Dorothy Winifred Gibson (originally Dorothy Winifred Brown, before her father died when she was three years old and her mother remarried), was born in New Jersey on 17 May 1889. Between 1906 and 1911 (aged 17-22), she appeared on stage as a singer and dancer in a number of theatre and vaudeville productions, and in 1909 she began modelling for Harrison Fisher, a famous commercial artist. Dorothy soon became Fisher’s favourite muse, and her image was seen regularly on postcards, merchandising products and even on the covers of magazines like Cosmopolitan. During this time, Dorothy met and married a pharmacist named George Henry Battier Jr, but the couple soon separated and were divorced by 1913.
As early as 1911, Dorothy began appearing in movies, starting out as an extra but soon taking the leading roles in a series of films by Éclair Studios. Praised for her natural acting style and comedic flair, she was a huge hit – and arguably the first actress to be promoted as a star in her own right.
On 17 March 1912, after starring in a string of movies, Dorothy and her mother, Pauline, took a trip to Europe – but after a few weeks Dorothy was called back to America by the studio to start working on a new series of films. Dorothy and her mother were in Paris when they booked their tickets on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, and boarded at Cherbourg on 10th April.
On the night the ship sank, Dorothy had ‘spent a pleasant Sunday evening playing bridge with a couple of friendly New York bankers’ (her words, in an interview with the New York Dramatic Mirror). Despite the request of a steward for them to finish, they carried on with their game and it was not until about 11:40pm that Dorothy returned to the stateroom she shared with her mother. It was at that point that she felt ‘a long drawn, sickening crunch’ and, while not exactly alarmed, she decided nonetheless to investigate. Quickly noticing that the deck was ‘lopsided’, she rushed back to her room to fetch her mother, and the pair returned to the boat deck. Dorothy and her mother escaped from the ship on the first lifeboat launched (number 7), and given how quiet it was on the boat deck at the time, she asked her bridge partners to join them.
However, events took a turn for the worst when a hole was found in the bottom of the lifeboat, causing icy cold water to rush in and almost flood the boat. Luckily, though, Dorothy explained, ‘this was remedied by volunteer contributions from the lingerie of the women and the garments of men.’
It is hard for us now to imagine the terrors of that night – and the emotional damage it caused to those who survived. After the event, Dorothy told the Moving Picture World, ‘I will never forget the terrible cry that rang out from people who were thrown into the sea and others who were afraid for their loved ones.’ Unbelievably, though, Dorothy was to re-enact the experience a mere five days after it happened, when she starred in the first film about the disaster. It was a silent movie, called Saved From The Titanic, and was actually hugely successful and the first of many hit films about the sinking. In the movie, Dorothy even wore the same clothes she had been wearing when the ship sank – a white silk dress underneath a cardigan and polo coat.
Shortly after the release of Saved from the Titanic Dorothy gave up acting.
At the same time as her movie career was taking off, Dorothy began a six-year affair with one of the studio’s producers, the married movie tycoon Jules Brulatour who was 19 years her senior. In fact, it was Brulatour who told Dorothy to cut her European trip short and return to America to make a new series of films. He was also one of the producers on Saved from the Titanic, so we can assume he was at least partially responsible for Dorothy having to relive the nightmare so soon after it happened.
The affair was made public in 1913, when Dorothy accidentally struck and killed a man while driving Brulatour’s car. During the court case that followed, the press learned that Dorothy was Brulatour’s mistress and, although he and his wife had already separated, the humiliation of the whole thing caused Mrs Brulatour to sue him for divorce. This was finalised in 1915 and, in order to preserve his reputation, Brulatour married Dorothy in 1917.
However, the marriage was short-lived, and within two years the couple had separated. The more sceptical might argue that perhaps the marriage failed because it lacked the spark and excitement it had had when it was a secret (or, perhaps, because of a little thing called karma), but the original Mrs Brulatour also played a role in destroying the relationship that had helped to ruin hers. Indeed, Brulatour’s marriage to Dorothy infuriated her, and she started proceedings against him claiming the union was illegal, since he had obtained a divorce in Kentucky instead of New York (where he had residency). This was a long, drawn-out and complicated affair, the stress of which undoubtedly took its toll on the marriage, and it was ultimately dissolved as an invalid contract in 1919.
While Brulatour went on to marry actress Hope Hampton in 1923, Dorothy never remarried. Humiliated, she left New York for Paris, in the hopes of a fresh start and a quiet life with her mother. But Dorothy’s story doesn’t end there…
Although Dorothy’s story is by no means over when she departs America for France, the details do become a little bit more hazy. A more sympathetic account is that, when the Second World War broke out in 1939, Dorothy and her mother were actually in Florence (as they tended to split their time between Florence and Paris), and didn’t return to the relative safety of America because their ordeal on board the RMS Titanic had scarred them so. According to Dorothy, ‘I must say I never wanted to make the ocean trip to America at this time, as my mother and I were most timid on the ocean—we had been in a shipwreck—but I also never wanted to stay in Italy, but we just waited in Italy always hoping things would be better to travel.’ Following this narrative, Dorothy and her mother essentially found themselves trapped in Nazi-occupied territory, but other accounts would suggest that the decision to remain was made willingly, because the pair (led by Dorothy’s mother) had actually become Fascist sympathisers and potentially even Nazi spies.
By the spring of 1944, Dorothy had renounced her sympathies (if, indeed, she had any to begin with), but soon after was arrested as an anti-Fascist agitator and jailed in the Milan prison of San Vittore, which she described as a ‘living death’. Chances are, Dorothy would have died in that prison, were it not for the help of a double agent, Ugo Luca Osteria (‘Dr. Ugo’) who helped to smuggle her out of the prison under the pretence that she was a Nazi sympathiser and spy (I’ll leave it up to you to determine how much ‘pretence’ was needed!) The plan worked, and Dorothy escaped to Switzerland, where she was interrogated by James G. Bell, vice consul of the American consulate general. Once again, sources disagree; some say the allied authorities were never able to determine if she was a real Nazi spy, or just pretending, while others say the interrogation was more conclusive, with Bell actually deeming her ‘too stupid’ to be a spy. Either way, Dorothy was free.
After the war, Dorothy returned to Paris, but the trauma of surviving both the sinking of the Titanic and a Nazi prison camp had taken its toll. She died a few months later in her hotel room, presumably of a heart attack. She was 56 years old. Her mother outlived her by 15 years and, as she grew older, grew increasingly vocal in her criticism of the Allies and in her pro-Nazi statements – which can either suggest that Dorothy herself was unfairly tarred with the same brush, or that perhaps Dorothy really did share these views, depending on which way you want to look at it.
Regardless, if there is one point on which we can all agree, it is that Dorothy Gibson lived a life that was nothing short of extraordinary.
By Holly Hewlett. Holly is a London-based Ancient and Modern History graduate from Oxford University, with a particular passion for the history of gender and emotion. She can often be found drinking tea, watching films, or crying over love letters from the Great War. For more like this, head over to My History Cafe, or follow her on Twitter/Instagram (@myhistorycafe).