Why Surviving the Titanic Wasn’t Always A Good Thing: Part II

Eleanor Elkins Widener portrait

Eleanor Elkins Widener

Last week’s post {here, if you missed if} focused on William E. Carter’s shame for surviving the Titanic sinking. When 77% of women survived, but only 18% of the male passengers, you can see why William was so unfavorably compared to all of the gallant men who did not survive. Male courage was prized beyond anything and to be seen without it was to find yourself without friends.

Many of William’s fellow male first-class passengers did not survive and one of those was George D. Widener. He was going to be just a footnote comparison in our previous post but his wife’s life deserved its own post. While many people were solely defined for surviving the disaster and what they had lost, she refused to be held back.

George D. Widener portrait

George D. Widener, source.

Harry Widener portrait

Harry Widener


The Beginning Of The End

George, fifty years old in 1912, was heir to the largest fortune in Philadelphia and a member of the board of Fidelity Trust bank who owned the White Star Line, when they booked passage on the Titanic.

George, his wife Eleanor, and their 27-year old son Harry had been staying in Paris at the Ritz Hotel. The elder Wideners had been reportedly searching for a chef for their new Ritz Carlton hotel in Philadelphia and Harry had been indulging in his favorite pastime, collecting rare books.

The Widener family mansion, Lynnewood Hall.

The Widener family mansion, Lynnewood Hall (source). Lynnewood is now abandoned and protected by guard dogs so I didn’t visit myself. I’ve included a few photos and links to many more at the end of this post.

On the 14th of April, George and his wife were on the promenade deck of the Titanic talking with J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line who we mentioned in last week’s post. (He like William Carter, shamefully survived the disaster by jumping into a lifeboat filled with women and children while it was being lowered). It was during their socializing when Captain Edward Smith passed a note into Ismay’s hand. It was the “ice ahead” warning from the Baltic liner. Ismay tucked the message into his pocket and ignored it.

That evening the Wideners hosted a dinner party in honor of the ship’s captain. Some of the men were still awake in the smoking room as the ship hit the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. When William Carter asked Harry Widener if he would try for a lifeboat, Harry reportedly said: “I think I’ll stick to the big ship, Billy, and take a chance.” This does conflict with a legend that Harry missed a lifeboat because he was trying to retrieve rare books from his cabin, in particular a 1598 copy of Bacon’s Essays.

Lyneewood mansion and gardens.

Lynnewood, source.

Eleanor Widener would survive on Lifeboat no. 4 with Lucile Carter. After an hour’s wait her son and husband found her and her maid a spot on a lifeboat and stood back with their valet, remaining on the ship. She, like Lucile and the other first-class women on her lifeboat, helped to row the boat.

Emily Borie Ryerson (a rich Philadelphian returning to the U.S. after her son’s death in a car accident), was in the same lifeboat. She testified to the Senate: “Some one called out, ‘Pull for your lives, or you’ll be sucked under,’ and everyone that could rowed like mad.” (Emily’s husband, Arthur, stayed behind on the boat. Unable to find a lifeboat he died in the disaster). Eleanor certainly helped as they all desperately rowed away from the ship which cracked in two before their eyes and was sinking with their loved ones still aboard.

Lynnewood Hall's fountains with sculptures of creatures raising their hands out the water.

Lynnewood’s fountains must’ve been a bit eerie after the disaster, source.

George and Harry Widener would die that night. Their bodies, if ever recovered, were never identified. George’s valet’s body was recovered and buried at sea.

More than a week after the sinking, Eleanor was still sick with a cold and constantly attended to by physicians as she refused to believe her husband was dead. Her friends told the New York Times that this was actually for the best until her health improved.

Eleanor and Alexander Rice

Eleanor and her second husband, 1920.

A New (Jungle) Life

After losing her family, Eleanor turned to charity. She donated the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library to Harvard and made several other memorials. A legend was born that she stipulated each graduate of Harvard pass a swimming test because she felt her son may have been saved if he had known how to swim. As far as I could find, the rule is not in place today. A Harvard librarian recently disputed the origin’s of the test, finding no stipulation about swimming attached to her donation.

