Mystery surrounds the early life of Josephine Brandell, which was the name she used for her career as a singer and actress.
According to the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, and the 1905 New York State Census, she was born Janetta Kleinberg in Austria in September 1887, the daughter of Fishel “Philip” and Yetta Kleinberg. She had a number of brothers and sisters, among them, Samuel, Sabina, and William. Although these early records indicate that she was born in September 1887, she claimed in later applications for passports and citizenship that she was born in Budapest, Romania, on the 26th November 1891 and also 1892!
Her father, a tailor by profession, immigrated to the United States of America, settling in New York City, in 1895, with the remaining members of the family following him in 1897 and 1898.
On 15th February 1907, she married Dr. Bernard Black Brandeis, who was a dentist, and a native Romanian, who had become a naturalized citizen of the United States of America on the 27th June 1904. As a result of her marriage, Josephine automatically became a United States citizen. Perhaps, because her husband was born in Budapest, she decided to claim to have been born in this city when making applications for passports and citizenship in later years.
The marriage did not last; however, and on the 9th September 1910, the couple divorced. She was a professional actress and opera singer and adopted the name of “Brandell” as her stage name, and as she was Jewish, to possibly avoid anti-Semitic persecution.
In 1913, she had travelled to London, England, to study music, and perform in a number of operatic and other musical productions. She returned to visit her family, who by that time were living in Centreville, Sullivan County, New York, for period of three months, in 1914, and again in February 1915, when she arrived in New York harbour on board the
Lusitania, travelling on a return ticket.
Having decided to return to London, she had chosen the May sailing of the
Lusitania to Liverpool, which was scheduled to leave New York on 1st May.
Having stayed at The Cumberland Hotel, on 54th Street and Broadway, in the city, she joined the vessel at her berth at Pier 54 in New York, on the morning of that date, with ticket number 46031. Once on board, she was escorted to her room, D30, which was the personal responsibility of First Class Bedroom Steward William S. Fletcher who came from Wallasey on the opposite bank of the River Mersey from Liverpool.
The Lusitania’s departure began late, in the early afternoon of May Day, because she had to embark passengers, cargo and some crew from the Anchor Liner
Cameronia, which had been requisitioned for war work by the British Admiralty at the end of April.
Josephine Brandell enjoyed the company of some of the wealthiest people in the world at that time, in the opulent surroundings of the saloon accommodation during the trans-Atlantic crossing, and she was often seen collecting tips from her fellow passengers at luncheon and dinner, for the benefit of the members of the orchestra who entertained them as they dined. She also attended the ship’s concerts, although neither she nor another singer/actress on board, Rita Jolivet, performed at them as they were professional singers.
On what proved to be her final night on board the Lusitania, Josephine felt very nervous as the main topic of conversation amongst the passengers that evening concerned the threat of submarines as they approached their destination – Liverpool. She implored fellow passenger, Mrs. Mabel Crichton, to permit her to stay in her cabin, because she was so frightened. Mabel welcomed her into her cabin, and spent most of the night trying to reassure her that nothing would happen to them and attempting keep her calm and allay her fears.
Her worst fears; however, were realised on the afternoon of 7th May, when the
Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20 while she was steaming past The Old Head of Kinsale in the south of Ireland, and only hours away from her home port.
According to an interview given by fellow saloon class passenger, Francis Bertram Jenkins, which appeared in the 6th June 1915 edition of the
New York Times: -
“… Seated at my table in the dining saloon were my friend, Mr. Max Schwartz, and two ladies who had joined us for coffee, when we heard a terrific explosion which seemed to make the boat shiver from stem to stern. We all looked aghast at each other, and all the people who were in the saloon, some sixty or seventy, (the majority were out on deck, having finished their luncheon, the time being about 2.05) jumped up, simultaneously, ejaculating various remarks, such as, ‘My God, it’s a torpedo!’. There was a general rush for the staircase, (the dining saloon was four decks below the boat deck) although I should like to point out emphatically that there was absolutely now (sic.) panic. The two ladies who were with Mr. Schwartz and myself clung to us asking us to stick with them, which we assured them we would do. We got them on to the boat deck as quickly as possible. This took, perhaps, some five minutes, as the boat listed very badly immediately the torpedo struck her. The list grew momentarily worse as we climbed the staircase. There were no lifebelts on deck, as they were all kept in the staterooms, and it was an impossibility to get to them, owing to the boat’s list to port. It was also impossible for me to leave the ladies, as I was anxious to get them into a boat.
