❚ TUCKER McGUIRE WAS SOMEBODY I’D KNOWN for years before we actually met in London in 1982. She was an American-born actress who’d made her home in England in the 1930s and she played 34 screen roles, according to IMDb, and hundreds more on radio. But the one I knew her from — along with thousands of other British cinema-goers — was her feisty performance in what endures today as the most thrilling version of the Titanic disaster, A Night To Remember, directed as an authentic docu-drama by Roy Ward Baker at Pinewood Studios not far from London in 1958.
As well as the stars Kenneth More and Honor Blackman, this J Arthur Rank mini-epic featured a galaxy of British character actors playing cameo roles from boiler-room to bridge. Tucker was cast as the American millionairess Mrs Margaret “Molly” Brown. And she delivers the scene-stealing line everybody remembers, moments after the mightiest ocean liner of its day slipped beneath the calm mirror-like North Atlantic 100 years ago today.
Though Lifeboat No 6 had capacity for 65 people, it held only 19 women and four men who now stared in horror and awe as the broken Titanic ultimately stood up on end, paused and then vanished in one vertical plunge. Unexpectedly, say eye-witness survivors, the clear night air was suddenly torn with an appalling crescendo of wailing from the hundreds of fellow-passengers struggling for their lives and drowning in the bitter freezing water.
In Rank’s movie, 44-year-old Mrs Brown grabs her oar and insists they turn their lifeboat round and return to save the desperate swimmers: “Come on girls! Row!” She is straight-away rebuked by quartermaster Robert Hichens, the 29-year-old crewman at the helm (who had been at the wheel of the Titanic itself at the liner’s moment of impact with the iceberg). He yells that turning back risked swamping the boat with too many people, whereupon the millionaire women’s rights activist becomes immortalised for ever as the heroic and “Unsinkable” Molly Brown. She tells him: “You get fresh with me son, and I’ll throw you overboard.”
It took 40 minutes after the Titanic sank for the wails of 1,514 doomed souls to be silenced. Hichens gloomily allowed the women to row around for a while, then his boat joined up with Lifeboat No 16 to await rescue in the silent night. With the dawn, a total of 710 survivors were taken aboard by the RMS Carpathia.
❏ Tucker McGuire is among 13 actresses, including Debbie Reynolds, to have portrayed the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, and like so many thespians, proved to be a hugely entertaining character when we met 30 years ago. She had been widowed three years earlier so wanted to widen her social circle by joining an evening class I used to give in creative writing in central London. She didn’t let on about her most famous role for a long while, but when she did I knew exactly who she was, along with the rest of the nation’s vintage movie fans who had seen A Night To Remember on TV seemingly every other Sunday afternoon since 1958.
Though at 69 she was old enough to be granny to most of us, Tucker was vivacious company and after the class often invited the regulars for drinks at her basement flat where she’d show us snapshots from her career and her yearbook for the class of 1930 at Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia. As part of the written coursework she submitted an affecting review of Katherine Mansfield’s Taking the Veil, “an unhappy daydream with a happy ending — a perfect love story. It has drama and comedy and leaves one glad to have read it”. In March 1982 our group went to the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith to see Patricia Routledge and Paul Eddington starring in the newest comedy by Michael Frayn. It proved achingly hilarious and Tucker’s verdict was, in true billboard tradition, that “this one will run and run”. How prescient: a brilliant revival of Noises Off is playing to packed houses at the Old Vic right now.
Tucker died in 1988. Despite her extrovert demeanour, she’d never talked about her family or why she had left America so young. Last month’s DVD rereleases of A Night to Remember gave new life to Tucker’s line “Come on girls!” and prompted a sentimental search session with Google which revealed a daughter Janie Booth, who is also an actress here in Britain. Anne Tucker McGuire was born in Winchester, Virginia, where her father was President of the American Medical Association. Tucker’s first mentions in England include playing in Three Men on a Horse at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, and making the Albert de Courville film Strangers on Honeymoon, both in 1936.
Her old Harrovian husband called himself Tom Macaulay as an actor but his fuller name Thomas Macaulay Booth resonates with British history. The Macaulays included Zachary, the 18th-century slavery abolitionist, and Thomas Babington, the celebrated historian and Whig politician.
The Booth family was no less distinguished: Charles Booth was a 19th-century shipowner and social researcher whose study of working-class life in London led to the founding of old-age pensions. His greatest innovation, documented in Life and Labour of the People in London, included the socially coded Maps Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-99, and revealed that 35% were living in abject poverty. He was elected president of the Royal Statistical Society (1892–4).
❏ Back in the real world of Mrs James Joseph Brown, “Molly” had been born Margaret Tobin in 1867 to Irish immigrants in Hannibal, Mo. From becoming a teen bride in Denver, she struck it rich with her husband, joint-owner of a Colorado gold mine, and enjoyed devoting her life to philanthropy and campaigning for labour rights and women’s suffrage. Mrs Brown eventually separated amicably from her husband and in 1912 went to explore Egypt along with Colonel John Jacob Astor and his wife Madeleine, stars of New York society.
On returning, all three boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg, along with their servants, for the voyage to the States. In the ship’s final hour, the chivalrous Colonel Astor kissed his wife goodbye, saw her into a lifeboat and went to his death smoking a cigarette by the bridge. He was the richest passenger aboard the Titanic, and left a $150 million fortune ($11.92 billion, today).
Mrs Brown died in 1932 pursuing another lifelong passion — acting. Incidentally, she didn’t use either of the famous nicknames Molly or “Unsinkable”. These were given her by a gossip columnist in her hometown of Denver, Colorado.