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Madeleine Astor: The Gilded Beginnings and Harrowing Survival of the 'Titanic'’s Most Famous Widow

Shayna Murphy
Madeleine Talmage Force, circa 1910.
Madeleine Talmage Force, circa 1910. / Unknown Author via Library of Congress // Public Domain
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In 1911, a teenaged socialite named Madeleine Talmage Force rose from relative obscurity to land one of the greatest eligible bachelors of her era: a newly divorced Colonel John Jacob Astor IV, who was widely regarded as one of the richest men in the world. 

But within less than a year, she’d go down in history for something far more tragic. Alongside her husband, she was a passenger on the ill-fated RMS Titanic when it struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912. Madeleine, who was 18 years old and five months pregnant with her first child, was helped into Lifeboat No. 4 by her husband, who then asked if he could join her on account of her delicate condition. 

“No sir; no man is allowed on this boat or any of the boats until the ladies are off,” Second Officer Charles Lightoller reportedly replied, according to fellow passenger Archibald Gracie IV, who gave sworn testimony of the exchange to the U.S. Senate in late April 1912 as part of their inquiry into the disaster. 

With that simple decree, Madeleine’s life would be altered forever. But her story—like those of other Titanic survivors Molly Brown and Eva Hart—didn't end once the liner sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Gilded Beginnings

Madeleine Force Astor, circa 1910.
The Brooklyn-born socialite attended two prestigious schools and traveled frequently. / Bain News Service via Library of Congress // Public Domain

Born in Brooklyn in June 1893, Madeleine grew up in the glow of the Gilded Age, a period in the late 19th century known for rapid economic expansion and opulence. 

New York was in many ways the epicenter of this: By the early 1880s, Caroline “Lina” Astor, the mother of Col. John Jacob Astor IV, led high-society circles as the premier member of the Four Hundred, a group of the city’s most influential and affluent elites. A champion of “old money” (meaning wealth that was generational and inherited, not recently acquired) and tradition, Lina Astor—or the Mrs. Astor, as she would come to be known—positioned herself as the authority on all matters “aristocratic” within the city, commanding immense social power and control until her death in 1908, which made the front page of The New York Times

Madeleine’s family wasn't the “new money” sort that Mrs. Astor reviled, but they didn’t belong to the Four Hundred, either. Her mother, Katherine Talmage Force, was the granddaughter of Thomas Talmage, a former Brooklyn mayor; her father, William Hurlbut Force, owned a shipping company and was a member of the New York Chamber of Commerce. 

As the younger of two daughters, Madeleine benefitted from many of the comforts the family’s wealth afforded. She attended two prestigious schools for women: Miss Ely’s in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the Manhattan-based Miss Spence’s, from which she graduated in spring 1910. Along with her mother and older sister, Katherine, she traveled abroad often during her childhood, including an extended stay in Paris. Emma Bullet, a Paris correspondent for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle who met Madeleine during one of her family’s sojourns, would describe her in 1911 as a sweet girl who loved animals, spoke and wrote French “fairly well,” and “knew how to twine herself around the heart of anybody, old or young.” 

But her future stunning successes seemed unlikely. “It would have defied any prophetess … that some day she would be the most talked-of American girl in America,” Bullet wrote, adding that there was “absolutely nothing at that time to make her look as if destined to be singled out … in any way.” 

Divorced … With Children

Col. John Jacob Astor IV
Col. John Jacob Astor IV, circa 1909. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

The Forces were not counted among the Four Hundred, according to an official list curated by society leader Ward McAllister with the help of Mrs. Astor, and later published by The New York Times in February 1892. Nevertheless, the family embraced many of the upper strata’s customs, including spending their summers in Bar Harbor, Maine. 

It was in Bar Harbor, toward the end of the summer season in 1910, that Madeleine reportedly met her future husband. Col. John Jacob Astor IV (a title he was granted based on a ceremonial appointment to the military staff of New York Governor Levi P. Morton in 1894) was 46, had a net worth of around $87 million (valued at approximately $2.4 billion today), and was newly single: His first wife, Ava Willing Astor, had been granted a divorce in March of that same year, on the grounds of infidelity. 