The two ladies in question were Josephine Brandell and her friend, Mabel Crichton. Also, Jenkins is mistaken when he says the list was to the port (left) side. Mr. Jenkins’ interview continued: -
“We came out on the deck on the starboard side (the torpedo struck on the port side).
Mr. Jenkins was wrong in this instance also as the torpedo struck the starboard side of the liner: -
… By this time the crew had tried unsuccessfully, owing to the way the boat was listing, to launch several boats, and they were then lowering another. The boat was then on the level with the deck, and there were some seven or eight ladies in it, and one or two men getting the oars loose. I first handed in Miss Josephine Brandell who was wearing a lifebelt. I should like to place it on record that this lifebelt was placed on her by Mr. Edward Gorer, of Bond Street, who was wearing it when we came on deck. His cabin was on the boat deck, and he, being on deck at the time of the torpedoing, was able to run into his cabin and get it. I shall never forget this noble deed of self-sacrifice. He, poor fellow, although, I believe, a strong swimmer, was drowned”. …
Of those mentioned in the newspaper article, only Josephine Brandell and Bertram Jenkins survived. Mabel Crichton died, but her remains were recovered and identified, and subsequently returned to her family in London for burial. Edgar Gorer and Max Schwartz were also lost and if their remains were recovered, they were never identified.
Having been rescued from the sea and landed at Queenstown, Josephine was able, eventually, to make it to her original destination in England, where she stayed at 34. Parliament Hill, London.
Bedroom Steward Fletcher who had looked after Miss Brandell in room D30 also survived the sinking and eventually got back to his Wallasey home.
Instructions were given to the American Consul in Queenstown to interview all surviving American passengers and have written depositions taken from them. Whereas quite a number of American survivors were interviewed while in Queenstown, most of those who did not have physical injuries, requiring admission to a hospital, wished to leave the town as soon as transport could be arranged and get to their intended destinations without further delay. In such cases, those survivors were interviewed in Liverpool or London, but some, like Josephine Brandell, sent their own written deposition to the authorities. Josephine’s deposition is undated, but she obviously made it within a few weeks of her ordeal, and the details are very similar to those outlined by Francis Bertram Jenkins in his published interview: -
Narrative of Josephine Brandell
I am replying to your request in giving my statement to the best of my recollection about the sinking of the Lusitania.
I had just finished making a collection for the musicians and sat down to finish my lunch where Mrs. N. Crigchton (sic.), Mr. Jenkins, and Mrs. (sic.) Schwartz, (an American) were sitting, when I heard the explosion. We all jumped up. Poor Mrs. Crigchton (sic.) exclaiming “They have done it”. In fact I was nervous during the whole trip; so much so, that I kept worrying my friends about fearing the sub-marines.
Thursday night I was in a state that I could not sleep in my own cabin, si I asked Mrs. Crigchton (sic.) if I could sleep in her cabin, “Poor soul”, she was only too happy to be of any assistance to me and did all she could during the whole night to quiet my nerves. The next morning I heard the hooting of the horn as it was foggy. Everything went well untill (sic.) I sat down to lunch when the explosion occurred. The people rushed for the stairs. I heard someone shouting to be calm. I looked up and saw it was one of the captains. I cannot say whether it was the first or the second.
