Irene Harris, First Class Passenger

Sunday afternoon, April 14, Mrs. Harris was drafted to fill in at a poker game in one of the B-deck suites with a private promenade. Can't remember host's name but says he was an Englishman. Mr. Harris asked Mrs.Harris to join the group because they already had seven and were suspicious that the most likely eightth among their crowd was a card sharp. This was a way to keep him out.

The game went along at a table out on the enclosed deck. Stakes were a dollar-a-chip, and as the afternoon went by, Mrs.Harris did very well. Shortly after five she was ahead by $90, when she decided to go below to her stateroom for a minute. Going down the main stairs from "B" to "C", she slipped on a little piece of cream cake that some one had dropped at tea, which was just over. She took a header and broke her arm.

The ship's doctor looked it over, but the break seemed bad enough to call in Dr.Freuenthal [sic], great at bones, who was a fellow passenger. He finally set it, doubled up.

Reputed card sharp later saved and was one of the first people who came up to Mrs.Harris on Carpathia. His greeting: "God's will be done." She told him to go away.

One who wasn't saved, or even on the passenger list, was George Rosenshine, a friend apparently from New York. He was travelling with a girl named Maybelle Thorne, and they were going under the name "Mr. and Mrs. G. Thorne."

Life on the Titanic, as might be expected, was expensive and gay. But Mrs. Harris doesn't remember any dancing at all. Thinks it was before the day of casual dancing -- the Castles and the foxtrot were just beginning to come in. On the other hand, if there had been dancing, she probably wouldn't have known it anyhow. The Harrises belonged to a set that loved to play cards all the time.

Interview conducted on May 31st, 1964; notes transcribed by Walter Lord

Irene wrote the following too;


That I happen to have been the first woman theatre manager and producer in America has never, through the years, caused a ripple among the people I have met, but let them learn that I am a survivor of the TITANIC, then I am the center of attention.

This, unfortunately, is consistent with the public's appetite for victims and horror, for without exception when question upon question has been put to me and my answer has always been the same, "I can't talk about it without emotion, and I hate emotion," they lose their interest

In 1959 when Walter Lord's brillian and skillful book, A Night to Remember was made into a moving picture, Mike Berger of the New York Times had a column and a half devoted to me, I received many requests to appear on television or radio, none of which I accepted. But when Moss Hart made me so important in his recent book Act One, did I get one request to appear in either medium? I did not.

That fateful night that engulfed me fifty years ago has never entirely disappeared, though it had become buried under the many events that have accrued through the years. There is no doubt in my mind that what I went through that harrowing night in 1912 was a test to find out if I should go through life without my beloved or just give up. So through the years I have tried to forget and only on anniversaries will I let myself think about it. That day is sacred to me. It is a dedication to my wonderful husband, Henry B. Harris, who gave his life and gave me twelve of the most supremely happy years that one could ever hope to enjoy.

Fifty years! A life time. And yet when I allow myself to go back to that tragic night, it seems like yesterday.

I am in my stateroom playing double Canfield with my husband. I had taken a tumble down a flight of stairs the late afternoon of that tragic night and had a compound fracture of my elbow.

The ship's doctor seemed to be in a quandary as to how to set my arm when my husband suggested sending for a doctor, a passenger, of whom we had heard, who was a famous orthopedic surgeon, the head of the Joint Disease Hospital in New York.

He graciously came to our stateroom and after a long consultation with the ship's doctor, finally set my arm, my right arm, with the fingers resting on my shoulder.

I mention all this because it is my broken arm that is responsible for my being here today.

It was half past six when the doctors left our room and when I said to Harry, "Help me get dressed. I'm going up for dinner. I'm hungry."

His surprise was no greater than was the Captain's as when we were at our table just in front of one that Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, had reserved for a big party -- and the Captain was on his way to join the group, he stopped and praised me for my courage. I replied that I'd suffer just as much in our room as I would here and I wouldn't have the gay surroundings that always obtained in the Ritz Restaurant where we had our meals.

In less than ten minutes the Captain passed our table again and again he stopped. I asked him why he wasn't staying in the dinner party and he replied that he was going back to his bridge as we were among icebergs and that is where he belonged. The rumors that he imbibed too much are absolutely false.

After dinner Harry and I went to the smoking lounge for coffee -- it was then about half-past nine, but I was in terrific pain, so I asked to go back to our room. Harry got me undressed, and cut out the sleeve of my bathrobe. It was freezing code; he wrapped me in a blanket and we started to play our favorite game.

I can say here I have never played it since.

The door of the clothes closet had been left open and I noticed my clothes swaying to a marked degree so I said, "We're going awfully fast to have my dresses sway like that -- much too fast among icebergs," when at that very moment the ship stopped. It was then exactly 11:20.

Harry said he'd go to find out what had happened. It is not an ordinary event to have a ship suddenly stop in the middle of the ocean so I was alarmed.

He had asked Mrs.Futrelle, whose room was opposite ours, to sit with me while he and Jacques Futrelle, a well-known writer, went to get some information.

When they returned in about half and hour Harry was as calm as if nothing serious had happened. He said he was going to get me dressed as all passengers were told to go to their boat deck and all women and children were to be put in life boats.

