Monday, February 3, 2014

William S. Sloper, Titanic survivor and polished tangoist

Restless and sickly. Highly strung.  Those are the adjectives attached to 28-year-old Titanic survivor William Sloper by newspapers in his home state of Connecticut following his rescue.
But they must have caught him at a bad time because other accounts suggest he acquitted himself well during the sinking of the Titanic, including helping to row his lifeboat away from the (non-existent) suction that everyone feared.
Sloper was, by all accounts, the quintessential rich playboy.  His bio says he was a stockbroker, but a stockbroker who took a three-month holiday to Europe just before booking passage home on the Titanic.
Newspaper accounts invariably mention that Sloper was the son of a banker, hinting perhaps that it was his family money that supported his lifestyle and not his acumen with the stock market.   One thing that jumps out from the limited public information about William Sloper is that he was a real ladies man.
In his memoirs, he spoke about meeting Winnipegger Alice Fortune, 24, "a very pretty girl and an excellent dancing partner", on the ship taking them to Europe in January, 1912. It's obvious that Sloper knew how to cut a rug and he was impressed by Alice's moves on the dance floor.  They shared a "moment", as Sloper wrote he "became very well acquainted" with the young lady.
Three months later, in London, Alice and her family were "gathered under the shade of a sheltering palm" in the courtyard of the Carleton Hotel when along came William Sloper. "At once the young people started calling me to join them for tea," he wrote.  At least Alice did, we can be sure.
She convinced him to switch passage from the Mauretania to the Titanic, which she was taking home.  He promised her he would.  "If Alice herself was not inducement, her assurance that she knew of 20 people who would be passengers on the titanic who had been on our steamer in January."  Yeah, he was interested in them, you bet.
He says no more about Alice Fortune, possibly because on the night the Titanic hit an iceberg, he had a new girl friend---a movie actress.  Or possibly because Alice had a fiance waiting for her at home.
Alice and her family had gone to bed, but Sloper stayed up, going to the library to write letters to friends, he said.  "A very pretty young woman approached my desk and introduced herself as Miss Dorothy Gibson."
Ahh, that would be Dorothy Gibson, 23, who had already acted in about 20 silent movies, and who, as it happened, was searching for a fourth for bridge.  She saw this charming young man and decided to invite him to join her and her mother in a game, even though Sloper sucked at cards, by his own account.  Frederick Seward, a 35-year-old New York lawyer was the other player, at bridge.
After the library steward broke up the game so he could finally go to bed, Dorothy was up for a moonlight stroll.  First seeing Dorothy's mother and Mr. Seward to their rooms, Sloper went to his own cabin to throw on some warmer clothing before taking that stroll.
Just then, the ship lurched. It had hit the iceberg.  Dorothy came running up and they dashed to the top deck to see what happened.  The rest was over in a blur.  The lifeboats were cleared, the first class passengers were gathered and politely asked to get in, and Dorothy Gibson, her mother, and William Sloper found themselves on the Atlantic Ocean in Lifeboat No. 7, the first boat off the ship.
Two years later, Sloper was back in the news in a much smaller way.  Despite his close call, he had resumed his globetrotting ways, and he had polished his reputation as a charming "bad boy.",4460795

The Miami News
March 27, 1914
                  Survivor of Titanic Meets Man Pictured As Himself As Lost

An unusual incident marked a casual introduction of two gentlemen at the Royal Palm several evenings ago. J.A. Moore of Seattle, Wash., was presenting W.S. Sloper of New Britain, Conn.,to a young woman and recommending him to her as a polished tangoist.
When the dance was over the two men felt a strange unusual attraction for each other. They sought each other and Mr. Moore began inquiries concerning Mr. Sloper's family, home travels, etc. Mr. Sloper likewise began to unravel the mystery that he felt enshrouded Mr. Moore. Finally, the latter asked Mr. Sloper if he had not sailed on the ill-fated Titanic. Mr. Sloper replied that he was on that vessel and was reported among those lost,.
The mystery was solved. The two men looked at each other, the tears came to their eyes, and they clasped hands.
Mr. Moore also was booked to sail on the Titanic but missed the boat. and was reported as lost. The strange and unusual interest these men had for each other was now explained. Both Mr. Moore and Mr. Sloper were reported in the papers as being lost but Mr. Moore's picture was published as that of Mr. Sloper. Mr. Moore had met the man who had been lost photographically as himself.

