The Last Witness
Lillian Asplund spent her whole, long life trying to forget the very thing she was the last person on Earth to remember

By David Brown
Sunday, July 30, 2006; W16

Lillian Gertrud Asplund was 5 1/2 years old when her family booked third-class passage and went aboard a ship called the RMS Titanic in Southampton, England, returning to America. The trip ended a four-year sojourn in Sweden, where her father helped straighten out problems on his widowed mother's farm -- a task he agreed to on the condition that he could bring his family with him. Now, they were all headed home to Worcester, the city in central Massachusetts that by the turn of the century had more Swedes than any place east of Chicago.

Four days out, the ship hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, with 712 passengers and crew saved, and about 1,500 lost. Among the latter were Lillian's father, Carl Oscar; her 13-year-old brother, Filip; her 9-year-old brother, Clarence; and her twin brother, Carl Edgar. Of the family, only Lillian, her mother, Selma, and her 3-year-old brother, Felix, survived.

I met Lillian Asplund three times over successive Easter weekends early this decade. Her year-to-year survival surprised me, although perhaps it shouldn't have, given her apparent satisfaction with simple pleasures and her unwillingness to be pushed where she didn't want to go.

I came to her with a purpose -- the same one shared by many strangers over her very long life. I wanted to hear her version of the Titanic's sinking. If the memories she had were her own -- and not details unconsciously assimilated from her mother -- then she'd be the last eyewitness of the event on Earth. She was 96 when we met, one of only three survivors, not counting two, still alive, who were in utero when the ship went down. The other two, both women living in England, were 11 months old and 9 weeks old when the ship sank, which ensured they remembered nothing.

On May 6, Asplund died at the age of 99 in Shrewsbury, Mass. She took with her the last survivor's memory of the sinking. What she recalled of the early hours of April 15, 1912, was something she jealously guarded all her life. Curiously, those memories were also what she spent nearly a century trying to be rid of.

I discovered Lillian Asplund when checking the date of the Titanic catastrophe for a reference in a news story I was writing. She resided about 15 miles from where I'd grown up, in Framingham, Mass. I easily found her address and wrote her a letter. It was intercepted, as all her letters were, by Philip Maloof, her attorney and guardian of her privacy. Inquiries seeking an audience with Miss Asplund arrived frequently, and they were all turned down, politely but firmly. She had long ago decided to refuse all interview requests. She could barely stand to hear the word "Titanic." Recalling the events still upset her, and she invariably stopped or redirected any conversation that stayed on the topic for long.

Nevertheless, Maloof called me to talk about my letter. He wanted to know if there was any way his elderly client could make money from an interview. She had a pension from her job as a clerk at the State Mutual Insurance Co. in Worcester, and a small bank account. They were enough to pay living expenses and the wages of helpers, which allowed her to stay in her house. But Maloof wasn't sure how long the money would last. He wanted to supplement it.

I told him journalists didn't usually pay people for interviews -- The Washington Post and I wouldn't -- but that documentary filmmakers might feel differently. That assumed she had a story worth paying for, which of course nobody would know until she told it, which she wasn't willing to do. We had several phone conversations, and I suggested possible avenues Maloof might pursue. At the end of one call he said it would be fine for me to come by and meet Miss Asplund as long as I didn't bring up the Titanic. I eventually agreed to this condition. Several months later, while visiting my parents, I went to see her, taking my son Will, then 13, with me.

Her wood-frame, brown-shuttered house was easy to find. She had lived in it since the 1950s, originally with her mother and brother. The three never separated after arriving in Worcester on April 20, 1912, five days after the ship sank. Lillian Asplund never married, her brother never married, and their mother never re-married. Selma Asplund died at age 90 on April 15, 1964, the 52nd anniversary of the Titanic's sinking.

The living room was rather dark, with a few mass-produced pictures of landscapes and European street scenes on the wall. In a corner alcove, under a window, was a hospital bed with the head slightly raised. An aide and housekeeper, a woman in her thirties, appeared briefly and then withdrew. Will and I approached and saw a small woman lying in the bed. Her white hair was gathered in a ponytail that was visible the few times she lifted her head. She wore a nightgown with pink flowers, and over it a housecoat. She was under the covers. My son carried an Easter lily, which he presented by placing it on a red stool beside her. She immediately began to rave about it, identifying it by name, counting the three open blossoms and remarking on its beauty.

"Lillian was quite a gardener in her day," Philip Maloof said. He added in a stage whisper: "Her brother Felix was the indoor person, and Lillian was the outdoor person."

"I'm hoping to get up and do a little gardening this summer," she said. "I love to garden."

"I don't know about that, Lillian," said her attorney. He is a bachelor and looks after his own mother, also in her nineties. "You've got to get up out of bed a little more and move around before you can do that."

