We’ve all seen the movie and wondered about Jack and Rose, but they were just creations – what about one of the real people who survived? Lady Duff-Gordon was a famous fashion designer at the time of the Titanic, but as we’re about to reveal here, she was much, much more than that. From family to scandal to court cases, this is the story of a survivor.
A Start Like All the Rest
Lucy Christiana Sutherland was born in June 1863 in London, England, and even as a child, she had an eventful life. She and her family learned the news of the American Civil War, and almost immediately, Lucy had to get acquainted with boats and ships.
Her father passed away when she was just an infant, so her mother brought her across the Atlantic to settle in the Canadian province of Ontario. She stayed there for just a few years, until 1871 when her mother remarried. At this point, she and her sister Elinor returned to Europe, this time settling in Jersey, in the Channel Islands.
An Ill Omen
Even though Lucy was used to ships by the time of her first boating mishap, it's starting to seem like she was a little unlucky. On the other hand, maybe ships just had a much, much larger chance of running aground and sinking at that time. Anyway, she and her sister were traveling when the boat they rode ran aground in the English Channel.
Both of them survived, but there is a bit of a pattern emerging. During this period of her life, Lucy developed a love of fashion – she dressed her collection of dolls. She studied the dresses women wore, eventually making clothes for herself.
The First Marriage Begins
In 1884, Lucy married her first husband, a man by the name of James Stuart Wallace. She and James had a child, Esme, born in 1885 – Esme would eventually go on to become the Countess of Halsbury after marrying the 2nd Earl of Halsbury.
However, this marriage didn't have very strong legs – Lucy's husband was quite the cad, sleeping around, and Lucy responded in kind. She began a long extra-marital affair with famous surgeon Sir Morell Mackenzie as her husband found his own solace in drink and women. As you might imagine, this didn't exactly make for a relationship that survived through thick and thin.
The First Marriage Ends
Lucy and James separated in 1890, a mere six years after they tied the knot, and Lucy began divorce proceedings in 1893. Things were finally over in 1895. It was during this tumultuous time of separation that Lucy turned to something she had always enjoyed to get her through it – designing clothes.
Lucy, at this point, had to take care of both herself and her daughter, and she couldn't just depend on her lush husband to support her, so she started coming up with dress designs. This really helped her out during a tough time, and even started making a name for herself in the years to come.
A Talent Comes to the Fore
Though Lucy got her start as a dressmaker from home, she was able to open her first store in 1893. It was called Maison Lucile, located at 24 Old Burlington St. in the center of the fashionable West End of London. Before that, she worked for a year in her mother's flat at 25 Davies Street.
Before too long, her business proved successful, and Lucy opened a larger shop in 1897. Her clothing was finding its way to the wardrobes of British society's most fashionable, and at the same time, Lucy was landing in the spotlight, including as an eligible bachelorette.
Another Try at Wedded Life
Everyone deserves a second chance at love - including Lucille Duff-Gordon. Despite her first marriage being unsuccessful, Lucy was not about to let her romantic dreams disappear. She caught the eye of a handsome Scottish sportsman by the name of Cosmo Duff-Gordon, who had recently inherited the title of 5th Baronet of Halkin.
Lucy, who had already been divorced in her life, might not have been the perfect choice for him, but they decided to go ahead and give it a try anyway. They tied the knot in 1900, at which point the career of “Madame Lucile,” as Lucy called herself on the professional circuit, was already taking off.
Stepping into the Spotlight
Unexpectedly, Lucy's husband wasn't one for fame, so he avoided the spotlight and let Lucy have all the fun. The woman thrived as part of the high society in London, and her business flourished.
She opened a second store in New York City in 1910, and in the following year, she opened another in Paris. The business was incorporated as “Lucile Ltd” in 1903. With an addition in Paris, it became the first leading couture house with specifically full-scale branches in three different countries. That wasn't the end for “Lucile Ltd,” but at this point, Lucy got a life-changing telegram.
A Trip Across the Pond
While working in her France store on April 7, 1912, Lucy got a telegram from the managers of her American store in New York. They required her presence urgently to handle some business, and Lucy wasn't about to let a problem go unaddressed – she wanted to head to the new world as quickly as possible.
