Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Unsinkable Molly Brown

On November 3, 1960 a musical opened on Broadway called The Unsinkable Molly Brown, based on the life of Margaret Tobin Brown. The musical's music and lyrics were written by Meredith Wilson (who wrote The Music Man). It starred Tammy Grimes and Harvey Presnell and ran for 532 performances before closing. The musical was made into a movie starring Debbie Reynolds (in one of her most annoying performances) as Molly. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.

The musical Molly is a scrappy foul-mouthed illiterate tomboy who survived a flood on the Colorado river at six months old (one of the more disturbing scenes in the film). Molly dreams of a better life, of being rich and living in Denver, sort of a western Eliza Doolittle. Fleeing the hovel where she lives with her drunken Irish father and brothers, she travels on foot to Leadville, CO. She meets J.J. Brown by accident when he comes upon her while she's bathing. He's a miner who would rather fish and paint than mine. He teaches her to read and falls in love with her. But Molly wants to marry a rich man. She gets a job as a dancehall girl to save money to move to Denver. However, Johnny stakes a claim to Molly's heart and she marries him, which she regrets until Johnny to please her, uses his talent for mining and immediately strikes it rich, making $300,000 in three days. Molly hides the money in the stove, which Johnny accidentally lights to keep warm. No problem, Johnny just goes out and strikes it rich yet again.

The Browns move to Denver, buy a huge house and in their gaudy finery, they try to crash high society but they are shut out until a Monsignor suggest they go to Europe to get some polish. In Europe, the Browns rough edges are smoothed out a bit, and they are welcomed by European royalty as something of a breath of fresh air. The couple return to Denver, and are finally accepted by high society, but Johnny hates the attentions paid to Molly by Prince DeLong. When Molly returns to Europe, Johnny behind. After realizing that Johnny is her true love, Molly travels back on the Titanic. As the Titanic sinks, Molly keeps up the spirits of her fellow survivors by getting them to sing. At the end, Molly and Johnny are reunited.

The musical and movie Molly is a coarse, crude woman with a heart of gold. Unfortunately the events depicted in the musical and the portrait of Molly are a combination of myth and caricature. The true story of Margaret Tobin Brown is more interesting and complex, then the simpleton portrayed in the musical. For one thing, she was never called Molly, only Margaret or Maggie (the book writer of the musical said that Molly was easier to rhyme than Margaret). She was born in Hannibal, MO not Colorado.

Margaret's parents were Irish immigrants who had both been widowed with one daughter each. They married and added to their family with five more children. Margaret was born July 18, 1867, two years after the Civil War ended. Her family were lower middle class, her father worked long hours for the Hannibal Gas Works. Margaret and her siblings attended a local neighborhood school until they were old enough to go to work, making her far from the illiterate character in the movie. When she was seventeen, she moved to Leadville, CO to live with her older sister who had married. She got a job working in a local department store, attending chuch picnics and other local events.

When she was eighteen, she met James Joseph Brown, thirteen years her senior, and fell in love. Brown had moved to Colorado from Pennsylvania, his parents like hers had been Irish immigrants. Despite the fact that Margaret had planned on marrying rich, she married J.J. for love. "I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown. I thought about how I wanted comfort for my father and how I determined to stay single until a man presented himself who could give the tired old man the things I longed for him. Jim was as poor as we were, and had no better chance in life. I struggled hard with myself in those days. I loved Jim but he was poor. Finally, I decided that I'd be better off with a poor man who I loved than with a wealthy one whose money had attracted me." They were married in Leadville's Annuciation Church soon after she turned 19 in September of 1886. The Browns had two children Lawrence and Helen Brown.

Contrary to the film, it took 8 years of hard work before the Browns became rich and the Little Jonny mine was owned by J.J.'s employers, the Ibex Mining Company. When his engineering efforts proved successful in the production of an ore seam at the mine, the owners gave him 12,500 shares of stock and a seat on the board. The Browns soon moved to Denver, where Margaret became part of the social whirl. They owned a country home called Avoca as well as a fine house in town. Margaret had long been involved with women's rights. She helped to establish a local chapter of teh National American Women's Suffrage Association in Leadville and worked in soup kitchens to assist the families of the miners'.

In Denver, she continued to be an outspoken advocate for the causes that she believed in, often putting her money as well as her mouth into the cause. She became a charter member of the Denver Women's Club, and a supporter of Judge Ben Lindsay who helped to establish the juvenile court system in the United States. It was columnist Polly Pry who first nick-named her Molly and called her Unsinkable after her adventures on The Titanic. While Molly and J.J. were not members of the 'Sacred 36' Denver's answer to Mrs. Astor's 400, they were very much a part of Denver Society.

