”… And Then The Water Closed Over Me …”


Shortly before his death last fall James R. Webb, a contributor to this magazine [see “Pistols for Two, Coffee for One,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1975], brought to our attention a remarkable personal account written by a survivor of the Lusitania tragedy soon after her rescue. At the time of the sinking—on May 7, 1915—Theodate Pope was a fortyseven-year-old spinster, and in a day when professional women were still oddities, she had become a registered architect in both New York and Connecticut. Eventually she became a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Her career was perhaps the more unusual in that there was no economic incentive for it; she was extremely well-off in her own right, so much so that later she founded, designed, built, and kept a tight rein upon the Avon Old Farms School for boys at Avon, Connecticut, probably the finest example of Cotswold architecture in this country and certainly the most authentic, as it was constructed with seventeenth-century tools. Hill Stead, her family home in Farmington, is now a museum.

Her life was proof that a woman who is an artist can also be an intensely forceful person, yet in her childhood she had been moody with an “unconscious wish … to roll up within myself.” Although she was already mature when her father died in 1913, it was still a great shock to her and led to a deep interest in psychic research. This, in turn, led her to embark upon the Lusitania’i fatal voyage. The Mr. Friend referred to in her letter was Edwin Friend, the man she had chosen for the chair in psychical phenomena that she intended to endow at Harvard University. Their mission to England was to meet with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and other leading believers in the field to explore the feasibility a/publishing a magazine in the United States, with Mr. Friend as editor. The Marjorie mentioned in the first paragraph was, it seems, a friend who was widowed by the tragedy. Robinson was Theodate Pope’s personal maid. Gordon was Gordon Brockway, her legal ward, who died at the age of four in /9/7; and the Haughtons were apparently family friends. Nothing is known about who Mme. Depage and Mrs. Naish were.

Hotel De Crillon Place De La Concorde Paris

My Darling Mother:

I am going to try to tell you about the Lusitania . Marjorie will wish to know some day, but I really think she should not hear the details yet. Please be very careful about this. It might have such a bad effect on her and the baby, but you know that better than I, of course.

You left us when they called out “All ashore!” but I was sorry when I realized we might have had more time together. The ship did not sail for two hours after that; we were taking on passengers from the Cameronia , I was told.

When we pulled out of dock I was in the writing-room and saw then for the first time in the morning Sun the German threat. I said to Mr. Friend, “That means of course that they intend to get us,” though the name of the ship was not given. We were a very quiet shipload of passengers. I comforted myself with the thought that we would surely be convoyed when we reached the war zone. I talked with practically no one on board except Mr. Friend and Mme. Depage, as I was very tired. The Purser changed my stateroom for one on the boat deck, as there was a very noisy family next me and I could not sleep.

Early Thursday morning, the day before the disaster, I was awakened by shouts and the scuffling of feet. I looked out of my porthole and watched the crew loosening the ship’s boats and swinging them clear of the railing. In the afternoon, Mr. Friend read me parts of Bergson’s “Matière et Mé moire,” translating as he read. There were passages that illustrated so wonderfully some of the common difficulties in communication. They were most illuminating, and I could see the vividness of the inspiration they were to Mr. Friend; and as we sat side by side in our deck-chairs, I marveled to myself that such a man as Mr. Friend had been found to carry on the investigations. I felt very deeply the quality of my respect and admiration for him. He was endowed so richly in heart and mind. I had built so much in my future of which he and his work were to have been so very large a part.

After Father’s death I had laboriously reconstructed my life and this structure has also gone. But my agony of mind has been for Marjorie and I have wondered if she would have the strength to see me return without him. I do not think she ought to see me yet. It will be much harder for her than she realizes and it would be too cruel to give her an additional shock.

Friday morning, we came slowly through fog, blowing our fog horn. It cleared off about an hour before we went below for lunch. A young Englishman at our table had been served to his ice cream and was waiting for the steward to bring him a spoon to eat it with; he looked ruefully at it and said he would hate to have a torpedo get him before he ate it. We all laughed, and then commented on how slowly we were running; we thought the engines had stopped.