She went to the offices of the White Star Line to get a ticket across the Atlantic without delay. By this point in her life, she had already made the trip a number of times – there was nothing to fear. Or was there?!
So Much to Fear
To our surprise, Lucy was apprehensive about the trip, despite it being a regular part of her life at that point. She wrote in her 1932 memoir, “Discretions and Indiscretions,” that she could not really explain her reluctance to take the earliest ticket, which was aboard the new steamer Titanic.
It was scheduled to be making its maiden voyage. But why would Lucy be so worried about taking a trip on a supposedly unsinkable ship, on a trip she had made plenty of times? We could not tell you, but she went ahead and got a ticket for the Titanic anyway.
The Biggest Ship in the World
By now, many of us know plenty about the Titanic. It might be the most famous ship in the world, after all. But let's get reacquainted: at almost nine hundred feet long, this ship was the biggest in the world. Every luxury imaginable was inside – you could find swimming pools, Turkish baths, opulent lounges, and even a Parisian-themed café.
The clever system of watertight compartments made it seem like it was unsinkable – at least, that's what the papers said. There were four elevators on the ship – this was before most buildings had them. Even the third-class offerings, though far more modest, had a deal of relative comfort.
Taking the Plunge
Despite all these wonderful features, Lucy had her misgivings about riding on the now-legendary ocean liner. Maybe her experience with boat mishaps gave her a sixth sense about these sorts of things, or maybe this is retroactive worry on her part. She got her husband, Cosmo, to join her, and the two of them snagged some tickets under false names.
We assume this was in an attempt to throw the press off their trail, and it probably worked until about the time the ship reached iceberg alley. After the ship sank, they would find themselves in the center of the spotlight far more than they ever thought possible.
No, Our Name is Morgan
The Duff-Gordons chose the name “Morgan” to represent them. They were joined by Lucy's friend and secretary, Laura Francatelli, who went by the last name Franks. It has been said that their choice of name was a mild dig at J.P. Morgan, the man who was the owner of the White Star Line at the time.
There were rumors abound that Morgan had decided to skip out on riding his new flagship during her maiden voyage to take a voyage of a different kind with his mistress in the south of France. This was, ultimately, a decision he probably felt good about.
Like a Floating Ritz
Despite her initial misgivings about the trip, Lucy enjoyed her time on the liner a great deal (you know...up to a point). Despite entering under a false name, it wasn't long before the Duff-Gordons were discovered and identified by many of the other passengers on board. Lucy was quite impressed with the standards of the ship.
Like everyone else, she was entranced by the ship's beauty, but she was especially fond, almost childishly so, of the strawberries on the breakfast table. Sure, we can have strawberries whenever we want now, but imagine this more than a hundred years ago, in April and the middle of the ocean.
Living in the Lap of Ocean Luxury
When Lucy Duff-Gordon and her husband were not rubbing elbows with the upper crust of society (who were soon to face the most tragic of endings) in the dining rooms or dance floors of the Titanic, they were relaxing in their comfortable staterooms.
They had electric heaters, plenty of curtains and cushions, and there was also plenty of space to put up their feet when they needed to get away. For some reason, Cosmo had his own cabin on the other side of the hallway. We guess everybody needs some space from time to time. After all, they do say tat absence makes the heart grow fonder.
A Little Fonder Would Be Nice
Now that we bring it up, it is actually unknown why Cosmo and Lucy got separate cabins to begin with. It could have been part of their deception as the Morgans, but rumors began cropping up after the fact, saying that things were kind of rocky between these two.
Of course, after the Titanic sank, there was no shortage of rumors of any kind flying through the air, so of course, the relationship was going to catch a few. Well, whatever the reason, it's been more than a century, and there are a lot more important things to talk about.
It wasn't just the size and accommodations of the Titanic that had made headlines – this immense ship also proved to be quite the speedy little vessel once it got into the open water. After four days of travel, some aboard the ship even wondered if they would be part of setting a new record.
On the morning of April 14th, there was no trouble on the horizon, and the Titanic continued making good time. Reports tell us that the sea was calm and placid, but as the day went on, the temperature dropped steadily. We're sure that doesn't mean anything.
