Q&A: Chautauquan Mary Jane Bradbury
Denver’s Mary Jane Bradbury will portray Margaret Brown, social activist and Titanic survivor who lived in Colorado from 1886 through the 1920s, during the Two Rivers Chautauqua on Sept. 13–14.
The annual event at Cross Orchards Historic Site, 3073 F Road, is a chance to watch young and professional chautauquans such as Bradbury bring historical characters to life.
Bradbury, one of several performers scheduled to appear, has been a professional chautauquan for 10 years, and portrayed Brown for seven.
To research and develop Brown’s character, Bradbury read numerous biographies and articles — both accurate and inaccurate — as well as historical pieces specific to Brown’s life, 1867–1932, for context about how Brown lived and to develop the richness of character from all sorts of perspectives.
“Margaret was passionate about helping the less fortunate, the children, the laborers,” Bradbury wrote in an email. “How did she feel about her times and conditions, her personal life mixed into all the external happenings? Here’s where the interpreter begins to bring all the material together to find the person.”
I met up with Bradbury on her recent visit to Grand Junction and interviewed her while she was in-character as Brown circa 1926.
All Bradbury’s thoughts on issues were through the perspective of 1926 Brown, who was then in her late 50s and living in New York City.
Melinda Mawdsley: Thank you for your time, Mrs. Brown.
Margaret Brown (aka Mary Jane Bradbury): I’m happy to have the press tell any part of the story I can get in. I’m not as active politically now that women are voting. Do you know why I pulled out of that (Colorado Senate) race (in 1914)?
Mawdsley: Tell me.
Brown: There were several reasons, but the main one was the political situation with Germany. My sister married a German. The press would have had a field day with my personal life when it came to politics. What happened when that war broke out, there were plenty of other places I could put my energy that wouldn’t involve people questioning my patriotism. The war in Europe was consuming lives as well as resources and I felt like serving with the Red Cross.
Mawdsley: You were engaged in an unpopular situation here in Colorado earlier in 1914 weren’t you?
Brown: There was a dreadful thing that happened in Colorado in 1914, which was the Ludlow Massacre at the mines owned by Rockefeller, but it had been coming for months. The miners went on strike in 1913 but neither the militia or the miners had money. What did anyone think would happen? The militia fired on that tent town where the miners were living and the resultant fire killed two women and 11 children. I went against my friends the Rockefellers, but Rockefeller would not come to terms — his son was in charge — with those miners. In general, I worked for miner labor reform since 1887, the year after I got married, starting in Leadville. ... I had made a name for myself, taking a stand for child labor reform and social reform and felt strongly I could have prevailed in that Senate race. These are my opinions.
Mawdsley: You’ve never been known for being quiet on your opinions.
Brown: I don’t think a woman should be. She knows a whole lot more than people think she does.
Mawdsley: What do people think they know about you in 1926?
Brown: People love getting a hold of a legend, and I’ll be the first to say, if it gets your name in the press to use it to your advantage. But, I have to tell you, getting on a ship that’s bound to sink and happening to survive it is not a great accomplishment; it’s a matter of luck. That night there were many opportunities for people to take risks in service to others. I did what I could. I was on the first lifeboat that left that ship. Afterwards, I spoke to a number of those immigrants who lost everything, not only their belongings but their loved ones. That’s why I worked to find out who was related to whom. I realized they had nothing when they got to New York. I approached the first-class women to start a fund for these survivors. Their attitude was “The Waldorf or The Ritz are coming to fetch us.” Well, I got donations started and put up the list and let social pressure do the rest, and by the time we were in New York we had $10,000 pledged to help those survivors. Do you know why I was on that ship to begin with?
Mawdsley: No. Why?
Brown: My daughter and I had traveled to the Middle East with our friends, the Astors. We were in Paris in the spring for the social season, but a telegram was waiting for me. My grandson was deathly ill. ... “Come immediately,” it said. What was I going to do? Here was this Titanic. I’ve been on a number of ships, but it was impressive. It was something to behold. You could still smell the paint when we got on board.
Mawdsley: Where were you when you found out it was sinking?
Brown: We were called up onto the boat deck. No one but a few knew it was sinking. We thought it was a drill, and I was not happy with Captain Smith at all because we’d been at sea for days and there had been no drills. The theory is you row away, they fix what’s wrong with the ship, and you return and board. Many thought it was an exercise in precaution. As soon as our lifeboat was in the water, however, I could see something was wrong.
Mawdsley: Would you have traded all the publicity you received from being aboard the Titanic to not be on that ship?
Brown: I believe so. Too many people died in a senseless tragedy. It wasn’t worth all those lives. There was heroism but there was cowardice
Mawdsley: Well, years before you were aboard the Titanic, you spent time in Colorado. When did you move here?
Brown: I came to Colorado at just a girl, 19 years old I was. My brother had moved out here. My sister and her new husband moved out here. I wanted a better life and wanted to marry a rich man. You can’t find one of those in Hannibal, Missouri, after the war.
Mawdsley: But you didn’t marry for money.
Brown: I’ll tell you a secret from an older woman: If you find love, you marry for that. You might wait for a wealthy man, and he might never show up. Mr. Brown and I were so in love. Who knows the arc of our journey? He was working hard in the mines and I was happy to raise the family. We entertained. When people came from the East, Leadville made sure it had all sorts of amenities: Twin Lakes Resort, a stunning opera house. It was St. Louis. It was San Francisco. I was happy.
Mawdsley: Was there a lot of wealth in Colorado?
Brown: Colorado history is rich with riches. Silver came to Leadville in 1878. When they discovered there was silver in paying quantities, people came in droves. It was in that wave of people that my brother and sister came to Leadville, and I joined them. The silver that came out of Colorado in those days built the state, if not the country. The money poured into railroads, infrastructure. There’s nothing like it, the story of Leadville.
Mawdsley: What’s your fondest memory of Leadville?
Brown: When Mr. Brown and I first began to court he would come and collect me in a carriage drawn by one horse and off we would go to Turquoise Lake. Depending on how the evening went with time or the weather, we’d ride through the forests. I guess I think about it because it was before everything else happened. Life was simple. I was happy. We were happy. We were happy. I think as a young person you see your life ahead of you, and I’d never guess this would be my journey. I do remember that and the love we had for each other. That I still have. He’s gone now, several years. ... This machine you’re using and this ambition to be a reporter? ... There’s a reporter in Denver, Polly Pry, was her pen name. She didn’t like me initially. I had money and was not very refined at the time. She, along with a lot of other people, made fun of me when I got involved with a juvenile court order. Judge Benjamin Lindsey wanted to reform the court system for the young offenders, the children who were incarcerated with hard criminals. When she saw the earnest energy I put into that, she still kept her tongue planted firmly in her cheek when she wrote about me, but we became friends. I might have had money, but I also had a purpose.
Mawdsley: Was it out of the norm to have a purpose?
Brown: It depends, I believe, on where you come from. I believe the fiber of who a person is, is determined early. I came from poverty. I saw prejudice and injustice more than I needed to in Hannibal after the war was over between the states, the Civil War. I saw all those people looking for a better life heading west to put down roots. I believe seeing that, and knowing you’d like to change it, but believing you had no way to change it, it opens us — and I could have cared about not changing it. I believe it comes from how a person sees his or her life. If you have something you want to change, you go out roll up your sleeves and do your best to try and change it. When wealth came in, I used it.