Past & Present / Living History
February 13, 1998 / 17 Shevat, 5758

The Man Who Missed The Boat

By Hanoch Teller

Think you've heard just about everything there is to know about the Titanic? Here's a story we gurantee will cause you to re-think that assumption.

ALMA HOYT paced back and forth on the sidewalk opposite 222 Central Park West, shifting the bulky parcel under her arm. In this classy upper Manhattan district, the names on the mansions were synonymous with New York City's famous cultural institutions and foundations -- Astor, Guggenheim, Huntington-Hartford, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt --- and the smell of "old money" hovered like a hot-air balloon over the clean, well-kept streets.

Gone were the horse-drawn coaches and sputtering motor cars of a quarter of a century earlier, but the sights of Alma's youth passed before her eyes like flickering images in a nickelodeon. Governesses in long black coats and veiled hats wheeled lace-trimmed baby buggies across the broad avenue and down the flower-bordered lanes of Central Park. Red-jacketed riders with high-gloss boots and pale jodhpurs sat astride their chestnut and palomino mounts, clip-clopping along the cobblestones from the stables behind the brownstones towards the Bridle Path. And little boys in short pants and girls in ruffled pinafores licked All-Day Suckers and rolled hoops down the pavement.

It seemed as though a millennium had passed, for the stone gargoyles and griffins that adorned the stately brick facades were blackened with soot now and the once-quiet boulevard was choked with motor cars and clanging trolleys. Alma shifted the package one last time and strode resolutely up the stoop of 222. The heavy door was opened by a pinched-faced woman, a frilly cap on her head and a matching apron over her simple gray dress.

"Yes?" she asked in a condescending tone. Alma's lips quirked at the irony of the circumstances.

"I come to see Miss Sara Straus," she said. The maid eyed her shabby raincoat with disdain and Alma self-consciously patted her fresh permanent.

"Mrs. Hess is entertaining. She does not receive peddlers or salespersons." She began to close the door.

"Wait!" Alma cried. "Please... please tell her Alma Hoyt is here an' that I got somethin' belonged to her mother, rest her soul." The maid closed the door wordlessly. A panicky feeling gripped Alma. "What if she don't wanna see me?" she thought, "or if -- oh my gosh! -- what if she thinks I stole it!" She almost turned to run when the door suddenly swung open.

"Alma! How delightful to see you again!" It was Miss Sara, looking as lovely as her mother had at her age. "Won't you come in?" Alma allowed herself a small superior glance at the maid as she handed her the raincoat and then followed Miss Sara -- "No," she reminded herself, "it's Miz Hess now" -- into the spacious parlor.

"Hanna, darling," Sara said, addressing the striking, early-middle-aged woman perched on the sofa, a fragile china teacup poised at her lips, "I'd like you to meet Alma Hoyt. She, ah, worked for my mother -- ages ago." Hanna raised a quizzical eyebrow and a cool hand. Alma grasped it tentatively. "Alma, this is my cousin, Mrs. Straus-Brandeis."

"A pleasue, ma'am," said Alma, "you must be Mr. Nathan's daughter. A fine man, Mr. Nathan was. I recollect him comin' here to 222 to visit Mr. Isidor. They was always joshin' with one another, as brothers do, don't you know, or talkin' over business things in Iddich."

Hanna laughed in spite of herself. "I remember. Father often lapsed into Yiddish when it came to financial matters. I think despite his pretensions to progressiveness and modernity, he was afraid someone would give him the 'evil eye.' He really missed Uncle Isidor after he was gone."

"Please sit down, Alma," Sara said, "and join us for a cup of tea."

"Thank you, Miss Sara -- I mean, Miz Hess, that's real nice of you. But I won't be disturbin' you an' your company. I... I just wanted to give you this." Alma awkwardly presented the large white box to her hostess.

Sara and her cousin exchanged a puzzled look. "Please, Miz Hess, open it. By rights, it's yours." Sara undid the string and lifted the cover. Inside the box, under a layer of yellowed tissue, was something dark and furry. Sara gasped. She took it out and held it up for Hanna to see: It was a luxuriant, floor-length black sable coat.

"Where... where did you get this?" she stammered. "It's positively gorgeous!" Hanna, whose eye for quality was no less keen, agreed.

Alma toyed nervously with a jacket button. "Your mama give me it on the day she died." Sara looked at her in disbelief. "Now don't you be thinkin' I stole it," Alma said with some heat. "I never took nothin' didn't belong to me in all my life, specially not from a nice lady like Miz Ida was."

"Of course not, Alma. I didn't mean to imply anything of the sort. It's simply the shock of seeing this coat. It quite takes one's breath away. Why, I have an old photograph of my mother wearing it -- or one very much like it."

