line aimed to make the Titanic a luxurious way to travel, and it certainly was (you know, if you take the sinking out of the equation). The liner had four restaurants, and passengers were served their meals on bone china crockery supplied by Liverpool’s Stonier and Co.
The ship also included reading rooms, two libraries, two barbershops, and a photographic darkroom. A heated swimming pool was reserved for first-class passengers only. Turkish baths and electric baths were also available for first-class passengers.
Third-Class Shared Two Baths
As it turns out, traveling in style doesn’t come cheap. The ten-course meals the first-class passengers received came at a hefty price. A first-class passenger would spend £30 for a regular room or £875 for a parlor suite.
However, most of the people on board were third-class and paid somewhere between £3 and £8. There were only three baths available for all the third-class passengers, most of whom were bunked in the 164-bed dormitory on deck 3.
It Had a Post Office
Titanic was officially responsible for delivering mail for the British Postal Service. Despite being a ship sailing the ocean, it was part of the Titanic’s job. There were five mail clerks, a post office, and even a mailroom on desks F and G, consisting of 3,423 stacks of mail!
During the 2 hours and 40 minutes it took for the Titanic to sink, it was reported that the clerks prioritized moving sacks of mail to the upper deck. I don’t know if you would have a post office on ships these days – email is much more convenient.
A Lifeboat Drill Was Called Off
A lifeboat drill, scheduled for April 14, 1912, was called off. Perhaps it was because Captain Smith wanted to deliver a final Sunday service before his retirement. The ship sank that night. The crew only did one lifeboat drill, and that’s when the ship was docked.
But even if the crew had been better prepared and trained to fill each lifeboat, there was still only enough space for about a third of the ship’s passengers. It was believed that the Titanic would not sink, so there would be enough time to ferry passengers off it. This was a massive oversight.
The Legacy of the Titanic
The tragedy of the Titanic has inspired various films and documentaries – but most notably, James Cameron’s Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The shocking collision that sunk an unsinkable ship to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean was truly chilling and has since gone down in history as the biggest disaster to happen on the ocean.
People have been fascinated by the terrible fate of the Titanic for over a century, and the tragic story is taught in schools. But the real inspiration behind that cold, fateful night are the brave passengers who lost their lives trying to help others and the surviving victims who lived to share their stories.