Dinner and Destruction
Lucy remembers walking the deck with her husband and mentioning the chill. She even wondered if there were icebergs in the vicinity, but Cosmo did his best to calm her fears. It was so cold that Lucy did not even change out of her warm clothing while she went to dinner.
After their meal, she, Cosmo, and Francatelli returned to their respective cabins – Francatelli lived on E Deck, far below first class. They had not been asleep for long before a heart-stopping noise tore through the entirety of the ship. It woke everybody up and would end up changing their lives forever.
The Danger Begins
Resting alone in her private room, Lucy woke up to a strange rumbling. She didn't like the sound of it, and went to alert her husband. She recalls that several people were milling around on the deck, but ship officers assured them there was nothing to worry about, and most of the people found their way back to bed.
However, the odd sounds continued, and when the engines stopped, Lucy pleaded with Cosmo to check what was happening. He listened to her wishes and would end up returning with dire warnings. The Duff-Gordons did the sensible thing and dressed in their warmest clothes.
Things Start to Get Worse
Even more than a hundred years after this famous maritime disaster, people are unsure of exactly how it all went down. That's literal AND figurative. Some of the facts are obvious, like that the Titanic hit an iceberg, tearing a gash in its hull and breaching numerous of its compartments.
Though the ship could continue floating with four of its compartments flooded, water would soon begin to fill six of them. The ship was, without a doubt, beginning to sink, but most people on the deck had no idea what was happening. Even worse, many thought that staying on the nice warm ship was far better than taking their chances in the ice-cold sea.
Giving the Order
Captain Edward Smith gave the order to abandon the ship and take to the lifeboats as things worsened and the pitch-black, bone-cold ocean reared its ugly head. Lucy and her husband scrambled to find a spot on one of the many lifeboats, but her memoir tells us that most of them had already deployed when they were trying to leave.
However, they got some luck and managed to find an empty lifeboat. Lucy would give testimony during an official inquiry that includes the same information, but there are a few problems with the story. Let's look at some of the numbers.
Crew, Passengers, and Boats
The Titanic had plenty of space for all sorts of people. Official numbers tell us that it had a passenger capacity of two thousand four hundred and fifty-three guests and a crew of eight hundred and forty-seven. That means the ship could hold a total of three thousand three hundred and twenty-seven people on board, but even that number is disputed – it could have been about two hundred more.
As for lifeboats, there were twenty. We're told that means there was enough space for one thousand, one hundred and seventy-eight people, which means each lifeboat could hold...fifty-eight-point-nine people. Clearly, something had gone wrong here. How do you make a lifeboat for nine-tenths of a person?
Back to the Duff-Gordons
According to the testimony that Lucy gave, she, Cosmo, and Francatelli were put into the remaining boat along with a pair of American passengers who had been close enough to see it. We all know who gets to go on the lifeboats first regarding an emergency – women, and children.
When it comes to aquatic emergencies, it is one of the first things they can tell you about lifeboats. Despite Captain Smith giving this exact order, the lifeboat entered the water carrying a mere 12 passengers. These 12 consisted of three male passengers, two women, and seven male crew members.
The Numbers Don't Add Up
That meant that on a boat that was supposed to carry up to forty passengers, only twelve people were present. As we've already laid out, the Titanic had a small number of lifeboats, even if the ship wasn't at its full capacity. This meant that setting to sea with less than a fourth of the carrying capacity was little more than dooming people to an unkind fate.
There's a reason that the sinking of the Titanic was one of the worst maritime disasters ever. They weren't prepared, and the things they had prepared weren't used well by the people who escaped.
The lifeboat carrying the Duff-Gordons and the others came across the Carpathia, a Cunard Line vessel that had been pulling out all the stops to reach where the Titanic had sunk. April 18th saw the surviving passengers of the terrible tragedy pull into New York a mere day after they had been scheduled to arrive.
News travels fast even then, so the docks were full of people trying to find their loved ones or those who wanted to see what had happened. The world's press had also collected, looking for any way they could to find out more about this legendary tragedy.
Blurring the Lines
Thanks to all the press, all the survivors, and all the people who thought they knew better, fact and fiction became horribly mixed. The news hit the front page that many, many women and children from the second and third class were still missing, while fifty-seven men from the first class were present on the lifeboats.
