'In the lifeboat, my mother found she had me but not my brother'

 

Rescued from the stricken ‘Titanic’ as a baby, Millvina Dean has been pursued by the ship’s compelling story ever since. Now a special fund is helping to make a great survivor’s future more secure. The 97-year-old talks to FIONOLA MEREDITH

THERE’S A LONG, long lifetime reflected in Millvina Dean’s hands. Although gnarled and age-spotted, they are elegant and exquisitely manicured. These hands are strong and expressive too, flying around as she speaks, grasping a pen as she signs her autograph, a little wobbly but very determined, for the umpteenth time. Now aged 97, Millvina is the last living link to the most famous ship in history.

Millvina Dean was the youngest passenger on the Titanic. A nine- week-old baby in her mother’s arms when it set sail from Southampton on April 10th, 1912, Millvina was so tiny that when the ship struck the iceberg, she had to be lifted into a lifeboat in a postal sack. Yet despite the enduring global fascination with the stricken liner – not to mention the runaway success of the 1997 film, Titanic, which grossed €1.3bn worldwide – in recent years Millvina has been struggling to pay the costs of her room in a Southampton nursing home. In desperation, she auctioned off several of her remaining Titanicmementoes, including the mail sack in which she may have been rescued.

But now Millvina’s future looks much rosier, after Don Mullan, an Irish author and photographer who was moved by her plight, successfully challenged the wealthy director and stars of the Titanicmovie to help her out. Director James Cameron has given a one-off payment of $10,000 (€7,400), while actors Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have together donated an initial $20,000 (€14,800). The pair say that “we are honoured to contribute to the Millvina Fund. Our hope is that others will feel inspired by Millvina Dean’s remarkable story of survival, and we hope she can rest easier in knowing that her future will become more secure through this fund.”

Mullan himself has also produced 100 limited-edition copies of a photograph he took of Millvina’s hand as she signed an autograph (see right). Each print is personally signed by Millvina, with all proceeds going to the fund.

Millvina herself is a little taken aback by all the fuss. Rather glamorously turned out in a pair of black velvet trousers, a pink diamanté brooch sparkling at her throat, she says: “I was watching the 10 o’clock news last night, half-asleep, then I looked up and said, ‘coo, that’s me’! All I get now are phone calls all day from people asking me how I feel about Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m absolutely browned off with all the phoning!”

Millvina says she is grateful for the substantial donations, but she also pays tribute to the many other, much less famous, people who have helped her.

Surrounded by piles of correspondence and gifts from fans around the world, as well as by her collection of colourful toy animals and two cuckoo clocks, Millvina sits like an ancient queen. The timbre of her voice, and her turns of phrase – “I couldn’t see for toffee” – seem to come from another century. But her wits are still razor-sharp, and she’s formidable – “What? Are you calling me Miss Dean? Call me Millvina, that’s my name!” she says, gruff but kindly – and fiercely independent.

A care attendant at her nursing home smiles: “Ah yes, what we call helping, she calls interfering.”

THIS IS NO shrinking violet, no dithery little old lady. Her personality fills the room. The current target for her ire is a publisher who has had the temerity to put out a book of photographs of Millvina without consulting her first. He’s expected to call at the nursing home soon.

“I’m just waiting for that chappie,” she says, a glint in her eye. You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him.

It’s clear that Millvina loves the limelight, and she has a piquant sense of humour. She has me in stitches with her tales of the Titanicgroupies who bombard her with weird requests.

“I hear from the oddest people,” she says. “One gentleman, he said: ‘You may think me mad, Millvina, but would you send me a lock of your hair? If you do, I’ll give you a cheque for £100’. So we chopped off a piece of my hair, tied a little red ribbon around it and sent it off. Two days after, £100 arrived. The next day the doctor came, and I asked him: ‘Would you like a lock of my hair for £5? Special offer.’”