The terms of the divorce were particularly stringent: Col. Astor was forbidden to remarry within the state of New York for the remainder of his ex-wife’s lifetime unless permission was given by the court after five years had passed. She reportedly received a lump-sum settlement of $10 million, worth about $281 million today (other reports claimed she was awarded closer to $60,000 per year, equivalent to roughly $1.6 million annually in modern times). Their son Vincent, 18 and slated to attend Harvard University, opted to stay with his father. Their daughter Ava Alice Muriel (known as Muriel), was 7 and lived with her mother. 

Even after their split, Ava Willing Astor remained a fixture in high society; following the death of the Mrs. Astor in 1908, there was talk that she might assume her mother-in-law’s vacated role as society leader (this never panned out, however, perhaps due to the divorce or because she moved to London in 1911). By August 1910, Ava Willing Astor’s position was such that when she unexpectedly arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, with Muriel, it caused a stir—especially for her ex-husband, who was already there and hadn’t expected to see her. 

Eager to avoid her, Col. Astor slipped aboard his yacht, Noma, with his son and set sail for Bar Harbor. Shortly after arriving, he saw Madeleine playing tennis with her sister and was impressed; later that day, the pair played a mixed-double match against Vincent and Katherine. “And ever since then,” the New York American reported in 1911, “the colonel’s devotion to the 18-year-old beauty has been constant and intense.” 

“Pretty Girl May Marry Rich Mr. Astor”

Col. John Jacob Astor IV and Madeleine Talmage Force Astor riding in a car together.
Col. Astor and Madeleine take a drive. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The rumor mill didn’t swirl around Madeleine and Col. Astor right away; in the meantime, she took center stage in more ways than one, making her formal society debut on December 22, 1910. Regarded as “one of the handsomest of the debutantes” for that season, Madeleine was quickly embraced by the Junior League, a clique of young, well-to-do women poised to take New York high society by storm, and appeared on stage as part of a pantomime held for charity at the Plaza Hotel in February 1911, along with other up-and-comers belonging to the League. 

Col. Astor was never too far removed from these events: Throughout the winter months, Madeleine appeared as his guest of honor at several dinners he hosted at the Saint Regis Hotel, and she was often noticed in the Astor box within the “golden horseshoe” at the Metropolitan Opera House with her mother as chaperone. Her presence there signified two things: it suggested the pair had a close relationship, and it enhanced her social standing. It was from this box that the Mrs. Astor would frequently make or break the status of other would-be social climbers with a mere nod of recognition. 

By spring 1911, the Four Hundred had taken notice. “New York is interested,” read one April headline, “in Miss Force, a young woman well known in New York society.” Another headline in May proclaimed “Pretty Girl May Marry Rich Mr. Astor,” and soon many more like it appeared. After months of speculation, Madeleine’s father put it all to rest on August 1, 1911. From the steps of his office at 78 Front Street in New York City, he announced to the press that the pair were engaged, but no official date had been set yet for the wedding.

News of the Astor engagement kicked up tremendous controversy, both within society circles and around other parts of the country, even sparking protests. Religious leaders around the U.S. and across many denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, condemned the match. In remarrying, Col. Astor, an Episcopalian, was not technically in violation of the laws of his church, but many still cited his recent divorce as a reason not to perform the ceremony. Others denounced the impending nuptials on account of Col. Astor’s character and Madeleine’s age, attributing it to his “wicked lust” and considering it a mere “conquest of beauty.”

For Madeleine, the uproar over her forthcoming wedding struck closer to home. She received threatening letters from other young women and soon fell ill, the “severe nervous and physical strain” of it all taking an extreme toll. While Astor received the bulk of the bad press, the Four Hundred focused their disapproval on Madeleine, giving her the "cold shoulder" at events and refusing to acknowledge her as the heir-apparent to the Mrs. Astor.