"I know that pikcha, Miz Hess, an' it's this here coat alright. Mr. Isidor give it to her for her birthday that year an' poor Miz Ida, she didn't get to wear it mor'n half a dozen times." Alma found a white handkerchief in her purse and dabbed at her eyes. "The trip was suppose to be a anniversary present -- they was always givin' each other fine presents like that."

Bolstered with cups of hot tea and petit fours, Alma recounted the tale of the fateful voyage of the S.S. Titanic, the guaranteed- unsinkable ship that went down off the coast of Newfoundland on April 15, 1912.

"That cruise wasn't just for rich folks like your mama an' papa an' their friends, but the First Class deck surely was. The Astors, they was there, an' the Guggenheims, they was in the next cabin from us. An' everyone was havin' a grand old time, until we hit the iceberg."

The allegedly "invincible" ocean liner Titanic set sail from Southampton, England, on its trans-Atlantic maiden voyage on the tenth of April, 1912. So convinced had its designers been of its unsinkability that lifeboats for only 1,178 had been installed, although the passengers and crew numbered 2,207. With a double-armored bottom and sixteen watertight compartments, it was deemed invulnerable even if four compartments were flooded. The three-hundred-foot gash inflicted by the iceberg inundated five.

"Your papa, he booked one of them 'posh' suites, with two bedrooms an' a dressin' room an' a bathroom with gold-plated faucets. That there posh cabin even had a little room Miz Ida give me, but Henry, Mr. Isidor's valet, he stayed in third class with most the other servants.

"Well, the steward, he come round to our cabin an' I was just helpin' Miz Ida get ready for bed an' he says all the ladies was to dress up real warm an' line up on the deck to get into the lifeboats. Mr. Isidor, he gets real mad -- I never seen him lose his temper before -- an' he yells at the steward for not havin' enough lifeboats for all the passengers.

"Pretty soon, Miz Ida, she gets him calmed down, sayin' it's not the steward's fault. Young man was white as a sheet, knowin' he wasn't gettin' on no lifeboat, neither. Then she says: 'Isidor, we had lotsa happy years together an' if you're gonna go down with the ship, well, I will too, 'cause life without you wouldn't be worth livin'.' Then Miz Ida, she give me her coat. 'Here," she says, 'it'll be right cold out there in the lifeboat an' I won't be needin' this no more anyways.'"

Sara started to cry and Hanna put a solicitous arm around her cousin's shoulder. "I am sorry Miss Sara. I wasn't meanin' to come 'round here an' distress you."

"No, no, Alma," Sara said, composing herself. "It's quite all right. Really. I was only a child when it happened. Such a terrible tragedy. I've actually been on the verge of a good cry all day long. Today's the twenty-fifth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, you know, and Saturday, by the Jewish calendar, is my parents' yahrzeit."

"Well, 'course I know it. When I seen the headlines in the papers this mornin', it all came back to me. That's how I be recollectin' about the coat, you see. I come down with the penny-monia out there in the middle of the ocean an' when I come back to New York, I just gone straight to my Ma's place up to the Bronx. I wasn't hardly mor'n a girl neither an' that sinkin' was surely one awful thing.

"My Ma was puttin' me to bed an' feedin' me hot soup an' the like an' I was mostly out of my head better part of a week with the fever. When I was feelin' a mite more myself, I come back here to be givin' the coat back an' collectin' my things, but the house was locked up tighter'n a Gramma School on the Fourth of Joo-lie. I come back again some weeks after an' this here new maid be handin' me my old clothes an' stuff 'round to the back door, along with a right nice check from the bank an' a note from some lawya-fella thankin' me for my years of service an' such.

"Well, I wasn't gonna be givin' no new maid no fur coat nohow, not when she be tellin' me ain't none of the family to home, so I come back to my Ma's an' packed it up, nice as you please, just like you seen it now, an' I never give it a thought these twenty-fi' years.

"Ma, she's long gone now an' I been livin' there in her place all these years. An' like I said, when I seen the headlines I all of a sudden thought about the coat sittin' up on the shelf in the big closet underneath the old winter blankets an' such. I'm sure sorry to have took so long t be returnin' it an' if it pleases you, Miss Sara, I'll be goin' now." She rose to leave.

"Don't hurry off, Alma, please. Hanna and I were just talking about the Titanic. Did you know Hanna's parents were meant to be on the ship too?"

"You don't say! Mr. Nate an' the missus? Lord sure was watchin' over them that day, Miz Brandeis, if you don't mind my sayin' so."

