Olympic & Titanic:
A Tale of Two Steinways (143017 & 157550)

By J. Kent Layton

This artist’s view of Olympic‘s Restaurant shows the beautiful room. The view looks aft and to starboard. The sideboard is on the fore-aft midships line, and the red circle shows the original location of the piano. (J. Kent Layton Collection)

When the new White Star liner Olympic entered service in June 1911, she had been outfitted with a number of pianos aboard. It would seem that all of these instruments were made by Steinway & Sons in the firm’s Hamburg factory, with one possible (but not certain) exception. The pianos’ serial numbers, models, and certain other details have long been known. One of them was an upright 52″ Model K with the serial number 143017. (See Titanic: The Ship Magnificent, Vol. 2, by Bruce Beveridge, et al.) It was ordered with a rough case, and delivered to A. Heaton & Co, so that its case could be transformed to match its intended surroundings: Olympic‘s First Class á la carte Restaurant.

The Restaurant was located on B Deck, astern of the Aft Grand Staircase, and it was designed as an extra tariff option to taking meals in the First Class Dining Saloon, forward on D Deck. The Restaurant was an extraordinary space with rich walnut panelling, and when Steinway 143017 was finished and delivered on board on 16 May 1911, the piano was safely ensconced against the Restaurant’s aft wall, amidships, in a small nook between two sideboards.

This enlargement of the illustration shows the piano is just visible behind the sideboard. (J. Kent Layton Collection)

It was a beautiful match for the room, a vision in walnut veneer and gold leaf trim, and it was photographed in this location; the photo appeared in The Musical Courier of 26 July 1911.

This two-page spread was shown in the 26 July 1911 issue of The Musical Courier, and showed photographs of four of Olympic‘s Steinway pianos aboard the liner within weeks of her maiden voyage. (J. Kent Layton Collection)

A trio of musicians was engaged to play music within the room for the pleasure of patrons during the maiden voyage, which commenced on 14 June 1911. However, the piano’s tenure in the Restaurant was to be short-lived. For starters, it was thought by some — including rival Cunard Line’s naval architect Leonard Peskett, who was travelling on the maiden voyage — that the musicians were in too close proximity to patrons as they played music, actually bordering on becoming a nuisance. (RMS Olympic: Titanic’s Sister, Mark Chirnside, Appendix III.)

In the end, the Restaurant was so popular that ideas were quickly hatched to increase seating capacity there. During the maiden voyage, Thomas Andrews — a senior representative of Harland & Wolff, the firm that had built Olympic and Titanic — proposed fitting 11 extra four-seat tables in the Restaurant. (‘Thomas Andrews’ Olympic Notes, 1911′, Mark Chirnside.) It has long been known that expanding seating capacity in the Restaurant included the removal of the upright piano from its original location, although precisely when the piano was taken out is at this point still open to some speculation. A reference on Titanic stated of Olympic‘s Restaurant piano:

… [This] was the only Olympic piano for which there was no twin aboard Titanic. The case and bench were finished in the same fawn-brown French walnut and decorated with gilt carvings matching those of the surrounding joinery. This piano was removed during Olympic‘s first season; its final disposition remains unknown. (Titanic: The Ship Magnificent, Vol. 2, p. 133)

Yet we do have a hint of how early the piano had been removed from the Olympic‘s Restaurant: by the time of her third east-bound crossing starting from New York on 19 August 1911, Cunard’s Leonard Peskett noted that the number of tables had already been increased in number from 25 to 41, suggesting that Andrews’ suggestions had already been incorporated, and that room for an additional six tables had been found beyond the additional 11 he had believed could be added back in late June.

