In her later years, Berthe Antonine Mayné would tell her nephew a fascinating and romantic story. She spun a tale of wealthy beaus and sinking ships. Mayné claimed that she had once been the lover of a millionaire and that she had taken a trip with him on the ill-fated RMS Titanic. Given the unlikeliness of her tale, it’s perhaps no surprise that her nephew struggled to believe what his old aunt was saying. As fate would have it, though, the unlikely truths of her tale would one day be wrenched from the depths and into the light.
The bright lights of Brussels
Mayné’s story begins in Ixelles — one of the constituent parts of Brussels — where she was born back in 1887. And with her childhood fading into the past, she began to grace the Belgian capital’s stages as a nightclub singer under the stage name Bella Vielly. Unlike many women seeking fame whose faces were lost to the nameless sea of aspiring starlets, Mayné was starting to reap the rewards from her craft.
Hedonism at its finest
So much so, in fact, that her stage skills were gaining traction and picking up media attention. The Dutch-language newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws once wrote, Mayné was “well known in Brussels in circles of pleasure.” In addition, she was apparently “often seen in the company of people who like to wine and dine and enjoy life.” It made sense, then, that she ultimately caught the eye of the dashing Fernand de Villiers.
Their fate was sealed
But while de Villiers reportedly embarked on a relationship with Mayné for a period, it seems that their brief liaison didn’t lead to anything more permanent. Their frivolous dalliance wasn't to last, as Villiers was soon called back to more serious pursuits. A soldier by profession, he was finally decamped to the Belgian Congo as a member of the French Foreign Legion. In the end, then, Mayné's romantic fate was sealed, and she went on to find a new love.
The start of something big
One day late in 1911, Mayné would have her first encounter with Quigg Edmond Baxter. The day started as any other, but while she was singing in a café, the eligible Baxter swooped in and whisked her off her feet. From that very first meeting, the connection must have been palpable since their introduction led quickly to a whirlwind romance. Yes, love began to grow between the Belgian songstress and her new Canadian beau.
A fine match
And thankfully, Baxter was something of a catch. At the very least, as the son of rich parents, it was clear that he came from money. Despite such wealth, though, the Canadian wasn’t idle. Initially, he found a vocation in hockey and made his living as a player. But after an eye injury left him unable to see well enough to continue on the field, he decided not to leave the game; instead, he became a coach.
The reason for Baxter and Mayné's first fateful encounter was actually, in part, due to his family. Whilst on a trip to Europe with his mother and sister, the Baxter trio had planned to return to the U.S. on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. The ship was scheduled to leave Southampton in the U.K. and cross to Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, en route to the States.
All aboard the RMS Titanic
Close to the turn of the 20th century, it's easy to imagine that the prospect of boarding the mighty Titanic was likely hugely exciting. For one, at the time of her launch, passengers could claim that they were voyaging aboard the biggest ship currently on the seas. And traveling first class — where the Baxters were to enjoy their journey — offered practically anything that a prosperous individual could wish for.
On board with society's elite
With the ship's reputation proceeding her, the wealthy clamored to get on board the Titanic. John Jacob Astor — supposedly one of the richest men alive at that time — and Benjamin Guggenheim — whose family name adorns several museums — were both part of a passenger list that included millionaires, socialites, sportsmen, and artists. And the first-class accommodation that housed those hotshots would also become home Mayné.
Following her heart across oceans
By this time, the connection between Baxter and Mayné had strengthened to the point that she willingly accepted a ticket for the voyage. Mayné had decided, too, that she would follow Baxter across the water all the way to Montreal. And in a seeming nod to her previous boyfriend, Baxter went ahead and bought her a passage under the name “Mrs. de Villiers.” And with that, the pair were set to embark on their journey.
So, on April 10, 1912, passengers began to board the Titanic; eventually, the liner would carry more than 2,000 people from all walks of life spread across ten decks. Among them, naturally, was Mayné. Unlike many of the hundreds of other passengers who shared compact cabins, Mayné would be able to luxuriate in her own stateroom. Cabin C-90 cost Baxter nearly £50 at the time, which was more or less equivalent to over $7,500 in 2019.
The American Dream
With ten decks available, Mayné was far from alone in her dream of seeking out a new life in the Americas. Many of the Titanic’s passengers were waving goodbye to Europe in the hopes of building futures in the United States. And while a great number of these people sailed in third class, even they were able to enjoy standards that no other ship at the time could offer.
Life below deck
Though far from a sprawling suite to themselves, the third-class voyagers were still able to enjoy separate dining areas, as well as plenty of space to stretch their legs out on deck. Titanic operator White Star Line had also separated third-class accommodation on the vessel into cabins — something that marked the liner out from other carriers. And these spaces — though not large — offered comfort and more seclusion than the usual open berths of the time.