We moved the plant to the radiator at the foot of the bed where she could see it. She protested, but we said this was just a temporary spot. I moved the stool three-quarters of the way down the bed, and Will sat on it, up high and in plain view. I pulled up a chair next to her head. Maloof sat in a chair, leaning back and graciously out of the picture.

I said something about gardening, perhaps asking her whether she grew vegetables or flowers. She asked if we had a garden, and I said that I grew vegetables. She said that she had lived on a farm.

"My grandparents had a farm in Sweden," she said. "There were all kinds of animals. There was so much going on all the time. I loved the farm."

"Did you grow up on a farm?"

"No, we went back to the farm. My grandparents were having trouble running it or some such thing. They wrote my father and asked him to come back and help them. I don't know if they were selling it or what. They wanted him to come over for a while by himself. He said he would only come if he brought the whole family. So when I was 8 months old we went back to Sweden to the farm." Felix, the youngest child, was born there in 1909 (and died here in 1983).

If she ever spoke with a Swedish accent, it was gone now. She had a noticeable central Massachusetts accent -- "fahm."

"After a few years my father decided to bring us back," she said. "My father and they were lost at sea."

She paused. She then took up another subject. She wanted to know who I was. She asked me if I was the person who sometimes called her wanting to talk. I told her I had never called her -- I wanted Maloof to be assured of this also -- but that I had written to her.

"She never actually saw the letter," Maloof said.

She asked again if I was the person who called her, and I told her again I wasn't.

"You know, I'm trying to forget," she said.

I mentioned that my father had worked in Worcester. We talked for a while about the Swedes of that city, who formed an unusually interesting thread in the vast tapestry of American immigration.

Swedes did not diffuse broadly or thinly across North America. They immigrated to only a few places. The farmers went west, and those with industrial skills or experience went east. In Worcester, they were the highest-status immigrant group, and generally the best-paid. Many were employed in the city's wire-making factories, which flourished with the 19th century's demand for fencing, suspension bridges, telegraph lines, hoop skirts and pianos. Lillian's father had once worked at Spencer Wire Co. When a Swedish prince visited Worcester in 1907, the year after Lillian and Carl's birth, the city had more than 30,000 first- and second-generation Swedes.

"I was just a poor Swedish girl," she said.

She asked Will if he liked Worcester. He told her he enjoyed coming to Massachusetts because he liked winter. She remarked on his hat, which was a bright red, snap-front cap he wore backward.

"You look like one of my brothers. My brothers were very handsome." She paused again. "Everyone always said my father was a very handsome man. A very handsome man."

I waited to see if she would continue her recollection.

"One of the things I know is that my father loved to carry me," she said. "My whole life he loved to carry me. Even when I was 5 years old, he loved to carry me."

I pictured a 40-year-old man carrying his only daughter seated on his shoulders on the deck of the ship, so she could get a good look over the rail and out to sea. But this was only my imagination. She did not continue.

Nevertheless, she was bringing up memories unprompted, so I raised the subject of tape-recording our conversation, gambling that such a proposal wouldn't drive her attorney to intervene.

"Miss Asplund, I have a tape recorder here," I said. "Would you be willing to let me tape-record some of your recollections?"

"Why would you want to do that?" she said, pricking up her ears.

"I'm interested in your recollections. I think they should be preserved."

"I don't think I want that. You see, I am trying to forget about all this."

We talked some more about her childhood, how she and her brother spoke English to her mother, and her mother spoke Swedish to them, the classic immigrant pattern. She mentioned that when she went to school -- the Upsala Street School -- her teacher couldn't believe she spoke such good English. I asked her if she still spoke Swedish.

"Not much. I can do it, but I don't do it very often."

I had told Maloof when I confirmed my appointment that I wanted to take her picture. He said he thought she'd resist, and he didn't want me to push it. But when we arrived with the plant he seemed to have been partly won over. Perhaps she'd be willing to pose with the plant, he said, as Will carried it in.

"Can I just move the Easter lily up here and take a picture of you with it?" I asked.

"I don't think so," she said. "I don't want people to see me the way I look now."

I asked her if I could come back and visit her the next time I was up here.

"I suppose so. I can't stop you," she said.

We shook her hand and thanked her for letting us visit. She thanked us again for the beautiful plant. She seemed, on balance, not unhappy to have seen us.

A YEAR LATER I again visited Miss Asplund over Easter weekend. Will came along that time, too. We brought a flowering succulent with small orange blossoms. Since our previous interview, Philip Maloof had softened somewhat in his prohibitions. He said he'd asked her a few questions about the Titanic voyage since we'd seen him, sure that if she would talk to anyone, it would be him.

