Upon the fateful night of April 14th 1912 on board the Titanic, there was a grand dinner party thrown by the Wideners in the À la Carte Restaurant. The dinner was attended by the wealthiest passengers on board in honour of Cpt E.J Smith, his last voyage and as a celebration of how fast Titanic was progressing on her maiden voyage.
Little did the guests know this would be the final time they’d all dine together before disaster struck.
After the sinking, at the official inquest, questions were raised about the attention of Titanic’s most senior officer and whether it was appropriate to be away from his post after receiving repeated warnings of icebergs in the waters ahead.
Although accounts of passengers who survived have cleared Smith’s name of any wrongdoing in this particular matter, we wondered about the infamous dinner party and the prominent guests at the table, many of whom did not survive the sinking.
Who Were the Wideners?
Hosts of the last dinner party on board the Titanic, the Widener’s, were the cream of Philadelphia society. Eleanor was a well-known philanthropist and keen adventurer and George was heir to the fortunes of his father, a member of the board for the bank that financed White Star Line.
As one of the wealthiest well-known couples on board Titanic, the Widener’s dinner party was the place to be on the evening of the 14th and eyewitness accounts report the event as a very special affair.
The Dinner Party Plans
A section of the Ritz À la Carte Restaurant had to be transformed to accommodate a large table for between 8 – 10 guests. No such table existed onboard so it is reported that two tables were pushed together to seat the large group. Passengers remarked how the stewards, as well as Mr Gatti, were making all sorts of effort to ensure the special dinner went smoothly before dinner service.
Those who dined in the restaurant that night recall the dinner party being a gay affair, with plenty of laughter and frivolity coming from the Widener’s table. According to reports from others, the event was still in full swing at around 10:00 pm, unusually late for ladies and gentleman to still be seated together in the restaurant, but that it wrapped up not long after that.
Captain E.J Smith was said to leave around 10:00 pm to attend to his duties and retire for the evening, this was taken from the testimony of Charles Stengel at the Senate enquiry who stated;
“I have a distinct recollection of a Mrs (Maybelle) Thorne stating, while talking about the captain being to dinner, that she was in that party, and she said, “I was in that party and the captain did not drink a drop. He smoked two cigars, that was all, and left the dining room about 10 o’clock.”
After dinner had finished, the ladies among the group retired to their individual rooms and cabins, whilst the men went to the Smoke Room to enjoy a round of cards, Captain Smith did not follow and went to the Bridge for a report then to his ready room, where he sat until disaster struck.
Since the sinking, and now many years later, speculation continues among Titanic experts and others those who are interested regarding what might have been discussed at the dinner party, who attended and sat with the Captain and even what they wore.
Thanks to few eyewitness testimonies we can piece together an estimated guest list of the last dinner party on board theTitanic and can only imagine what the well-to-do group might have had to talk about besides the icebergs looming in the dark waters ahead.
The Hostess – Eleanor Widener
Socialising in only the best of circles, Eleanor Widener had become an accomplished host with a well known “britte whit”. She, together with her husband George, were well known in the popular summer spot, Bay Harbour, and often hosted grand galas and parties at their stunning home in Pennsylvania.
On board the Titanic, Eleanor made friends with many of the first class passengers and on the afternoon of her dinner party, she even managed to coax a daytime recluse, Mrs Ryerson, out from her comfortable cabin to take the air on the promenade.
As she walked with Mrs Ryerson, Captain Smith and Mr Ismay crossed their paths with a telegram warning of icebergs in the waters ahead. Something that struck both the women as strange was that Ismay and Smith had reportedly discussed increasing speed in order to make yet more headlines when arriving ahead of schedule in New York, a fact Ismay later denied at the inquest.
That evening’s dinner party was a screaming success by all accounts, with laughter and gaiety heard all around the restaurant by other diners. After making sure her guests were well tended to Eleanor Widner was second to last lady to leave the table on the night of their grand dinner party, leaving only Mrs Carter behind.
She and her son went back to their cabins and discussed the evening, then made ready for bed but before they could settle the collision occurred and the pair made ready to leave the ship, both assuming the worse.
Eleanor boarded lifeboat No.4 with Mrs Astor, Mrs Thayer and Mrs Carter and after a wait of nearly an hour the group were launched at 1:50 am. This fact has been disputed time and time again because of the position of the lifeboat and the wealth of the passengers. People took both to assume the boat would have been one of the first to leave the sinking ship, therefore, casting doubt on all the following accounts given by occupants in the boat.
The women had left behind loving husbands and sons on board Titanic, floating close by as the ship submerged below the icy water. One of the women in lifeboat No.4 described reaching sea level after being lowered only a matter of feet, the C Deck windows having been submerged, which confirms the approximate time of the lifeboats launch in relation to the level of the waters.
