Dorothy Gibson (Dorothy Winifred Brown)

Dorothy Gibson

Dorothy Gibson was born on May 17, 1889 to John A. Brown and Pauline Caroline Boesen as Dorothy Winifred Brown in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her father died when she was three years old, and her mother married John Leonard Gibson. Between 1906 and 1911, she appeared on stage as a singer and dancer in a number of theatre and vaudeville productions, the most important being on Broadway in Charles Frohman’s musical The Dairymaids (1907). She was also a regular chorus member in shows produced by the Shubert Brothers at the Hippodrome Theatre. In 1909, the year before she married George Henry Battier, Jr., Dorothy Gibson began posing for famous commercial artist Harrison Fisher, becoming one of his favorite models. Dorothy’s image appeared regularly on posters, postcards, various merchandising products and in book illustrations over the next three years. Fisher also often chose her likeness for the covers of best-selling magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post. Dorothy was widely publicized during this time as “The Original Harrison Fisher Girl”. Meanwhile, Dorothy Gibson separated from Battier, though the couple was not divorced until 1913.

Represented by top theatrical agent Pat Casey, Dorothy entered movies in early 1911, joining the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP) as an extra and later the Lubin Studios as a stock player. She was hired as leading lady by the new U.S. branch of Paris-based Éclair Studios in July 1911. She was an instant hit with audiences, becoming one of the first actresses in the new medium of film to be promoted as a “star” in her own right. Praised for a natural, subtle acting style, she was particularly effective as a comedienne in such popular one-reelers as Miss Masquerader (1911) and Love Finds a Way (1912), all of which were produced at Fort Lee, New Jersey, then the center of the burgeoning American motion picture industry. Despite her popularity in comedies, one of Dorothy’s most important parts was that of Molly Pitcher in the historical drama Hands Across the Sea (1911), Eclair’s debut vehicle and her first star turn. Dorothy Gibson’s most famous screen role was that of herself in Saved From the Titanic (1912), based on her experiences in the legendary disaster. Saved From the Titanic, released a month after the sinking, was the first of many films about the event.

The Titanic is the best known aspect of Dorothy’s life. After a six-week vacation in Italy with her mother, she was returning on the Titanic to make a new series of pictures for Eclair at Fort Lee. The women had been playing bridge with friends in the lounge on the night of the ship’s fatal collision with the iceberg. With two of their game partners they escaped in Lifeboat #7, the first lifeboat launched. After arriving in New York on the rescue ship Carpathia, Dorothy was persuaded by her manager to appear in a film based on the sinking. She not only starred in the one-reel drama but also wrote the scenario. She even appeared in the same clothing she had worn aboard the Titanic that night—a white silk evening dress topped with a cardigan and polo coat. Although Saved From the Titanic was a tremendous success in America, Britain, and France the only known prints were destroyed in a 1914 fire at the Eclair Studios in New Jersey. The loss of the motion picture is considered by film historians to be one of the greatest of the silent era. Dorothy Gibson’s other accomplishments in early cinema included starring in one of the first feature films made in the United States (Hands Across the Sea, 1911), co-starring in the first American-produced serial or chapter play (The Revenge of the Silk Masks, 1912), and making one of the first-ever public appearances by a movie personality (January 1912). With contemporary Mary Pickford, Dorothy was the highest paid movie actress in the world at the time of her premature retirement in May 1912. In a brief but eventful cinematic career, she appeared in an estimated 22 Eclair films and in an unspecified number while at Lubin and IMP studios. Dorothy left movies to pursue a choral career, her most notable appearance in that venue being at the Metropolitan Opera House in Madame Sans-Gene (1915).

In 1911, Dorothy Gibson began a six-year love affair with married movie tycoon Jules Brulatour, head of distribution for Eastman Kodak and co-founder of Universal Pictures. Brulatour was also an advisor and producer for Eclair; he backed several of Gibson’s films, including her 1912 hit Saved From the Titanic. A year later, while driving Brulatour’s sports car in New York, Dorothy struck and killed a pedestrian. During the resulting court case, it was revealed in the press that she was his mistress. Although Brulatour was already separated from his wife, the humiliation of the scandal determined her to sue him for divorce, which was finalized in 1915. Brulatour’s rising fame and political power forced him to legitimize his relationship with Dorothy Gibson, and the pair were finally wed in 1917. Its legality challenged, the union was dissolved two years later as an invalid contract. To escape gossip and start a new life, Dorothy left New York for Paris, where she remained, except for the four years she spent in Italy during World War II. Brulatour married film actress Hope Hampton in 1923.

A Nazi sympathizer and alleged intelligence operative, Dorothy renounced her involvement by 1944. She was arrested as an anti-Fascist agitator and jailed in the Milan prison of San Vittore, from which she escaped with two other prisoners, journalist Indro Montanelli and General Bartolo Zambon. The trio was aided through the intervention of Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, and by a young chaplain of the Milanese resistance group Fiamme Verdi, Father Giovanni Barbareschi. Living in France, in 1946, Dorothy died of a heart attack in her apartment at the Hôtel Ritz Paris at the age of 56. She is buried at Saint Germain-en-Laye Cemetery. Gibson’s estate was divided between her lover, Emilio Antonio Ramos, press attaché for the Spanish Embassy in Paris, and her mother, who lived until 1961 and, like her daughter, was found dead in a Paris hotel room.

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Born

  • May, 17, 1889
  • USA
  • Hoboken, New Jersey

Died

  • February, 17, 1946
  • Paris, France

Cause of Death

  • heart attack

Cemetery

  • Saint Germain-en-Laye Old Communal Cemetery
  • Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France

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