By the end of August, she had recovered from her illness, and more news—about her $30,000 engagement ring (roughly $843,000 today) and reported $5 million marriage settlement (worth about $141 million today)—began to trickle in through the press. Some friends of the pair maintained it wasn’t wealth, lust, or societal ambition that brought them together—it was love, and that “any talk about this being anything but a love match is ridiculous.” 

On September 10, 1911, they married at Beechwood, Astor's sprawling oceanside estate in Newport, Rhode Island. The search for someone to marry them had not been easy; several clergymen claimed they were offered money to do it, with one Presbyterian pastor asserting he had been offered as much as $20,000 (valued at $562,000 today). At one point, a carpenter, who had once been a Baptist pastor, agreed to do it, but according to The New York Times, Madeleine was insistent that a clergyman in “good standing” in a parish be the one to perform the ceremony, so the carpenter was nixed. 

Ultimately it was Reverend Joseph Lambert, a Congregationalist pastor from Providence, Rhode Island, who sealed the deal. On the subject of money, Lambert said nothing, claiming it was “nobody’s business,” but he was rumored to have received $2000 (approximately $56,000 today). Facing backlash from religious groups in Chicago, Rhode Island, and other parts of the country, he left the church in November, reportedly to “go into business.”

Ship of Dreams

The Rms Titanic Leaving Southampton
The Astors boarded the RMS 'Titanic' at Cherbourg, France. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Once married, the Astors embarked on an extended honeymoon, visiting Rhinecliff-on-the-Hudson in New York and later, Bermuda. By November, news broke that they planned to go to Egypt, eventually making their way to the Nile in January 1912. While there, they toured the region with Margaret "Molly" Brown, a “new money” debutante and future fellow Titanic passenger who was no stranger to controversy, as she was recently estranged from her husband. 

Like Brown, the Astors went to Europe after touring Egypt. They boarded the RMS Titanic at Cherbourg, France, on April 10, with a small party that included Kitty, their beloved Airedale terrier; and a private nurse for Madeleine, who by then was visibly pregnant and required “constant care” as the pair moved from place to place.

Aside from taking walks on the Titanic's deck with Astor and Kitty, Madeleine mostly stayed in their first-class cabins C-62-64, which were considered the finest on the liner—perhaps for her health, or possibly to avoid whispers about her marriage. The couple had retired to their rooms for the evening when the great ship struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912. Col. Astor reportedly stirred first and woke Madeleine up, then told her to get dressed as he left to find Captain Edward Smith. When he returned to their quarters, his face looked “graver than it had been” and he told her the liner had hit an iceberg, but assured her there was “no danger.” 

Throughout all the commotion, Madeleine later maintained, her husband seemed like the “calmest man on the Titanic’s deck.” His almost preternatural repose in the face of mortal danger could be attributed to a number of things. Namely, he might have genuinely believed the so-called unsinkable liner wouldn’t sink, and was overheard on the boat deck to have said, “We are safer here than in that little [lifeboat].” But also, he'd faced trouble at sea before—his yacht, the Nourmahal, famously went missing in Jamaica for about two weeks in November 1909, following a bad storm. He'd survived unscathed, which may have informed some of his mindset aboard the Titanic on that fateful night.

By 1:30 a.m. on April 15, the Astors were still aboard the Titanic, having passed much of the time in between by playing with mechanical horses in the gymnasium. But as other passengers increasingly scrambled to find lifeboats, panic may have set in for them, too. Although Col. Astor maintained that the ship would be fine, he insisted that Madeleine change into warmer clothes (and helped her do so, right on the deck, after his valet returned to their rooms and retrieved them). Madeleine, in turn, later saw third-class passenger Leah Aks with her infant son and gave the woman a scarf to wrap around the baby, so he could stay warm. 

