Monday, August 2, 2010

Ruth Roman, Betsy Drake, and the SS Andrea Doria

Newspaper article from “The Boston Daily Globe” July 26, 1956, page 1.

In July 1956, the ocean liner SS Andrea Doria sank on the last night of its transatlantic voyage from Italy to New York City when another ocean liner, the MS Stockholm, collided with her.

It seems a watershed moment, almost as if morosely heralding the end of the leisurely elegance of ship travel (the first jet was to cross the Atlantic two years later), and the beginning of instant news as still photographers from  Life  magazine and others, newsreel cameramen, and reporters scrambled to the site to watch the vessel sink. Topping any newspaper “extras”, the film was developed and shown on television, a first.

Along with scores of immigrants making that journey, were the well-to-do and well-traveled, and two who made that fateful trip represented Hollywood. They were actresses Ruth Roman, (last seen here in our discussion of “Invitation” - 1951) and Betsy Drake. Their experiences on the last voyage of the Andrea Doria, along with the harrowing tales of many others, are told in Richard Goldstein’s fine book “Desperate Hours - The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., NY, 2003), from which much of the following information is taken.

Betsy Drake, and husband Cary Grant, had traveled on the Andrea Doria before, and other stars, as captured in the documentary “Secrets of the Dead - The Sinking of the Andrea Doria” (PBS 2006), include Kim Novak, Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, and Tyrone Power.

Hollywood has given us a glimpse of the ship, inadvertently, in the final moments of “On the Waterfront” (1954) when Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint are standing atop his apartment building. The ocean liner moving down the Hudson is the Andrea Doria, two years before the tragedy.

Her last voyage was to be a nine-day journey from Genoa, Italy to New York City in this era where travel was leisurely. Ocean liners had individual designs and décor (unlike planes which were stamped out pretty much one like another). Meals were extraordinary, and passengers dressed for dinner.

There were three classes on the Andrea Doria, 1st class, cabin class, and tourist class, each with its own gym, library, bar, dancing, movies, and swimming pools. The sumptuous ship was itself like an art museum with paintings and sculptures in airy solons with modern furniture, making it a most glamorous ship.

Ruth Roman, whose film “The Bottom of the Bottle” was released a few months previously, traveled with her three-year old son, Richard, called Dickie, as well as a traveling companion, Janet Stewart, and her son’s nanny.

Betsy Drake joined the voyage at Gibraltar, where she left her husband Cary Grant making a movie in Spain and pursuing Sophia Loren, much to his wife’s distress.

The trip enjoyed clear weather, and a peaceful crossing until its final night, when it entered the notoriously fog-bound waters south of Nantucket off New England. There were the usual last night farewell festivities, with champagne and streamers, and a roast beef dinner, and “Arrivederci Roma” played by Dino Massa and Orchestra.

Many cut the evening short to head back to their cabins and get some sleep before the early morning docking in New York. Betsy Drake did, never being much for socializing, and preferring to climb into her bunk in her cabin to read.

Ruth Roman and companion Janet Stewart enjoyed a last drink in the Belvedere Observation Lounge, while her son slept in the cabin a lower deck with his nanny minding him.

Some people watched the movie “Foxfire” (1955) with Jeff Chandler and Jane Russell.

A little after 11 o’clock that night, the MS Stockholm, leaving New York for Sweden, accidentally rammed the Andrea Doria. To some passengers it seemed like a dull thud, to others a great jolt, depending on where they were on ship, and then the screeching sound of ripping metal. Ultimately, 46 people on this ship, and 5 on the Stockholm, died.

Betsy Drake’s cabin on the Boat Deck shook, and she immediately put her stylish suit back on, grabbed a life vest, and headed for the upper deck. Her jewels, and a semi-autobiographic novel on which she’d been working, went down with the ship.

Ruth Roman ran from the lounge to get to her son, and ripped her form-fitting dress up the back so she could move better on the stairs that were already at a treacherous angle due to the listing of the ship on its side. She took son, and nanny, and life vests, and ditched her high heels to manage the climb to the upper deck.

Distress signals went out. First on the scene were a commercial freighter, Naval ships, and another grand ocean liner, the Ile de France.

The Ile de France had left New York City that morning and was heading to England, but turned around at the Morse Code distress call. 

The Doria was taking on water and ominously threatening to roll over. There were plenty of lifeboats on the Andrea Doria, a lesson well-learned from the Titanic disaster, but an unexpected problem arose. Because of the lurch of the ship onto its side, half the lifeboats could not be launched, and were useless.

Fortunately the Stockholm, though it had sustained severe damage to its bow, was in no danger of sinking. Several of its lifeboats were sent to fetch passengers from the Andrea Doria.

Ruth Roman found a deflated balloon left over from the party. She blew it up and amused her little boy with it, plunking him in a barricade of life vests and blankets on the deck, telling him they were having a picnic. Around them, scenes of chaos, courtesy, panic, selfishness, and selflessness.

The ship creaked, and slipped some more. About 2 a.m., Miss Roman and her gang slid down from the higher end of the deck to the lower side where they hoped to catch a rope to a lifeboat below. A young cadet sailor from the Andrea Doria took her son and strapped himself to Dickie, and climbed down a rope ladder to a waiting lifeboat.

The boat pulled away before Ruth Roman could climb in. The boy disappeared in the fog with a group of strangers. She, and nanny, and companion, waited for another opportunity to escape.

By 2 a.m., three hours after the collision, there were still around 1,000 people left on board the Andrea Doria awaiting rescue, the two Hollywood stars among them. No more division into classes; it was egalitarianism at its most miserable. Betsy Drake clung to the high side of the ship, took off her shoes for traction, and waited.

About that time the Ile de France approached. With sensitivity mixed with perhaps a certain Gallic élan, the captain ordered all the festive lights on the ship turned on so that the Doria survivors would see that help was coming. Among its strings of lights, there was the name lit up between its two funnels in great block letters: ILE DE FRANCE suddenly piercing the black gloom. More than reassuring, it seemed like something miraculous, a finale scene out of a movie.

Ruth Roman was taken in a lifeboat to the Ile de France. Her little boy was not here, and she could not find out to which ship among the seven rescue ships he had been taken.

Betsy Drake was also taken to the Ile de France. She had previously sailed on this ship under happier circumstances. (She had met Cary Grant when they sailed together on the RMS Queen Mary.) So many survivors were trying to send cables from the ship to loved ones, that she was unable to send one to Cary Grant.

Newspaper article from “The Boston Daily Globe” July 26, 1956, page 1.

Many of the passengers on the Ile de France donated clothing to the Doria survivors. A tennis professional named Eddie Hand gave Ruth Roman a pair of trousers, a white polo shirt, and woolen socks. A Life photographer who happened to be traveling with his family, brought her to rest in his cabin.

The Ile de France managed to scoop up 753 of the Andrea Doria’s passengers. When she entered New York Harbor, other boats blew whistles in tribute, and cheers rose up from the crowds gathering at the piers. Just after 5 p.m. on the 26th, she docked at Pier 88 off West 48th Street.

Betsy Drake, met at the pier by a friend, was still wearing her suit but also a pair of white sweat socks a sailor had given her. Many of the survivors had no shoes. Many of the immigrants had nothing left but the donated clothes on their backs.

Ruth Roman finally learned that her son had been taken to the MS Stockholm, which initially had trouble leaving the scene of the collision because its anchor chains had become tangled. It was still at sea when she arrived at the pier with the other Ile de France passengers.

Late the next morning, on the 27th, Miss Roman finally reunited with her son, as the Stockholm entered the Harbor. Now that the media had come of age, or at least catching on to its exploitive possibilities in the reporting of instant news, the moment she picked her child up and hustled through a mob of reporters and cameramen was captured with all its excitement and cruel lack of privacy.

Article from "The New York Times", July 26, 1956, p. 1

For both Hollywood stars, their connection to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria would become a footnote of trivia, though Betsy Drake was reportedly traumatized by the incident for months. She ultimately left acting, and her husband, for a career in psychotherapy, particularly in the treatment of children and adolescents.

The most remarkable aspect of the sinking of the Andrea Doria is that so many were saved due to an impromptu, but terrifically successful rescue operation. For more on the event, stop by at my New England Travels blog tomorrow.

For Mr. Goldstein’s excellent book, including an excerpt describing the arrival on scene of the Ile de France, have a look here at his website.


Amanda said...

incredibly fascinating. Wonderful post!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Amanda. Movies are entertaining, but sometimes there's nothing quite so dramatic as real life.

Laura said...

What a fabulous post! I had no idea of this story and was riveted. Thank you for this most interesting piece of history, Jacqueline!

