The Unsinkable Molly Brown: Inspiring and Overlooked

I have lived in the Denver Metro Area my entire life. I was born and raised in the Mile High City’s white-bread suburbs and today I live in Denver itself. I lived out of state for four years when I was in college and I found myself missing Denver. I thought it might be a grass-is-always-greener type deal, but after college I’ve realized that I love

I am a Denver nerd. I hope to learn more about the local history, but for now I have a decent working knowledge of the neighborhoods, and have checked out a whole book on its street logic. One of the most fascinating historical figures ever (in my opinion) happens to hail from Denver. Well, not originally, but that was where she spent most of her life and bought a house that is now a museum devoted to her life—and that means dispelling myths about the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” known from Broadway and Hollywood.

Margaret Tobin Brown never went by “Molly” in her life. That’s one of the first myths Kristen Iversen dispels in her definitive biography, Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth. So many of her portrayals have her as a backwoods socialite, an uncouth woman whose New Money couldn’t buy her manners. It’s a shame that she exists like a figure out of a tall tale, because she was really a fascinating person. James Cameron take note: Margarat’s surviving the Titanic was barely a blip compared to all the other things she did.

I don’t want this post to bore you with Margaret’s accomplishments (and I want you to learn about them for yourself, especially if you’re in Denver and can get to the museum). Let’s just say she didn’t sit idle on her millions once her husband struck gold in Leadville in 1893. Toward Progressive causes she leant both her fortune and her fighting spirit. Though often portrayed as nearly illiterate, she valued education and as an adult learned about art, literature, music, and theatre. She became fluent in five languages, which served her on her many world travels and as the person who stayed in New York after the Titanic‘s sinking to make sure all the third-class widows had a place to go. She helped found the first juvenile court system in the country; she fought for miner’s rights after the Ludlow Massacre; she was a great suffragist and the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate (before women could even vote!); she was a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I; and so much more.

I’m not much of a biography reader, to be honest. There’s no particular reason why not, just time I suppose. Here I’m talking about biography specifically, not memoir or autobiography. Perhaps some of that is due to the potential for slant or omission in a biography. I have read Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, which is both hilarious and very much exaggerated. I have also attempted to read Joseph Blotner’s two-volume biography of William Faulkner. The “condensed” version is around a thousand pages. I made it as far as Faulkner making the first grade honor roll and then I had to move on with my life.

I think it’s hard to strike a balance between creating a biography that’s interesting and also accurate. I really enjoyed Iversen’s portrait of Margaret. I think that she really sets Margaret in the context in which she lived. It helps that Margaret’s life seems as if it was rarely empty: when she died, she was teaching aspiring actresses in New York (and was one herself, as a lifetime fan of Sarah Bernhardt). There were a few times where I wished I had more information, but given the fact that Iversen spent eight years doing her research, I’m sure that little has been left out. I’m so glad the biography (and museum) exist to set the record straight about “the unsinkable Molly Brown” and I hope more people will continue to learn about her life.

Commenters: any biographies you’d recommend? I want to read some Brontë ones at some point but I don’t know when that will be.

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