The real Jack and Rose: Titanic’s Isidor and Ida Straus

Jack and Rose may have been largely fictitious for the sake of entertainment, but as Titanic’s mantra becomes ever more romanticized with time’s onward march, we look at the real love story from Titanic – Isidor and Ida Straus.

If you were to ask a child from the era of Britpop and Brosnan’s Bond about romance, reigning top of their increasingly disenfranchised list would be Jack and Rose – the main characters from James Cameron’s 1997 re-telling of the Titanic disaster.

We won’t need to tell you about their story arc or downbeat yet highly romanticized ending; you’ll know it already. Their fate is now engrained into our cultural DNA, and in contrast to the humanitarian casualties of the onscreen suffering, the love between Jack (Leonard DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) has become the basis for an entire culture.

Of course, the Jack and Rose characters are largely fictitious, and as time cements Titanic as more of a romantic symbol over peacetime’s greatest maritime catastrophe, White Star Line’s proud flagship has come to embody everything beautiful about human connection and affinity.

James Cameron’s 1997 classic remains one of cinema’s greatest concocted romance stories, however – you don’t have to dig far into the real Titanic to find a true tale that symbolises devotion, courtship, and love.

Devotion: Isidor and Ida Straus

Perhaps two of the most celebrated persons aboard RMS Titanic, Mr Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida, were travelling back to New York after spending winter in their native Germany.

Isidor was renowned as the co-owner of Macy’s department store (alongside his brother, Nathan), while Ida had made a name for herself as an American homemaker.

Besides their success and wealth, Isidor and Ida were recognisable for their undying devotion to one another. They remained distinguished within social circles for sharing an indestructible bond.

An aurora of passion and happiness surrounded their presence, and right from the moment they met, it seemed as though fate had played matchmaker with cupid’s arrow.

On paper, they were a perfect match. Besides sharing Jewish descent and having both emigrated from Germany to North America in their formative years, they also shared the same birthday (February 6th) and aspirations.

It was a real case of love at first sight. The couple married in 1871, during a time when Isidor worked for his father’s business – L. Straus & Sons; a pottery brand integrated into the crockery department of Macy’s. He worked extremely long hours with enough professional gusto to secure a place in the management chain, before becoming the co-owner of the Macy’s chain.

Isidor and Ida had seven children together, suffering through the loss of their second-born son, Clarence, who died aged in infancy. During this turbulent and enervating time, Isidor was required to travel for business – alongside his duties serving as a member of the U.S. Congress – but the couple remained particularly close.

In the days before viable telephones, the best way to frequently communicate remained the humble letter. Isidor and Ida wrote to each other frequently and faithfully. Very much in love, they truly hated being apart. They yearned to live every minute with one another.

“Theirs was the love of husband and wife so beautiful among old couples who have weathered life’s storms together. Two more devoted lovers could scarcely be found”, recalled Isidor’s cousin, Mrs Samuel Bessinger.

As news unfolded of the Titanic’s sinking, with stateside newspapers blaring those now famous headlines, Mrs. Bessinger seemingly knew the couple’s fate before official word of their destiny reached her.

“Knowing Mrs. Straus as we do, we are certain that rather than leave her husband, she remained on the ship. If he was not permitted to enter one of the small boats, both undoubtedly are lost”.

A colourized picture of Titanic leaving Southampton. Credit: Picryl

A fateful destiny aboard Titanic

Providence of the Gods aligned stars and souls for Isidor and Ida to find one another, but fate ultimately had other ideas for their finale.

The couple had originally booked to traverse the Atlantic aboard a different ship, but the national coal strike of 1912 and subsequent maritime politics diverted them away from their preference for German vessels.

Instead, they booked first-class accommodation on White Star Line’s celebrated new ‘unsinkable’ steamship. The lure of RMS Titanic’s maiden voyage, amid her celebrated opulence and social status, certainly would have compensated for any logistical disturbance.

Journeying with Ida’s recently-appointed English maid, Ellen Bird, and Isidor’s manservant, John Farthing, the couple held ticket #17483 and were assigned to cabins C55-C57.

The C-Deck suite occupied by the Strauses was, perhaps, the most opulently decorated and furnished accommodation available. They had booked a parlour suite, the same size as RMS Titanic’s most expensive room, minus the private promenade deck. It was likely an exciting change of plan.

Besides being diverted away from their preferred German Transatlantic ship, the staunch New Yorkers were not scheduled to be in Europe that winter. At least, not according to written correspondence and postal exchanges documented via Encyclopedia Titanica.

Their original plan was to vacation in southern California with Isidor’s business partner; A. Abraham. However, Abraham passed away while living on Cherry Island, near Alexandria Bay.

This shock announcement led to a last-minute change of plan, and the couple chose to venture back to their home country; after holidaying at Cape Martin in the south of France.

