Madeleine Talmage Force (June 19, 1893 – March 27, 1940) was an American socialite and a survivor of the RMS Titanic. She was also the widow and second wife of millionaire John Jacob Astor IV.
Madeleine Talmage Force was born on June 19, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the younger daughter of William Hurlbut Force (1852–1917) and Katherine Arvilla Talmage (1863 – c. 1930). Madeleine’s elder sister Katherine (1891–1948) was a real estate businesswoman and socialite. Through father William, she and Katherine had French ancestry and were grandnieces of builder Ephraim S. Force (c. 1822 – March 12, 1914). Mother Katherine had Dutch ancestry.
William Hurlbut Force was a member of a well established business family. He owned the successful shipping firm William H. Force and Co and his father had been prosperous in the manufacturing industry. In 1889 William had married Katherine Talmage who was the granddaughter of Thomas Talmage, a former Mayor of Brooklyn. William and his wife Katherine were part of the Brooklyn society and he was a member of numerous prestigious clubs in this city. He also owned a notable art collection. The family were members of the Episcopal Church which was also the church of the Astor family.
Madeleine was educated at Miss Ely’s School and then for four years at Miss Spence’s School, which was located at West 48th Street in Manhattan. According to one report she was “counted an especially brilliant pupil” at this school. She was also taken abroad with her sister Katherine by her mother and toured Europe several times. When she was introduced to New York social life she was immediately adopted by the “Junior League” which was a clique of debutantes. She appeared in several New York society plays and attracted quite a following. She was known to be a very competent horsewoman and enjoyed yachting. One report said that she was bright and good with drawing room conversation.
Courtship and marriage
She met Colonel John Jacob “Jack” Astor IV, the only son of businessman William Backhouse Astor, Jr. (1829–1892) and socialite Caroline Webster “Lina” Schermerhorn (1830–1908). Although it is not certain where Jack and Madeleine were first introduced, there is a newspaper article which shows that he entertained the whole Force family at his home at Bar Harbor in September 1910. During their courtship he took her on automobile drives and yacht trips and they were often followed by the press.
Madeleine and Jack were engaged in August 1911 and married on September 9, 1911. There was a considerable amount of opposition to his marriage not only because of their age difference but also since he had divorced his first wife only two years previously in November 1909. Many were opposed to divorce at this time and felt that if people were divorced they should not be allowed to remarry. Some Episcopalian Ministers refused to perform the ceremony. The couple were eventually married at Beechwood which was his mansion in Newport, by a Minister of the Congregational Church. His son William Vincent Astor (1891–1959) served as best man.
After they were wed Jack took Madeleine on his yacht and before he left he said. “Now that we are happily married I don’t care how difficult divorce and remarriage laws are made. I sympathize heartily with the most straight-laced people in most of their ideas but I believe remarriage should be possible once, as marriage is the happiest condition for the individual and the community.”
After their marriage they had an extended honeymoon. They visited several places locally first, then in January 1912 they sailed from New York on the Titanic’s sister ship the Olympic and enjoyed a long Egyptian tour. It was while returning from this part of their honeymoon that they booked their passage on the Titanic.
Aboard the Titanic
Madeleine Astor, then five months pregnant, boarded the Titanic as a first class passenger in Cherbourg, France, with her husband, her husband’s valet, Victor Robbins, her maid, Rosalie Bidois, and her nurse, Caroline Endres. They also took Kitty, Astor’s pet Airedale, and occupied one of the parlor suites.
On the night of April 14, 1912, Colonel Astor reported to his wife that the ship had hit an iceberg. He reassured her that the damage did not appear serious though he helped her strap on her lifebelt. While they were waiting on the boat-deck, Mrs. Astor lent Leah Aks, a third class passenger, her fur shawl to keep her son, Filly, warm. At one point, the Astors retired to the gymnasium and sat on the mechanical horses in their lifebelts. Colonel Astor found another lifebelt which he reportedly cut with a pen knife to show Madeleine what it was made of. When it was time to board a life boat, Madeleine Astor, her maid, and her nurse had to crawl through the first class promenade window into the tilting lifeboat 4 (which had been lowered down to A deck to take on more passengers). Astor had helped his wife to climb through the window and asked if he could accompany her as she was ‘in a delicate condition’. The request was denied by Second Officer Charles Lightoller. An account of Madeleine’s boarding of the lifeboat was given by Archibald Gracie IV to the US Senate Titanic inquiry. Gracie was a fellow passenger and recalled the events regarding Madeleine in the following terms.
