Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Dorothy Gibson starred in a film about the Titanic only a month after surviving its sinking

Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Dorothy Gibson

What it’s about: A silent film star whose life would have been remarkable even if she hadn’t survived the sinking of the Titanic. She was a chorus girl, artists’ model (in the days when magazines used illustrations, not photos), political prisoner, and silent film actress who starred in 25 films in only two years. The best known of those, Saved From The Titanic, was based on Gibson’s own experience, which had happened only a month before the movie hit theaters.

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Biggest controversy: Before getting married, Gibson and her second husband dated for six years. He was married to someone else for five of them. Jules Brulatour co-founded Universal Pictures, and began having an affair with Gibson in 1911. He backed several of her films, including Saved From The Titanic. They were able to carry on in secret until 1913, when Gibson hit a pedestrian while driving Brulatour’s car. The pedestrian died, and in the ensuing court case, their relationship went public. By that point, Brulatour and his wife were separated, but the scandal was enough for her to sue for divorce. He married Gibson in 1917, but someone (it’s not clear who) challenged the legality of their marriage, and it was dissolved two years later. Rather than weather another scandal, the couple split up, Gibson moved to Paris, and Brulatour remarried within a few years.

Strangest fact: The whole Titanic thing. Gibson was a movie star in the earliest days of the medium, when Hollywood was located in Fort Lee, New Jersey. After an Italian vacation with her mother, Gibson returned Stateside on the doomed vessel. The two were playing bridge with friends when the ship hit the iceberg. Gibson was rescued by the Carpathia, and as soon as she arrived in New York, her manager convinced her to star in a film based on her experiences. She didn’t just star in the one-reel Saved From The Titanic, she co-wrote the script, knowing better than anyone what happened that night. She even wore the same clothes she had on when the ship sank! The film hit theaters on May 14, 1912—just 29 days after the real Titanic went down.

Tragedy struck Titanic again, however. While the film was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the only known prints were destroyed in a fire just two years after it was released, in what’s considered one of the worst losses from the silent film era.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Gibson had a successful career outside of her Titanic notoriety. Just in the first half of 1911, she went from being an extra for Independent Moving Pictures Company to a stock player for Lubin Studios to being a leading lady for Éclair Studios (a French company that opened up shop in the U.S. that year). She starred as Molly Pitcher in Éclair’s drama Hands Across The Sea, which led to a string of starring roles. Critics praised her “natural, subtle acting style” in both comedy and drama, and she was one of the first actresses to be promoted as a movie star. However, the car accident and ensuing scandal abruptly ended her movie career, and it’s not clear whether she continued acting once she moved to France.

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Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Only one of Gibson’s films still exists. Like far too many films from the silent era, the prints of nearly all of Gibson’s filmography—including Titanic—was destroyed, damaged, or lost. The only film that survives is A Lucky Holdup, the 13th of the 18 films she appeared in in 1912. The film was rediscovered by collectors in 2001, and now resides in the Library of Congress.

Also noteworthy: Gibson was a Nazi sympathizer. After leaving Brulatour and New York, she spent the rest of her life in Paris, apart from four years during WWII when she lived in Italy. She’s rumored to have been a Nazi spy, but whether or not that’s true, she renounced her allegiance in 1944, and was promptly arrested as an anti-Fascist agitator and imprisoned in Milan. She escaped, along with journalist Indro Montanelli and General Bartolo Zambon, and was helped to freedom by the Archbishop of Milan.

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Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: As remarkable as Gibson’s story is, it’s not exactly unique. Three years after she survived the Titanic, silent film actress Rita Jolivet survived the sinking of the Lusitania, the British ocean liner whose sinking by a German U-boat pushed the U.S. closer to entering WWI. While she didn’t make a movie about the sinking, she did testify in court when the steamship company tried to limit liability payments. Jolivet lost her brother-in-law when the ship went down, and then her sister, who killed herself while grieving her husband. Like Gibson, Jolivet had two short, tumultuous marriages before settling down in Europe. Unlike Gibson, she married for a third time and started a family—which includes her great-grand-nephew, Finn Wolfhard.

Further down the Wormhole: While nearly all of Gibson’s film work is lost to history, she may still be immortalized in one of our greatest films. It’s widely speculated that Orson Welles based the character Susan Alexander in part on Gibson when he made Citizen Kane. The original print of the consensus best film ever made was also destroyed in a studio fire, but the film was restored from an early copy of the original. It was further restored for a 50th anniversary re-release in theaters. Paramount released the film, (originally an RKO production), but at that point the rights belonged to Turner Broadcasting System, a basic cable umbrella that includes TBS, TNT, CNN, Turner Classic Movies, and Cartoon Network, and is now owned by Time Warner. Turner was one of Atlanta, Georgia’s most iconic companies, alongside Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Arby’s, Chick-Fil-A, and Waffle House. The ubiquitous Southern chain opened its first location in 1955, and settled on the name because waffles were the most profitable of its 16 menu items. We’ll take a look at the surprisingly long and detailed history of everyone’s favorite breakfast food (and if it isn’t your favorite, we regret to inform you that you’re wrong) next week.

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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.