Meanwhile, within a month of Titanic‘s launch on 31 May 1911, the second Olympic-class liner’s B Deck windows were already being removed in preparation for a radical shift in the configuration of her B Deck. This would include the replacement of the First Class Enclosed Promenades with more high-end First Class staterooms. Titanic‘s Restaurant would also be expanded all the way out to the port side of the ship, cutting the port side Second Class Promenade to roughly half its original length. Either very late that year or early in 1912, it was decided to install another room, which would eventually be known as the Café Parisien. Another change would come by expanding the footprint of Titanic‘s B Deck First Class Entrance around the Aft Grand Staircase to form a dedicated Reception Room for the Restaurant and Café Parisien.

This artist’s conception depicts the Restaurant Reception Room aboard Titanic, on B Deck. (The Shipbuilder, J. Kent Layton Collection)

Regarding this new Reception Room, The Shipbuilder noted:

The reception room adjoining the first-class dining saloon having proved such a popular feature on the Olympic, in the case of the Titanic a reception room has also been provided in connection with the restaurant, consisting of a large and spacious lounge decorated in the Georgian style. Here friends and parties will meet prior to taking their seats in the restaurant. The elegant settees and easy chairs are upholstered in silk of ermine colour, with embroideries applied in tasteful design. … There is accommodation for a band in this room (author’s emphasis).

During Titanic‘s maiden voyage, a trio of musicians is said to have performed for patrons of the Restaurant. It is interesting to note that just as the main five-man ensemble was known to play in the D Deck Reception Room as dinner was winding down and after dinner, rather than within the main Dining Saloon itself, and in harmony with the observations aboard Olympic in 1911 that the trio was a nuisance playing within Olympic‘s Restaurant itself, the trio aboard Titanic did not seem to play within the Restaurant. Mrs Walter Douglas testified at the American Inquiry into the disaster:

As far as I have been able to learn, not a man in that room [the Restaurant on the evening of Sunday, 14 April 1912] [survived]; all those who served, from the head steward down, including Mr. Gattie (sic), in charge; the musicians who played in the corridor outside (authors’ emphasis), and all the guests were lost – except Sir Cosmo Gordon Duff, Mr. Carter, and Mr. Ismay.’ (Amer. 1101)

This memory harmonizes with the statement in The Shipbuilder that Titanic‘s Restaurant Reception Room would have ‘accommodation for a band’.

Looking aft from Olympic‘s Restaurant Reception Room, through the widened corridor that had now become a proper seating area, into the First Class Restaurant astern. (Harland & Wolff Photo, J. Kent Layton Collection)

Of course, Titanic herself was lost, along with all eight professional musicians, and nearly every member of the Restaurant staff. However, many of the lessons learned during Olympic‘s first year of service, which had resulted in many modifications and improvements to Titanic‘s design, were later reverse-engineered back into Olympic. During the winter of 1912-13, Olympic underwent an extensive overhaul at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. There were many safety improvements, but also extensive changes to the First Class Restaurant area of B Deck. This room was enlarged just as it had been enlarged aboard Titanic, extended to the port side of the ship. Along the starboard side, a Café Parisien nearly identical to Titanic‘s was installed. There was also a Restaurant Reception Room similar to that on Titanic, but not identical. The corridor that led aft from the Reception Room to the Restaurant proper was widened on Olympic, turned from a corridor to a proper seating area.

And according to 1913 Plans of Accommodation for the ‘New Olympic‘, as she was being referred to, there was again an upright piano; this time located in the forward-port corner of the widened corridor that led from the Reception Room forward into the Restaurant proper. However, the piano that now graced this location was apparently not the same one that had been aboard Olympic when she made her maiden voyage in June 1911, which piano had been removed from Olympic shortly after entering service to make way for more tables. That original piano, #143017, was apparently lost to history. In its place sat a brand new, nearly identical twin.

The replacement piano was also a 52″ Steinway & Sons Model K upright. It bore the serial number 157550. Like its 1911 predecessor, it had been delivered from the Hamburg factory in the rough, and had been turned into a nearly perfect carbon copy of #143017. There were subtle differences between the two cases, but for all intents and purposes White Star had ordered a near-duplicate in 1912 of the piano that they had just removed from Olympic in 1911. Why?

