Titanic celebrates its 20th anniversary on December 19. Two decades on, most of us still remember this heart-wrenching scene: An elderly man and woman cling to each other in bed, silently watching the icy ocean waters rush into their cabin, rising up around them. He clasps her hand and gently kisses her on the cheek. They await their fate.
While director James Cameron took some artistic license on the moment, the ill-fated lovers in one of the movie’s most iconic scenes are based on two very real people: Isidor Straus, 67, and his wife Ida Straus, 63. The couple owned Macy’s (yes, that Macy’s) and were some of the wealthiest passengers aboard the passenger line. As Cameron portrayed, they died very much as they lived—in love.
This is what really happened to them that fateful night.
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Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, the “unsinkable” Titanic hit an iceberg and began letting sea water in through holes in its hull. When it became clear the ship was going down, Isidor and Ida did as they were told—the couple threw on life jackets and ran to the deck, where ship officers were lowering lifeboats and instructing women, children and first-class passengers to board first.
According to detailed accounts from Ida’s maid and Isidor’s work colleague (both surviving eyewitnesses who recounted the story to newspapers at the time) a third-officer told Ida, who was wearing a full-length mink coat to brave the icy outdoor temperatures, to step onto the lifeboat. She did. When the officer beckoned to Isidor, prompting him to follow suit, he shook his head.
“Isidor said, ‘No I will not get on the lifeboat until I see that every woman and child has a chance to escape,'” the couple’s great-grandson, Straus family historian and professor Paul Kurzman, told CountryLiving.com. “The officer said, ‘Look, Mr. Straus, we know who you are, so, of course you get a spot on the life boat.'”
“But, still, he remained on the deck,” says Kurzman.
Ida climbed back out of the boat and turned to her beloved husband. She told him, “We have lived a wonderful life together for 40 years and have six beautiful children together, if you won’t get on the life boat, I won’t either.”
She carefully took off her mink coat and handed it her maid, Ellen Bird. “I won’t have any further need,” she said. “Please take this as you get into a lifeboat to keep you warm, until you are rescued.”
“Isidor wrapped his arms around her,” says Kurzman. “Then, a great wave came over the port side of the ship and swept them both into the sea. That was the last time they were seen alive.”
The tender moment is only one of many bittersweet, final stories from the Titanic, but unlike others, it was well-documented in the news at the time. The beautiful love and sacrifice of Isidor and Ida lived on, allowing Cameron to incorporate the couple in his 1997 film.
In a deleted Titanic scene (above), Isidor is seen trying to convince Ida to get onto the boat without him. Ida responds, “Where you go, I go, don’t argue with me, Isidor, you know it does no good.”
Isidor gives her a hug and the scene cuts away. Later in the movie, they’re seen in bed together, holding hands. This second scene was included in the film, although neither is quite accurate, says Kurzman.
“James told me that he knew it wasn’t accurate, but he took some license as a director,” explains Kurzman. “I said, ‘As long as you know it’s not accurate.’ The truth is they died standing on the bridge on the deck of the ship holding each other.”
In an interview with USA Today, Cameron told the outlet, “…I was being a screenwriter. I wasn’t thinking about being a historian.”
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Isidor and Ida’s Love Story
Isidor was born in born in Otterberg, Rhenish Bavaria, Germany on February 6, 1845. He immigrated to Georgia with his family in the mid 1850s and finally landed in New York City, where he was introduced to Ida by her sister, Amanda.
The two had an instant connection and in 1871, at age 26, Isidor proposed to Ida, 22. They were “in love” according to Kurzman, and were very public with their affection. “They were often spotted holding hands, kissing, and hugging, which was unheard of for persons of their status and wealth in their day,” he says. “One time they were even caught ‘necking!’ And that behaviour lasted well into their later years. They had something truly special and it’s something us progeny treasure a great deal.”
Isidor went on to become the owner of Macy’s, and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1894. He was a confidant to multiple presidents, according to Kurzman, and was even a dear friend to president Grover Cleveland.
When Isidor was forced to travel overseas on business, away from his sweetheart, he’d write to her every day. Ida, who affectionately called him “my darling papa,” was always quick to respond.
“Here is a good kiss for my dear papa,” she writes in a letter dated July 25, 1890. “Nathan intends taking us all picnicking today… it is very nice indeed now but it will be ever so much pleasanter with you here.”
In 1872, Ida and Isidor had their first baby, Jesse Straus. They went on to have five other children—Percy, Sara (Paul’s grandmother), Minnie, Herbert Nathan, and Vivian.
In 1912, the couple spent their social season in Europe near the French Riviera. They originally booked passage home on the Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic, but when it was delayed, they decided to travel back on the Titanic.
They stayed in a “well-appointed suite on C deck, consisting of cabins 55 and 57,” June Hall McCash writes in her book A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus. Ellen Bird stayed in a smaller cabin across the hall. Their neighbours were the Lamson sisters, who were the daughters of Charles Lamson, a senior partner of the shipping house of Charles H. Marshall & Co.
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It is thought that on April 14, Isidor and Ida indulged in a 10-course meal in the first-class dining room, before strolling arm-in-arm on the upper deck. Then, they retired to their room. Shortly before midnight, the Titanic struck the fatal iceberg that would sink the ship, about 400 miles east of Newfoundland. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew aboard the ship, more than 1,500 died—including Ida and Isidor.
Ida’s body was never found, but Isidor’s body was recovered at sea and brought back to New York City for a memorial service. Everything on his person was sealed and sent to Sara, including a gold locket found in his trousers. The piece of jewelry contains an onyx embalmment with the initials I S(with the “I” standing for both Ida and Isidor) and contains a photo of Jesse, their eldest son, and Sara, their eldest daughter.
“It’s remained in my family ever since,” says Kurzman. “It was given to Sara, who gave it to her eldest daughter, my mother, who handed it down to me. When she gave it to me, she said this must remain in perpetuity in our family for generations. And, so, it will.”
On May 12, more than 6,000 people attended Ida and Isidor’s memorial service at Carnegie Hall. The mayor of New York, William Jay Gaynor, delivered a eulogy along with Andrew Carnegie himself. A memorial park was dedicated to the couple near their home on 106th Street and the couple are memorialized in a Bronx cemetery with a monument inscribed, Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.
“This is a love story,” says Kurzman, a member of the Straus Historical Society. “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.”
This article originally appeared on Town and Country US.