Benjamin Guggenheim was an American millionaire and metal smelting mogul who perished during the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912.
After the collision, he and his personal valet, Victor Giglio, famously left the boat deck as people scrambled to board lifeboats, instead returning to their quarters and donning their finest suits. They wanted, according to some survivors’ accounts, “to go down like gentlemen.”
Benjamin and Giglio were last seen enjoying brandy and cigars together as the Titanic sank. Neither of them survived, but in the wake of the disaster, their remarkable story earned renown the world over.
Benjamin Guggenheim was born in New York in 1865, to Swiss parents Meyer and Barbara Guggenheim. Meyer was a renowned and wealthy copper mining mogul, and Benjamin, the fifth of seven brothers, went on to work for his father’s smelting company alongside some of his siblings.
Benjamin married a Florette J. Seligman in 1894. Together, they had three daughters: Benita Rosalind Guggenheim, Marguerite ‘Peggy’ Guggenheim (who grew up to become a famed art collector and socialite) and Barbara Hazel Guggenheim.
But despite being married with children, Benjamin was renowned for living a jet-setting, bachelor’s lifestyle. Benjamin and Florette ultimately grew apart as his lucrative business endeavours took him around the world.
So, upon the departure of the RMS Titanic, he was accompanied not by his wife, but his mistress, a singer from France called Leontine Aubart. Joining Benjamin on the ship were Benjamin’s valet Giglio, Leontine’s maid Emma Sagesser and their chauffeur, Rene Pemot.
Their doomed voyage
On 10 April 1912, Benjamin and his party boarded the Titanic in Cherbourg, on the north coast of France, as it made a brief stop after leaving the English port of Southampton. From Cherbourg, the Titanic made its way to Queenstown in Ireland, now known as Cobh. Queenstown was supposed to be just the last European stop on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, but it turned out to be the last port the ‘unsinkable’ ship would ever call at.
On the night of 14 April 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg. Benjamin and Giglio slept through the initial impact in their first class suite, but were alerted to the disaster by Leontine and Emma shortly after.
Benjamin was put into a lifebelt and a sweater by one of the ship’s stewards, Henry Samuel Etches. The party – except for Pemot, who had been staying separately in second class – then ascended from their quarters to the boat deck. There, Leontine and Emma were granted room on lifeboat number 9 as women and children were prioritised.
As they bade farewell, Guggenheim is thought to have said to Emma, in German, “we will soon see each other again! It’s just a repair. Tomorrow the Titanic will go on again.”
But it soon became clear that Benjamin was mistaken, and the ship was going down. Rather than wait or fight for space on a lifeboat, Benjamin and Giglio made their way back down to their quarters, where they got dressed into their finest evening wear.
They emerged, reports suggest, donning full formal suits. Accounts from survivors quoted Benjamin as stating, “we’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”
One survivor, Rose Icard, purportedly later recalled, “after having helped the rescue of women and children, [Benjamin] got dressed and put a rose at his buttonhole, to die.” Etches, the steward who helped Benjamin into a lifebelt, survived. He later recalled that Benjamin relayed to him a final message: “if anything should happen to me, tell my wife I’ve done my best in doing my duty.”
The last recorded sighting of Benjamin and Giglio places them in deckchairs, enjoying brandy and cigars as the ship went down.
Benjamin and Giglio swiftly earned international renown for their remarkable story, with their names featured in newspapers around the world after the disaster. They remain two of the most widely known victims of the Titanic, and were depicted in the 1958 film A Night to Remember, the 1996 miniseries Titanic and James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, amongst other works.
Despite the posthumous fame earned by both men, no photographs of Giglio were known to exist until 2012. At that point, the Merseyside Maritime Museum issued an appeal for information about Giglio, himself a Liverpudlian. Eventually, a photo surfaced of Giglio, aged 13, some 11 years before the incident.
More than a century after Benjamin’s death aboard the Titanic, his great-great-grandson, Sindbad Rumney-Guggenheim, saw the Titanic stateroom where Benjamin perished all those years ago.
As part of a National Geographic documentary, titled Back to the Titanic, Sindbad watched on screen as an underwater camera traversed the wreck of the Titanic right back to the spot where Benjamin sat in his finery to “go down like a gentleman”.
According to the Sunday Express, Sindbad said of the experience, “’we all like to remember the tales of him dressed in his best and sipping brandy, and then going down heroically. But what I’m seeing here, with the crushed metal and everything, is the reality.”
Certainly, the offbeat tale of Benjamin’s death is underpinned by the harsh reality that he, and so many others, died that fateful night.