Sunday, May 31, 2009

Titanic's last survivor: Milvina Dean, 97

by Mary Rourke

Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the Titanic, the ocean-liner that sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912 after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean, died today. She was 97.

Milvina Dean.jpg

She died at a nursing home near Southampton, England, the port where she and her family boarded the ship on its only voyage, according to Charles Haas, the president of the Titanic International Society. Her death came on the 98th anniversary of the launching of the Titanic on May 31, 1911.

"She was a remarkable, sparkling lady," Haas told the Los Angeles Times today. "She knew her place in history and was always willing to share her story with others, especially children. She was the last living link to the story."

Dean was about 8 weeks old when she and her family set sail, third class, on the luxury ocean liner on April 10, 1912. Five days later, she was among some 700 passengers and crew rescued off the coast of Newfoundland. She and her mother, Georgetta, 32, and her brother Bertram, 23 months old, were put into lifeboats.

Her father, Bertram, 27, stayed on board the ship and was among more than 1,500 passengers and crew members who went down with the Titanic.

The late Milvina Dean pictured above, AP. See the full story of the Titanic's last survivor at the Los Angeles Times Web-site and here in the Swamp:

She had no memory of the disaster, but at age 8 her mother told her what happened. "It was so awful for her that she never wanted to speak about it," Dean said of her mother in a 2002 interview with the Irish News. Georgetta Dean suffered severe headaches for years after the ship's sinking.

Before the family left England, Bertram and Georgetta Dean sold the pub they owned in London. They planned to sail to New York City and continue by land to Kansas City, Mo., where they were going to open a tobacco shop.

They did not expect to travel on the Titanic but had booked on another ship that was also owned by White Star. A national coal strike led to a cancellation, and they were offered a place on the Titanic as an alternative.

On their fourth night at sea, April 14, the family was awakened by a jolt when the ship sideswiped the iceberg that cut into the ship.

Bertram Dean went to see what was wrong and returned to tell his wife to dress the children warmly and take them to the lifeboat deck.

"I think it was my father who saved us," Dean said in 2002. "So many other people thought the Titanic would never sink, and they didn't bother. My father didn't take a chance."

Georgetta Dean took her children to live with her parents in their home near Southampton. Millvina and her brother were educated with help from a Titanic Relief Fund established in England for the surviving family members of victims of the wreck.

Dean attended secretarial school. During World War II, she moved to London and worked as a map maker for the British Army. She later returned to Southampton and was a secretary at an engineering firm. For many years, she lived in a house in nearby New Forest. She never married.

Born Elizabeth Gladys Dean on Feb. 12, 1912, she might easily have gone through life without telling anyone that she was a passenger on the Titanic. She ignored the books, movies, clubs, Web sites and submarine tours of the ship disaster after it was found in 1985, 12,500 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean.

Her anonymity ended in 1987 when she attended a memorial service in Southampton on the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. At the service she was invited to speak at a Titanic Historical Society convention in Boston the following year.

"Suddenly everyone knew my name," Dean later recalled. She became a frequent guest at Titanic-related events, she was interviewed on radio and television, and she was pelted with letters from inquirers.

In 1998, Dean finally completed the sea voyage from Southampton to New York City that she had set out to make 86 years earlier. She traveled on the Queen Elizabeth II, compliments of Michael Rudd, a Titanic enthusiast and travel agent in Missouri. "She hadn't been on a ship since 1912," Rudd said in a 2007 interview with the Times. "People crowded around her; they just wanted to touch her."

As part of that same trip, Dean went to Missouri to see the house where her parents planned to begin their new life, an experience she described as eerie.

She refused to watch "Titanic," the Academy Award-winning movie of 1997, even though she was invited to a screening with Prince Charles of England. "I'd wonder what my father was doing, what he did," she said, referring to the terrible last scenes of the film.

Dean kept up her Titanic engagements into her 90s, often with her "permanent escort," Bruno Nordmanis, to accompany her. They traveled together on the Queen Elizabeth II cruise.

Dean's mother died in 1975, at 95. Her brother died in 1992 on the 80th anniversary of the ship's sinking. He was 81.

Mary Rourke is a former L.A. Times staff writer. Times staff writer Jon Thurber contributed to this report.

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