Boarding a lifeboat with a pig-shaped music box tucked under her arm, she escaped the most infamous shipwreck in history. But Edith Russell was also a garment industry pioneer, serving as Paris correspondent to Women’s Wear Daily while carving a niche for herself as probably the first stylist to the stars.
Born Edith Louise Rosenbaum in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 12, 1879, the fashion expert better known as “Edith Russell” began her career abroad in 1908 as a saleswoman for the Maison Cheruit in Paris’ Place Vendome. “I couldn’t have had a better start in the trade,” observed Edith, tiny in stature but big in personality. “There were hardly any Americans working in the French fashion houses, and it gave me a jump on the competition when I started my import business.”
Soon she was writing for the magazine La Derniere Heure á Paris, published by Wanamaker Department Store’s Paris bureau, and submitting fashion sketches to the Butterick Pattern Service. “It was a thrill,” she laughed, “to see the little drawings I sometimes made on the backs of envelopes turned into beautiful patterns.”
Beginning in 1910, the charming but tough-talking Edith was hired by the recently established Women’s Wear Daily as a Paris correspondent. Dispatching to New York weekly fashion marketing reports she also reviewed the seasonal collections of couture houses like Paquin, Callot, Lucile and Poiret.
By 1912 she was operating a successful buying and consulting service based in Paris and designing her own retail line of clothes, called Elrose, for Lord & Taylor in New York. “It was just a sideline,” she clarified. “I never fooled myself that I was going to be another Lady Duff Gordon.”
Meantime, Edith had carved a niche for herself as perhaps the first professional fashion stylist. Her clientele of largely entertainment celebrities included Broadway comedienne Ina Claire, Folies Bergere showgirl Mistinguett and opera diva Geraldine Farrar. “I was a consulting fashion expert, as the press called me,” Edith said in a later interview, “and I tell you I saw to every aspect of a client’s dress and appearance.” It was a new concept but a hard job, she maintained, and she was soon gladly out of the game. Fellow importer Belle Armstrong Whitney may also have styled private clients but, unlike Edith, she never made it a specialty.
Apart from her eventful career, Edith had a notable private life. In 1911 she was seriously injured in an automobile accident in France while en route with friends to attend the races at Deauville. The crash proved fatal for her fiancé Ludwig Loewe, son of a wealthy German gun manufacturer. “We were all going out to the races,” Edith recalled, “and Mr. Loewe took over the wheel from the chauffeur.” Loewe wasn’t a skillful driver, she remembered, and the wreck was the result.
The following year, she was a survivor of the Titanic disaster, achieving notoriety owing to the news of her escape in a lifeboat with a musical toy pig, which she used to calm the children who were rescued with her. “I twisted the tail of my little pig which played a popular song called ‘The Maxixe,’” Edith recounted, “and the little ones were amused.” Edith wore a grab bag assortment of clothes that legendary night – no underwear under a brown silk and cream lace, tight-skirted dress (believed to be by Paquin), a bathrobe, a full-length broadtail coat, and two fox stoles. A crochet cap was perched on her head, and on her feet flopped a pair of floral-printed bedroom slippers, purchased from La Gavotte in Paris. Edith later laughed about her jumbled attire, confessing, “I looked like hell.”
She filed two of the largest damage suits against the ship’s owners, one for financial loss of her merchandise and wardrobe, the other for personal injury; she claimed to have lost her voice from the cold and afterwards suffered severe bronchial pain.
Edith resumed her work as an importer and writer, becoming an American press attaché to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Francaise between 1914 and 1919. She also served as a war correspondent, dispatching news from the front to the Red Cross and for a number of syndicated papers, including the New York Herald and New York World in 1917. “I was at the frontlines for three months,” Edith remembered. “I saw more tragedy and sadness than I care to relate, but I trust I gave hope and some measure of happiness to our brave soldiers. I know they left me with dear memories that I shall keep with me always.”