“The only incident I remember in particular at this point is when Mrs Astor was put in the boat. She was lifted up through the window, and her husband helped her on the other side, and when she got in, her husband was on one side of this window and I was on the other side, at the next window. I heard Mr Astor ask the second officer whether he would not be allowed to go aboard this boat to protect his wife. He said, ‘No, sir, no man is allowed on this boat or any of the boats until the ladies are off.’ Mr Astor then said, ‘Well, tell me what is the number of this boat so I may find her afterwards,’ or words to that effect. The answer came back, ‘No. 4.'”.
Astor and his valet perished in the sinking; the former’s body was recovered on April 22. He was found to be carrying several thousand dollars in cash, brought with him from his cabin. His young widow and the other survivors were rescued by the RMS Carpathia.
Madeleine gave an account of what she recalled almost immediately after her arrival home through her spokesman Nicholas Biddle who was a trustee of the Astor Estate. The account given by her spokesman is as follows.
“On landing from the Carpathia the young bride widowed by the Titanic’s sinking told members of her family what she could recall of the circumstances of the disaster. Of how Colonel Astor had met his death she had no definite conception.
She recalled she thought that in the confusion as she was about to be put into one of the boats Colonel Astor was standing by her side. After that she had no very clear recollection of the happenings until the boats were well clear of the sinking steamer.
Mrs Astor, it appears left in one of the last boats which got away from the ship. It was her belief that all the women who wished to go had then been taken off. Her impression was that the boat she left in had room for at least 15 more persons. The men for some reason (that) she could not and does not now understand, did not seem to be at all anxious to leave the ship. Almost everyone seemed dazed.”.
After Madeleine returned home from her ordeal, she was kept in strict retirement. Her first social function was not until the end of May when she held a luncheon at her mansion on Fifth Avenue for Arthur Rostron, the Captain of the Carpathia, and Dr. Frank McGee, the ship’s surgeon. She held this event with Marian Thayer, who was also a survivor of the Titanic. Both women wished to thank these men for their assistance when they were on board the Carpathia.
In his will, John Jacob Astor IV left Madeleine an outright sum of $100,000. In addition, he bequeathed to her the income from a trust fund of $5 million and the use during her life of the house on Fifth Avenue. Both of these latter provisions, she would lose if she remarried. A fund of $3 million was set aside for his unborn child John Jacob “Jakey” Astor VI (1912–1992) which he would control when he became of age.
On August 14, 1912, Madeleine gave birth to Jakey at her Fifth Avenue mansion. For the next four years, she raised him as part of the Astor family. She did not seem to appear very often in society until the end of 1913, when according to the press they were able to publish her first photograph since the Titanic disaster.
After this, she appeared more often in public and her activities were frequently reported in the press. In 1915, she remodelled her house on Fifth Avenue and this was made a feature article in the New York Sun. There were also many articles about her eldest son.
Four years after Colonel Astor’s death, Madeleine married her childhood friend banker William Karl Dick (May 28, 1888 – September 5, 1953) on June 22, 1916, in Bar Harbor, Maine. He was a vice president of the Manufacturers Trust Company of New York and a part owner and director of the Brooklyn Times. As stated in Colonel Astor’s will, Madeleine lost her stipend from his trust fund. She bore Dick two sons:
- William Force Dick (April 11, 1917 – December 4, 1961)
- John Henry Dick II (May 12, 1919 – September 1995), ornithologist, photographer, naturalist, conservationist, author, painter, and bird illustrator
They divorced on July 21, 1933, in Reno, Nevada. Four months later, on November 27, 1933, Madeleine married Italian actor/boxer Enzo Fiermonte (1908–1993) in a civil ceremony in New York City. They had no children together and divorced on June 11, 1938, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Madeleine died of a heart ailment in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 27, 1940, at the age of 46. She was buried in Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City, in a mausoleum with her mother.