Try to think of who was on the Titanic before it so tragically plunged beneath the waves. Not easy, is it? All that comes to mind is Jack and Rose. Well, although Leo’s character didn’t actually exist, there was a real-life Jack aboard the ill-fated ship. And his story is just as compelling – and heartbreaking – as anything you’ve watched at a movie theater.
We’re talking about John Borland Thayer II, who was 17 at the time the Titanic set sail in 1912. Unlike the movie Jack, though, he was from a very well-to-do family. That meant he traveled in the pampered luxury of first class rather than below decks.
And while everyone was in the same boat – literally – when the ship struck an iceberg, Thayer would have had better odds of surviving than Leo’s character. In third class – where Jack was in the movie – there was a total of 710 passengers. Sadly, though, only 174 survived the sinking. In first class, by contrast, 199 escaped with their lives from a passenger list of 319. That’s a very stark difference.
In James Cameron’s movie, there’s actually a moment when Jack has to smash down a gate trapping him and the other folks in third class. But although there’s no truth to that scene – it’s entirely fictional – there was real drama aboard the stricken vessel. And Thayer was at the center of one of the most terrifying true-life tales.
In fact, Cameron may actually have been inspired by Thayer. Yes, the director did base some characters on people who really sailed on the liner. Some of the survivors wrote accounts of their grueling experiences or gave press interviews. And Thayer himself would later write a privately published book about his ordeal.