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Madeleine Astor: How the Widow of John Jacob Astor VI Survived the Titanic

Madeleine Astor was just 19 years old when she boarded the RMS Titanic on April 10, 1912, with her husband, American millionaire John Jacob Astor IV. Astor was five months pregnant at the time and was excited to return home to New York City after their extended honeymoon adventuring around Egypt. In just four days, Madeleine Astor’s life would change forever.

Becoming a millionaire’s bride

Madeleine Astor was born Madeleine Talmage Force on June 19, 1893, in New York City to William Hurlbut Force and Katherine Arvilla Talmage. Her father William Force owned a successful shipping company, and the Force family was very involved in New York high society during The Gilded Age, a time of luxurious over-indulgence.

Left: Portrait of Madeleine Astor (nee Force). Right: Portrait of John Jacob Astor IV.
Left: Madeleine Astor (nee Force) circa 1910. Right: John Jacob Astor IV circa 1890. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress via. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain; Bettmann via. Getty Images).

She met her soon-to-be husband Colonel John Jacob Astor IV (who was nearly 30 years her senior) in 1911. Their courtship was featured all over news tabloids, especially Astor’s affinity for showing young Madeleine around the city in state-of-the-art automobiles and yachts.

John Jacob Astor drives an automobile and Madeleine Force sits in the passenger seat.
Photograph of John Jacob Astor and Madeleine Force riding in an automobile, circa 1911/1912. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The glamourous couple was engaged in August 1911 and married on September 9, 1911, even after they struggled to find a priest to marry recent divorcee John Jacob Astor. Their marriage cemented their place as one of New York’s elite celebrity couples.

An unsinkable love

The newlyweds boarded Titanic‘s sister ship the RMS Olympic in January 1912 for their honeymoon. They traveled around Europe and eventually ended up in Eygpt, “on account of Mrs. Astor’s health.” During their honeymoon, Madeleine Astor became pregnant with their first child. Wanting the baby to be born in the United States, the Astors immediately booked a last-minute ticket home aboard the Titanic.

A Luxury Bedroom on Titanic
A luxury first-class bedroom on the Titanic. (Photo Credit: Pictures from History/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The couple boarded Titanic in Cherbourg, France with John Astor’s valet, Madeleine Astor’s maid, their nurse, and their beloved dog Kitty. The Astors enjoyed the opulent first-class parlor suites, which were the most expensive rooms on board. The suites featured private promenade decks, large staterooms, an en suite with marble fixtures, and private sitting rooms. A ticket for the first-class parlor suites cost a cool $4,350 in 1912, or roughly $50,000 today.

A collapsable life filled with survivors from the Titanic the morning after the sinking.
Survivors Of The RMS Titanic In One Of Her Collapsible Lifeboats.(Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

On the evening of April 14, 1912, John Jacob Astor came back to his suite to inform his wife that the ship had struck an iceberg, but the damage wasn’t that serious, and assured her there was nothing to worry about – after all, they were on the world’s only “unsinkable ship.”

The Astors and their three staff dressed warmly and put on life preservers before making their way toward the lifeboats. Some accounts say they spent time waiting on the “mechanical horses” in the first-class gym. Other reports say that Madeleine Astor was skeptical of the life jackets, which her husband proved were made with the right material by cutting a spare lifevest open – probably not the best use of a life preserver in this exact scenario.

Story of Survival

Madeleine Astor, her nurse, and maid were able to board Lifeboat 4. John Astor helped his young wife into the boat, then asked if he could get on board with her since she was in a “delicate condition” – likely referring to her pregnancy. He was denied entry onto the lifeboat since only women and children were allowed to board the boats. Astor reportedly asked the captain for the lifeboat number so he would find his wife later on, but what he didn’t know was that there would not be enough time or enough lifeboats for the remaining passengers.

John Jacob Astor and his valet both died in the sinking, Astor’s body was found in the Atlantic on April 22 with $2,500 in cash in his pockets. Madeleine Astor was rescued by the RMS Carpathia in the early morning of April 15th. Like many of the women saved by the Carpathia, Madeleine was unaware that she was now a widow.

Photograph of John Jacob Astor's Fifth Avenue mansion.
John Jacob Astor’s house on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, New York, circa 1900. (Photo Credit: Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection via. Getty Images)

When she arrived home in New York City, Madeleine released a statement to the New York Times through a spokesperson:

“Mrs Astor, it appears, left in one of the last boats which got away from the ship. It was her belief that all the women who wished to go had then been taken off. Her impression was that the boat she left in had room for at least 15 more persons. The men, for some reason (that) she could not and does not now understand, did not seem to be at all anxious to leave the ship. Almost everyone seemed dazed.”

Newlywed and Newly Widowed

The newly widowed Madeleine Astor stayed out of the public and mourned her loss in private. Her husband left her $100,000 in his will and allowed her to live at their lavish mansion on Fifth Avenue – both privileges she would lose if she chose to remarry. An additional $3 million was put aside for their unborn child. John Jacob Astor VI, nicknamed “Jakey,” was born on August 14, 1912, exactly four months after his father’s death.

A photograph of Madeleine Astor taken in 1915.
Madeleine Astor photographed in New York’s Belmont Park in 1915. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress via. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).

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Madeleine didn’t re-appear in New York society until 1915. In 1916, she married her second husband and childhood friend William Karl Dick. The pair divorced in July 1933, and Madeleine married her third husband, Italian actor Enzo Fiermonte, just four months later.

At just 46 years old, Madeleine Fiermonte died from a heart condition on March 27, 1940. She is buried at Trinty Church Cemetery in New York City, the same site where her first husband John Jacob Astor IV was buried after his body was recovered from the Titanic disaster.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast