I remember watching James Cameron’s Titanic for the first time and being young enough to believe that the movie imitated reality to a T. However, with an advance in years and the frequency of watching the film, I came to the conclusion that, yes, although the ship did really sink, that whole Jack and Rose romance is probably too far-fetched a story to have actually happened – a fantastical tale woven to attract people to the cinema.
A couple of days ago, I realized that I was mistaken, and how!
Turns out – and cynics may scoff – a romance very much along the lines of the one portrayed in the film unfolded on board the RMS Titanic in 1912. The parties in question were Emilio Portaluppi – an Italian stonemason with a second class ticket, and Madeleine Astor – perhaps one of the most renowned passengers of the Titanic (her character featured in the movie as well). Interestingly, Portaluppi was on board the Titanic as a guest of the Astors.
Portaluppi was a respected and talented stonemason who had worked on the reliefs of the New York Stock Exchange’s building. Visiting his family in Italy, Portaluppi was scheduled to return to New Hampshire in the Oceanic II – one of the White Star line’s other ships. However, a telegram from the Astors asking him to join them as a guest aboard the Titanic saw him aboard that ship doomed to disaster; the Astors apparently wanted Portaluppi to work on statues placed outside their Newport villa. On the night that the Titanic hit the iceberg, Portaluppi was dining with first-class passengers, calling to mind an image that resembles the dining-room scene from the movie.
Portaluppi survived the sinking, as did Madeleine Astor; her husband, however, was not as lucky. Portaluppi’s survival is shrouded in mystery, if only because of the several versions that he has told people over the years. Post-Titanic, he fought for Italy in the First World War. Portaluppi rarely talked about his experience aboard the ocean liner, until the last years of his life, “when he returned to Italy, he told the tale of his Titanic journey to local journalists.” It was only then, through these interviews, that there emerged the slightest hint of a connection between Portaluppi and Madeleine Astor.
Portaluppi died at the age of 93 in 1974; his experience on the Titanic has been recorded in a documentary – “The Italians on the Titanic”.
Madeleine Astor survived the disaster and remarried during the First World War. She died in 1940, at the age of 46.