Again he cut out the sleeve of my dress -- put my fur coat on me with one sleeve dangling and together we went out of the room.

My jewelry, which we locked in the innovation trunk that we kept in our room, Harry put in his pockets. My pearls that I never went without were taken from around my neck when the doctor put my arm in a sling. So my pearls were among my jewelry. This too I mention for a reason that will follow.

As we reached the foot of the stairs where an armed officer was standing, he said, "Women only." When Harry replied he was going to put me in a life boat as I had a broken arm and could not take care of myself, he allowed us to pass. When we reached the boat deck they were about to cover [lower?] a lifeboat when Harry said, "Just a minute. I want to put my wife in this boat." I wouldn't go. I said, "I'm safer here than in that little boat and I won't leave you."

So around the deck we walked, seeing boat after boat lowered from its davits, and at one John Jacob Astor was standing with his wife. He said to the officer in charge, ["] I'm going into the boat and I want you to life [lift?] my wife, who is pregnant, and place her in my arms. I will step right out again." He was allowed to get into the boat.

If ever there was an unsung hero, John Jacob Astor is that man. He need not have left the boat. The officer could not have taken a shot, for one person could not be distinguished from another, as it was pitch black.

He immediately stepped out of the boat and joined Harry and me in our perambulations, the two of them urging me to get into a boat.

I was feeling no physical pain -- as miserable as I had been all the hours before -- the mental torture I was going through numbed the physical misery.

By this time the bow of the ship sank so low the lifeboats were practically resting in the water. It was not like an ocean but more like a big pond.

Now all the life boats had been launched and only two collapsibles were left. They had filled the first collapsible and as she was being lifted off her davits when Isidor Straus, who with Mrs.Straus had joined us, left the rail with my husband and me. I did not know until much later that the boat had turned over and all the occupants were thrown into the ocean.

On going to the port side we crossed the Captain's bridge. I can still see the hands pointing to two twenty. Standing with the Captain was Major Archibald Butt, the Aide-de-Camp to President Taft and the little doctor who had helped in setting my arm.

The Captain in a very angry tone said, "Why aren't you in a boat? How can your husband save himself and you too, with a broken arm?" I replied, "I don't want to leave him."

"You get into that boat -- it's the last one. And lose no time -- give your husband a chance."

That's all I wanted to hear. So as we reached the port side where the Strauss's had gone, I asked Mrs.Straus to go with me. When I heard her say, "I won't leave my husband." Then Mr.Straus added, "We've been together many years so when we must go, we'll go together. You are young -- you have your whole life ahead of you. You go and may God go with you."

His words still ring in my ears.

Harry lifted me in his arms and threw me into the arms of a sailor and then threw a blanket that he had been carrying for me through the hours. The moment I was in the boat they pulled off and I as I looked up five ribbons of light that had converged from the stern to the bow quickly became four, then three, then two, then one and then I knew that my beloved and all those fine men and women who had become so close to me during those trying hours hadn't a chance.

My one thought was had I only waited another minute I too would have gone with the one whom I so deeply loved instead of now in this little boat, for I felt certain we would be pulled in by the suction. The screams of "look out for the suction" appalled me. All I could think of was if we could only go quietly. Strangely I had no fear -- evidently I was benumbed. Then the screaming suddenly ceased. the TITANIC was completely submerged and all danger of suction had passed.

The ship went so quickly I knew that not one on board had a chance to get on the rafts. I doubt that there were any rafts if they had had time to use them.

Then the words that Mr.Strauss had so warmly uttered came back to me. "God be with you."

"No," I thought, "no, God is not with me. He is with you and my beloved and all those hundreds of beautiful souls who have gone down without a fighting chance. He too went down with the TITANIC.

We were not ten feet from the ship when we heard from the water a cry for help. The oarsmen stopped rowing and pulled a man aboard.

One of the first class passengers who had put his wife in the collapsible dived from the deck and followed our boat until he was picked up. He is one of the very few male survivors who was honorably saved.

Sitting next to me were two little girls [the Navratil children?] whose mother doubtless had thrown them into the boat. I wrapped the blanket my husband had thrown to the sailor around their little bodies as they were shivering from the cold. She doubtless was among the steerage passengers who had been kept back by ropes stretched across the deck manned by armed officers.

This was done no doubt to lessen the weight in the bow that was already sinking.

The rescued man and his wife and I were the only first class passengers in the collapsible, which was filled to capacity. We hadn't gone very far when the boat started to fill with water. I hadn't noticed it until I heard the little girls cry. And then the women started screaming again. The water was above our ankles and as fast as it was bailed out it would fill up again.

How long this kept up I can't remember -- interminable hours it seemed to me -- when a voice from a distance resounded, "Keep yelling -- we will locate you." It was impenetrably dark, so not until there was a little ray of daylight were we found by a life boat.

They lightened our boat by taking on a few of our women. They were not filled to capacity as were most of the life boats, and the officer in charge tied us to his stern -- and together we rowed on a sea as calm as a pool -- until daylight.

