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100th anniversary of Titanic sinking sparks re-enactments of last dinner

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 30 2012 10:14:30 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 02 2012 04:59:17 PM CDT

We are less than two weeks away from the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic

When Kelly Ronalds of the Hotel Bethlehem decided to do a re-enactment of the last dinner held in the Titanic’s first class dining room before its sinking 100 years ago on the night of April 14-15th 1912, she recalled hearing hotel historian Natalie Bock had discovered a link between the hotel and the Titanic.

Bock had found that Titanic victim John Jacob Astor IV, the ship’s wealthiest passenger, had stayed at the Eagle Hotel, the Hotel Bethlehem’s predecessor on that site from the 1820s to the 1920s, while on his way to honeymoon in the Poconos with his first wife, Ava Willing. Her ancestors were among the founding families of Philadelphia. The New York Times noted the pair’s February 17, 1891 wedding in the Quaker City, “surpasses any matrimonial event that has taken place in this country in a century.” 

"The founder of the family, John Jacob Astor, stayed in Bethlehem years before,” says Bock. The gun-making Henry family of Jacobsburg made a rifle that he used in his fur trading ventures with Native Americans. After investing in New York real estate the elder Astor, with a fortune of $20 million, died the richest man in America. His one regret, he said shortly before his passing, was not buying more of Manhattan.     

Hotel Bethlehem The Titanic dinner was conceived by the Hotel Bethlehem as a fundraiser for Historic Bethlehem Partnership. Funds from the event will go to the preservation of their historic sites.

Titled “RMS Titanic Commemoration Dinner: A Night to Remember” the event is to be held on April 20 starting at 7 pm and will include period music and Titanic related artifacts and a dinner taken from the first class menu.  Although the original meal was a stomach-groaning 11 courses, Hotel Bethlehem’s skilled chef has reduced it to five while preserving such actual menu items as Consommé Olga, Chicken Breast Lyonnais and Waldorf Pudding.

Tickets are $90 for partnership members and $100 for non-members and reservations must be made by April 13 by calling 610-882- 0450 Ext 10.   The Weaversville Inn in Northampton, which had a very successful re-enactment of the Titanic dinner last year, plans to repeat it this year on April 14. For reservations call 610-502-9881.

King Geroge Inn Allentown’s historic King George Inn on Hamilton Boulevard is hosting “Last First Class Dinner Served on the RMS Titanic,” on Friday April 13 at 7 p.m. Cost is $125 per person. For reservations call 610-435-1723. Seating is limited to 44, and period dress is encouraged.

The inn has had Titanic dinners in the past. Owner Cliff McDermott notes that Titanic discover Dr. Robert Ballard stopped by the inn for dinner when he was lecturing in the area several years ago. “We’ll have music of the period, poetry readings, two kinds of wine and even the napkins will be folded just as they were in 1912,” he says.  

Over time Titanic’s fate has made it more than a tragic ship sinking. It has come to be regarded as the end to the 19th century’s confident belief that progress in technology and science would lead to a world of peace and prosperity.

This writer’s grandfather was 17 in 1912, and would cross the Atlantic many times between 1910 and 1935. He recalled the shock of the Titanic’s sinking as greater than the start of World War I in 1914. “Everybody was expecting a war,” he said. “Nobody was expecting that.”  When, on Titanic's sailing day, one woman passenger expressed apprehension about the ship’s safety, a member of the luggage loading crew replied, “Lady, God himself couldn’t sink that ship.”

Titanic on ocean floor Astor, 47, following a “scandalous” 1909 divorce from Willing, was travelling to America with his pregnant 19-year-old second wife, Madeline. He put her in a lifeboat and went down with the ship.

Astor’s body was recovered and rests in the family plot in upstate New York. Madeline Astor died in 1940 at age 46. Willing, who married an English nobleman outlived them both, dying peaceful in 1958.

Other American notables on board were Major Archibald Willingham Butt, military aide to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and Francis “Frank” Millet, an artist, former war correspondent and world traveler. Millet, who had a wife and family in England, also shared a home with Butt in Washington.

Like Astor, neither survived the sinking. When Millet’s body was recovered it showed he had died of a heart attack not drowning. It rests in a family plot in East Bridgewater, Connecticut.

Butt’s body was never found. In 1913 their friends, among them President Taft, erected a memorial fountain to both men near the ellipse on the south lawn of the White House where it is to this day.  

The Titanic’s first class dining room, the largest ocean-going room in the world, was not the most exclusive eating space on the ship. The French a la carte restaurant, with its Louis XVI replica furniture and exotic fare like plover’s eggs, held that distinction. Second and third class passenger menus suggest their food was plentiful if not elegant.

On the evening of April 14th many Titanic passengers were getting ready for their expected arrival in New York two days later. Several of the first class later recalled the women in Paris gowns making a grand entrance down the formal staircase to the dining room with its clock showing Honor and Glory Crowning Time. After dinner many went to a concert by the ship’s musicians, concluding with the Barcarolle from Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffman.

Perhaps at 11:40 p.m. Millet, who was in the Men’s First Class smoking room that night and a gifted raconteur, was telling his spell-bound listeners a tale from his time as a Civil War drummer boy when a muffled sound and a glance at a passing iceberg halted him in mid-sentence. Although no one knew it yet, their voyage was over.