Elizabeth Underhill, at the age of 19 could have played the real life version of the character played by Kate Winslet. She, too, was traveling with her parents through Europe in the late winter of 1911-12 when they booked passage on the Titanic.
Fate intervened when her father, because of a last minute change of itinerary, postponed their journey home. Days later, the impressionable young woman watched the chillingly poignant scene when the captain of her vessel tossed a wreath over the side in memory of those who had perished. Elizabeth knew she could have been one of them. At that moment, she resolved to make the most of her life.
True to her word, Elizabeth set out on a course that would see her transcend the role of the American woman of her time.
The rebellious daughter of an aristocratic family, Elizabeth was born on Nov. 21, 1892, in what was then the Village of Sing Sing. Her father's family could trace their American roots to Capt. John Underhill, who settled in the New World in 1630. The fashionable and trendy "Murray Hill' in New York City was named after her mother's family.
Elizabeth graduated from the Ossining School for Girls in 1911. In 1917, she was appointed the Ossining suffrage president and campaigned, along with Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, for passage of women's voting rights in New York state. She represented her hometown in two marches along New York City's Fifth Avenue. This experience prompted Elizabeth to enroll in law school and in 1921, she received her law degree from New York University.
After the death of her mother in 1919, Elizabeth became the lady of the house, dividing her time between accompanying her father on his travels and taking part in a host of organizations.
By World War II, Elizabeth had crossed the Atlantic Ocean 49 times and circumnavigated the globe three times. At home, she was involved in the Ossining Women's Club, Ossining Historical Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the First Presbyterian Church of Ossining and the New York State Republican Club.
She broke tradition by becoming the first woman bank director in Westchester County history when she was named to the governing board of the (then) First National Bank (across from the Municipal Building).
She led a rich and fulfilling life, proving that a woman could find happiness outside marriage and the home. Elizabeth was well into her 80s when she read an article written by her minister's wife who categorized all "unmarrieds' as "disappointed." Elizabeth was incensed and fired off a saucy letter: "My dear Mrs. Bollinger: I have traveled extensively in my lifetime and have met people you could only dream about. Please be assured that I am, and never was, disappointed as a result of my unmarried state!" With a devilish wink in her eye, she acknowledged she had "fun in her life."
It was this author's pleasure to know this remarkable lady who died on Nov. 7, 1982, two weeks shy of her 90th birthday. As I sit and watch my home video of "Titanic," my thoughts turn to Elizabeth and how she almost became a part of that tragedy. I will be forever grateful to her father for changing his plans.
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