Then we saw the ice -- some like mountains -- thousands of smaller pieces that no doubt had been broken by the impact of the TITANIC. Then we saw a gigantic figure looming from the water at a great distance.

The officer in the life boat shouted to us. "A ship! We will make for it and be there in a little while."

Except for the gentle crying of the little girls there was "silence as deep as death, which lasted until we reached the ship. It was an hour, perhaps longer, before we lay alongside the big ship.

The CARPATHIA that had risked the danger of sailing through the field of ice had come to our rescue when other ships much closer had ignored the TITANIC's call for help.

I was hoisted in some contraption in which I was sitting and in such a complete daze I didn't know what I was put among the steerage passengers -- not that it mattered -- until a ship's officer came to me and apologized for their error.

Then I was led to a stateroom that had been given to me by an artist and his wife. This I shared with a French girl -- a beautiful woman who didn't know one word of English. I learned from her that she was being brought to this country by one of our outstanding financiers who was one of the lost ones.

It would not be fair to his family to mention his name, although his wife has long since passed on, but his children and grandchildren are important enough to be mentioned occasionally in society columns.

After all thse intervening years it amazes me that many incidents are still fresh in my memory.

One that stands out strongly was when after dinner the survivors were summoned to the dining room for a check-up. I noticed a couple all dolled up in evening clothes. They appeared so incongruous to me among all the women who like myself were only half clothed that I asked my neighbor who these weird creatures were. I learned that they were Lord and Lady Duff Gordon, who had not only saved themselves but had gone into a lifeboat with much luggage [sic!]

They lived, yes, but how much joy out of living could they have had? They were ostracized from England as was Bruce Ismay.

And the doctor who set my arm. I'm afraid I was not very kind when he came to my cabin to see what he could do for me. He started to explain how he was saved when I interrupted him to say that I wouldn't have my husband back at the cost of a woman's life, and he made such a hasty exit I didn't see him again either on the CARPATHIA or ever after.

But I did hear that when he went to the Lambs Club of which my husband was the treasurer until the time of his death, when he entered a room the members present walked out. Later it was rumored that the doctor had committed suicide.

And this incident is unbelievable but factual. I had written out a radiogram to send to my father-in-law to try to gently break the news to him. I said, "I am saved and praying that Harry may be rescued." I knew, of course, that he was lost so when I was met when we landed by Harry's father, my brother and our doctor, I said, "I have come back alone." They knew then what I knew.

After that, for a period of two months, my mind was a complete blank. Memorial services for my beloved were held at the Hudson Theatre, the theatre that was built for him, which I attended, but of which I have no recollection.

Harry's body was never recovered, although all those with whom I left him had been found. I have always believed that when the divers found his body and discovered my jewelry they must have realized its worth and have taken it and put him back at sea.

My first awareness was then I was taken by my doctor and a nurse to the theatre and was seated at his deck and for the first time (so I was told) went into a paroxysm of hysteria. The first tears I had shed.

I knew then exactly what I was going to do. I was going to carry on his work and made the theatre a monument to his memory. I carried on for twenty years, doing the things I thought he would have me do.

The first play I produced was "Damaged Goods". My father-in-law, an executor with me in the will, felt that the play was too daring for a women to present so I produced it under the auspices of the Medical Society as the Richard Bennett (he was the star) Players. Today that play would be considered a Pollyanna production.

In 1928 I took a trip around the world and in July of 1929 I was cabled to come home as a depression had set in and my business manager was in a state of collapse as he couldn't get an attraction to fill the theatre.

From 1929 until 1932 I could get nothing but "turkeys" to put into the theatre. The one great chance I had to save my theatre was when Marc Connelly produced "Green Pastures" and asked me to see a rough rehearsal as he wanted to put the play in the Hudson.

I went off the deep end after seeing the rehearsal and had Marc's business manager at the office the next day to sign contracts. I loved it.

Another tragedy in my life:

In the play there was a treadmill that played a very important part in the production so when they started digging and found solid rock underneath the stage they were afraid it would injure the foundation of the building, so I had to cancel the contract. That play would have carried me over the rough years but it was not to be my fate.

In 1932 I was forced to give up. The bank that held the one mortgage that I had foreclosed and got a judgement against me for half a million dollars which, of course, was never met. But they had my beautiful theatre, which is still in my mind a monument to Harry B. Harris.

So that this may not be an appeal for sympathy, for I have had a great deal of happiness out of the life that I have been forced to live, I should like to end with an amusing note.

Every year until World War I the newspapers on the anniversary of the sinking of the TITANIC would always observe the day and would print the names of the prominent passengers, among which mine would appear.

On one of those anniversaries I was entering the front door of the apartment house where I lived when the doorman who was talking to some woman stopped me and said, "Mrs.Harris, I didn't know you were on the TITANIC. I saw it in this evening's paper."

"You were on the TITANIC?" the woman asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"Were you saved?"

"No," I said.

Since then I have often wondered.

I have tried through the years to make it a night to forget; otherwise I would not have had the will to live.

An article from the New York Times of October 27th, 1958 featuring Mrs.Harris can be found here, here and here (the article was split up due to its size and shape)

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