The idea that a man would choose to save himself instead of a woman or child – even someone of a lower class – was a terrible thing, and survivors suddenly found themselves feeling the public's anger. Even men that were reported down with the ship were being attacked. Both the captain and John Jacob Astor, perhaps the richest man in the world at the time and someone who did perish during the sinking, were attacked.
Setting the Record Straight
These days, both men are remembered for heroic actions that likely saved the lives of many – or at least gave them a better chance. On the other hand, there were plenty of male passengers who did make it onto lifeboats despite there being more than enough women and children on the Titanic who should have been offered the seats first, as a matter of course.
The survival instinct is a tough thing to ignore, and these men would face stigma for the rest of their lives just for having survived an incredible tragedy. However, it wasn't just the men who would find themselves under a magnifying glass.
The Millionaire's Boat
Tabloid journalism was known at the time as the yellow press, and Lucy would become one of the people that the tabloids targeted after the harrowing ordeal. Stories began to emerge about something called the “Millionaire's Boat,” an emergency vessel that had been taken over by the richest of the passengers onboard the Titanic.
When Lucy discovered that these concerns dealt with her own lifeboat, she was also shocked to find out it wasn't even the worst part of the story. According to rumors, the Duff-Gordons had begged the other people on the lifeboat not to turn around, even going so far as to offer them money to ensure they obeyed.
Firing Back at the Rumors
As soon as the Duff-Gordons heard about this rumor, they decided to add their voices to the mix. Incredibly, it turns out that they did give money to the crew members that were on the lifeboat with them, but it was intended to be a goodwill gesture for people that had just lost their jobs, nothing more.
In addition to this, Lucy denied vehemently that she or Cosmo had ever told the crewmen not to turn back. The Duff-Gordons said that these were merely fantasy rumors that had been made up by the tabloids to see copies of their papers distributed and little else.
The Scandals Continue
Unfortunately, the denials of Lucy and her husband did little to slow the rumor mill. The scandalous stories continued spreading, and even worse, one of the comments she made while the Titanic was going down started to appear on the printed page as well.
According to the rumor, Lucy, Cosmo, and Francatelli had been watching the Titanic go down, and Lucy had turned to her friend Francatelli. “There is your beautiful nightdress gone,” Lucy had reportedly said. We're fans of dark comedy at one time or another, but such a statement during such a horrific loss of life seemed, to the public, to be appallingly materialistic and cruel.
Going Back to London
The quote, which seems to have been true, did nothing to help the public's view of the Duff-Gordons. Not feeling the love in the United States, the couple decided to return to their native London about the Lusitania.
We wish we could know what it felt like to have to make the trip again after such an event, but all we know is how they were greeted – with placards and headlines attacking them for their alleged behavior during the tragedy of the Titanic. While the court of public opinion was an important one, the real courts wouldn't take long to get in on the action.
An Official Inquiry
Exactly a month after the disaster of the Titanic, an official inquiry began. On May 17th, 1912, Cosmo Duff-Gordon stood to testify in front of eager spectators and reporters. His wife followed him three days later, and the audience and news were having a field day with her testimony as both husband and wife refuted the claim that they had used bribery to prevent the crew from returning to the wreck.
After much time, the court eventually agreed in their favor, exonerating them of any wrongdoing. We don't know exactly what the crime would have been, but they weren't guilty one way or another.
A Sad End
Once the court decided that the Duff-Gordons weren't responsible for any wrongdoing, that was more or less that when it came to the story of the Titanic. But there's far more to the story of this survivor than just her time on this famous ship. After all, was said and done, Lucy found herself with a flourishing career.
The garments that she designed can even be found in museums around the world. However, Cosmo's reputation was ruined by the tabloids, and the relationship between the two could not recover. Three years after the sinking of the Titanic, the couple parted, and they would not reconcile.
The Effect of Her Work
While the most well-known thing about Lucy Duff-Gordon is the fact that she survived the wreck of the Titanic, she did a number of things in the fashion world that are still being used today. Lucy was the first person to train and utilize fashion models as professionals (called mannequins at first) to stage runway-style shows.