The following year she changed her last name to Russell, owing to the French couture industry’s boycotting of German-name merchants and other tradespeople. In 1923 Edith received a meritorious service award from the Associated Dress Industries of America, and in 1925 was recognized for her work during World War I by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
Throughout the 1920s Edith contributed fashion and society news to such magazines as Cassell’s in London and Moda in Rome. Though retired from her business, Russell Imports, by early 1934, she continued traveling, lecturing and writing.
According to letters in public and private collections, Edith’s adventures during the next several years included dancing with Mussolini at a dinner party and breeding dogs for Maurice Chevalier. She made life-long friends with the young British actor Peter Lawford and his parents, Lt. Gen. Sir Syndney and Lady Lawford, spending time with them at their home in Palm Beach. Edith was later a godmother to Lawford’s children with the former Patricia Kennedy.
She carried on a long correspondence with Lady Lawford, sometimes chiding her for her less than grandmotherly attitude toward the Lawford kids. “No doubt your approach to Pat and the children was wrong,” Edith wrote her. “You should have sent some toys or sweets and a lovely card. Your ‘royal school’ omitted courtesy and kindness – no wonder people avoid you.”
By the mid-1940s Edith, who had apartments in New York and in Paris’ Champs Elysees, made her home in London at Claridge’s and finally at the Embassy House Hotel.
In 1953 Edith was invited by Twentieth Century Fox Studios to attend a special screening in New York of the film Titanic, starring Barbara Stanwyk, Clifton Webb and Robert Wagner. She was interviewed by Life magazine during her stay in America. “We had a reunion of a few survivors before the showing,” she said, “and I met one of the babies from my lifeboat, all grown up, of course.”
In his best-selling book A Night to Remember, published in 1955, Walter Lord included the story of Edith and her toy pig. “That book was a tremendous success,” she recalled, “and it brought me more attention than I could handle. It also gave the erroneous impression that my lucky pig was a money bank. Believe me, I didn’t save a dime.” Edith served as a technical adviser to producer William MacQuitty on his 1958 film adaptation of Lord’s book. She was portrayed in the movie as well and attended the premiere as MacQuitty‘s guest of honor.
Edith made the rounds of the press during the 1950s and ‘60s, retelling her account of the Titanic sinking in newspapers and magazines and on television and radio. The majority of her appearances were with the BBC. In one interview she mentioned her bad luck streak and propensity for danger over the years, commenting, “Sometimes, I think I sunk the Titanic.”
She often carried her “mascot” – the little toy pig she had saved – when she met with journalists, although its musical mechanism had broken years earlier. Edith occasionally brought along the dress she had worn off the Titanic. Sadly, the trunk carrying the dress was lost on her last visit to the U.S. in 1953, according to Titanic historian and author Don Lynch.
Now in her 80s, Edith still traveled frequently from London to Florence to visit long-time friend Jeanne Sacerdote, formerly known as the couturier Jenny. And she remained outspoken in her last years. “This Titanic obsession is funny to me,” she admitted in an interview “I have lived a long life, had a fairly remarkable career, met important people and accomplished some good, I hope. But all anybody ever asks me about is the damn Titanic.”
Although she likely considered it a dubious distinction, Edith was made an honorary member of the Titanic Historical Society in 1963.
Well into the 1970s, Edith attended fundraisers, gave luncheons and teas for visiting friends, tried unsuccessfully to interest publishers in her memoir and continued to be interviewed by the media about the notorious shipwreck that had come to define her life. “I survived the Titanic,” she told one reporter, “but I never really escaped it.”
On April 4, 1975 Edith Rosenbaum Russell died at the Mary Abbott Hospital in London, following a ten day illness. She was 95. The dainty mules and cap Edith wore when the Titanic went down, along with the toy pig that made her famous, are now on display at England’s National Maritime Museum; the music box has been restored, playing again the pretty tune that distracted children in Edith’s lifeboat that horrific night.
NOTE: This article is an expanded version of a biography written by the author for EncyclopediaTitanica.org.
Randy Bryan Bigham is a fashion historian and the author of Lucile – Her Life by Design.