Making the list
But people were more than free to relinquish that privacy to socialize on deck. They may have known who else would be aboard, too, thanks to the list of passengers that was made public before the ship left the harbor. And finding out ahead of time who you’d be hobnobbing with on board came in particularly useful for the mothers of eligible daughters. Scanning the list on behalf of their daughters, these eager mother-in-laws-to-be could check for potential suitors who might also be on the voyage.
A fatal error
Tragically, however, one area in which the ship didn’t excel was its preparedness for disaster. For instance, although the Titanic’s infrastructure meant it could potentially carry 64 lifeboats — enough for 4,000 occupants to safely exit the vessel — White Star Line concluded that she only needed 20 such rescue boats in total. And this was generous; legally, the ship was only required to have 16 lifeboats on board. A glaring error that has gone down in history... but was there a viable reason?
Could things have been different?
Yet while that number may seem low, there was an explanation. You see, ships at that time only carried the number of lifeboats that would have been needed to ferry people to a rescue craft — not to shore — in the event of an emergency. And in the case of the Titanic, the total amount of boats available when disaster struck would have been sufficient had the SS Californian ultimately come to the ship’s rescue.
“God himself could not sink this ship”
Still, there was apparently no need to consider the potential for catastrophe, since the Titanic was famously considered unsinkable. This belief was so strong, in fact, that a member of the crew is reported to have explained to a boarding passenger that “God himself could not sink this ship.” Both a strong bottom and individual compartments that could each be sealed contributed to the notion that the massive ship was incapable of failure.
The moment of impact
But, as we know, sink she did. Shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912, a lookout saw that the Titanic was on course to strike an iceberg. And while the crew attempted to avoid the ice, their actions would wind up being in vain. The ship hit the mass of ice hard, wrenching several catastrophic fissures in the submerged sections of the ship. In spite of the sizeable collision, however, Captain Edward John Smith’s message to passengers like Quigg Edmond Baxter seemed oddly calm.
“There’s been an accident, Baxter, but it’s all right”
Given the nature of the impact, Baxter had reportedly noticed that something was amiss; especially since the liner stop had come to an unexpected stop. Seemingly certain that things weren’t as they should be, Baxter went in search of answers from both the captain and Bruce Ismay, a White Star Line official. On finding one of his targets, the captain attempted to reassure the millionaire hockey coach, reportedly saying, “There’s been an accident, Baxter, but it’s all right.”
This ship's going down
The captain’s optimism proved unwarranted, as weaknesses caused by the collision soon caused the Titanic’s hull to give way. As the hull tore apart, water began seeping into five supposedly safe parts of the ship, and she began to go down. By contrast with the captain, Ismay reportedly did not try to save face. Instead, the White Star Line representative allegedly told Baxter to get his companions and make for the lifeboats. And Baxter complied, taking off toward his loved ones.
According to Mayné's account, the wealthy Canadian didn't hesitate. He took heed of Ismay's order and promptly bundled his family members and new lover out of their respective cabins. Mayné, for one, seemingly only had time to put on a woolen coat — protection against the chill that her nightwear would not keep out. Yet she hesitated before getting into lifeboat six; she was supposedly anxious about Baxter's fate.
Mayné's desperate plea
As it turns out, Baxter did not get into the lifeboat along with his lover. Whether because of the rules of the sea or because of the gallantry that prevailed in those times, we'll never truly know. Without her beau beside her, Mayné reportedly told the other women in her boat that she needed to go back onto the sinking ship to retrieve some jewelry. One of them, it’s said, quickly set her straight on that plan.
A suicide mission
As it's clear now, it may well have been suicidal for Mayné to head back to her cabin. Certainly, the ship herself went down very quickly. Less than three hours after the initial impact with the iceberg, she started to slide beneath the waves. But while the Titanic foundered, hundreds of unfortunates who'd not made it onto the limited rescue boats still clung in desperation to the ship's stern.
The unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic
Tragically, the icy waters of the North Atlantic proved unforgiving for those who had not made it into lifeboats. Few who had slipped into the water would survive for long, with the low temperatures there leaving the stranded at risk of heart failure and hypothermia. And, ultimately, rescue would come far too late for many of the passengers. Nor did it help that the SS Californian was particularly slow to respond — even though she was close enough to at least attempt to rescue the Titanic’s passengers.
"Mayday mayday mayday"
As it turned out, while the Titanic had made distress calls and sent off signal rockets to alert other ships as to her fate, the crew of the Californian only jumped into action after the other craft had already gone down. Thankfully, the same cannot be said of all surrounding ships. The RMS Carpathia, for example, was a liner whose heroic actions that night have gone down in history.
The RMS Carpathia
The Carpathia did respond to the stricken Titanic’s distress signals, however. And so she steamed to the rescue at about 4:00 a.m. on April 15. The vessel and her crew were ultimately able to pick up 705 people from the lifeboats — potentially saving their lives. Not all of the Titanic’s passengers would make it safely to dry land, though, with a number succumbing to their injuries and the damning effects of the cold.
