Brett Gladstone poses in front of a statue on 106th Street and Broadway dedicated to his great-great-grandparents, Isidor and Ida Straus, who died when the Titanic sunk 100 years ago today. The photo he is holding depicts Isidor and Ida.
A tribute to commemorate the sinking of the Titanic, which occurred 100 years ago today, drew a special guest to Straus Park on 106th Street. Brett Gladstone, the great-great-grandson of Isidor and Ida Straus, who died when the ship sunk, returned to the park named in their honor on Sunday.
Isidor Straus was one of the owners of Macy’s, and he and his wife had a first-class berth on the Titanic. When the ship began to sink, Ida refused to leave her husband’s side despite being offered one of the last seats on a lifeboat. They were last seen sitting in deck chairs as a wave washed over them, Gladstone said. Their love story is one of the most famous tales of the ship’s sinking (the full tragic tale is recounted below).
On Sunday, a series of tribute events was held at Straus Park by Landmarks West and Friends of Straus Park.
“I’m so excited that after a hundred years people still care about my great-great-grandparents,” Gladstone told us. “I’m astounded by the continuing interest.”
He sent us the text of the speech he gave at the ceremony:
“My name is Brett Gladstone, great great grandson of Isidor and Ida Straus, who are being honored here today, the 100th year anniversary of their heroic death on the ship Titanic. I am immensely proud of my great great grandparents, and so honored that all of you would take time from your busy lives to be here today.
First, our family would like to thank the organizers of this event, Landmarks West. We would also like to thank my fellow Board members of the Straus Historical Society and its President, Paul Kurzman. I also wish to thank Friends of Straus Park, who will be having an event shortly following this one, at this same location. That will be followed by refreshments at Henry’s Restaurant, at 105th Street and Broadway, the site of my ancestors’ home and only a block north on Broadway. And immense thanks to the Straus family historian, Joan Adler, who for almost two decades has researched our family history in this country after 1848 and for hundreds of years before in Germany; Joan has published a number of articles and has organized family events such as the cocktail party this week at the Macy’s Executive offices on 34th Street sponsored by the Macy’s senior executives and Board of Directors.
Isidor Straus and his brothers became the majority partners in Macy’s department store in 1888, eleven years after the death of R.J. Macy in 1877. Mr. Macy’s store originally consisted of a very small haberdashery on 34th Street, at which the Straus brothers had a small concession for sales of their china. The Straus brothers then built the various large buildings you see there today, and after Isidor’s death, the Straus family continued to own the store through the third quarter of the 20th Century.
My great great grandparents’ last hours on this earth have been portrayed in three Hollywood movies, three TV series, a Broadway musical, poems, songs, books and thousands of articles. Today, three Titanic Museums around the country draw enormous crowds of people who want to learn about the ship and the Strauses and others who tragically lost their lives.
For me, as a child growing up in Manhattan in the 1960’s, a turbulent time when there were few good role models and great cynicism about leadership and heroes, my great great grandparents lives had special meaning. It was humbling to walk by schools and monuments named for them and see the great plaque honoring them at Macy’s. Family stories repeated their philanthropy and good deeds, including Isidor’s selfless government service as a member of Congress and advisor to mayors, governors and presidents even while running the great store; this was inspiring enough, and imbued me, as the hoped for future lawyer in the family, with a drive to succeed in an honorable profession and honor their legacy and name. As is typical, every generation puts its hopes on certain persons in the next, and I was blessed by wonderful educational and cultural opportunities that my ancestors made possible. As an adult, when I matured enough to know the importance of a long term emotional partnership, it was the strength of Isidor and Ida’s relationship that impressed me the most. Isidor and Ida wrote to each other every day of their lives when they were apart, and of course in the end preferred to die together rather than live apart.
It’s their last moments together that continue to capture the imagination of the public for the last one hundred years. For that reason, let’s talk about their last hour, as witnessed by their maid Ellen Bird who survived to tell their story to my great grandmother Sara, who told it to me.
As one of the last lifeboats was boarding, a ship officer asked Ida to get into the boat, at which point she refused and insisted that their maid Ellen Bird take her place in boat No 8. When it became apparent that there was no hope of staying afloat, her husband Isidor insisted again, and in fact a crewman started to force her entry. She entered thinking her husband would step in next; in fact, the implication was that Isidor pretended he was going to enter after her, in order to make sure she did. As the lifeboat began descending and she realized otherwise, Ida jumped out of the boat to join Isidor. At that point, she spoke the following words to her husband: “We have been together a long time. I will not leave you. Where you go, I shall go”. At that point Ida tossed her fur coat into the arms of her maid Ellen Bird, who lived to tell the story. Although the most recent Titanic movie by director Jim Cameron portrays them hugging each other in their bed as the water rose around the bed, eyewitnesses last saw them hugging each other on deck chairs when the waters engulfed them. Back in New York, Ellen Bird handed the fur coat back to my great grandmother, the Straus’ daughter Sara, who then handed it back to Ellen, saying her mother Ida would have wanted Ellen to keep it.
A memorial service just for the Strauses was held at Carnegie Hall on May 12. It was reported that 6,000 people attended that service and tens of thousands of disappointed persons, who could not get in, thereafter attended services at other locations in the City. On April 24, 1912, The Tribune newspaper reported that a crowd estimated at forty thousand gathered to attend a lecture on Isidor Straus. For fear the mob would rush in through the doors, the police had to order the meeting abandoned.
Within months thereafter, a memorial committee formed to collect contributions to create the park we stand in today. With their generosity, this park was dedicated April 15 1915. My great great grandfather’s body was discovered floating in the seas, and the locket he held remains with my uncle today. Those of you reading last week’s People magazine Titanic piece will see a picture of that locket. I last visited Isidor’s grave last September 11 at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, after burying my mother nearby that same day. Although Ida’s body was never found, her memory is honored by the beautiful statute you see here named “Memory”, by the artist Augustus Lukeman. According to an account in a book called Elegant New York, Mr. Lukeman’s work, the winner in a well known competition, was chosen because it QUOTE” represented a scheme of peaceful contemplation over a sheet of water, leaving it to the meditative public to muse over the sacrifice the same element demanded of the Titanic disaster.”
Those who look at the large wall behind this statue will read an inscription from the Old Testament’s Book of Samuel: it states “In Memory of Isidor and Ida Straus. Lovely and Pleasant Were they in their Lives. And in Their Death They Were Not Divided. Book 11 Samuel 1:23.” Isidor honored the unwritten and now lost tradition of “women and children first” and Ida, in a world, not unlike today, where commitments were often brief and fragile, followed the Old Testament tradition best portrayed in the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth. As we may recall, at a most difficult time, Ruth stayed close and loyal to her family, saying “Entreat me not to leave you…for where thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge…and where thou diest, I will die; and there I will be buried”.
This location was chosen for this park because Isidor and Ida had a beautiful home around the corner at 2745 Broadway, one block to the north. That location is where you will find Henry’s Restaurant. At about three thirty p.m. today right in this park, there will be a ceremony sponsored by a wonderful group of neighbors who organize cultural events throughout the year in the park, a group called Friends of Straus Park. This group and the Straus family welcome members of the public to Henry’s for refreshments and questions about the park and the lives of Isidor and Ida and their Family.
Finally, I would like to thank Landmarks West again for organizing this event and allowing me to speak on behalf of the Straus Family. Nothing gives me more pleasure than the opportunity to speak of my great great grandparents — a couple who had everything — and yet surrendered their lives to abide by principle, and to affirm their loving and everlasting bond to one another.”