Coming Out on the Titanic

A new book takes us back to the decks of the fated vessel, where tragedy struck both gay and straight passengers.

BY Winston Gieseke

March 13 2012 1:00 AM ET

 "It's our most potent modern parable, the great ship, deemed unsinkable, going down on her maiden voyage," says author Hugh Brewster on why we're still talking about the Titanic a century after its tragic sinking. "The stories of how people behaved on that sloping deck are haunting and unforgettable."

Brewster, the writer and historian behind several best-selling books about the doomed ship, provides a thoughtfully researched and vividly drawn look at those haunting and unforgettable stories in the brand-new Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World. Told through portraits of some its most fascinating and well-off wayfarers, the book provides some startling revelations about the private lives of travelers like artist and writer Francis Millet and his friend (and former roommate) Major Archibald Butt, military aide to presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.

Of particular interest to LGBT readers is Brewster's implication that the two might have been more than friends. He writes that while Butt, a "dandified bachelor with an intense devotion to his mother, seems a more likely gay man than Frank Millet, the decorated war correspondent and married father of three," the surviving correspondence from Millet to San Francisco poet Charles Warren Stoddard points to Millet's homosexuality being more than just a youthful bohemian phase.

"Since homosexuality was once an imprisonable offense," Brewster tells The Advocate, "incriminating diaries and letters were usually destroyed, which is why it is remarkable that Frank Millet's unequivocally homoerotic youthful love letters to Stoddard have survived."

In Millet's final letter, mailed from the Titanic in Queenstown, Ireland, four days before it went down, the artist wrote to another friend that a perusal of the passenger list had led him to believe that there were a good number of "our people" on the voyage.

While most books about the oft-depicted disaster place the Titanic as the tragedy's main character, Gilded Lives lets her notable passengers take center stage. The result is a fascinating story of people gay and straight whose demises are as heartbreaking today as they were a century ago.

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