There was our man, on the dancefloor again. And described as "a polished tangoist."
It's important to know how daring and wicked the tango was in 1914.
 The Pope issued a pastoral letter denouncing the tango as "new paganism." "It is everything that can be imagined. It is revolting and disgusting. Only those persons who have lost all moral sense can endure it. It is the shame of our days. Whoever persists in it commits a sin", he wrote in his episcopal letter
The Kaiser, the King of Italy, the King of Bavaria, and the Queen of England denounced the tango.  Archbiships throughout France condemned the dance as "profoundly dangerous to morals", and tried to get the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris on side, although, declared the New York Times, " if his Eminence decides, as he probably will do, to take such a step, it will prove a death blow to the tango in real Parisian society, although it may not affect the somewhat nondescript cosmopolitan agglomeration which forms its fringe and seeks to pass itself off as the real thing."
William Sloper would have been a member of that "cosmopolitan agglomeration."  Where else would he have learned the dance well enough to be called "polished", but in Europe. And here he was in a Florida  resort for the uber-rich, showing off  his fancy footwork.
You probably picked up on the homo-erotic expression in the Miami News story where the reporter wrote of the "strange and unusual attraction for each other" that passed between the two men.
Was this just an innocent choice of words which meant nothing in the day other than the obvious?  Or was it subtle code by the reporter to tip off his readers that the men were gay?
It's not unheard of for reporters even today to hint that a celebrity who hasn't been outted is homosexual by noting he's a confirmed bachelor, has a gift for interior decorating or enjoys singing along to musicals.
If, indeed, the story was intended to give readers that extra bit of titillation, then it might put a new spin on the story that Sloper blamed for ruining his life.
He was haunted throughout his life after the Titanic by a story in the New York Journal-American which was headlined,"William T. Sloper, son of a prominent Connecticut banker, was rescued from the Titanic disguised in a woman's nightgown."
Sloper said it was a vengeful act by a reporter who had been strong-armed by Sloper's father and elder brother when the reporter tried to get an interview as Sloper was eating a meal at 11 p.m. the night the rescue ship arrived in New York.
He always said his father talked him out of suing the wire service that distributed the story.  Was there another reason Sloper's father didn't want publicity?  Was the reference to being disguised in a woman's nightgown another coded allusion?
But there's still another angle to consider.
Whenever a book, newspaper article or Titanic website has mentioned Sloper, it has included the dressed-like-a-woman newspaper story. But the book Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived (Andrew Wilson, Atria Books, 2011) says the offending allegation was in the headline, not the body of the story.  Reporters don't write the headlines; editors do.
And sometimes editors try to amuse their colleagues by writing dummy headlines which are not intended for publication.  And sometimes they make it into print. Another editor laying out a page fails to read the story the headline is based on and assumes it is correct, sends it to the typesetter without changes and it's printed. The hurly burly surrounding the arrival of the Carpathia made for conditions that were perfect for such a boneheaded mistake.
Why would an editor even write such a dummy headline?  The answer may lie in a newspaper story reprinted in Encyclopedia Titanica:

Chicago Examiner
Friday 19th April 1912 

Councilman Sloper of Boston Is Forced
Into Lifeboat and Is Rescued
From Death.
Hartford, Conn., April 19.—Resolved to die after having done his utmost to
aid in placing the women and children of the Titanic aboard the lifeboats.
Councilman William T. Sloper, clad in a white nightrobe, was himself taken for a woman and thrust
into one of the last lifeboats lowered away.
His father, Senator Andrew J. Sloper of New Britain, received a
message telling of his son's rescue and departed at once for New York.

His father, Senator Andrew J. Sloper of New Britain, received a message today telling of his son's rescue and departed at once for New York. With him went Mrs. Albert S. Cook of this city to meet her brother, Richard L. Beckwith, who with his wife and stepdaughter, was also saved.

The Chicago Examiner was a Hearst newspaper.  And as such it likely got the same Hearst news service story on Sloper that the New York Journal-American did. This was likely it. The difference is that the New York headline, dummy or not, made fun of Sloper while the Chicago headline did not.
Was it because the aggrieved reporter badmouthed Sloper when he phoned in his story to a New York rewrite man? Or because an editor thought he would be funny in the New York newsroom?

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