On April 15, 1912, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic carried front-page news of the sinking of the Titanic. During the following days, as details trickled in, they repeated the stories of survivors, who told of seeing an elderly couple standing on deck in their evening clothes, their arms around each other. Ida and Isidor Straus were that pair. Isidor would not leave the ship until all the women and children on board were safe, and Ida refused to get into a lifeboat without Isidor: “I will not be separated from my husband,” she said. “As we have lived so will we die together.”
The Strauses were the real-life love story of the Titanic. (Ironically, a scene depicting them in the James Cameron movie ended up on the cutting-room floor.) And though their deaths became part of American history, a new biography of the couple, A Titanic Love Story by June Hall McCash, makes it clear that their lives had historical significance as well. Ida and Isidor Straus were Jewish immigrants, Civil War survivors, and wealthy New York merchants. Isidor ran Macy’s Department Store and served in Congress; his brother Oscar was the first Jewish man to serve as an American ambassador.
McCash, who divides her time between Murfreesboro and Jekyll Island, Georgia, has written several books about Jekyll and Sapelo Islands. She was drawn to the Strauses’ story in part by their connection to Georgia. At nine, Isidor immigrated to America with his mother and siblings to join his father, who had arrived two years earlier. The elder Straus, a peddler, encountered little anti-Semitism in his Southern territory: his route was rural, and most planters and their families were grateful for the news the peddlers brought. When he decided to stop traveling and sell his wares in one place, the family settled in Talbotton, Georgia. There Isidor grew up, helping in his father’s business.
Though A Titanic Love Story is a joint biography of the couple who died on the Titanic, Isidor comes across much more vividly in this account than his wife does. In part, that’s because his life was much more public than hers, and he left behind letters and other documents, including a short autobiography he wrote for their children, which includes details from his childhood. No such details are available for Ida Straus, who conducted her life according to that Victorian ideal, “the Angel in the House.” She managed the household, reared the children, and supported her husband. Despite this very private role in the world, Ida was so moved by the plight of Russian Jews that she wrote a poem, published in The New York Times, in which she exhorted the Russian people “to throw off thy shackles, strike for the right to live!”
The letters Ida and Isidor left behind reveal a devoted couple. On discovering that Isidor’s arrival home had been delayed one summer, Ida wrote: “To say that I am disappointed in your not coming home tomorrow as your dispatch indicates hardly expresses my feelings. Still I know that you would not remain away if it were not necessary so I resign myself.” The Strauses loved each other and their family, but by every account they were also kind and charitable people in general. In fact, one of Ida’s last acts on the Titanic was to help someone else: “Briefly removing her life preserver, she took off her fur coat and handed it to her maid,” McCash writes. “‘I won’t need this anymore,’ she said. ‘You take it.’”
Compared to the real-life love of Ida and Isidor Straus, the fictional drama featuring Kate and Leo doesn’t seem quite so majestic after all.