All of the women in this boat were so close to Titanic they recalled details from the moment Titanic began to slip below the water. They described vividly the collapsing of the funnels and the splitting of the ship’s keel, facts we know are true today thanks to expert investigations.
Mrs Widener’s account of the sinking was so graphic, she did, in fact, write to a confidant about seeing an officer shoot himself in the head, supposedly William Murdoch, and then also witnessed Captain Smith, who had been at her dinner party hours earlier, leaping from the bridge into the freezing sea.
After the tragedy, Eleanor Widener’s charitable nature compelled her to donate $2,000,000 to construct the Harry Elkins Widener Library. Here she bestowed her son’s rare book collection where it mostly remains today.
The library resides inside the larger grouping of the Harvard College Library and as a condition of her sizeable donation Mrs Widener requested all Harvard graduates learned to swim, something she believed may have saved her son.
Eleanor Widener married again after losing her first husband, the pair travelled the world extensively exploring deep into the Amazon to see lost tribes and ancient civilisations. She died in Paris in 1937.
The Host – George Widener
Heir to a great fortune and a prominent businessman in his own right, George Widener was returning from a visit to Paris where he and his family had been recruiting chefs for his latest business venture. Widener had plans to open the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia and wanted the finest French cuisine to be served there.
He, Eleanor and his eldest son Harry embarked their return journey at Cherbourg together and occupied two of the finest cabins on board the Titanic.
On the afternoon of the 14th, after planning their grand dinner party, the Widener’s were on the promenade deck talking with the Ryerson’s, when Captain Smith passed their party along with Mr Ismay.
They noticed an exchange of a telegram and recalled how Ismay told them the ship was “among the icebergs”. Ismay then placed the telegram into his pocket, at which point Mrs Ryerson is said to have enquired about slowing down the ship to avoid a collision. Ismay replied;
“No, we will go faster”
Both Mrs Ryerson and Mrs Widener both reported overhearing Ismay discuss lighting more boilers and speeding up to make it to New York half a day ahead of schedule.
Despite the concerning information they had overheard, George and his wife continued ahead with their dinner plans, now a celebration of the success of Captain Smith and what was to be his final triumphant sailing. They dined and laughed into the night and at around 10:00 pm George retired to the Smoke Room with his male dinner guests.
It was here where all the men in the party were chatting business and playing cards when the strike of the iceberg was felt and they all rushed off to attend to their loved ones, all of which ended up in lifeboat No.4.
It is said by Major Butt that George Widener, Harry Widener and John Thayer were in deep discussion at the railing where the lifeboat carrying their wives was launched from, all three of the men died in the disaster.
An avid collector of rare books, Harry Widener had amassed a treasure trove of special volumes including early publications of Shakespeare’s work and the very first Burmese printed script. It is understood that
Harry Widener had the chance to board a lifeboat when at the last minute he recalled a copy of a rare text he’d found in Paris left in his cabin and upon going back to get he missed his chance to escape from the doomed ship.
Others recall Mr William Carter beseeching him to get into a lifeboat he’d found accepting men to which he bravely replied;
“I think I’ll stick to the big ship Billy, and take a chance”
Whether he’d resigned himself to death or he genuinely believed, like so many others, that despite the collision the ship would not sink or would be rescued in time, we’ll never know. He perished like his father.
Carter survived, as did his wife Lucille and the children. The younger Carter, William, arrived onboard RMS Carpathia wearing a large lady’s hat which was said to have been put there by J.J Astor in an attempt to disguise him as a young lady.
Carter senior is said to have not recognised the boy from eyewitness accounts, although actions in Carter’s life after the disaster made others question his mental state and the immediate effect the tragedy had on his mind, as we found out later.
Mr William and Mrs Lucille Carter
At the age of just 18, William Ernest Carter inherited his father’s coal and iron fortunes. He married pretty socialite Lucile Stewart Polk in 1896 and the pair went on to have two children, also named William and Lucille. The young and handsome couple made friends in all the highest social circles, forming friendships with the Astor’s and the Widener’s long before stepping foot on the decks of Titanic.
The fashionable pair attended the lavish dinner party hosted by the Widener’s and toasted to a luxurious and speedy journey thus far. Both Carter’s were used to travelling this particular route having done so back and forth to Europe and England almost annually for seven years before on other luxurious cruise liners.
After dinner, Mrs Carter retired to her room to sleep and Mr Carter joined the men in the smoking room. At around midnight Lucille recalled being woken by her husband where she was told to dress and head up on deck. She did so with her children and made it into lifeboat No.4 but didn’t see her husband again until the following morning when Carpathia collected them from the lifeboat.
Williams Carter senior was one of the few men to have survived after getting into a lifeboat, making it on to the rescue ship before his wife and children. He, along with Mr Ismay were forced to defend their actions after receiving lots of negativity in the press and from the public.