It was a sunny, late March day, and once more she was in bed. She appeared to have scarcely moved in a year. Even her nightgown looked the same. She was as enthusiastic about this plant as the previous one.

We talked some more about her time in Sweden, her grandparents, a horse the family owned named Noku and Sunday trips in a special buggy. She said her mother would have liked to have stayed in the old country, but her father had said the children would get a better education in America and insisted they return. So they did. This brought her to the Titanic's gangway, and without prompting she stepped aboard.

"It was very big, and it had just been painted," she told us. "I remember not liking the smell of fresh paint."

She recalled that one morning she didn't have breakfast with the other passengers in the third-class mess. Instead, Selma Asplund left the cabin, fetched coffee and brought it back to her husband. She gave him some pastry she had brought onboard. Miss Asplund remembered her father saying: "Let Lillian have it."

She stopped.

"They say that you'll see them in Heaven. But I am not so sure about that." Then, in a high-pitched voice full of regret, she added: "I would have had a big family if things hadn't happened." She didn't specify what happened, and I didn't press her. But I did ask if she remembered anything else.

"My father threw me in the lifeboat," she continued. "My mother said she would rather stay with him and go down with the ship. But he said the children should not be alone. She got a seat. She had Felix on her lap, and she had me between her knees. I think she thought she could keep me a little warmer that way." She remembered it was very cold.

"What happened next?" I asked.

"They wrapped me in a burlap bag or a coal sack and pulled me up onto the Carpathia," she said.

A single-stack steamship of the Cunard line, the Carpathia, was 60 miles away and headed toward Europe when it heard the Titanic's distress call. It raced to the larger ship's last location, arriving at 4:10 a.m., nearly two hours after the Titanic sank. It picked up all the survivors.

"A woman there took all my clothes off me," Miss Asplund continued. "My clothes had gotten very dirty and wet in the lifeboat. My mother was trying to find me. She was saying, 'I have a daughter!' Well, she found me. And eventually my clothes were dry, and I put them back on. They took us, the children, to the place where they take people who are sick. Well, not sick, but people who needed a little more attention. The people on the Carpathia were very good to us."

The recollection seemed to tire and sadden her.

"I think I've said enough about this," she said. She added, in a way that made the next statement no less a part of her account: "I've been here a long time. I think it's about time I left, too, and made room for someone else."


On the weekend of Easter 2005, I again went to visit Lillian Asplund. This time my son begged off, less interested in the slow accretion of information we were getting. He knew she was the last survivor with memories. But, after two visits, that didn't add up to a reason to get out of bed early on Easter morning.

Maloof had continued to get a dribble of inquiries about Miss Asplund, intercepting all that mentioned the Titanic. They came from around the world, the United States predominating. A third-grade class from West Lawn, Pa., outside Reading, wrote her every year at the teacher's suggestion.

The children asked about her life, her hobbies, her house, and never brought up the Titanic. It hardly mattered; Maloof answered the questions for her.

My last visit was on a sunny, cool and beautiful day. Our appointment time was 9:30 in the morning. A few days earlier I'd bought a pair of Easter lilies, giving one to my mother and reserving the other for Miss Asplund. But I left hers at home by mistake. As I drove to Shrewsbury I stopped at a drugstore along Route 9 and grabbed a bouquet of tired daisies and zinnias from which the clerk graciously culled the unpresentable members.

This time she was in a chair, although still in the alcove off the living room. She wore a wool hat, a lavender nightgown under a white sweater, and had a yellow towel folded in her lap. I introduced myself again; it was not clear whether she remembered me. We talked about her childhood. She covered the old territory, describing the family's return to Sweden and its return to the United States.

Then she said out of the blue, "You know about the Titanic?" She didn't wait for an answer. "My father says, 'We'll go back in this ship.' This was a special ship at that time. So that's when the accident happened. I lost my father. When he was found he was still alive, but then he died."

I had never heard this last detail. Carl O.V.G. Asplund's body was No. 142 on the list of recovered victims. The money and papers he'd put in his pockets were gone, but he was still carrying a gold watch on a chain, a locket, keys and a knife. Although a few people in the water were hauled aboard lifeboats and saved, by the time the Carpathia arrived everyone in the water was dead. It was unlikely that any rescuer had seen Carl Asplund alive.

Nevertheless, Miss Asplund had uttered the forbidden word. I turned to her lawyer and said, "I'm going to ask her a little more about this," hoping that previous compliance with his wishes, and now transparency, would make a few questions acceptable.

"Go ahead," he said.

"Do you remember getting into the lifeboat?"

"Well, yes. My mother, she was in it. My twin brother was Carl; he wasn't in it. The lifeboat was small. Well, I don't know if it was that small. We were taken and put in the boat. My mother always carried Felix. He always screamed if they took him away from her. We were in the boat, and I stood between my mother's legs so I wouldn't fall over."

