In April 1912 , a 30-year old seamstress/businesswoman from Louisiana, Missouri named May Birkhead was sailing to Europe on the Carpathia. Her holiday was postponed when the ship halted to pick up survivors from the Titanic.
Birkhead put her seamstress skills to good use, creating clothing for the shipwreck victims from towels and other materials available on board ship. But that would be her last job as a dressmaker.
Several years previously, Birkhead had become friends with Eric Hawkins, a New York Herald reporter who came to Louisiana Missouri to photograph Democratic Senator Champ Clark.. When word reached New York that the Carpathia had picked up survivors, Hawkins remembered that Birkhead was on board. He contacted her over the ship’s radio and asked her for an eyewitness account. She not only got interviews with survivors, she got negatives from Carpathia passengers who took photographs of the disaster and the rescue.**
Birkhead met Hawkins on the dock when the Carpathia arrived back in New York, giving the New York Herald a enormous scoop on the biggest news of the day.
The Herald’s publisher, James Gordon Bennet, was so impressed with her work that he offered her a job.
Birkhead started work as soon as she reached Paris. For twenty-nine years, she reported on fashion and society from Paris, first was a correspondent for the New York Herald and later for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune and then the New York Times. During World War I, she stayed in France and once again proved herself to be a reporter who could handle more than the “woman’s page.” Although she was not an official war correspondent, she wrote feature stories about war news and later reported on the Versailles peace conference.
She left Paris on July 16, 1940—a month after the Nazis took Paris. Birkhead drove out of France toward Lisbon through Nazi-occupied territories with several friends. They quickly discovered that Germain officers refused to allow people who were leaving the country to buy gasoline. They spent five days in Poitiers, trying to get enough gasoline to reach Bordeaux. While in Poitiers, two of the party were arrested by the Nazis on suspicion of spying. The charges were proved to be false and the army officers agreed to give them gasoline as a “form of damages.”
When they reached Lisbon, they discovered that 22,000 people had arrived ahead of them, trying to get passage out of Europe.
Interviewed by the New York Times on her arrival, she told the reporter that the Nazis were stripping the city of all valuables, including food. She reported that before she left the city where she had wined and dined for almost thirty years, she had lived for five days on condensed milk, cocoa, and cereal, the only food left in her cupboards. The interview ended with the optimistic statement that Birkhead had renewed the lease on her apartment before she left and would be “going back after the Germans are thrown out.”
Birkhead did not make it back to her beloved Paris. She died on October 28, 1941. In her obituary, the New York Times said “She probably knew and was known by more cosmopolites and social personages of the two continents than any other reporter in Europe or America.” (On the other hand, the Times also described her as being “a young girl bound for a carefree holiday abroad” on the Carpathia, when in fact she was a 30-year-old woman who had financed her own first-class ticket with her successful dressmaking business.)
* Sorry I couldn’t resist.
**Rubbernecking on a grand scale.
* * *
Come back tomorrow for more juicy Women’s History Month content.