Colorado History

R.I.P., Debbie Reynolds: She Gave New Life — and a New Name — to Margaret Brown

Mourners have been flocking to the Denver Art Museum to honor Carrie Fisher, whose Princess Leia robe is featured in Star Wars and the Power of Costume exhibit. And just a few blocks away, another museum recalls one of the iconic roles of her mother, Debbie Reynolds: The Molly Brown House Museum.

Although The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the musical that become a 1964 blockbuster movie starring Reynolds, didn't pay particularly close attention to history, it wound up rewriting some history.
Margaret Tobin was born in Missouri in 1867, the daughter of poor Irish immigrants; she and her brother headed to Colorado and landed in Leadville, where she worked in a store and got involved in charity work. In 1886 she married J.J. Brown, a mining engineer — and in 1893, he struck it rich. The couple moved to Denver, buying a house at 1340 Pennsylvania Street; Margaret Brown expanded her involvement in social work, and even ran for the state senate in 1901. Separated from her husband, she started traveling the world — and she was on the Titanic in April 1912 when it hit that iceberg.

Margaret Brown rallied the survivors on lifeboat #6, and her good works didn't stop there. Rescued by the Carpathia, she raised funds for other impoverished passengers and arrived in New York City a heroine. Here's what happened then, according to the museum's website: 
Legend claims that Margaret, stepping off the Carpathia onto the safe shore of New York, boldly exclaimed, “Typical Brown luck. I’m unsinkable!” But in reality the name apparently started with none other than Polly Pry (a Denver gossip columnist). The Newport Herald reported that Mrs. Brown’s heroic story – which, it smugly noted, it had been the first to publish – had become a “genuine thriller” in newspapers across the country. According to Newport Herald editors, “Town Topics,” Polly Pry’s weekly Denver gossip column patterned after Newport’s own mean-spirited society rag of the same name, was “probably miffed because it had been unable to print [Margaret’s] story when it was fresh news," and consequently “unfeelingly referred to her as ‘the unsinkable Mrs. Brown.'” Mrs. Brown’s response was nonchalant. “Did she care?” the Herald asked. “Not a bit. She sent the clipping [back] to her Colorado friends, and the laugh was on the rude [Denver] Town Topics.” 
That's how Margaret Brown, who continued to push for progressive causes, became known as "Unsinkable." The "Molly" came decades later, when her story served as the inspiration for Meredith Willson's 1960 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. And although Margaret Brown had never gone by Molly, it worked better in lyrics, and Debbie Reynolds played an unforgettable Molly — even though the movie rewrote a happy ending for the Brown marriage and it's unlikely that Margaret sang through her woes. 

Still, the name stuck, and in 1970, when what would grow into Historic Denver campaigned to save the stone building at 1340 Pennsylvania from the wrecking ball, the saved structure became known as the Molly Brown House. The museum is open today; perhaps staffers there will put out a memory book for Debbie Reynolds, who gave new life — and a new name — to the life of Margaret Brown. 
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun