An ex-Nazi sympathiser who survived the Titanic, made a film about it, was arrested in Italy as an anti-Fascist agitator, and who was also a pioneering silent movie actress, Dorothy Gibson was the definition of living your best life.
Born today in 1889, in New Jersey, by the age of 20 she began modelling for Harrison Fisher, a famous commercial artist. Dorothy soon became Fisher’s favourite muse, and her image was seen regularly on postcards, merchandising products and even on the covers of magazines like Cosmopolitan.
As early as 1911, Dorothy began appearing in movies, starting out as an extra but soon taking the leading roles in a series of films by Éclair Studios. Praised for her natural acting style and comedic flair, she was a huge hit – and arguably the first actress to be promoted as a star in her own right.With contemporary Mary Pickford, Dorothy was the highest paid movie actress in the world at the time of her premature retirement in May 1912, from which time on she focused on her choral career.
The thing she’s most known for today, however, is nothing to do with her talents. On her way back from a holiday with her mother (Pauline) in Italy, Gibson became part of one the most famous events of the twentieth century. As Dorothy and Pauline played bridge in the lounge, their ship, the Titanic, crashed into an iceberg. Along with two of their game partners, they escaped into the first lifeboat launched (Lifeboat #7). After arriving back in New York, Dorothy’s manager persuaded her to appear in a film based on the scenario: the first ever film based on the disaster. Saved From the Titanic came out just one month later. Dorothy starred as herself, and also wrote the scenario, appearing in the same clothes she had actually been wearing on the night of the sinking.
Although Saved From the Titanic was a tremendous success in America, Britain, and France the only known prints were destroyed in a 1914 fire at the Eclair Studios in New Jersey. The loss of the motion picture is considered by film historians to be one of the greatest of the silent era.
But that’s not all…
Like any great actress of that era, naturally Dorothy had her share of salacious backstory, aside from any ship-based disasters. Between 1911-17, Dorothy embarked on a love affair with the married movie tycoon Jules Brulatour (co-founder of Universal Pictures). Brulatour was an advisor and producer for Dorothy’s main film company, Eclair, and backed several of her films, including Saved From the Titanic.
In 1913, while driving in New York, Dorothy struck and killed a pedestrian. So far, so irrelevant, right? But Dorothy was driving Brulatour’s car at the time (serious Great Gatsby vibes). In the court case that followed, then, it was revealed in the press that she was his mistress. Brulatour was actually already separated from his wife. Nonetheless, the humiliation of the scandal made her sue him for divorce, finalised in 1915. Dorothy and Brulatour then married, in 1917, his fame and political power forcing him into legitimizing his relationship with Dorothy.
Two years later, the marriage’s legal status was challenged, and eventually dissolved as an invalid contract. Dorothy then left NYC for Paris to escape gossip and start a new life.
By the time WW2 started, Dorothy and her mother were in Florence. The reasons for them staying there are hazy… Dorothy claimed it was because they were scared of the journey back to America after the whole Titanic incident. Others claim they stayed there willingly because they were Nazi sympathisers, and potentially even Fascist intelligence operatives!
However, by 1944 Dorothy had renounced her involvement, and was even arrested as an anti-Fascist agitator and jailed in a Nazi prison! She was sent to the Milan prison of San Vittore, from which she then escaped with two other prisoners, journalist Indro Montanelli and General Bartolo Zambon. The trio was aided through the intervention of Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, and by a young chaplain of the Milanese resistance group Fiamme Verdi, Father Giovanni Barbareschi.
Living in France, in 1946, Dorothy died of a heart attack in her apartment at the Hôtel Ritz Paris at the age of 56. Gibson’s estate was divided between her lover, with the spectacularly Latin name of Emilio Antonio Ramos, and her mother.
In the fifteen years between the death of Dorothy and herself, Pauline grew increasingly vocal about her criticism of the Allies and her support for the Nazis – we’re still unsure whether Dorothy echoed or challenged these sympathies.
So: Model Muse, Silent Movie Star, Titanic Survivor, Mogul Mistress, Nazi Spy, Anti-Fascist Agitator, Prison Camp Escapee. Dorothy Gibbons’s life was legendary.