I asked her if she remembered seeing her father standing at the rail -- a scene that Maloof said she'd once mentioned.

"No, I didn't see my father," she said.

"Do you remember hearing anything?"

She sighed. "I don't know. I was only 5 years old." She sighed again. "My mother didn't want me to remember anything. It's not good for me, she said. I agree with her."

I expected to feel Maloof's hand on my shoulder. I assumed I had only one question more before this wound was bound up again.

"Do you remember seeing the ship sink?" I asked.

"Yes, I saw that. It looked like a big building going down."

I queried her about events when her mother and little brother arrived back in Worcester. She mentioned the address of the house where they stayed and a few other details I'd heard before. She said plaintively, "I'd like to forget. I'd like to forget a lot. But people always remind me."

I asked her if she had any relatives in town.

"I'm the only Asplund around. I hope I'm not here too long. Because I'm quite old, you know. Ninety-eight years old."

That was it. She said she wanted to get back into bed. She was starting to wear out.

WHEN I CALLED THIS PAST EASTER, Maloof said Miss Asplund had recently been in the hospital but was now back home. "She's sleeping most of the time," he said. "She won't talk to you."

Three weeks later, she died.

She left a lot of questions unanswered, the chief one being: How much more of the Titanic's sinking might Lillian Asplund have recalled if she'd wanted to? Did she remember being roused from sleep? Being carried up the stairs from third class? What did the family do on deck? What happened to her twin brother? Why wasn't he put in the lifeboat with her? Did she say anything to the family members left behind? What happened during that cold, clear night after the ship went down and before the Car-pathia and dawn arrived?

Maybe she would have answered all these questions simply by saying, "I don't remember." What's certain now is that they won't be answered and that the eyewitness chapter of the Titanic story is closed.

Of course, it lives on in a different sort of viewer, the historical voyeur. With this important corner in the history of the catastrophe now turned, it is worth asking: Why does the Titanic so fascinate us? Why can't we let it go?

It may be because in some ways the sinking of the Titanic marked the start of the 20th century -- or at least the end of the 19th. The survival statistics -- 62 percent of first-class passengers lived, compared with 41 percent of second and 26 percent of third -- revealed a hierarchy of discrimination that no number of stories of individual chivalry or bravery could wash away. April 15, 1912, was the last time the world could pretend that people in staterooms deserved to survive at the expense of those farther below decks. It helped push nations on both sides of the Atlantic into a more egalitarian era -- our era.

It was also an event of small beginnings. It marked one of the earliest uses of the new distress call "SOS." It was one of the first international disasters covered by the press in something close to real time.

It has, from the start, been an opportunity for anyone who knows even a few details to perform what scientists call a "thought experiment." We ask ourselves: What would I do? Would I be J. Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line executive who stepped into the last lifeboat with women and children still aboard the ship? Or Isidor Straus, one of America's richest men, who went down with the ship and his wife, Ida, who chose to stay with him? The collective memory about United Flight 93 may eventually become freighted with different, but equally unavoidable, questions about character and courage.

The Titanic is also, of course, a great source of entertainment. At least 850 books have been written on the catastrophe. The 1997 film "Titanic" grossed more in the United States ($600 million) and worldwide ($1.8 billion) than any other movie. It achieved cultlike status in such unlikely places as Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

For a long time the ship was also the Great Lost Object -- a material presence out there someplace, never to be seen again. Since the wreck's discovery in 1985, this has evolved into the Titanic as the Place of Strange Dreams -- an archaeological site, beyond the reach of all but a few people, whose every relic pulsates with humanity and personal narrative.

The Internet age has allowed these, and other, Titanic meanings to live and breathe as never before.

When Miss Asplund mentioned that she remembered the smell of paint, I registered on the site and queried its chat group as to whether anyone knew how long before sailing the third-class cabins had been painted. Nobody did. But within 24 hours I learned that Winifred Van Tongerloo, a child survivor, now deceased, had once said that her mother had kept their second-class cabin door ajar because of the paint smell, and that Marian Longstreth Thayer, of first class, had instructed the maid to open the stateroom windows for the same reason.

Today, when an event nearly a century in the past is the subject of continuous conversation by people sitting at keyboards all over the world, it seems fitting that the last person who may have had something new to say about it declined to do so. Like Jacqueline Kennedy, Lillian Asplund didn't feel any need to give history her version of a momentous event.

It is in her silence that the experience's central meaning becomes known. To the people who lived through it, the sinking of the Titanic was a story of loss, anguish, grief and endurance. Very little more -- and not a bit less.

David Brown covers science and medicine for The Post's National desk

© 2007 The Washington Post Company