There was talk of Isidor suffering from illness, of which also spearheaded their decision to visit Europe and allow Isidor to recuperate.

Ida and Isidor relaxed in the company of their onboard social circle, dining on the finest White Star cuisine, and absorbing the hyped journey. Returning to their luxurious first-class accommodation for the night on April 14th, 1912, they had no concept of what history had in store.

The first-class Suite occupied by Isidor and Ida Straus. Credit: Titanic Gazette

The final night

At 11:40pm on April 14th, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg 400 nautical miles from New York. The threat was initially considered inconsequential – after all, the ship was ‘unsinkable’; a statement that had tempted fate.

It was customary to operate a ‘Women and Children First’ policy during that time, and as it became clear that Titanic’s maiden voyage would also be her last, the calm reasoning evaporated.

Titanic’s crew were left to struggle against a wave of feverish desperation - especially as knowledge spread of insufficient lifeboats to accommodate all passengers.

As half-filled lifeboats departed from the sinking vessel amid evermore anguished screams, women and children from first class were ushered towards the remaining boats; including Ida Strauss.

It had been generally concluded by this point that a huge number of people were set to perish in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. Most doomed souls resided in third class, but the majority were inevitable to be male.

No men were permitted to enter lifeboats until the conducted mantra deteriorated towards “every man for himself”. By this point, it was too late for most.

The evacuated first-class passengers could only watch from the lifeboats as nightmarish proceedings continued. Except for Ida, who had refused to take refuge. She was still on deck, by choice, knowing her end was not far away. She was not leaving Isidor’s side.

A newspaper depiction of Isidor and Ida as the Titanic sank. Credit: Picryl.

Love. Defined.

Having been directed to lifeboat no. eight, Ida refused safe passage should Isidor not be able to accompany her. According to eyewitnesses, Ida also recognised her age and would not accept safety when younger men were refused salvation.

Hugh Woolner, a fellow first-class passenger, approached Isidor and declared: "Sir, I really don't think anybody would mind if you took a spot in your lifeboat, there may be room in this lifeboat”.

Isidor refused seating while women and children were still aboard.

Despite anxious pleading and tearful attempts at persuasion from residents of lifeboat no. eight, and even Isidor himself, Ida instead gave her fur coat to her new maid, Ellen Bird, saying that she had no further use of it and instructed Ellen to take her seat.

‘Where you go, I go’, she proclaimed to Isidor.

Crew members repeatedly attempted to direct the wealthy Ida into available lifeboats, but she had chosen her fate. "I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so will we die, together”, were her immortal words.

They sat down on deckchairs, under the stars, surrounded by havoc and turmoil.

The couple were last seen holding hands, driven by confidence in tackling whatever came next. The situation presented the darkest kismet, but they were in it together.

As the Atlantic’s icy soak clawed across RMS Titanic’s slanting decks, pulling the ship down into the inky blackness, Isidor and Ida were carried by a wave into the sea. The couple’s last moments were not recorded by survivor accounts, overshadowed by the chaos as RMS Titanic entered those endmost seconds.

Those final minutes together remain private solely to them, despite historical scrutiny and abject speculation. As they had shared the last five decades, they also shared a connected passing, comforted by tenderness and adoration.

The Straus Memorial. Credit: Wikicommons

A lasting legacy

Once daylight had spread across the ocean surface and highlighted what remained of RMS Titanic and her incumbents, rescue ships steamed into the area to seek out survivors and collect perished souls from the water.

CS Mackay-Bennet, a Glaswegian cable-laying vessel, had been hired by White Star Line to bring as many individuals home for burial as possible. The ship’s crew managed to recover the mortal remains of 306 souls, including Isidor Straus. Ida was never found.

Isidor was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, before being returned to New York. He was first buried in the Straus-Kohns Mausoleum at Beth-El Cemetery in Brooklyn until the Straus Mausoleum could accommodate him in Woodlawn Cemetery. He was accompanied by an urn filled with water from the wreck site to symbolise his beloved Ida.

Isidor and Ida are memorialized on a cenotaph outside the mausoleum, bearing a quote from the Song of Solomon (8:7): “Many waters cannot quench love—neither can the floods drown it.”

In addition to the cenotaph, a memorial plaque is located at the 34th Street entrance to Macy’s Department Store, alongside a memorial located in Straus Park, at the intersection of Broadway and West End Avenue.

To this day, Isidor and Ida are remembered as the perfect example of undying love. Although viewed as a tragic story with a morbid climax, with Isidor laid to rest and Ida lost at sea, their souls are free and interwoven for eternity.

Although very briefly shown in James Cameron's 1997 film, most of the footage shot around their characters ended up on the cutting room floor; perhaps because their fleeting cameo radiated more love than Jack and Rose's entire storyline.

Where laughter and love abide, Isidor and Ida are there.

About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.