Although it’s a funny story, there’s something disquieting about it, too. It’s almost as if some Titanicobsessives see Millvina as a living artefact, a relic, and they’re desperate to have a piece of her, in this case literally.

Despite the interest of her famous supporters, Millvina has chosen never to watch Titanic,or any other film about the disaster. She lost her “strikingly handsome” father, 25-year-old Bertram, on that fateful April night. “Although I don’t remember him, know nothing about him, I would still be emotional. I’d be thinking: ‘How did he go down? Did he go down with the ship? Did he jump overboard?’”

In fact, for the first few years of her life, Millvina was entirely unaware of the high-profile trauma her family had suffered. “Mother would never speak of it,” she says. “And so I didn’t know anything about it till I was eight years old, when my mother was getting married again.”

What affect did it have on her? “Well, my grandfather adored me, and I adored him. To me, he was my father. So when they said about my father going down, quite honestly, I couldn’t have cared less. He was a stranger.”

The young family – mother Eva, father Bertram, and their two children, Millvina and Bertram junior, who was aged only two – boarded the Titanic as third-class passengers and were emigrating to a new life in Kansas. Later, Eva told Millvina how they felt the impact of the iceberg as it ripped into Titanic’shull just before midnight on Sunday, April 14th.

“They heard a tremor, a tremendous noise, and my father said: ‘I’ll go up on deck, see what’s happening.’ He came back and said: ‘Apparently the ship has struck an iceberg. Get the children on deck as quick as possible.’ I think that’s what saved us. So many people said the ship won’t sink, it’s unsinkable, but not my father – he wasn’t taking a chance.”

Eva never saw her husband again. And it seemed that two-year-old Bertram was lost, too.

“My mother got in the lifeboat, and found she had me but not him,” says Millvina. “But she couldn’t do anything about it. It was a bitterly cold night and she had to keep me warm. When we were picked up by the Carpathia, there he was. He’d been looked after by another passenger.”

The three remaining Deans finally arrived in New York on April 18th, later returning to England aboard the Adriatic. As a baby who had survived the wreck of the Titanic, Millvina was much in demand, as the Daily Mirrorreported at the time: “ 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 SETTLED at Eva’s parents’ farm in the New Forest, near Southampton, an idyllic place Millvina often returns to in memory now.

“We’d gather the mushrooms that came up in the orchard, and we made our own cheese and butter,” she says. “In those old days, you did the haymaking yourselves – you used to cut it and turn it to dry in the sun. There’s nothing more lovely than the smell of hay.”

Much of Millvina’s life was spent in relative anonymity. During the second World War, she was a cartographer. Later, she worked at an engineering firm in Southampton, where she first met her devoted companion, Bruno, a gallant Latvian gentleman with a twinkly grin. She never married.

It was only in later life that she was caught up in Titanic-mania, travelling the world with Bruno, giving talks and signing autographs. “If it hadn’t been for Titanic, I would have just lived an ordinary life,” she says. “Once they found the wreck, and then they found me, I was able to travel all over the place, having the best of everything. So really, since that, my life has been really good.”

Millvina recalls a trip she made to Ireland with special affection. “I love the Irish, they’re my favourite people – they have my sense of humour. I visited the Blarney Stone, but I didn’t need to kiss it . . . I’ve got the gift of the gab already.”

When they’re not hungry for details about Titanic,Millvina says that many people ask her for the secret of her long and happy existence. She always has the same answer: “A sense of humour and a kind heart. If you’ve got that you’ve got everything.”

A zest for life clearly helps, too. Up on a shelf in Millvina’s room, there’s an electric-blue teddy bear, wearing a jaunty pair of sunglasses, whose T-shirt says: “Over the hill and picking up speed.”

That’s the spirit of this unstoppable nonagenarian survivor.

Contributions to the Millvina Fund may be made at www. themillvinafund. com. To order copies of the limited-edition photograph, e-mail donmullan @exhibita studios.ie