Something that is so much a part of couture fashion that not to have it would be unthinkable. These theatrical events used stages, curtains, lights, music, souvenir gifts, programs, and more to make them as special as possible and give every outfit the credence of high fashion.
Best Known For
The Lucile Ltd brand was best known for its lingerie, tea gowns, and evening wear. The brand's hallmark became luxurious layered and draped garments, soft fabrics of blended colors, and using hand-made silk flowers to accentuate the designs. In addition to fine ladies' wear, there were also suits for men and simple daywear.
The people who shopped at Lucile Ltd were actors both for the screen and stage, as well as It-girls and tabloid names. These included Irene Castle, Gaby Deslys, Billie Burke, and many more. The boutique also costumed theater productions and operettas and found their way into newsreels.
A Second Innovation
Another thing that Lucile Ltd came up with was something that Lucy called “Emotional gowns.” These designs had names like “Give Me Your Heart” or “The Sighing Sound of Lips Unsatisfied” and other melodramatic things. These names came from history, literature, popular culture, Lucy's interest in psychology, and the personality of her clients. These dresses often appeared at the “mannequin parades,” as they were called.
Lucy herself later admitted that the purpose of the parades – the first model catwalks – was to get women to buy more dresses than they could afford. Seeing as how Lucy is known as a groundbreaking designer, it clearly worked.
Using the Media to Her Advantage
Lucy Duff Gordon did not just use her own skills as a designer to become famous – she also manipulated the media to her advantage, something that still goes on today. She frequently wrote columns for magazines and publications such as “Good Housekeeping” and “Harper's Bazaar.”
The clothes she devised often featured in “The London Magazine” or “Vanity Fair.” In addition, she used her place in pop culture to (of all things) get a contract to design the interiors of luxury Chrysler cars. It just goes to show you that diversification in your skill set is never a bad idea.
Dressing the Rich and Famous
As Lucy's business and fame grew, there were many members of the aristocracy, as well as stars and starlets of the burgeoning stage and screen businesses, who wanted to be seen in her outfits.
This included at various times the wife of the prime minister, Margot Asquith, a mistress to the Prince of Wales named Daisy, the socialites Gloria Vanderbilt and Heather Firbank, a dancer for the Ballet Russes (a famous traveling ballet company that performed for twenty years) named Lydia Kyasht, and a bevy of famous actresses such as Kitty Gordon and Lily Langtry. Anybody who was anybody wanted to be seen in something made by Lucile Ltd.
A few short years after the sinking of the Titanic, World War I began. This was generally seen as a bad thing. Nobody's life remained undisturbed by this international conflict, including the world of high fashion. During World War I, Lucy closed her houses in London and Paris and set up a new headquarters in New York, far from the conflict.
This move furthered her separation from her husband, who preferred to stay in England. While this change to their relationship did nothing to help matters, it seems clear that the stress and bad press from the Titanic had left an irreparable rift in their relationship.
Another Near Miss
Lucy's name was almost indelibly connected to ship accidents thanks to a close call a mere three years after the sinking of the Titanic. In May of 1915, she booked passage aboard the RMS Lusitania but ended up canceling the trip due to an illness.
History buffs will already know what we're about to write, but the May voyage of the Lusitania was the final voyage, as it was sunk by a German torpedo on May 7th. We wonder if this were another occasion when Lucy got a bad feeling about it and decided she would do well to listen to the feeling this time.
Being famous is not all that it is cracked up to be, even a hundred years ago before the advent of social media. As an international businesswoman and celebrated couturier, Lucy often found herself sued for breach of contract or non-payment. In 1917 (yes, during World War I), Lucy got involved in what would be her most famous court case, the New York Court of Appeals case of “Wood B. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon.”
Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo broke new ground in contract law by enforcing Lucy's contract that gave her advertising agent, Otis F. Wood, exclusive rights to market her professional name.
This 1917 case determined that despite the fact the contract lacked explicit consideration of her promise, Wood was still the only one allowed to market products using her brand name. There are far, far more details than we have the time to go into here.
But the end result was that Lucy was thus unable to sell her own clothes for lower costs in a cheaper market using her brand name. At this time, she was forced to end her successful mail-order business with Sears, Roebuck & Co. While the finer points escape us, this case is still important regarding marketing or contract law.