"That He was, Alma. Why don't you have another cup of tea? I was just going to tell Sara about it, although I should think she's heard the story more than once. It's rather a pleasant change to have a fresh audience." Sara rang for a fresh pot and soon the maid replenished the cake tray as well. With a wistful expression on her almost unlined face, Hanna began her story.

In the spring of 1912, Nathan and Isidor Straus and their wives were visiting Palestine for the first time. Reputed to be among the greatest philanthropists in America, the Straus brothers were given VIPs' welcomes in the money-starved Holy Land and the red-carpet treatment wherever they went. They toured agricultural settlements such as Zichron Ya'akov and Degania, where Jewish farmers battled the caprices of nature to eke a subsistence out of the recalcitrant soil. They saw the infant metropolis of Tel Aviv emerging from the sand dunes outside Jaffa. But nowhere was Nathan Straus more impressed than in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

There he found thousands of devout Jews dedicating their lives to the study of Torah and living in abject poverty such as he had never seen. His guides were anxious for Straus to view historical sights and tourist attractions which were the pride of Jerusalem, but Nathan insisted on visiting the "real" city within the walls, the habitations and institutions of the impoverished residents.

The destitute masses rent his heart. Large families crowded into crumbling, one-room hovels, yeshivas housed in squalid shacks, cheder children huddled on bare stone floors, and synagogues that bespoke the privation and penury of their congregants, all brought tears to his eyes. Like a man possessed, he trudged day after day down the narrow, winding alleys around the Damascus Gate, through Battei Machse, along Rechov Hayehudim.

"Mother told me that she and Uncle Isidor and Aunt Ida had become more and more frantic with Father's behavior with each passing day. The four of them were supposed to sail from Palestine to England to join their friends and business associates there on what had been billed 'the trans-Atlantic voyage of a lifetime.' Ironic, wouldn't you say? There was even a big business deal they'd been hoping to close on board the Titanic -- I think it was with Jake Astor.

"But all of their pleading and cajoling for Father to call a halt to his expeditions fell on deaf ears. He simply could not tear himself away from the Old City. In the end, Sara's parents gave up and left for England on their own, and Father barely found the time to say 'good-bye' to them. He would return each evening to the hotel room looking pale and haggard -- Mother said it was as though he could feel the suffering of the Jerusalemites on his own flesh."

Nathan Straus was no stranger to poverty. He himself had been raised amidst struggle and indigence in Talbottom, Georgia. And it was there that the seeds of his unique style of philanthropy first germinated. As a young man, he had seen self-respecting workingmen transformed into pitiful beggars by economic conditions beyond their control and he had seen how handouts robbed the needy of their dignity.

During the American financial panic of 1893, Straus established food distribution centers where large quantities of foodstuffs were not given away for free, but sold for pennies. The long lines that formed at the doors to the centers were comprised of honest, hard-working citizens, proud to be able to buy the necessities to feed their families -- instead of the defeated, down-on-their-luck, shamefaced idlers reduced to begging for crusts.

"Father saw the desperate need in Jerusalem," Hanna continued, "but it wasn't until he returned home that he devised a way to respond to it. You see, there it wasn't a question of large numbers of unemployed workers; if that had been the case, why, he would have initiated projects to employ them.

"But these men were engaged full-time in the study of Torah, and the women were raising enormous families, so they couldn't be expected to be wage-earners too -- even if their modesty would have allowed them to work outside the home. It was apparent that some creative thinking was called for."

Nathan Straus, a somewhat secular Jew affiliated with the Reform movement in New York, grasped the essential fact that the study of Torah was an end unto itself and that this was the chosen vocations of many Jerusalemites, despite the absence of financial reward.

While Nathan Straus continued his researches, the Titanic set sail from England without him, and five days later, the unsinkable vessel sank, taking with it more than 1,500 passengers and crewmen. Among the victims were his brother Isidor and Isidor's wife, Ida.

"Throughout the shiva," Hanna went on, her voice thickened by emotion, "Father was consoled by one thought: that G-d had spared him for a reason. He knew his fascination with and concern for the starving Jews of Jerusalem had been the only thing that had stood between him and a watery grave. It would have been a simple matter to allocate funds and be done with it, but an incident Father had witnessed in the Old City made him hesitant to do so.

"An elderly pauper, bent nearly in half beneath the pack he carried and wearing the most unspeakable rags, passed my father's contingent on Shaar HaShamayim (Gates of Heaven) Street. Father quickly offered the unfortunate fellow a few coins, although he hadn't asked for alms, and the fellow -- without a word of thanks -- turned on his heel and handed the money to a cripple limping down a passage. Father remarked on this unusual behavior and one of his escorts pointed to a street sign and said: 'Stranger things have happened at the Gates of Heaven'. Father was positively speechless.