Josephine Brandell is probably referring to Captain William Turner, or Staff Captain James Anderson, although she could have assumed another senior deck officer was a ‘captain’. Her deposition continues: -
When we finally reached the top deck, I saw very few of the first class passengers. I was simply horrified with fright. Mr. Schwartz’s trying to calm me when Mr. E. Gorer, (the art dealer of Bond Street) rushed over to us and put a life-belt on me which was the means of my being saved and told me to be brave. He returning for other life-belts and Mr. Schwartz after putting me into the boat where Mrs. Crigchton (sic.) was already sitting, went to help other women. That’s the last I saw of those two brave heroes. Just then our boat was lowered but immediately it hit the water it upset, throwing all its occupants out. About six were saved from that boat which contained 60 or 70 passengers. The sights I saw when that boat upset is too awful. Words cannot describe it. A rope was thrown to us which a few caught hold of. I then remember a few of us getting hold of an oar, but some of them soon dropped off. The cries for mercy, the people drowning and coming up again within three minutes time barely touching me was too terrible. Somehow I caught hold of a deck chair which was floating near me and held on until I became numb when I was picked up by Mr. Harkness, the assistant purser, who afterwards told me he thought I was gone when he first looked at me.
There were plenty of life-belts on board but there was not any time to get at them. I did not see any guns, amunition (sic.) or Canadian troops. The discipline was alright from what I saw. I was only five minutes on the Lusitania after she had been struck. The first boat and the second in which I was in were upset, the reason I cannot tell. I did not hear any explosion after the first. I may add that we ought to have gone faster than 16 knots an hour in the War Zone and a Cruiser should have been sent by the Admiralty to meet us.
P.S. The people behaved very well considering the terrible occurence (sic.). I never heard any cries or any disturbances. I thought everyone was very brave. The men passengers that I saw and the crew did all they could to help the women.
Josephine Brandell eventually returned to the United States, where she filed a claim for compensation with the U.S. State Department. The consideration of her claim had to wait until the War had ended, but on the 19th May 1920, she married John Ormiston Lawson-Johnson, who was a stock broker and a British subject. As a result she relinquished her American citizenship, which was to have a disastrous effect on her claim.
In 1921, while travelling from Liverpool to New York on board the Aquitania, Josephine encountered the ship’s assistant purser, William Harkness, who she identified as the man who had pulled her from the sea, and ultimately saved her life. A report of their encounter appeared in The Washington Post after they had arrived in New York City
On 19th March 1925, the Mixed Claims Commission refused to make any award to her as she was no longer an American citizen, regardless of the fact that she had been at the time of the sinking!
In 1928, Josephine and her husband, John Ormiston Lawson-Johnson, were divorced in Paris, France; however, she didn’t remain divorced for any significant length of time as she married George John Seymour Repton in London on the 1st June 1929.
Despite being married to an Englishman, Josephine applied to become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1942, and this was granted in November 1943. George Repton had died in London on the 10th May 1943, and had left his estate of £49,503-1s.-2d. (£49,503.06p) to Josephine, making her very wealthy by the standards of the time.
On the 7th December 1945, Josephine married Beresford Cecil Bingham Annesley, the 8th Earl Annesley, in London. It was the groom’s third marriage, and the bride’s fourth! From the time of her fourth marriage, she became - Josephine, Countess Annesley - her name for the remainder of her life.
The couple travelled extensively between Europe and North America for many years, until Earl Annesley died on the 29th June 1957. Following his death, Countess Annesley began to spend more time in New York, and died there on the 27th June 1977, aged 85 years. Her remains were laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.
Despite four marriages, she had no children and her estate was divided between a number of charities and other beneficiaries.
1900 U.S. Federal Census, 1905 New York State Census, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Cunard Records, U.S. Passport Applications 1795 -1925, U.S. Consular Registration Certificates 1907 – 1918, Mixed Claims Commission Docket No. 639, New York Naturalization Records 1882 – 1944, NARA, Probate Records, Peerage of Ireland, New York Times, The Washington Post, Lest We Forget, Seven Days to Disaster, Graham Maddocks, Lisa Diamond Stein, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly