By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009
Millvina Dean, 97, the youngest passenger on the Titanic and the last living link to history's most famous sunken ship, died May 31 at a nursing home in Hampshire, England, a friend told the BBC. No cause of death was given.
Born Elizabeth Gladys Dean in London on Feb. 12, 1912, she was about 8 weeks old when the luxury liner set sail. She was on the ship because her parents, Bertram and Georgetta Dean, had sold their London pub in hopes of beginning a new life in America. Their plan was to open a tobacco shop in Wichita, where they had family and friends.
The Deans and their two children were originally booked on another White Star liner, but a coal strike prompted a transfer to the Titanic, on its maiden voyage. They boarded at Southampton as third-class passengers and set sail April 10, 1912.
On the night of April 14, while sailing south of Newfoundland's Grand Banks, the elder Dean felt the iceberg's fatal gouge into the ship's hull. Leaving the cabin to investigate, he soon returned to shepherd his wife and their sleeping children up on deck. Millvina and her mother, who had lost track of her 2-year-old son in the panic and chaos, were seated in Lifeboat 10 and were among the first steerage passengers to escape the sinking liner. Millvina was so tiny that she had to be lifted into the lifeboat in a postal sack.
After their boat drifted in the water for some time, they were rescued and taken aboard the Carpathia, a ship that had answered the Titanic's distress call. Millvina's brother was already aboard the Carpathia. The ship arrived safely in New York on April 18.
Ms. Dean's father, in his mid-20s at the time, was one of the 1,500 who perished. His body, if recovered, was never identified.
At first, Ms. Dean's mother wanted to go on to Kansas and fulfill her husband's dream of starting a new life in America, but as a widow with two young children, she ultimately decided to return home. After two weeks in a New York hospital, she and her children returned to England aboard the Adriatic.
As a baby who had survived the Titanic tragedy, Millvina attracted a great deal of attention. Passengers aboard the Adriatic lined up to hold her and take her picture. The Daily Mirror reported on May 12, 1912, that the infant "was the pet of the liner during the voyage, and so keen was the rivalry between women to nurse this lovable mite of humanity that one of the officers decreed that first and second class passengers might hold her in turn for no more than ten minutes."
She and her brother were largely educated with funds from charity organizations dedicated to Titanic survivors. It was not until she was 8 and her mother was planning to remarry that she discovered she had been a passenger on the ship.
During World War II, she was a cartographer for the British government, and she later worked in the purchasing department of a Southampton engineering firm. She retired in 1972.
Ms. Dean played down her connection to the storied ship until just a few years ago and then traveled extensively to attend Titanic-related events. In 2008, she announced that she was struggling to pay the costs of her room at the nursing home where she lived. Earlier this year, she auctioned off several of her remaining Titanic mementos, including the mail sack in which she might have been rescued. It brought about $4,800.
Don Mullan, an Irish author and photographer, was moved by her plight and challenged Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, stars of the 1997 blockbuster hit "Titanic," along with the film's director, James Cameron, to come to her aid. Last month, the three made substantial donations to the Millvina Fund, set up by Ms. Dean's friends.
Ms. Dean, the Irish Times reported, had a devoted companion, Bruno Nordmanis, "a gallant Latvian gentleman with a twinkly grin." Her brother, Bertram Dean Jr., died April 14, 1992, exactly 80 years after the Titanic struck the iceberg.
She became the last survivor on Oct. 16, 2007, when Barbara West Dainton of Truro, England, died at 96. The last American survivor, Lillian Gertrud Asplund, died in Massachusetts on May 6, 2006. She was 99.
Ms. Dean said she never watched "Titanic" all the way through because of the memories it would evoke of her father. "Although I don't remember him, know nothing about him, I would still be emotional," she told T the Irish Times this year.
"I'd be thinking: 'How did he go down? Did he go down with the ship? Did he jump overboard?' "