When the Titanic sunk on April 15, 1912, 1,517 people lost their lives. If you've seen the movie "Titanic" you might correctly assume that a large portion of the fatalities came from the steerage sections of the boat… aka the poor people who either were trapped down below or weren't given a spot on a life boat. And if you've seen the movie, you may also recall that Titanic carried a number of wealthy passengers. Some extremely wealthy.
The Titanic carried a number of millionaires and their families. For example, the richest person on the planet at the time, John Jacob Astor IV was a passenger. He was last seen by his wife standing the Starboard bridge wing, smoking a cigarette. Just 30 minutes later, the mighty Titanic disappeared beneath the surface of the ocean. Jack Astor and his valet Victor Robbins were never seen again.
Another multi-multi-millionaire passenger was named Benjamin Guggenheim. More than 100 years later, the story of how Guggenheim went down with the Titanic continues to fascinate.
What would you have done if you were an extremely wealthy male passenger on Titanic? What would you have done if you were offered a space on a lifeboat knowing that it would likely mean a child or female passenger would die in your place?
Benjamin Guggenheim was born on October 26, 1865 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the fifth of seven sons of the wealthy Swiss-born mining magnate Meyer Guggenheim and his wife Barbara. Ben spent much of his adult life working in the family mining business, earning the nickname the "Silver Prince." When he was 20 years old, Guggenheim went to Leadville, Colorado to run the family's mines. While there he launched a smelting operation in Pueblo that became yet another lucrative business for the Guggenheims.
Side trivia: The Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which contains one of the finest collections of art on the planet, was founded by Ben's brother Solomon R. Guggenheim.
In 1894, Ben married Florette Seligman. The couple had three daughters. When his father died in 1905, Guggenheim inherited a fortune.
Not long after his father's death, Ben and his wife grew distant and began living separate lives. Guggenheim kept an apartment in Paris, far from his familial home in New York City.
Accidental Titanic Passenger
After an extended stay in Europe in 1912, Guggenheim made plans to return to the U.S. and booked a trip on the Lusitania. However, that voyage was cancelled as the Lusitania had to undergo repairs. Guggenheim was offered a trip on the Carmania, which was to be the replacement ship for the Lusitania, but instead he decided to make the trans-Atlantic voyage to New York on a brand spanking new ship from the White Star Line called the Titanic.
At the time Ben Guggenheim purchased his Titanic ticket he was 47 years old, and had a personal net worth was estimated to be $4 million. That's the same as roughly $95 million after adjusting for inflation.
When Guggenheim boarded, he was in the company of his French mistress, a 25-year old singer named Leontine Aubert. The pair was accompanied by Guggenheim's valet, Victor Guglio, and chauffeur Rene Pernot, as well as Aubert's maid Emma Sagesser.
Guggenheim and Guglio slept through the Titanic's fateful collision with the iceberg on the night of April 15, 1912. They were awakened about 20 minutes later, just after midnight, by Aubert and Sagesser who had felt the collision. The group made their way to the Boat Deck for evacuation.
Guggenheim moved quickly to make sure his mistress and her maid were loaded into Lifeboat No. 9. He spoke to the maid in German, saying:
"We will soon see each other again! It's just a repair. Tomorrow the Titanic will go on again."
Despite this statement, Guggenheim was very much aware just how dire the ship's situation was. Once his mistress and the maid were safe, he then set out to help as many women and children into lifeboats as they could handle.
Considering his wealth and importance, it's almost certain that Guggenheim would have been offered a spot on a lifeboat ahead of some people from steerage or random other general passengers. He clearly did not accept this offer.
Instead of sneaking onto a lifeboat Ben and his trusted valet returned to their quarters where they proceeded to get dressed in their finest evening wear. At the time, they were both of the belief that they would not make it off that doomed ship alive. Guggenheim and Guglio were last seen seated in deck chairs in the foyer of the Grand Staircase sipping brandy and smoking cigars stoically. Both men went down with the ship. Their bodies, were never recovered.
As this dreadful scenario unfolded, Ben Guggenheim was heard saying:
"We've dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen. Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down, tell her I played the game straight out to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward."
Benjamin's mistress Leontine Aubert survived. She lived to be 77-years-old, dying in 1964.
Why Didn't He Escape?
For over 100 years, historians have struggled to understand Guggenheim's failure to escape. Since most wealthy passengers were offered spots on lifeboats, historians don't know why the millionaire businessman and his valet chose to stay on board.
A hundreds years after the sinking, a photo Guggenheim's valet offered a new theory. Guglio was born in England but was of Italian-Egyptian heritage. The photo that surfaced shows that he was dark-skinned. The prevailing racism and bias at the time would have prevented him from being allowed on one of Titanic's lifeboats.
It is now theorized that Benjamin Guggenheim chose to die with his beloved mixed-race friend rather than leave him behind to die alone.
It is one of the most haunting tales of the many haunting tales surrounding the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
What Would You Have Done?
Put yourself in Ben Guggenheim's position. What would you have done if you were literally on a sinking ship and you knew your $100 million fortune could guarantee a spot in a lifeboat? Would you cut the line and take the "coward's" way out? Or would you go down with the ship to save someone else's life?