What You Didn’t Know About the Unsinkable Molly Brown

By Karen Harris

Everyone remembers Kathy Bates’ portrayal of the Denver socialite, Molly Brown, in the 1997 James Cameron film, Titanic. Bates played Molly Brown as a tough-talking, in-your-face, unlikely socialite with a heart for the underprivileged. Bates’ portrayal was true to the real-life Molly Brown, whose life is a rags-to-riches story of love and philanthropy…and surviving the most famous disaster at sea which earned her the nickname Unsinkable. Here is what you didn’t know about the Unsinkable Molly Brown. 

First of All, Her Name Wasn’t Molly

It was Margaret. She was born Margaret Tobin on July 18, 1867, in Missouri to poor Irish-Catholic parents. During her lifetime, friends called her ‘Maggie’, the traditional nickname for Margaret. After surviving the sinking of the Titanic, she became known as the ‘Unsinkable Mrs. Brown’. It wasn’t until later that it morphed into the ‘Unsinkable Molly Brown.’  The name ‘Molly,” most often a diminutive form of Mary, may have been chosen to point out Brown’s Irish-Catholic, working-class heritage. 

Molly Brown was a Wannabe Gold Digger

When Molly Brown moved from Missouri to the thriving boomtown of Denver when she was just 18, she had plans to find a wealthy husband. She claimed she wanted a husband who had the financial means to support her and to give her father, broken down from years of labor, a comfortable retirement lifestyle. She later wrote, “I wanted a rich man. I wanted comfort from my father and how I had determined to stay single until a man presented himself who could give the tired old man the things I longed for him.” Molly Brown’s plan failed. 

Molly Married for Love

Despite her goal to marry well, Molly met James Joseph Brown who was as poor as her family. She found herself falling in love with him and debating with herself over the merits of marrying for love or for money. In the end, love won out. Molly and her husband, nicknamed J.J., were married on September 1, 1886. But then, their luck changed. 

The Browns Struck it Rich

Literally! J.J. Brown’s mining company struck a huge vein of ore and the Browns suddenly found themselves wallowing in new money. They bought a Victorian mansion in Denver and built a lavish summer house. Molly Brown never forgot her humble beginnings. She organized soup kitchens to help the families of the miners. 

She Couldn’t Break Through to Denver’s Social Elite

Newly-rich, Molly Brown began hobnobbing with Denver’s rich and famous. Despite her best efforts to schmooze, the social elite looked down their noses at new money, especially the rough-around-the-edges Molly with her Missouri sensibility and tell-it-like-it-is attitude. She was only able to penetrate the inner circle of Denver society a little way before doors were metaphorically shut in her face. She learned about art and culture so she could relate to the upper crust. She even threw lavish parties at her mansion. The Denver elite would attend her parties, but not extend invitations to the Browns to reciprocate. 

Molly was Committed to Helping the Less Fortunate

In addition to setting up soup kitchens, Molly devoted her time to helping the poor. She was a founding member of the Denver Woman’s Club, which was devoted to improving the lives of poor women in the city. She raised money for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which was finished in 1911. She also worked as a proto-social worker for Judge Ben Lindsey on behalf of impoverished children and raised awareness about children’s rights. Her work led to the formation of the country’s first juvenile court and set the stage for today’s juvenile court system. 

Molly Brown was Travelling with John Jacob Astor’s Party on the Titanic

Molly and J.J. Brown quietly separated in 1909 and Molly was given a generous living allowance. She spent much of her time travelling and, in early 1912, she was a guest of millionaire John Jacob Astor IV and his party as they travelled through Egypt then on to Europe. Many members of the group booked passage on the luxury liner, Titanic, for their return trip to the United States. John Jacob Astor was one of 1,503 people that died when the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on April 15, 1912. 

Molly Brown was a Hero on the Titanic

When the Titanic began sinking, Molly Brown helped to organized passengers into the few lifeboats on the ship. She was angered and horrified that some of the lifeboats launched before they were fully-loaded with passengers. She found herself in lifeboat no. 6 and even helped to paddle the lifeboat. She fought with the other survivors on the life raft, primarily Quartermaster Robert Hichens, about going back to pick up survivors who were in the frigid water calling out for help. Hichens did not want to go back because he feared that too many survivors would overtake their small lifeboat. Molly Brown insisted, even threatening to throw Hichens overboard herself if he didn’t turn the lifeboat back. Brown and the others in her raft were eventually rescued by the Carpathia. 

After the Sinking of the Titanic, Brown Still Helped Survivors

Molly Brown was dismayed that a greater percentage of the third-class passengers perished on the Titanic. She organized some of her fellow first-class survivors to form a committee dedicated to helping the surviving third-class passengers and the families of the dead third-class passengers. Her committee provided them with basic living necessities, like clothing and food. She even provided them with counseling. 

Molly Capitalized on her Titanic Fame

Surviving the Titanic was good for publicity for Molly Brown. Newspapers carried accounts of her survival story and helped to make her a household name. She used this fame to help further her social causes, especially in the areas of workers’ rights, education for children, and women’s social issues. After World War I, she helped the American Committee for Devastated France in their efforts to rebuild war-torn areas. 

Debbie Reynolds as the Unsinkable Molly Brown

Kathy Bates and Others Played Molly Brown

Although most people remember Kathy Bates’ portrayal of Molly Brown from the 1997 movie, she was not the only actress to play her. Cloris Leachman, Debbie Reynolds, and Marilu Henner all took on the role of the tough and determine Molly who proved she would never go down without a fight. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.