Most children dream of trips to Disney World or Six Flags, destinations more renowned for fun than for their educational value. Not me. My mother—a longtime feminist who in my youth probably was one of the few subscribers to Ms. Magazine in western North Dakota—was always determined that her four children, particularly my two older sisters and I, would learn history and her-story. So I read Willa Cather. I visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites. I dressed up like Sacagawea on Halloween. And on a family trip to Denver when I was five, I fell in love with the Unsinkable Molly Brown.
In the week before our trip, my mother—never one to pass up a teaching moment—tasked me with packing my brown, tweed, kid-size suitcase, with the instructions that I should only take what I absolutely needed. Naturally, I eschewed underwear, socks, and jeans—and packed my rock collection. I loaded up my favorite agates, scoria, and quartz and heaved the case into the back of our family van. It wasn’t until we arrived in Denver that my parents realized the bungle. They were amused but adamant: No new wardrobe for me. I’d simply wear one of my dad’s shirts while they washed my clothes each night.
I slipped into a childish pout until we arrived at the Molly Brown House Museum. As the tour guide steered us through the lavish, gold-colored foyer, past the polar bear rug, and into a library lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, she peppered us with tidbits about Brown, focusing as much on the myths as the realities. To begin with, Margaret Tobin Brown never went by “Molly.” The nickname took hold after her death, when several books and movies (most notably The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a 1964 film starring Debbie Reynolds) caricatured her life. As for portrayals of her as an uneducated saloon girl, who, as a child, Mark Twain once saved from drowning in the Mississippi? All lies.
And unnecessary lies, because Margaret’s true story—of a globe-trotting yodeler who twice ran for the U.S. Senate—was far more interesting. She came from Missouri and moved to Leadville in 1886. There, she met James Joseph “J.J.” Brown, a poor miner who had the idea to reinforce mine walls with hay bales so previously tapped out shafts could snake deeper underground. The plan worked, and in gratitude J.J.’s company rewarded him with stock. Suddenly, the Browns were nouveau riche.
In 1894, the couple moved to 1340 Pennsylvania Street in Denver, where the museum now sits. By then Margaret was developing her reputation as a kindhearted, and, occasionally, unladylike woman of means, one who never gave a damn about convention, defended the disenfranchised, and even made sure her house servants received an education. She traveled (she posed for pictures in front of the Egyptian pyramids), educated herself (she spoke several languages and took up acting in her 50s), and pursued dearly held social issues. She helped Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey set up the nation’s first juvenile court, and despite her husband’s position as a mining executive, she rallied for miners’ rights after the Ludlow massacre.
While traveling Europe in 1912, Margaret received news that her grandson was ill. She booked passage on the next boat to America, the Titanic, and late on April 14, it collided with an iceberg in the frigid Atlantic. When she was told to grab a life vest and head up to the deck, Margaret proved to be a more thoughtful packer than I would be years later. She put on seven pairs of stockings, a velvet suit, a sable stole, and a silk capote. She grabbed $500, a blanket, and a small, three-inch Egyptian statue she’d picked up on her travels for good luck and couldn’t live without. (Ah, a kindred spirit.) She made it off the sinking ship into a lifeboat and rowed for hours, sharing her extra clothing with fellow survivors until rescuers arrived.
In short, she was one cool lady—and I was smitten. After the house tour, my parents acquiesced and bought me (and my siblings) T-shirts with “Unsinkable” across the front. I wore mine everywhere, preaching to my friends about Margaret Brown’s legacy. When I outgrew that shirt, I wore my older sister’s top, and my oldest sister’s after that. When I went to college, the shirt came with me. James Cameron’s Titanic had been released a year before, with Kathy Bates cast as “Molly.” Her character offers advice to Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a third-class passenger who finds himself at a dinner in first class, saying, “Remember: The only thing they respect is money, so just act like you’ve got a lot of it and you’re in the club.”
She could have been speaking to me. Smith College, a women’s liberal arts school in Northampton, Massachusetts, has produced some of feminism’s biggest stars, including Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, but the campus remains steeped in traditions—and money. The school offered an afternoon tea service every Friday. At the end of the year, students would throw designer clothes in the hall. (I was there thanks to financial aid and picked up several otherwise unaffordable dresses this way.) And at graduation, seniors marched through campus wearing white dresses and black shoes to honor the suffragettes. Whenever I felt lost in this world of pearls and cardigans, I’d pull on my old Unsinkable shirt and ask, “What would Margaret do?”
After all, we weren’t that different. We were both of Irish descent and modest roots, had brown hair, and aspired to write. If she could fake it in high society, so could I. After college, I lived in New York City and visited her old haunts, like the Barbizon Hotel for Women (where she died in 1932 at the age of 65 from a brain tumor). I read her biography. Around the time I finally had to throw away my ragged Unsinkable shirt, an idea struck me: Why not follow Margaret’s path to Denver?
I arrived on a scouting trip to the Mile High City in November 2004. My husband, Chris, had a practical to-do list, but I had one agenda item: Go to the Molly Brown House. Nearly 20 years had passed since my first visit, and reconnecting with Margaret—my spiritual talisman and de facto mentor—reminded me why I always wanted to become a modern-day version of her, guided by passion and motivated by the conviction to do right in the world.
I spent the rest of the trip explaining to Chris why, precisely, Margaret was my true north, and why we should move to Denver. For Christmas that year, he bought me a new Unsinkable shirt, which I still have. When we relocated to Denver, I was 26, roughly the same age as Margaret when she arrived on Capitol Hill, and our apartment was just four blocks away from her home. (When I insisted to Chris that I did not choose the apartment because of its proximity to the museum, he laughed, politely trying to turn it into a cough.)
My husband knew the role Margaret played in my decision. In the West of my childhood, my mother had to search for tales of strong, female role models for her children; now, that her-story is common knowledge. But too often, the modern portrayal of trailblazing women like “Molly” Brown defaults into gun-toting, maverick caricatures, which creates gun-toting maverick caricatures like “Mama Grizzly” Sarah Palin. I needed to find a commonality between the impetuous, rock-packing five-year-old and my young adult self, pearls and all. And for all the misinformation that surrounds Margaret’s legacy, I know the truth. She wasn’t perfect, or practical, or provincial; she was herself, and that’s a role model I can believe in.
Over nearly five years in Denver, I’ve visited the museum so often I might as well be a docent. (Out-of-town guests be warned: I will take you there.) In Margaret’s home, I always feel like I’m home. And while I don’t pack my rock collection anymore, I always bring a good luck charm.
Margaret is never far away. Directly above my computer screen is a black and white postcard with her in a froufrou society gown. Her brown hair is piled high on her head. She’s staring into the distance and her brow is slightly furrowed. She seems preoccupied, as if she’s rolling something around her mind, tumbling it like a rough stone to find the agate gem underneath. I often look up, catch her gaze, and imagine what she’d tell me to do if it were just “Molly” and me.
Natasha Gardner is 5280’s associate editor. E-mail her at email@example.com.