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much, Laura. Kind of takes the glamour out of luxury travel, I suppose.

panavia999 said...

My mother used to talk about this a lot, she followed it closely in the news at the time. Apparently, some of the crew of the Andrea Doria behaved in a less than heroic manner. For example, the first lifeboats from the Adrea Doria to the Stockholm contained crew, not passengers, which reportedly enraged the Stockholm crew who fought with the Andrea Doria crew. The story of the wreck and rescue is more interesting than who was actually on board.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, panavia. The rescue certainly was an interesting story. It's true that the first lifeboats from the Andrea Doria contained many of their ship's staff, but technically, they were not the crew. They were for the most part waiters and kitchen staff, maintenance workers. By other reports, the actual seamen stayed on board and assisted the passengers.

panavia999 said...

A spectacular wreck is bad PR, but overall ocean travel was and is quite safe. These days, a person can cross the Atlantic on a freighter for about $125/day including meals. So transocean travel (as opposed to cruising) is still possible. You don't have dress up! I've never liked the idea of a cruise vacation, but sea travel is interesting.

panavia999 said...

I work in the maritime industry and it doesn't matter what their function was on board, they were still crew and the crew is last to leave. (Even though service staff, etc would have been the first crew to disembark after all the passengers had left.) Even the least of crew members has assigned duties when abandoning ship. Passengers first. Period.
Someone always behaves badly in a crisis. That's why there's a whole field of psychology devoted to it.

Gordon Pasha said...


Extremely interesting posting for so many reasons. You have retold the story so well I have little to add – and I also learned things I had not known (e.g., the On the Waterfront connection).

I remember well when the event happened -- and here is the ultimate trivia. My friend Bill O’Callaghan was either just married or getting married and the Papal Blessing of his marriage went down with the ship. It mattered not – he and Joan are still married all these years later.

More trivia, of little interest to other than my wife and me. In the late 90s, there was a very excellent little Italian restaurant in Gravesend, Kent which was owned and run by two brothers who formerly worked on the Andrea Doria. Its name was Casa Luna and it has since passed into memory – but whenever I hear about the lost ship I think about those two men.

And finally, a word on transatlantic crossings vs. cruises. My wife and I are long time Cunarders, having first crossed on QE2 in 1980. (I made less luxurious crossings in 1958 and 1959 on troop ships. I still have the letter I sent to my mother in 1958 telling her about my first crossing and my first sight of England.)

My wife and I still make the round trip every April and return in June. But even on the luxurious Queen Mary 2 one can avoid the dress up routine by eating at alternate venues and skipping the invitations that invariably come to frequent crossers. I like the idea of freighter crossings -- but have not ever done one.

Cruising does not interest me at all. Crossing the Atlantic with all its history has never lost its lustre. One thinks of the early Cunard days, of pilgrims heading west, of ships lost such as Titanic, of the captain of Carpathia speeding through the ice, and of our uncles going to war, and some returning on the great Queens.

Panavia999 also makes an excellent point. Every member of ship’s staff, no matter their status, has a mission in case of emergency and their ultimate responsibility is safety of the passengers.

Thank you again for an excellent posting about the high drama of peril at sea. It rattled the remote chambers of my mind for an assortment of thoughts. Best.


Postscript: More likely from the annals of Rod Serling is the account of the 14 year old passenger who during the collision was thrown from her bed on the Andrea Doria and deposited on the bow of the Stockholm.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Gordon, for another excellent commentary with much for us to chew on, Papal Blessing and all. I envy your transatlantic crossings. I hope to do that someday. Actually, I like dressing up, so that's no problem. But I would be sorely dissapointed if a live orchestra were not playing "Arrivederci Roma."

Yes, that young girl who, during the moment of impact, was thrown from her cabin on the Andrea Doria to the prow of the Stockholm, safely except for minor injuries, was Linda Morgan. Sadly, other members of her family died. Her father, a New York newscaster who was not on this trip, went through the rollercoaster of emotion in having to first report her death, and then the next day report her being found safe.

massimo mereu said...

My gran dad was Dino Massa the musician that was playing arrivederci Roma wen the SS Andrea Doria collide with MS Stockholm. my nonno is now dead but i remember the story very well as I grown up with nonno telling me the story many hero nonno Dino

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Grazie,massimo mereu,for telling us about your grandfather, Dino Massa. I'm sure he was a hero. He must have had amazing stories to tell of that time.

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