He's gone down in history as one of the 20th century’s greatest cowards for fleeing the foundering Titanic while women and children were still on board.
But a new play premiering in Belfast this week could cast Joseph Bruce Ismay in a new light.
The Man Who Left The Titanic tells the tale of the White Star Line owner who escaped the doomed ship on April 15, 1912 by stepping into one of its lifeboats and sailing away from the wreck and its hundreds of dying passengers.
The play, which premieres on Saturday as part of Belfast City Council’s two-month Titanic 100 festival, asks whether Ismay simply did what any of us would have done in the same circumstances or should his actions on that night consign his name to infamy.
After the ship hit an iceberg 400 miles south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and began to sink, Ismay was rescued in Collapsible Lifeboat C.
At the Titanic disaster inquiry hearings he testified that as the ship was in her final moments he turned away, unable to watch his creation vanish beneath the waves.
The shipping line owner was savaged by both the American and British Press for deserting Titanic while women and children were still on board.
In the American state of Texas, the citizens of a new town called Ismay decided to change the name to something “less ignominious”.
He was also the subject of tales that he had dressed as a woman to make good his escape, but it’s commonly accepted that this can be traced to resentful rumours propagated by those who felt he was the person most responsible for the disaster and should have gone down with the ship.
Others maintained that Ismay had in fact followed the “women and children first” principle, having already assisted many women and children himself.
He and first-class passenger William Carter said they had boarded Collapsible C after there were no more women and children near that particular lifeboat.
London society ostracised Ismay and labelled him one of the biggest cowards in history and in 1913 he resigned as president of International Mercantile Marine Company and chairman of the White Star Line, maintaining a low profile in the wake of the disaster.
During the United States Inquiry he announced that all vessels of the International Mercantile Marine Company would be equipped with lifeboats in sufficient numbers for all passengers.
Ismay retired from active affairs in the mid-1920s and settled with his wife in Connemara, Co Galway.
His health declined in the 1930s, following a diagnosis of diabetes and the loss of part of his right leg.
Ismay died in Mayfair, London in 1937 of a cerebral thrombosis at the age of 74.
The new play asks whether Ismay was a coward, or merely human.
Written by Patrick Prior, The Man Who Left The Titanic is set 20 years after the disaster and is performed as a duologue between Ismay, reflecting on the horrors of the night in question, and Thomas Andrews, from Comber, Co Down, the ship’s designer, who remained on board, whose ghost haunts and taunts the magnate.
The play has been hailed as “a must see play... a splendid performance” by the Titanic Heritage Trust. The Man Who Left The Titanic can be seen at Belfast City Hall this coming Saturday and Sunday (9 and 10 April), and again at The Barge, Lanyon Place on Friday 27 and Saturday 28 May.
Tickets are available from the Belfast Welcome Centre in Donegall Place — telephone +44 (0)28 9024 6609.