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Reflections September 2016

Silver Screen, Golden Years

Two Hollywood Stars and the SS Andrea Doria Tragedy

By Jacqueline T. Lynch

In a way, the Andrea Doria tragedy seemed a portent to the end of elegant travel. The jet age was on the horizon, as was the age of instant media coverage for such events, with all its sensationalism and cruel lack of privacy for victims.

In July 1956, the SS Andrea Doria sank on the last night of its voyage from Italy to New York City. Along with scores of immigrants making that journey were the well-to-do, including Hollywood movie stars Ruth Roman and Betsy Drake.

Their experiences are noted in Richard Goldstein's book Desperate Hours - The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria.

The ship had a brief Hollywood history of its own when it made a cameo appearance in the final moments of On the Waterfront (1954). Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint stand atop his apartment building. Moving down the river in the background is the Andrea Doria, two years before the tragedy.

Ruth Roman traveled with her three-year-old son Dickie; a traveling companion, Janet Stewart, and her son's nanny. Betsy Drake joined the voyage at Gibraltar, where she left her husband Cary Grant making a movie in Spain.

The voyage enjoyed clear weather and a peaceful crossing until its final night, when it entered the notoriously fog-bound waters south of Nantucket off New England. Last-night farewell festivities included champagne and streamers, a roast beef dinner, and "Arrivederci Roma" played by Dino Massa and his orchestra.

Many passengers cut the evening short to get some sleep before the early morning docking in New York. Betsy Drake climbed into her bunk to read. Ruth Roman and Janet Stewart enjoyed a last drink in the Belvedere Observation Lounge, while her son slept in the cabin on a lower deck with his nanny minding him.

Some passengers watched the movie Foxfire (1955) starring Jeff Chandler and Jane Russell in the ship's movie theater.

A little after 11 p.m., the MS Stockholm, leaving New York for Sweden, accidentally rammed the Andrea Doria. Forty-six people on the Andrea Dorea, and five on the Stockholm were killed.

Betsy Drake's cabin on the Boat Deck shook. She dressed, grabbed a life vest, and headed for the upper deck. Ruth Roman ran from the lounge to get to her son, and ripped her form-fitting dress up the back so she could move better on the stairs that were already lurching at a treacherous angle due to the listing of the ship. She took son, nanny, and life vests, and ditched her high heels to climb to the upper deck.

Distress signals went out. A commercial freighter arrived, naval ships, and another grand ocean liner, the Ile de France, which had left New York City that morning for England and turned around at the Morse Code distress call.

The Doria was taking on water and threatening to roll over. Half the lifeboats could not be launched. Fortunately, the Stockholm, though it had sustained severe damage to its bow, was in no danger of sinking. Several of its lifeboats were sent to fetch passengers from the Andrea Doria.

About 2 a.m., Miss Roman and her party slid down the slanting deck where they hoped to catch a rope to a lifeboat below. A young cadet sailor from the Andrea Doria strapped Dickie to himself, and climbed down a rope ladder to a waiting lifeboat. The boat pulled away before Ruth could climb in. She, and nanny, and companion, waited for another opportunity to escape.

Finally, the Ile de France approached. With sensitivity mixed with perhaps Gallic elan, the captain ordered all the festive lights on the ship turned on so that the Doria survivors could see the name lit up between its two funnels, ILE DE FRANCE, suddenly piercing the black night. The ship managed to scoop up 753 of the Andrea Doria passengers, including Betsy Drake and Ruth Roman, but her little boy was not here. She could not find out to which ship among the seven rescue ships he had been taken.

When the Ile De France entered New York Harbor on the 26th, other boats blew whistles in tribute, and cheers rose up from the crowds gathering on the piers.

Ruth Roman finally learned that her son had been taken to the MS Stockholm, which had trouble leaving the scene of the collision because its anchor chains had become tangled. Late the next morning, Miss Roman finally reunited with her son when the Stockholm entered the harbor.

In a way, the Andrea Doria tragedy seemed a portent to the end of elegant travel. The jet age was on the horizon, as was the age of instant media coverage for such events, with all its sensationalism and cruel lack of privacy for victims.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century, available online at Amazon, CreateSpace, and the author. Website:

Meet Jacqueline