J. Bruce Ismay’s life was changed in an instant. At 1:40 a.m. on April 15, 1912, sporting pajamas under a suit and topcoat, with slippers on his feet, the chairman of the White Star Line stepped into the last lifeboat to leave Titanic’s starboard side as it was being lowered to the icy waters beneath. This moment—of cowardice, instinct, arrogance, or something else—came to define his legacy. Ismay’s life, however, fascinates for many more reasons than that much-mythologized moment. Below are 11 facts about the life and career of J. Bruce Ismay.
1. J. Bruce Ismay inherited his father’s job.
Ismay rose to one of the most powerful positions in transatlantic travel thanks to his father, whopurchased a bankrupt White Star Line in 1868 and built it into the boating behemoth it became by the end of the century. The elder Ismay died in 1899 and J. Bruce took over as chairman, a position he maintained after White Star was absorbed by a larger holding company (owned by J.P. Morgan) in 1902. Ismay was appointed president of the larger conglomerate two years later.
2. He and his brother married sisters.
In 1888, Ismay married into a wealthy and prestigious New York family when he took Florence Schieffelin as his wife. In addition to her “exceptionally bright and winning” manner, the new Mrs. Ismay was also reported to have had “the prettiest hands”—yes, hands—“imaginable”: “She has no end of dainty, involuntary, and graceful gestures with these same slim, aristocratic hands,” according to an 1889 issue of Leslie’s Weekly. Twelve years later, Ismay’s youngest brother, C. Bower Ismay, married Florence’s younger sister, Constance. When the elder Schieffelin asked her sister to come to Liverpool for a visit, The New York Times marveled that “neither of the young women had any thought that they would soon be sisters-in-law, as well as sisters.”
3. Ismay was mistakenly thought to have insulted members of the U.S. Congress.
In 1889, Ismay was caught up in a media scandal following the (otherwise successful) maiden voyage of another White Star liner, the Teutonic. The New York Times reported that, following an evening of entertainment, “J. Bruce” introduced a member of the British Parliament and “took occasion to talk in a sneering manner of American legislators as compared with noble British statesmen” and called it “an unpleasant incident.” The Pittsburgh Dispatch more bluntly cited it as an example of “the sensational idiocy of Bruce Ismay.” Reporters “scoured the city” to interview passengers. It was national news, but reporters had gotten one important detail wrong: It was Ismay’s father who made the comments. J. Bruce and his wife were still at home in New York and awaiting his parents’ visit. His mother recorded in her diary, as moms do, that he looked “thin.”
4. Ismay didn’t reduce the number of Titanic’s lifeboats, but he did care about the ship’s appearance.
An oft-repeated story meant to illustrate the vanity and villainy of J. Bruce Ismay suggests that, against the wishes of the ship’s architect, he reduced the number of lifeboats Titanic carried because it made the deck appear too cluttered. There is no evidence of this. Though the ship’s original designer, Alexander Carlisle, did think there should be a complement of 48 lifeboats (enough to ferry all passengers to safety), he testified at the British inquiry into the sinking that he had not told Ismay this—instead, he had merely suggested adding davits for additional boats. So Ismay had not ordered the number of boats be cut to 20 (the number Titanic sailed with), but he did care a great deal about the attractiveness of the ship. He insisted that its dining room be modeled on the interior of his favorite restaurant in London, the Adelphi Theatre Restaurant. Its sumptuous interiors remain, but now as part of an apartment complex.
5. He may have encouraged Titanic's captain to speed up.
After the sinking, many papers were quick to blame Ismay for recklessly encouraging Captain Edward Smith to sail at top speed despite warnings of ice, but the evidence for this is scant. A Mrs. Lines distinctly remembered overhearing a conversation between Ismay and the captain on Saturday (the day before Titanic struck ice) during which Ismay supposedly declared, “We will beat the Olympic and get in to New York on Tuesday.” Another passenger told yet another (who wrote an affidavit for the U.S. inquiry) that despite the ice field, Ismay remarked that they would “put on more boilers and get out of it.” Ismay refuted such talk. “There was nothing to be gained by arriving at New York any earlier” than the scheduled time, he told the inquiry.
6. Ismay might have fallen in love during the voyage.
In the months after the Titanic went under, Ismay carried on a lengthy correspondence with first-class passenger Marian Thayer, who lost her husband in the sinking. Bonded by tragedy and a shared grief, Ismay was candid in his letters in a way he was not in life. This led to some startling admissions. “I often think of where our friendship would have taken us if that awful disaster had not taken place,” he mused, adding, “you had a very peculiar attraction to me.” Thayer did not reciprocate, and she ended their correspondence.
7. He helped women and children board the lifeboats (in his slippers).
Though Ismay’s decision to board a lifeboat earned him an ignominious place in the story of the sinking, not all of his actions that night were without valor. “I assisted, as best I could, getting the boats out and putting the women and children into the boats,” he testified at the U.S. inquiry. The official report of the British inquiry noted Ismay’s work “rendering assistance to many passengers” and didn’t pass judgment on his decision to jump aboard the lifeboat: “Had he not jumped in he would merely have added one more life, namely, his own, to the number of those lost.”
8. He had a personal telegraph cipher: YAMSI.
The first message Ismay sent after boarding Carpathia was to the White Star office in New York alerting them of the disaster. He signed it “Bruce Ismay.” Subsequent messages from Ismay were signed with his business cipher, “YAMSI” (“Ismay” backward), indicating that the message came directly from him and not an intermediary.
9. He was sedated with opiates after being rescued.
Aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, Ismay was given the ship’s doctor’s cabin to rest in. The Titanic’s most senior surviving officer, Mr. Lightoller, found him there in a wretched state. “Mr. Ismay did not seem to me to be in a mental condition to finally decide anything,” he told the U.S. inquiry. “I tried my utmost to rouse Mr. Ismay, for he was obsessed with the idea, and kept repeating, that he ought to have gone down with the ship.” Perhaps it was the shock, or the agony of his guilt—or perhaps it was the sedatives he had taken. Carpathia’s captain, by way of explaining Ismay’s relative silence, sent a telegraph to Titanic's sister ship the Olympic stating that “Mr. Bruce Ismay is under an opiate.”
10. Ismay was pilloried in the press after the sinking.
There seemed to be no end to the cruel and sometimes devilishly clever nicknames given to Ismay by the press in the week following the sinking: “D’Ismay,” “J. Brute Ismay,” “coward,” “poltroon.” His harsh treatment greatly distressed his wife, at home in England, who was reported to be “a nervous wreck.”
11. Ismay and his family almost never spoke of the disaster.
Friends and family members reported that Ismay almost never mentioned the Titanic in private. “It absolutely shattered his life,” his grandson said in 2012. A lonely figure in his later years, Ismay took solace in outdoor pursuits in County Galway, Ireland, before ill-health necessitated the amputation of his leg. He died in London in 1937. At their peaceful cottage in County Galway, Ismay’s widow erected a monument with the inscription, “In memory of Bruce Ismay, who spent many happy hours here 1913-1936.”