Last Saturday, when I was in Colorado visiting Julio, I got to visit the Molly Brown House at 1340 Pennsylvania Avenue in Denver. When I was little, I watched The Unsinkable Molly Brown innumerable times. At two, I knew the chorus to “Belly Up to the Bar Boys.” Dad was so proud. My first babydoll was named Molly Brown (and kind of actually looked like a baby Debbie Reynolds). She was kind of a childhood hero of mine. Visiting her house was a dream come true. When we drove past it looking for parking, I started kicking and stomping my feet like a child. It was awesome!
The Molly Brown House has a rich history, which you can learn all about either on the tour or the house’s website. The Brown’s became owners of the house through a trade agreement with their neighbors, who got the Brown’s old house and $20,000. Try that nowadays! The house has been restored by Historic Denver, an organization that came together to save the building from a wrecking ball in 1970. Based on Margaret Brown’s own records and some photos of the property, they have reconstructed what the house looked like when the Browns lived there, using some of their own furnishings as well as antiques from the time. It’s a really cool peek into the lives of the rich at the beginning of the 20th century. I mean, they are pretty sure that the wallpaper in the entry (shown at left) was gold leaf. (It’s gold paint now). Can you imagine!? Because of Margret’s fame as a survivor of the Titanic, there’s also some information there about her role aboard the ship. Julio and I kind of laughed at the giant picture of the boat from the movie on the wall, but found the copy of Margret’s insurance claim (never paid) really interesting. She was bringing artifacts home for the Denver museum, but also claimed $300 in lingerie.
As an adult, I read a biography of “Molly Brown” that taught me a lot about a woman I’d thought of as a hero for years. Mostly, it taught me that she was far more awesome in reality than in her legend. (She never went by Molly, despite the press calling her that.) Though the musical depicts her as illiterate, she actually had an 8th grade education before leaving to work in a factory in Hannibal, MO. For her time, class, and sex, that was a pretty darn good education. She used it too. For example, she fought for miner’s rights, animal rights, and women’s rights consistently throughout her life. She and J.J. moved from Leadville to Denver after they struck gold so they could better their education and culture. She ran for office three times, twice before women were even granted the right to vote. She and J.J. were effective fundraisers and were able to fund public works and foundations seemingly overnight. She traveled the world. In fact, Margaret spoke several languages and aboard the Titanic she helped translate the warnings and instructions to passengers who didn’t speak English, staying on deck to help until someone physically lifted her down into a lifeboat and off the ship. Aboard lifeboat 6, she allegedly convinced her company to go back and search for survivors. It’s less colorful than leading them in “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” for sure, but way more heroic. Later, on a trip to Nova Scotia, she was shocked to find the graves of around 120 passengers who died in the Titanic disaster. She paid to have a wreath placed on each grave every April 15th for the rest of her life.
Contrary to the musical’s story, though she and J.J. remained married and faithful for the rest of their lives, their separation remained permanent. According to Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, J.J. thought a woman’s name should be in the paper just three times: when she’s born, when she’s married, and when she dies. He may have been a man of his time, but she was definitely a woman ahead of hers. The museum giftshop screens a 15-minute film on loop for free. It does a wonderful job covering the basics of her life–her rise to wealth, her fight for miner’s rights (taking her toe-to-toe with Andrew Carnegie), her run for Senate, and the voyage on the Titanic.
Though I had already read about many of these parts of her life, it was so amazingly cool to stand in that house and see the opulence, the documents, and the funny touches, such as J.J.’s hideous study. I will admit that behind the tour’s back I did break into a few bars of “I Ain’t Down Yet” along with some choreography. I just couldn’t help myself.
If you’re in the Denver area, on January 12, the house is opening a new exhibit. Molly Brown: Biography of a Changing Nation, which sounds pretty awesome!