Finding Ways to Meet Demands
In an effort to keep up with demand, especially in America, Lucile Ltd hired a number of sketch artists to create additional designs inspired by her original ideas. These artists included future famous designers Norman Hartnell and Edward Molyneux, as well as Hollywood costume designer Howard Greer.
These designs were published under the name of Lucile Ltd instead of under the name of the sketch artists. We are sure that this can not result in a lawsuit that ultimately makes the business fold. There is just no way, right? The fashion industry is famously incredibly stable through thick and thin.
A Critical Error
Almost as soon as the Great War ended, Lucile Ltd started to struggle. The romantic styles that Lucy had been designing since she started just weren't as popular after the war, which was tilting toward the flappers, “Great Gatsby,” and the jazz age, which would last until the Great Depression.
Fashion historians have looked back and decided that Lucy's firing of Edward Molyneux, who had urged her to try to design bolder, more modern fashions, was her biggest mistake. This came back in 1919, and it was not long before things started to look dire for Lucy and her business.
The Business Starts to Crumble
Thanks to the effects of the war, the court case, and no doubt plenty of other things, Lucile Ltd started to hit bad times in 1918. Lucy restructured the company, but the business started to disintegrate.
It was revealed in the press that many of the designs that Lucile Ltd had been selling had been designed by those aforementioned sketch artists, resulting in a battle with the press and the court of public opinion. Eventually, Lucy revealed that, yes, many of the designs weren't of her own creation...and that had been the case going back as far as 1911, even before the Titanic.
Closing the Doors of Lucile Ltd
In September 1922, Lucy stopped designing for the company, effectively ending. Not to be discouraged, Lucy started a new company called “Lucile” at the same premises in Paris, working on different designs. Still, Lucy had lost public trust, and the company eventually failed.
At that point, Lucy, who went publicly as “Lucile,” began working from home to design for special clients personally. She also maintained getting work as a fashion columnist and critic even after the failure of her design career. She wrote for “Daily Sketch” and “Daily Express.” She also wrote a best-selling autobiography in 1932, “Discretions and Indiscretions.”
Still Getting Some Work
Even though she was not designing for the wider public and she was the subject of numerous scandals – nobody could say that Lucile was not a gifted designer even after the war had come to an end. While also working at her home doing a little personal design work, Lucile briefly joined the firm Reville, Ltd.
She also maintained a ready-to-wear shop on her own. In addition, she allowed a wholesale operation in America to use her name in perpetuity. It might not have been the heights she once enjoyed, but to most people, it was probably a pretty good living.
The Legacy of the It Girl
Lucy's sister, Elinor, eventually became a novelist and was the first to popularize the “It Girl” concept, a famous name that exudes sex appeal. No doubt, this was due in part to Lucy's success as a fashion designer. A dual biography of the sisters by Meredith Etherington-Smith, which was published in 1986, was entitled “The 'It' Girls.”
Lucy might not have been an “It Girl” herself, but she undoubtedly dressed or helped dress many of the early names on the list. There are plenty of other books written about this famous woman, and she shows up in a number of fictional tales about the Titanic, such as James Cameron's epic.
The Death of Duff-Gordon
Despite Cosmo and Lucy separating, they never officially divorced and even remained friends until Cosmo's death in 1931. There is no denying though that the tragedy of the Titanic and the resulting media circus pushed them apart. Cosmo died of natural causes on April 20th, 1935, and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery, Woking, Surrey.
Despite officially being vindicated by the Board of Trade inquiry following the Titanic, Cosmo, in particular, could never shake suspicion – he famously refused to see reporters following the event. He even notes that he could hardly enjoy being alive because of the constant venomous attacks he had to endure.
Losing a Legend
At the ripe old age of seventy-one, Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon died at a nursing home in Putney, London. She was surrounded by flowers and passed away from breast cancer complicated by pneumonia. The date of her passing was the 20th of April, like her husband, but four years later.
She was buried next to Cosmo in the Brookwood Cemetery. While to many, she was just a fashion designer or a socialite, it's clear that Lucy put her heart into her work, and the fact that she survived one of the greatest tragedies ever adds what we see as a little bit of mythology to the fashionable lady.