Dispatches from Home – The Last Dinner on the Titanic

On Sunday night, April 14, 1912, George and Eleanor Widener hosted one of the most famous dinner parties on board the Titanic in the ship’s elegant À la Carte Restaurant. The room was the last word in luxury. The tables were set with fresh flowers, bone china, and sterling silver. The amber-ish glow of crystal table lamps reflected off its satinwood paneling as the strains of Puccini and Tchaikovsky from the ship’s orchestra floated around the room.

Joining the Wideners were Mr. and Mrs. John Thayer II and the Carters, William and Lucille. The dinner was given in honor of Captain John Smith. The ladies in shimmering gowns and the men in tails must have been the epitome of elegance and beauty. However, the Captain and the Widener party had no idea that their world of luxury and privilege would end because this would be their last dinner aboard the RMS Titanic. Little did I know that 86 years later, I, too, would experience a dinner much like the 1st Class passengers of long ago.

James Cameron’s blockbuster “Titanic” broke all box office records in 1997 and was the first movie to earn over a billion dollars worldwide. It stayed at Number One for 15 consecutive weeks in North America, a record it still holds. The movie’s phenomenal success touched audiences who could not get enough of the great ship. Titanic parties, with period costumes, were hot that season, as were period dinners.

The Titanic even had a musical written about it, which opened on Broadway in 1997. It swept the Tony Awards that year, winning all five nominations, including Best Musical and Best Score. I saw the musical on Broadway, but that’s another story for another day…

How do we know what the last 1st Class dinner on the Titanic was? It’s somewhat ghoulish because the only known copy of that last dinner was discovered in the tux pocket of a 1st Class passenger whose body was recovered after the sinking; no known menu of the Widener’s dinner exists. However, I’m happy it was recovered because I was fortunate to attend a recreation of that dinner on April 14, 1998, at the Chef’s Table, part of the Culinary Institute of New Orleans on fashionable St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans.

Dear friends David Delk, Keith Ballard, Jimmy Dubuisson, and moi motored to the city listening to the movie’s soundtrack. We were attired in our finest. I took my copy of the book, “Last Dinner on the Titanic,” with me; it was a popular conversation starter with our fellow “passengers” at dinner. This was a good thing. You know how difficult it is for moi to start conversations with strangers. Many of our fellow dinner guests signed the book, as did the three dinner chiefs and many of the waiters.

Oh! What a sumptuous, seven-course repast it was! Fresh, plump oysters, Consommé Olga, Filet Mignon Lili, lamb with mint sauce, roast duckling, and Chateau potatoes. Then there was Pate de Foie Gras with cold asparagus vinaigrette. Peaches in Chartreube jelly were a tasty treat. The chiefs told us many spices and ingredients needed to recreate the dinner were no longer available. They also told us what substitutions they used. And then there were the wines and the edible flowers.

Each course came with a different wine. As the wine was being poured, our individual courses were being served. Then, one of the chefs asked us to eat a bite of food. We did. Then, the chef asked us to take a sip of wine and another bite of food. We did. You could hear audible gasps around the dining room, coupled with delightful smiles. The wine changed the food’s taste. To an old country boy like myself, it was astonishing. Toward the end of the meal, we were given small bouquets of all edible flowers. Gasps and smiles accompanied the flower consumption as well.

Tonight, April 14, 2021, I’ll peruse my copy of “Last Dinner on the Titanic.” I’ll read the written messages that so many passengers wrote, along with the chefs and the serving staff. I’ll gently touch the fading, pressed, edible flower I saved. And I’ll remember the laughter, the food, and my dear friends who made that night…well…a night to remember. Thank you!
(Originally published April 2021)

My Titanic dinner friends.
George Dunton Widener (June 16, 1861 – April 15, 1912) – In 1912, Widener was president of the Philadelphia Traction Company and oversaw the cable and electric streetcar operations of that company. A patron of the arts, Widener was also director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
American heiress, socialite, and philanthropist. She was the daughter of Philadelphia streetcar magnate William Lukens Elkins. In 1883 she married George Widener, the son of her father’s business partner, Peter Widener, thereby uniting two of the city’s largest fortunes. She was known as one of the city’s most beautiful women.
Lynnewood Hall in 1912 – Built in 1897 by Peter Widener, George’s father, the house has 110 rooms. As described in a newspaper article, the house was “dripping with silk, velvet, and gilded moldings, the rooms furnished with chairs from Louis XV’s palace, Persian rugs, and Chinese pottery, the halls crammed with art by Raphael, Vermeer, Rembrandt, El Greco, Van Dyck, and Donatello.” It still stands but has been basically vacant since the early 1950s.
Lynnewood Hall in 2021. So sad!
The Last Dinner on the Titanic 1998