Second Officer Lightoller arrived on A Deck at around 1:45 a.m. to finish loading Lifeboat No. 4, and by that point, any notions Col. Astor had of the ship’s survival had likely vanished. Archibald Gracie IV, another passenger, observed him help Madeleine through one of the steamer’s enclosed promenade windows into the lifeboat as it was being lowered; he also heard Col. Astor ask to join, in order to “protect his wife.” When his request was denied, he demanded the lifeboat’s number so he could track her down afterward, and then stopped it from lowering any further so that two other first-class passengers, Ida Hippach and her teenage daughter Jean, could take the final spaces remaining on it. 

“The sea is calm and you will be all right,” Astor cried to his wife as Lifeboat No. 4 slipped out of the davits to the sea. “You are in good hands and I will meet you in the morning.” It was the last time Madeleine saw him alive.

“The Greatest Courage and Fortitude”

Madeleine Force Astor with an infant John Jacob Astor VI on the cover of the New York Tribune on January 9, 1916.
Madeleine with her infant son, John Jacob Astor VI, who was also known as the "'Titanic' baby." / Henry Havelock Pierce via Library of Congress // Public Domain

Lifeboat No. 4 hit the water with a thud at around 1:55 a.m., but right before it did, a man in a "state of great excitement" leapt off the deck of the Titanic and landed in it, alongside Madeleine and the other women. She grabbed an oar, as did several other women aboard, and they began to row frantically away from the ship. But the force of the sinking liner (which went under at around 2:20 a.m.) almost sucked them down with it. As icy seawater sloshed into the lifeboat, Madeleine and the others (except for the man, who reportedly "groveled" and hid under blankets) desperately tried to bail it out. They were successful, and once the whirlpool had settled, they returned to the area to search for survivors and managed to pull six men out from the water, although one was dead and the other died shortly thereafter. Throughout, Madeleine was said to have displayed "the greatest courage and fortitude." 

Neither Col. Astor, his valet, nor his cherished Airedale terrier, Kitty, survived the disaster. But Madeleine did, along with her maid and nurse. She was reported to be "dazed by shock" and suffering from a "nervous collapse" once she arrived back in New York, and was immediately put on bed rest. Her physicians gave strict orders that she not discuss the sinking any further, as her nerves remained "badly shattered" and "in her waking hours[,] she spends much of her time weeping with the recollection of the horror ... she underwent."

Col. Astor’s body was found by the Mackay-Bennett, a cable ship hired by the White Star Line, on April 22, and by April 26, his son, Vincent, and Astor estate trustee Nicholas Biddle headed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to retrieve it. His initials had been sewn into his jacket, which helped to identify him; among his personal effects, he was found with a gold pocket watch that also bore his initials, and which Vincent kept and wore for the rest of his life. 

Postmortem, Col. Astor was branded a hero for helping save three women (and his unborn child); Madeleine's fortitude revealed itself in other ways, too. Despite the tremendous stress of the Titanic ordeal, she successfully carried her pregnancy to term, giving birth to the couple's son, John Jacob Astor VI (later dubbed the "Titanic baby" in the press), on August 14. By this time, the details of Col. Astor's will had been widely publicized. He left the bulk of his fortune to Vincent, but gave Madeleine $100,000 outright (worth about $2.75 million today), as well as the full use of his home on Fifth Avenue in New York and a trust fund of $5 million. For their son, he left behind a $3 million trust fund (valued at $82.6 million).

Although the terms of his will were generous, it included a tricky clause: If Madeleine ever remarried, she would lose the trust fund along with the Fifth Avenue house. For a young widow with a child, a lifelong stricture of this magnitude struck some contemporaries as unfair. Yet for Madeleine, who always maintained that she married for love and not money, it was love in the end that ultimately held the most sway. In 1916, after years of relative seclusion from society events and the press, she married again—this time to a childhood friend, William Karl Dick, in a "simple ceremony" as the sun shone brightly overhead.

While she lost the house, trust fund, and the famous last name that for so many years had commanded such awe and dread in New York high-society circles, she gained a new family. And the notoriety of being the most famous—and one of the most tragic—widows of the great disaster stayed with her, until the end of her days.

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