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Arts & Life

‘Unsinkable’ Brown Sought The WWI Front, Not Luxury’s Lap

Having survived one of the most cataclysmic sea accidents of the 20th century, she could have retreated into a life of luxury. She instead headed for the front lines of World War I. It’s one of many little-known truths of the myth-fueled record attached to the woman most know as the Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The 1964 movie musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown – through a dirty-faced Debbie Reynolds – portrayed Brown as an illiterate, social reject and tomboy. Probably owing to her Missouri roots. Well before those three myths became pop-culture legend people liked to talk about Molly Brown.

“Even during her lifetime there were rumors that were kind of going around,” said Nicole Roush, collections curator at Denver’s Molly Brown House Museum. “And Margaret didn’t do anything to dispel these because she felt that if people were talking about her it was a good thing.”

More than 80 years after her death people are still talking about Molly Brown.

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Credit Carrie Saldo / Arts District
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Arts District
'A Call To Arms,' looks at lesser-known philanthropic, social and civic achievements of Molly Brown's life.

A Call To Arms, a new exhibit curated by Roush, chronicles Brown’s contributions as a Red Cross volunteer in World War I.

During the “war to end all wars,” Red Cross volunteers, such as Brown, established vital relief efforts in France: An ambulance service, field hospitals, distributed food, and rebuilt areas rocked by the war.

“It was a very, very specialized core of women who went over there,” Roush said.

Pre-requisites for Brown’s volunteer post as an ambulance driver job included bilingualism, the ability to drive and repair vehicles – unprecedented for women at the time - as well as financial means to travel abroad.

It was the type of opportunity Brown relished.

“Whenever there was some sort of epidemic going on that involved causalities her first response was to pick up, grab nurses, and head down to that particular area to take care of sick and wounded,” Roush said.

When World War I ended, the American Committee for Devastated France picked up where the Red Cross left off. The organization, formed by Ann Morgan, cared for civilians in France’s rural Picardy region. Brown signed on for seven years and subsequently earned a France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor.

Documentary film footage and photographs of work by the American Committee for Devastated France are also on display at the House Museum.

“These were photographs that Ann Morgan hired to have taken of that area so that she could send them back to the United States to show the Americans just how badly devastated this area was,” Roush said as she walked past the images on the wall.

Despite her numerous philanthropic, social and civic achievements, which included three Senate campaigns and lobbying against John D. Rockefeller for labor rights, Margaret Brown may forever be regarded as the “Unsinkable Molly.”

Nicole Roush said the Molly Brown House Museum will continue to help the truth rise to the surface.

“We really want to propel her out of the Denver level where she is so well-known and loved and really have her recognized on a national level and an international level , so that people can really see what she did,” Roush said. “Other than just Titanic’s story.”

Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, RMPBS, and KUVO.

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