In 1915, Eleanor married the explorer Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice. Together they went on expeditions to South America, Europe and India.

Eleanor in all black and a large black hat, in 1910.

Eleanor in 1910, source.

Their first expedition together was in 1916 to various South American jungles; coincidentally it was also their honeymoon. They sailed for the Amazon river on a steam yacht to make topographical surveys for the Royal Geographical Society of England and Eleanor established schools along the way.

On their second South American trip in 1920, Eleanor reportedly trekked further up the Amazon than any other white female explorer. The purpose of this trip was to find the source of the Orinoco (a long river) and a white tribe of “Indians” rumored to live in that region. Their party was attacked by locals and in the melee they killed two tribesmen whom they believed to be cannibals. Their guides urged them to abandon their trip and they did so.

Their specially equipped yacht for exploring the Amazon

Their specially equipped yacht for exploring the Amazon.

In 1924, on their third trip, friends feared they were dead after a long period of silence despite their state-of-the-art radio equipment. The two had, after all, brought a large armed seaplane on their latest expedition. It was equipped with aerial bombs to be used against apparent cannibals as Dr. Rice and Eleanor explored regions of South America for two years, unexplored areas white men had not reached before. Eleanor, now 62-years old, hoped to visit her schools and establish new ones as well.

Eleanor in fancy dress in Newport.

Eleanor in Newport , 1915, source.

Newspapers breathlessly reported on the obstacles the expedition would face:

“One of the most serious obstacles the members of the party will have to overcome is the hostility of a tribe of cannibal Indians…fierce and warlike natives. It is known that the river follows its course through almost impenetrable jungles abounding in poisonous insects and reptiles.”

They survived their latest expedition and split their time between their New York home and their Newport, Rhode Island mansion which Eleanor had built in honor of her late husband, George.

In 1937, Eleanor suffered a heart attack while shopping in a store in Paris. She died later that day, at home. She was 75-years old. The second line of her obituary read: “Survivor of the Titanic.”

Eva Pastor: Lynnewood Hall - Elkins Park, PA &emdash; Lynnewood Hall 2010.0402 10

Lynnewood Hall today, by Eva Pastor.

The Uncertain Fate of Lynnewood Hall

Today Widener University is named for the family. Their beautiful home Lynnewood Hall has had a more difficult road.

The 110-room mansion, built in 1900 by the eminent architect Horace Trumbauer, has been largely abandoned for years and needs an estimated $50 million in repairs.

After George’s brother, Joseph Widener, died the home was used to train military dogs during WWII. Evangelical church leader Carl McIntire bought the house in 1952 for $192,000. He stripped much of the house to sustain his church selling off mantels, walnut paneling, sculptures and parts of the landscape.

An elegant foyer in Lynnewood

A foyer in Lynnewood, source.

Today, it is owned by Richard Sei-Oung Yoon, a New York urologist and pastor of a Korean church called the First Korean Church of New York. Yoon bought the property at a sheriff’s sale in 1996 but after failing to have it rezoned as tax-exempt church property put it up for sale.

Lynnewood is the largest surviving Gilded Age mansion in the Philadelphia region. It has 50 bedrooms and bathrooms, a ballroom, wine cellar, pool and more. The home once held parties as grand as those in The Great Gatsby, housed one of the largest and most impressive private art collections (see below) and even had its own power plant.

A room in Lynnewood Hall that looks like an art museum. Painting cover the wall and there are sculptures, urns and benches to view the artwork.

Part of the art collection in Lynnewood during its heyday.

Recently it was successfully rezoned to allow developers to turn it into a hotel (yes please), a business, campus or retail/housing condos (just no!!!).

The latest news I could find about the property listing was that the price had been cut to $16.5 million in July of 2015 in hopes of finalizing a sale (The house was originally listed at $20 million in 2014). I see no listing for it now and no news that it has sold.

Many more great photos of Lynnewood Hall, past and present, can be found on this Pinterest board. The most recent photos of its interior disrepair can be found in this article, here.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10