Souls lost to the sea
In fact, it’s not known for sure how many lives were lost when the Titanic went down. Ambiguities on the passenger list, including fake names and cancelations, have made pinning down the true number of fatalities an almost impossible task. Nevertheless, it’s thought that at least 1,490 people perished on that night back in 1912. And if Mayné's account is to be believed, then Quigg Baxter was almost certainly among them.
In any case, Mayné had last laid eyes on Baxter as her sweetheart waved to bid her and his mother and sister adieu. And while none of the victims would ever be identified as the hockey coach, it remains highly likely that the 24-year-old’s life ended in the freezing waters — as was the case for so many unfortunate souls aboard the ship. Naturally, Baxter was not the only member of the Titanic's elite clientele to go down with the ship.
Both Astor and Guggenheim were among the dead, too, as well as Macy’s co-owner Isidor Straus. Straus’ wife, Ida, also perished in the sinking, although she had reportedly been given the chance of survival. Still, her demise came after she reportedly refused to take a lifeboat when her husband said that he would not board before ladies and children. And the heartbreaking moment was not without witness. Some occupants of lifeboat eight apparently heard Ida’s brave words to her husband.
The ultimate sacrifice
According to reports, the heartbroken wife uttered these words before making the ultimate sacrifice, “We have lived together for many years,” she is said to have told Straus. “Where you go, I go.” And though beyond romantic, she was far from the only passenger to refuse to leave behind the one she loved. Take Lizzie Isham, for example, who reportedly got out of her lifeboat and returned to the ship rather than abandoning her beloved dog.
A precious bundle
Heartbreakingly, too, countless other families were torn apart as the ship made its descent into the icy waves of the North Atlantic. One Michel Navratil Sr. bundled his twin sons, Michel and Edmond, onto the final lifeboat to abandon the craft. Miraculously, despite their age, the young boys managed to survive. They had their lives but were still faced with the impossible — ending up in New York without speaking any English. Their father on the other hand, sadly lost his life that night.
A hair-brained plan that would cost a life
There is much more to Michel and Edmond's story than first meets the eye, though. Arguably, the young boys should never even have been on the Titanic that night. After splitting up with the boys’ father, their mother Marcelle had prevailed in the custody battle over her children. This meant that Michel would only have had the children in his charge for the Easter holiday period. As it happened, he took this opportunity to sail off with the Michel and Edmond under false names.
Michel and Edmond's chance discovery
Yet salvation came for the boys when their grieving mother spotted their faces in the newspaper. No doubt baffled and relieved in equal measure — she'd had no clue what had become of her two precious sons — it, therefore, came as a complete shock to hear that they were safe and sound in New York. Marcelle didn’t waste too much time in rescuing her children; she brought them home to France just over a month after the disaster.
Nurse Violet Jessop
The brothers weren’t the only ones to survive, of course. A year before the Titanic disaster, Nurse Violet Jessop had already lived through the RMS Olympic’s crash into a warship. So, her time on the Titanic led to her second great escape — but not the last. In 1916, you see, Jessop was aboard a hospital ship called the HMHS Britannic. And compared to her sister ship, the Brittanic proved equally ill-fated.
In 1916 she struck a German mine and subsequently went down; yet again, though, the redoubtable Jessop managed to make her way to safety. The nurse lived a full and long life, too, eventually reaching the ripe-old age of 84. And unlike the Titanic, she rightfully won her nickname of “Miss Unsinkable.” The Titanic’s last-ever survivor also had a long life, as she passed away aged 97.
At a mere two months old when the ship went under, Millvina Dean had been the Titanic’s most junior passenger. Yet her escape didn’t immediately make her a well-known name. “Until the wreckage of the Titanic was found in 1985, nobody was interested in me,” Dean once said, according to the Guardian. And it seems that the same was true for Mayné.
After making it out on the ship alongside Baxter’s family, Mayné eventually made her way back to Europe, where she resumed her life as a singer in the bustling cafes of Paris. But did she ever find a replacement love for the one she lost on April 14? Sadly, the answer is no. The performer never wed and did not have any children. And when it came time to retire, she had one final journey left to make.
Taking her tale to the grave
With a life of performing and miraculous recoveries under her belt, Mayné relocated once again to her birthplace of Brussels. And it’s here where she went on to share her story with her nephew. Tragically, it seems he somehow struggled to connect the aging woman before him with this amazing story of love and heartbreaking tragedy. And as a result, people thought Mayné was no more than a fantasist. She died, then, without anyone believing that she had really been there the day the Titanic went down.
Unboxing the truth
However, after Mayné had passed, her family found a box filled with correspondence and pictures. And concealed within were the missing pieces of the puzzle. The keepsakes she’d lovingly compiled and kept safe revealed to her nephew and remaining family members that Aunt Berthe had been telling the truth all along. All those years before, she really had set sail for America with a Canadian millionaire — and she had lost him in the dark waters of the North Atlantic.