The last Titanic survivor, Elizabeth Gladys "Millvina" Dean, has died at the age of 97. Her relationship with the disaster was a complex one, as she refrained from talking about it until well into her seventies.
Born in 1912, Dean was just two months old when the ship sank. She was traveling with her family to Kansas, where her father hoped to open a tobacconist's shop. But her father did not survive the disaster, and her family's emigration was aborted when they were returned to England. Dean didn't know about any of this until she was eight, when her mother decided to remarry. The last survivor with actual memories of the ship, Lillian Asplund, died in 2006.
Dean avoided discussing the Titanic for much of her life — after seeing the 1958 movie A Night To Remember, she refused to watch any other Titanic-themed films, including 1997's Titanic. But after the wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1985, she began attending Titanic-themed conventions. When she could no longer pay her nursing home fees, she even sold her mementos of the disaster, including clothes she was given after her rescue, and a letter from the Titanic relief fund. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet also promised to donate to pay for her care.
The strange thing about Dean's life and death is that her fame came from a tragedy that she often seemed to want to forget. Though late in life she cheerfully signed autographs for children, she also said she was glad sh had no memories of the disaster, and that she hoped the wreck was never raised from the ocean. "I don't want them to raise it, I think the other survivors would say exactly the same," she said. "That would be horrible." Though she seemed ultimately to embrace it, and it brought her monetary help at the end of her life, her celebrity was still based on a horrible event that claimed her father. That people the world over were eager to get her autograph and buy her old clothes speaks to humans' fundamental curiosity, but also to an enthusiasm for other people's suffering that's a little unsettling. Hopefully all the interest in her tragic infancy helped her more than it hurt her.