Rediscovered after years in a desk: final interview with the last survivor of the Titanic
Fionola Meredith remembers her encounter with Millvina Dean, who was saved from doomed liner in mail sack
The voice on the tape sounds like it comes from another century. And the truth is it does. It belongs to Miss Millvina Dean, the last living survivor of RMS Titanic, then aged 97. I made the recording of our conversation on May 13, 2009 in a Southampton nursing home. Eighteen days later Millvina passed away. I didn’t realise it when I spoke to her, but it was to be the last interview she would do.
Millvina didn’t seem like a woman near the end. Apart from a troublesome cough, which bothered her occasionally, she was full of her customary sharp wit and even sharper observations. Her warm, indefatigable personality filled the entire room. When I addressed her as Miss Dean she immediately picked me up on it. “What? Are you calling me Miss Dean? Call me Millvina, that’s my name!”
It’s an unusual name, I said. “I like it,” said Millvina. “In the book that’s written about me they called it my pet name. But it’s my real name! Everyone imagines it’s a nickname. I hear it from so many people — Miss ‘Millvina’ Dean — in inverted commas. I was so annoyed. I’ll have to announce it on the internet. This is me, Millvina Dean. No inverted commas.”
Indefatigably glamorous in a silver-white wig, scarlet lipstick and a pair of black velvet trousers, Millvina then launched into an anecdote about an over-keen admirer. As the last survivor of the disaster and thus the last living connection with the ship, Millvina was a person of remarkable interest to collectors, who treated her as something of a holy relic.
Everyone wanted a piece of her, sometimes literally. On this occasion a man had written to her asking for a lock of her hair for which he was willing to pay £100. Millvina agreed, chopping off a lock, tying it with a piece of red ribbon, and sending it off in the post. “Two days after, £100 arrived!” recounted Millvina gleefully. “Most extraordinary! I was the only one who believed in him. The next day the doctor came, so I said: ‘Would you like a lock of my hair for five pounds? Special offer’. He thought it was quite uproarious.”
Millvina Dean was the youngest passenger on the most famous ship in history. Just a nine-week-old baby in her mother’s arms when Titanic set sail from Southampton on April 10, 1912, Millvina was so tiny that when the ship struck the iceberg she had to be lifted into a lifeboat in a postal sack.
The young family — mother Eva, father Bertram, and their two children Millvina and Bertram junior — had boarded Titanic as third-class passengers, emigrating to a new life in Kansas. Later Eva told Millvina how they felt the impact of the iceberg as it ripped into the ship’s hull just before midnight on Sunday, April 14.
“They heard a tremor, a tremendous noise, and my father said: ‘I’ll go up on deck to find out what has happened’. He came back and said: ‘Apparently the ship has struck an iceberg. Get the children out of bed and on deck as quick as possible’. And I think that’s what saved us. So many people said: ‘The ship won’t sink, it’s unsinkable’, so they didn’t care. But not my father.”
Millvina’s father died in the tragedy, and at first it seemed as if her brother was lost, too. “My brother was under two,” she said. “My mother got in the lifeboat and found she had me but not him. But she couldn’t do anything about it. It was a bitterly cold night. She had to keep me warm. Anyhow, when we were picked up by the Carpathia (the ship that answered Titanic’s distress call), there he was. He’d been lifted off by another passenger. That must have been an absolutely lovely thing for my mother.”
Afterwards Eva did not talk about what had happened for a very long time. “My mother would never speak of it, because it was her husband and they were only married four years. He was strikingly handsome. I didn’t know anything about it until I was eight years old. And then my mother got married again. That’s when I first heard about the Titanic, and about my father going down, everything like that.
“They ask what effect it had on me, and I think I was quite an odd child, because it had no effect at all. I lived on the farm with a grandfather who adored me, and to me he was my father, and I adored him. So when they said about my father going down, quite honestly, I couldn’t care less — he was a stranger.”
Yet Millvina found herself unable to watch any of the films or documentaries made about the Titanic. “Because that’s the ship on which my father went down. Although I didn’t remember him, nothing about him, I would still be emotional. I would think: ‘How did he go down? Did he go down with the ship or did he jump overboard?’”
The three remaining Deans finally arrived in New York on April 18, later returning to England aboard RMS Adriatic. As a baby who had survived the wreck of Titanic, Millvina was much in demand. As the Daily Mirror reported at the time: “(She) was the pet of the liner during the voyage, and so keen was the rivalry between women to nurse this lovable mite of humanity that one of the officers decreed that first and second-class passengers might hold her in turn for no more than 10 minutes.”
The family later settled at Eva’s parents’ farm in the New Forest, near Southampton, an idyllic place that was as vivid as ever in Millvina’s mind.
“It was quite lovely, with all the animals and the orchard. We’d gather the mushrooms that came up in the orchard, and we made our own cheese and butter. In those old days you did the hay-making yourselves — you used to cut it and turn it to dry in sun. Your hands were blistered, but it was lovely. The smell of the hay! There’s nothing more lovely than the smell of hay. I think it should be made into perfume.”
Perhaps surprisingly, much of Millvina’s life was spent in relative anonymity. She worked as a cartographer during the war and it was only in her later years that she decided to embrace her connection with the ship. Soon she started giving lectures about it all over the world, accompanied by her companion Bruno Nordmanis.
“Not lectures, talks,” she corrected me. She was horrified to see herself described as a lecturer when she appeared on board the QE2. “There was a sign saying Sir Bernard Ingham, lecturer, Millvina Dean, lecturer. Well, Millvina Dean nearly had a heart attack on the spot. I’ve never been a lecturer. But once I got on the stage and started talking it was okay. I got a standing ovation. People liked me. It was quite wonderful.”
She also gave many talks to schoolchildren, who proved to be a more demanding audience. “Little boys are the worst, asking me all kinds of things — ‘Miss, miss, how long was the boat miss?’ Well, it was a ship, not a boat. Little boys are dreadful. They asked me everything I didn’t know. The teacher said: ‘Tell me Miss Dean, where do you get your energy?’ At that time I was over 80. And I said ‘sugar’. Wrong thing. The minute I said it I saw her face. I could do nothing then. It’s true anyhow, I love sugar. I always have lots of sugar. In my tea, three spoonfuls, always. If it’s less than three it’s not a bit nice.”
And, of course, she signed many hundreds of autographs. “My hand never got tired, I could have gone on for ever. Though my handwriting is quite a bit wobbly now.”
Despite the enduring global fascination with the stricken liner — not to mention the runaway success of the 1997 film Titanic, which grossed $1.8bn worldwide — Millvina found herself struggling to pay the costs of her room in the nursing home.
In desperation she auctioned off several of her remaining Titanic mementoes, including the very mail sack in which she may have been rescued, and a suitcase filled with the clothes given to her family by the people of New York.
Don Mullan, an Irish author and photographer who was moved by her plight, successfully challenged the wealthy director and stars of the Titanic movie to help her out. Director James Cameron offered a one-off payment of $10,000, while actors Kate Winslet (below) and Leonardo DiCaprio together donated $20,000. It meant that her final days were free of anxiety about the future.
The very last recording of Millvina Dean lay at the bottom of a drawer in my desk for years, until I rediscovered it while having a long overdue clear-up. That was when I decided to let it go, on the basis that it was better off out in the world than sitting unheard under a pile of dusty old papers.
Listening to it again, her voice rings out as clear as ever, undimmed by the passing of time.
- The last-recorded interview with Millvina Dean will be auctioned tomorrow by Henry Aldridge and Son, Devizes, Wiltshire, www.henry-aldridge.co.uk