“Mr Ismay and myself and several officers walked up and down the deck, crying ‘are there any more women?’ We called for several minutes, and there was no answer . . . Mr Ismay called again and getting no reply, we embarked . . . I can only say that Mr Ismay entered the boat only after he saw that there were no more women on deck.” Illustrated London News, 27 April 1912.
We all know of course there were plenty of women left on board the Titanic and the actions of Ismay would haunt him forever.
It seems Carter’s conscious was never quite clear again either as, after the sinking, he and Lucile’s relationship deteriorated ending in divorce in June 1914. She stated that she never got over being abandoned on board the Titanic when it began to sink and her husband’s character was unstable and unpredictable in the years after the disaster.
Mr John Thayer and Mrs Marian Thayer
There are many accounts of the Thayer’s relating to Titanic, their son Jack Thayer’s being one of the most amazing survivor’s stories ever told. Mrs Thayer was also among the group of wealthy ladies who donated a fine watch to the Captain of Carpathia, Rostron, after his heroic rescue.
In the days before the sinking, the Thayer’s were shown a wireless ice warning, just one of many Titanic had been sent that day and all three of the family had noted a sharp drop in temperature. The two elder Thayer’s went to dress whilst Jack decided to dine alone and continue his exploration of the ship.
Out on deck just hours before the collision Jack Thayer noted;
“It was the kind of night that made one feel glad to be alive”
The younger Thayer returned to his stateroom later in the evening to greet his parents around 10:45 pm. The three discussed briefly the events from the party and then bid each other good night when Jack wound his watch the time was 11:45 pm. Jack later told how the collision with the iceberg occurred moments after he checked his watch and both he and his mother were thrown to the floor.
Archibald Willingham DeGraffenreid Clarendon Butt was a military aide to President Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, a position that caused him great stress when the two went head to head.
His work was rewarded with a long a six-month vacation in Europe upon which he was to recuperate from his emotional exhaustion working between Roosevelt and Taft.
Butt boarded Titanic at Southampton to return to the US and, once on board the Titanic he was invited to be a guest at the Widener’s dinner party on the night of the 14th.
He, like the other men in the party, finished up the playing cards in the Smoke Room. Back in the US Butt’s organisational skills and cool calm approach to important matter were famous. Skills he sadly had the opportunity to demonstrate when the ship began to sink taking on the role of an officer and even forcibly removing men from lifeboats and boarding women.
The last memories people have of Major Butt, although contradictory to other accounts, saw him standing on deck with J.J Astor waving goodbye to those in lifeboats and some say Butt then returned to the Smoke Room to enjoy a last cigar and finish his game of cards before he was taken by the sinking.
Witnesses of the Last Dinner Party on Titanic
There were many notable witnesses to the grand Widener dinner party, some of which contradict the sobriety of the guests and others put more prominent guests at the table.
Lucy Duff Gordon, for instance, remembers J.J Astor and Madeline dining with the Straus’s on the night as recorded in her memoirs, although this has been disputed. All witnesses recall Mr Ismay dining with Dr O’Loughlin in the restaurant, within close proximity to the party but not at the table.
He was questioned regularly during the inquest as to who was at the party, how long it lasted and whether, to his knowledge, if any member was intoxicated after the event. His testimony altered somewhat but never cast doubt on the sobriety of Captain Smith.
Another rather illusive couple from the passenger list of the Titanic, Mr and Mrs Thorne were actually known as Maybelle Throne and George Rosenshine, a pair trying to hide their recent love affair. Maybelle, as she was known on the ship, stated she attended the famous last dinner party to Charles Stengel and she gave an accurate account of the type of evening it was, absolving Captain Smith from being drunk or unfit for duty.
In fact, one of the few times the sobriety of Captain Smith was questioned was in a letter written by a second class survivor, Mrs Emily Richards, that surfaced shortly before the 100th anniversary of the sinking.
In the document, Richards states the Captian was spotted in the saloon bar late in the evening, and that she felt the loss of her brother was to be blamed on the “drunk Captain”.
Further evidence from earlier in the evening even places Captain Smith on the bridge at 20:55 pm, contrary to witnesses who had seen him at the Widener’s dinner.
It’s unlikely an accurate timeline can be laid out concerning the Captain’s exact whereabouts throughout the evening, but the majority of the accounts that are available do suggest he was sober and fully aware of the danger that lay ahead.
The Last Dinner: Party a Final Farewell
The last dinner party on board the Titanic was the very last time wives would dine with their husbands, some of them never meeting again after disaster tore them apart.
No amount of wealth or position changed the fate of those on board the Titanic and since the sinking, the last dinner party has become a symbol of a final farewell to all who perished. All the guests were reported to have been in such high spirits, unaware of what was to come just mere hours after they departed company.
At 30 James Street – Home of the Titanic we delve into the past, bringing stories and accounts from the fateful night when 1503 people were lost to the sea. Readers can learn more about the fascinating facts of Titanic, the myths and legends that surround the ships past and all about the lives of survivors and those that perished in our archives.