"The incident was still fresh in his mind and it gave him an insight into the character of these uncommon people. First, the unhesitating acceptance of charity, without any expression of gratitude or even a hint of the embarrassment he'd seen on the breadlines in Georgia. To my father this meant that, unlike strike-bound coal miners, the needy Jerusalemites could accept his generosity and still maintain their self-respect, because for them it would be similar to the old European way of wealthy townspeople supporting Torah scholars. In a way, it was expected.

"Second -- and here was the real conflict -- Father wanted to be certain that precisely those individuals whose daily sacrifices for their holy calling were so great, would benefit directly from his philanthropy. But these people were so pious and saintly that, after accepting his money, they were likely to turn it around and give it away to someone they considered less fortunate than themselves. Well, that ruled out direct donations."

The Straus soup kitchen in Jerusalem's Batei Warsaw district and the network of food distribution centers Nathan Straus founded changed the face of the Yishuv (the pre-state settlement of Jews in the Holy Land). Countless impoverished Jerusalemites of that era owed their very existence to his benevolence, and thousands were enabled to continue in their dedicated pursuit of Torah study, relieved, in part, of the burden of sustaining their families.

However, even this enormous contribution could not solve the problems attendant to the deplorable living conditions of the Old City. Crowding, inadequate sanitation and aboniable refuse disposal gave rise to rampant disease. In 1914, The Nathan Straus Medical Center, the Pasteur Institute and several child health-welfare facilities opened, providing modern medical care to Jerusalem's residents and removing one more major stumbling block from the path of inhibited spiritual growth.

Hanna sipped her tea thoughtfully. "When Father passed on and his will was read, the list of institutions to be endowed was interminable. I was astounded by the sums dedicated for Palestine -- they amounted to nearly two-thirds of his fortune, a fact that made me particularly curious to see for myself what Father's money had achieved.

"We were in Palestine just this past summer, and I must say the trip was inspiring. I was received like visiting royalty! In the Old City people flocked around me -- great rabbis and Talmudic scholars, elderly mothers of ten, even twelve children -- to recount 'Nathan Straus stories,' to tell me how Father had saved them or their parents, and so on.

"Can you imagine -- about ten years ago they named a whole town after him: Netanya. The word also means, 'G-d gave.' Oh, father must have thought it tremendously appropriate. Through those poor people of Jerusalem, G-d gave him his life and, in return, my father gave them the means to go on with their lives. "The most rewarding thing, of course, was to see that his wonderful philanthropy lives on, even now -- after his death. And all because he missed the boat."

"Well Miz Hanna, like I was sayin', Mr. Nathan and Mr. Isidor was two boys who would make any mama proud to've birthed them. An' I was surely proud to've known them both."

Sara lifted the fabulous fur coat off the sofa. "I'd like you to keep this, Alma. I know mother would have wanted you to have it."

Alma's face creased with embarrassment. "That's right kind of you, Miss Sara. But you make me ashamed 'cause I wasn't tellin' the truth, exactly. And this talk of people like saints be puttin' me to shame, that's for sure." Sara was nonplussed.

"You see, there's no way I'd be forgettin' I had that there coat all these years. There was times I near pawned it just to put bread on the table. But every time I'd be takin' it down, I'd be rememberin' your good mama an' how kind she was, not just to me, but to everyone, and that there coat was just about all I had left of her. An' every time, well, somethin' come up -- a job just when I was needin' it or somethin' and I didn't have to pawn it after all."

"What made you bring it to me now, Alma, after you've cherished it for 25 years?"

Alma dug into her simulated leather handbag and drew out a sheaf of papers. "Your papa, he give me a present some months before he died, for Hannukie, an' he told me: 'Alma, you hold onto this here thing an' you'll never be wantin' for nothin',' an' that I did."

Sara unfolded the large, ornately engraved document. It was a stock certificate for 100 preferred shares of R.H. Macy, Inc., one of the Straus brothers' vast holdings. The cousins burst out laughing like school girls.

"It seems them stocks been payin' nice divied-ends a long time now, only they didn't know where to be sendin' them 'cause my address is listed as '222', see? Well, they finally found me up there on the Brand Concourse, an' now I got me enough to retire on an' take care my sister over in Dee-troit. She's got the arther-ritis somethin' awful."

"I'm sure you'll be able to put a warm coat like this to good use in Michigan, Alma." Sara said with a twinkle in her eye. "I'll tell you what: I'll sell you the coat --- for one dollar."

Hanoch Teller is the author of several works on Judaic themes, including Souled, where this story originally appeared.


© 1998, Hanoch Teller