They both worked on improving themselves after their marriage. Margaret eventually attended the Carnegie Institute (now Carngeie Mellon) in Pittsburgh for a year. She learned French, German, and Russian, learned to yode (a skill she later used to entertain guests at parties), and studied the roles of Sarah Bernhardt. Margaret cut a dashing figure in Denver, always dressed in the latest fashions, with huge hats and a walking stick decorated with flowers. Margaret wasn't a snob, she was fascinated with Colorados' multicultural culture. She created a version of the Chicago Exposition in Denver and invited the local Indian tribes as well as the African-Americans living in Denver to participate.

Margaret travelled widely, particularly in France, which she loved. As well as NY and Denver, Margaret also had a cottage in Newport, RI where she became friends with Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and the Astors. It was her love of travel and her use of the media to promote her causes that caused her marriage to end in separation. While J.J. loved to travel, he was happiest in the West. He also thought that a woman should only have her name in the paper, 4 times in her life. He wasn't happy to see the his hard-earned money go to causes that he didn't particularly support. In 1909, after 23 years of marriage, the Browns formally separated. Although they never reconciled, they remained fond of each other. After J.J. passed away in 1922, Margaret declared that he was the best man in the world, and she would never remarry.

Margaret's most famous adventure on the Titanic almost didn't happen. She was in Paris with her daughter Helen when she received word that her first grandson was ill. While Helen went off to London, Margaret booked passage on the first ship that she could, the Titanic. When the Titanic was struck by an iceberg on April 15, 1912, Margaret busied herself helping others on board into lifeboats. When her lifeboat was rescued by the Carpathia, she tried to help others by getting the word out via telegraph to their families. Unfortunately the telegraph office was so backed up the messages were never sent. Back in NY, she spent days caring for the survivors. For her work, she was hailed as heroine.

Margaret ran for congress in 1909 and for the Senate in 1914, but the war intervened, and her sister's marriage to a German baron, led Margaret to believe her campaign would not be successful. Margaret lectured across the country on the Titanic and other subjects such as women's rights. She also lobbied to have women in the military, and took care of the miners in the aftermath of the Ludlow massacre. In France, she helped to create a military hospital and provided money for an ambulance corps. For her efforts, she was awarded the French Legion of Honour.

After her husband's death, Margaret and her children were briefly estranged as they fought over who should have control over J.J.'s estate. Margaret Tobin Brown died in 1932 at the age of 65 from an undiagnosed brain tumor. She was buried in Westbury, NY next to her husband J.J. Considering how much they both loved Colorado, it is sort of ironic they are buried so far from the state they loved.
The burnishing of Margaret's myth happened soon after her death. Margaret Tobin Brown was the closest thing to royalty Denver had ever seen. Heck, she even hobnobbed with royalty, being presented at court in England, and befriending a member of the Romanov's. Gene Fowler, a newspaper reporter, wrote a chapter on Margaret in his novel Timberline. He repeated the stories of Margaret surviving a flood and added new ones, particularly the idea that Margaret was an inspiration for Mark Twain. While her father was friends with Twain's father, and she spearheaded a campaign for a musem to Twain in Hannibel, Margaret and Twain were not friends.
While Margaret might have been amused by the legend she became after her death, her children were less amused. They had long lived underneath the shadow their parents cast while they were alive, and the shadow was still continuing. Both tried to live very private lives, Lawrence however was obsessed with learning about his mother's life before she moved to Leadville. He left behind 4 boxes of material to the Denver Historical society on his mother after his death, asking that they not be opened for 25 years. Only Helen lived long enough to see the musical and movie made from her mother's life. She passed away in 1970.
Margaret Tobin Brown lives on to this day as 'The Unsinkable' Molly Brown. She's as much a part of the myth of the Old West as Wild Bill Hickcock and Calamity Jane. She's been honored as a famous Missourian on the Missouri Walk of Fame, and her great-granddaughter Helen Benziger McKinney travels the country lecturing about her famous ancestor. She stands as a symbol of not only the indomitable spirit of the American woman, but also the American dream.
Sources:
Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth - Kristen Iversen, Johnson Books
The Unsinkable Molly Brown is available on DVD
Molly Brown house Museum, Denver

5 comments:

Heather Carroll said...

What a great story and a great woman! I never saw the musical but I was introduced to her through the movie, Titanic, but didn't know much else.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Heather. She's a really fascinating woman. And I was introduced to a whole cast of women that I had never heard of thanks to the biography I read about her.

Margaret Evans Porter said...

Thanks for setting the record straight on Margaret Tobin Brown! During the 11 years I lived in Colorado, visiting and taking our visitors to the Molly Brown House was one of my favourite hostess duties. (Well, that and the Coors Brewery in Golden!) One gets a real sense of the woman from the house itself. She was quite a force working on behalf of women and the marginalised.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

You are welcome Margaret. I wish that I had gone to the Denver RWA conference so that I could have visited the house. I just think she's so much more fascinating than the few glimpses that people get of her in Titanic or the musical. She was such a women's rights advocate but she still wanted her daughter and nieces to marry well!

dave hambidge said...

Another great tale and a most enjoyable read.

Best

dave