HER CUCKOO-CLOCK-FILLED COTTAGE in the New Forest, England, is the very picture of coziness, but the course of Millvina Dean’s life was set elsewhere, on a clear and icy night in the rolling North Atlantic. There, on April 14-15,1912, after the Titanic struck an iceberg and began settling fatally into the deep, Dean’s mother, Georgetta, wrapped her up, and her father, Bertram, escorted the two of them and her 18-month-old brother onto the deck and saw them into lifeboats. “I was put in a sack because I was too small to hold,” says Dean, who at nine weeks was the youngest survivor of history’s most storied shipwreck. In the hundreds of letters she now receives each year, many from curious schoolchildren, Dean is often asked what she would be if the Titanic hadn’t gone down. “I’d be an American,” she says with a laugh.
Though Dean, 85, has no memory of the tragedy, the fate of the “unsinkable” liner, with its complement of rich and famous passengers, maintains a firm hold on the world’s imagination. Titanic, the musical, set sail last month on Broadway (to mostly negative reviews); a movie of the same name—with a nearly $200 million budget, as ambitious in its way as the liner itself—is scheduled to steam into multiplexes later this year, and a show of artifacts from the ship is running through September in Memphis. Dean, one of only seven survivors among the 705 who were rescued from the freezing waters (more than 1,500 perished), doesn’t resent the hoopla. “If they want to make money,” she says, “I don’t honestly mind.”
In fact, she seems remarkably casual about the disaster for someone whose fortunes were forever altered by it. In 1912, Dean’s family was sailing to the U.S. to start a new life. Her father, 27, had left his London pub and planned to open a tobacco shop in the Midwest. Her mother (who died at 95 in 1975) was looking forward to raising Millvina and her older brother (who died at 82 in 1993), also named Bertram, in a new home they had bought sight unseen.
In a chilling irony, the liner the Deans were booked on was unable to get fuel because of a coal strike, so the family was offered passage on the maiden voyage of the supership. “My father told my mother,” says Dean, ” ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we’ve been asked to go on the Titanic?’ ” After the collision, as Millvina was lowered away, her father stayed behind and perished, as did hundreds of other men. Following two weeks in a New York City hospital, his wife and children were sent back to England with no clothes, belongings or money.
After living for eight years with her parents and subsisting partly on money from a Titanic survivors fund, Georgetta married a veterinarian. But, like many survivors, she didn’t recover from the disaster for years. “She went to bed with a splitting headache every afternoon,” says Dean. Nor did her mother talk much about the tragedy. Millvina didn’t know her father had died until she was 8 years old.
Throughout her adulthood, Dean worked as a secretary, retiring in 1972 from an engineering firm in Southampton, the same port from which the Titanic had sailed. She never married. “It wouldn’t have been my cup of tea,” she says with a twinkle. “I wasn’t a very faithful-type person.” She does, though, share a passion for gardening with her close friend Bruno Nordmanis, 75, whom she calls her “permanent escort.”
For most of her life, Dean rarely mentioned her passage on the famous ship, nor thought much about it. “I only knew she was a survivor because other people told me,” says Nordmanis. It was just a decade ago that historians discovered her existence. Since then, she has made the rounds of Titanic commemorations in Europe and America. And a street in the New Forest has been named for her, which she finds embarrassing. “The neighbors will think I’m conceited,” she says.
She will cap her growing celebrity in August, when she and Nordmanis cross the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Is she fearful? Not a bit, she says. “A lot of people ask how I like the sea, and I love it.”
SIMON PERRY in London