The only explanation as to why White Star would go to the expense of ordering a near perfect duplicate of the 1911 piano was that the first piano was no longer available to go back aboard Olympic for some reason. At this point, a fantastic and intriguing possibility presents itself: is it because the earlier piano, the one photographed aboard Olympic in 1911 and removed from that ship before the year was out, had been transferred to grace Titanic‘s B Deck Restaurant Reception Room? Was this part of what The Shipbuilder had been referring to when it stated that this room would be given ‘accommodation for a band’?

Piano #143017 had already been removed from Olympic; it was no use to anyone sitting ashore; indeed, musical instruments need to be used, as they tend to develop chronic issues from disuse in storage. The style of the Restaurant itself was nearly identical between Olympic and Titanic. Sitting in Titanic‘s white-panelled Restaurant Reception Room, the piano would have offered a foregleam of the splendours of the Restaurant itself just a few feet astern… just down that corridor there.

Furthermore, a friend of bandmaster Wallace Hartley, Lewis Cross, said that Theodore Brailey, George Krins, and Roger Bricoux ‘made up the trio which played in the second cabin and in the restaurant. They had been playing together for some time’. (Those Brave Fellows, Behe, p. 16 and Chapter 9.) Brailey is said to have played both cello and piano; Krins violin; and Bricoux cello. In terms of musical ensembles, a piano, violin, and cello would be an acceptable trio; is it possible that Brailey played Steinway #143017 aboard Titanic, and that the piano was lost on the night of 14-15 April 1912 along with 1,496 men, women, and children? The thought is dazzling, and if this carefully-built theory could be proved true, it would prove a genuine breakthrough in research regarding Titanic‘s band and musical instruments.

Meanwhile, Steinway #157550 travelled thousands of nautical miles aboard Olympic between 1913 and 1934, making a regular route between Southampton and New York in a service that through war and peace earned the liner the nickname ‘Old Reliable’. Many of the most famous persons of the 1920s and 1930s could be found aboard Olympic during her career, including stars of the Silver Screen, Broadway stars and playwrights, and famous composers and musicians. Among these were Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford; Irving Berlin and his wife; Fritz Kreisler and his wife; and even Charlie Chaplin himself. In addition to classical and Broadway selections popular before the First World War, it’s likely that Jazz, popular pieces like 1923’s smash hit ‘The Charleston’, and later on some ‘swing’ music was even played aboard Olympic during the 1920s and 1930s. Steinway #157550 saw some of the most transformative years of the 20th Century aboard Olympic, and played much of the music that gave that era its new rhythm.

In May 1934, during the financial crisis known as the ‘Great Depression’, the Cunard and White Star lines were forced to merge, and White Star found itself the junior partner in the new entity. Cunard had long eschewed the idea of extra tariff restaurants aboard their ships, feeling that it created a sort of super-elite First Class passenger. In October of that year, Olympic‘s First Class Restaurant was closed for business. The following year, Olympic was retired. Her fittings and furnishings were sold at auction, and the ship — a great liner in her own right, and a legendary connection to her lost sister Titanic — vanished forever.

Yet pieces of the liner lived on. Her First Class Lounge panelling and windows, for example, wound up in the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick, England. The elaborate walnut panelling from the Restaurant eventually found its way aboard the cruise liner Celebrity Millenium for a time before it was removed from the ship and vanished from public attention. Of her Steinway pianos, little seems to be known. The Model B grand that graced the D Deck Reception Room just forward of the First Class Dining Saloon appeared in a newspaper clipping some years ago before vanishing again from public view, perhaps never to be seen again. All we have to go on are rumours and whispers.

It was thus a tremendous surprise to the maritime and Titanic community when Steinway #157550 reappeared for sale in Europe. This is the piano that our organisation is attempting to preserve for future generations of ocean liner, maritime, musical history, and Titanic enthusiasts.