More than two decades after James Cameron’s 1997 epic Titanic hit theaters, Jack and Rose’s ill-fated romance continues to captivate people the world over. And though the characters were entirely fictional, their tragic tale wasn’t all that different from that of a real couple on board the Titanic in 1912. But who were they, and what makes their story so heart-rending, even a hundred years later?
It was midday on Wednesday April 10, 1912, in the port of Southampton, England, when RMS Titanic lifted her anchor for the first time. She was the quickest, largest and grandest ocean liner of her time. And after three years in construction, she was finally ready for what was set to be an historic journey. But, as we know, the iconic vessel would never complete her maiden voyage.
Measuring an impressive 882 feet 9 inches in length and weighing more than 46,000 tons, the Titanic was celebrated worldwide as a phenomenal feat of engineering. When she set off, the ship was carrying around 2,200 people – barely half of her full capacity. But none of those passengers – from movie stars and millionaires to immigrants looking for a fresh start – could have foreseen the dreadful fate that would befall this “unsinkable” ship.
There are presumably thousands of tales from the night of April 14, 1912, when the Titanic struck the fatal iceberg that would cause her to plunge to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean within just three hours. But one story has surfaced that’s quite unlike any other. Speaking to Country Living in 2017, Paul Kurzman shared the astonishing account of his great-grandparents, a couple whose extraordinary exhibition of unwavering love mesmerized their fellow passengers.
Their names were Isidor and Ida Straus, a wealthy husband and wife from New York. Having enjoyed a luxurious winter vacation in Europe, the pair boarded the Titanic in Southampton for their lengthy journey home across the North Atlantic. But, of course, their ship would never make it to the Big Apple.
The Strauses were, in fact, among the richest passengers who boarded the ship that day. Back in the U.S., they enjoyed a lavish lifestyle thanks to Isidor’s career: he was a former Congressman and the owner of world-famous department store Macy’s, which he had bought with his brother some two decades earlier. Such extravagant voyages were presumably not uncommon for the couple, then. This particular trip, though, would prove to be unlike any other.
Isidor and Ida had been married for over 40 years when they climbed aboard the ill-fated Titanic in 1912. He was 67 and she 63, and they had six grown children. Both originally from Germany, their families had subsequently emigrated to the U.S. After meeting through Ida’s sister, the 20-somethings immediately hit it off, and they married in 1871.
Among friends and family, the couple were known for their loving relationship. As their great-grandson Kurzman told Country Living, “They were often spotted holding hands, kissing and hugging, which was unheard of for persons of their status and wealth in their day.” The pair shared quite a bond, then. It was their journey on the Titanic, though, that would prove just how unbreakable that devotion really was.
As fate would have it, the Strauses had initially planned to travel back to New York on the RMS Olympic, a sister ship of the Titanic. After the former was delayed due to strikes, however, they opted at the last minute to change their booking.
And so, blissfully unaware of the fate that awaited the ship, the Strauses arrived in Southampton to board the world-famous passenger liner. They had been able to afford first-class tickets, which had set them back £221 each – the equivalent of roughly $60,000 today. Accompanying the couple were Ida’s maid, Ellen Bird, and Isidor’s manservant, John Farthing.
The Strauses stayed in what was reportedly the most extravagant suite on the vessel. Their room was, in fact, the inspiration for the lavish abode occupied by Kate Winslet’s Rose in Cameron’s movie. As first-class passengers, they benefited from more luxurious facilities than any other boat of the period, including a swimming pool and an enormous dining room complete with live entertainment – the band whose musicians famously continued to play as the ship began sinking into the icy sea on the night of April 14.
Isidor and Ida reportedly spent much of that fateful evening enjoying a ten-course dinner. Afterwards, they took a walk on the deck before returning to their suite. It was a clear night, and the temperature was fast approaching freezing. Just before midnight, the Titanic collided with a block of ice that ripped its way through five of the ship’s watertight compartments; tragically, she could only stay afloat without four.
So, as the grandest ship ever built began its descent beneath the waves, Mr. and Mrs. Straus were called from their beds and instructed to report to deck. There, on-board officers had begun hurrying women and children into lifeboats. And, as per the unwritten rule of the sea, men were to wait until last. But not Mr. Straus.
You see, thanks to the businessman’s elite status, this rule was wavered. Apparently knowing who Mr. Straus was, an officer offered him a seat on board lifeboat number eight – next to his wife. However, the Macy’s owner declined the chance of escaping. But why?
Well, it seems Mr. Straus simply refused to be given special treatment. He reportedly informed one of the officers, Colonel Gracie, “I will not go before the other men,” and insisted on staying aboard the sinking ship. A heroic move indeed, yet it’s the choice that his wife made thereafter that makes their story so astonishing.
As soon as Mrs. Straus realized that her beloved husband would not be joining her, she made a remarkable decision. According to eye-witness accounts, the 63-year-old promptly exited the lifeboat and rejoined Mr. Straus on deck. What’s more, Ida apparently insisted that her maid remain on the lifeboat. She removed her fur coat and passed it to Bird, announcing that she no longer required it.
“As we have lived together, so will we die together,” are the words that Mrs. Straus apparently then said to her husband, according to The Vintage News. Passengers taken to safety later claimed they’d seen the pair as the boat went down standing alongside the rail, holding each other and weeping silently. Of the estimated 2,400 people on board, more than 1,500 died when the Titanic finally sank at 2:20 a.m. – including Mr. and Mrs. Straus.
Mr. Straus’ body was later recovered from the water, along with about 340 other corpses. Ida’s body, sadly, was never found. And on May 12 that same year, some 40,000 people congregated to pay their respects to the brave couple at a service in New York. The Strauses’ heroism has been celebrated with a plaque in Macy’s, as well as a monument in the Bronx cemetery where Isidor was laid to rest. Its inscription reads: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”
And so, although Isidor and Ida Straus weren’t the basis for the fictional Jack and Rose in Cameron’s Titanic, their story has nonetheless inspired many – including the filmmaker himself. Indeed, the elderly couple pictured at the end of the movie, clinging onto each other as the waters swirl around them, are in fact a homage to the Strauses in their final moments.
“This is a love story,” the Strauses’ great-grandson Kurzman told Country Living. “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.”