When James Cameron’s Titanic was released in cinemas in 1997, fans of the record-breaking hit movie fell in love with Rose and Jack, the star-crossed lovers portrayed by Kate Winslet and Leonardi DiCaprio. But another enchanting performance was provided by Gloria Stuart, who played the 100-year-old Rose Dawson Calvert in the film’s modern day sequences.

The role of the older Rose was played so poignantly that some have wondered if the actress wasn’t a real Titanic survivor. Gloria Stuart was not on the real Titanic, although she was born in 1910, making her the only Titanic cast member to be alive when the real ship set sail. Cameron, though, did in fact have a real person in mind when he created the character of Rose.

Titanic survivors Edith Brown, Millvina Dean and Michael Navratil. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Stuart might not have been on the Titanic, but others her age did experience the tragedy first-hand in 1912. One Titanic survivor who could recall the disaster was Lillian Asplund, a five-year-old third-class passenger whose father and brothers perished on the ship. Asplund was born on 1906, and died in 2006.

The final two living Titanic survivors after Asplund’s death were Millvina Dean and Barbara West Dainton, who were both babies on the ship. They lived until 2009 and 2007 respectively.

Another Titanic survivor, Dorothy Gibson, even went on to star in a film about the tragedy: 1912’s Saved from the Titanic, a short movie that came out just a month after the sinking. Gibson, who played a fictionalised version of herself in the film, passed away in 1946.

Kate Winslet as Rose in Titanic, left, and Gloria Stuart in 1935, right

For the 1997 movie, James Cameron picked Gloria Stuart to portray a 100-year-old survivor, and the older version of the character played by Kate Winslet.

Born and raised in Santa Monica, California, Stuart was only one year old when the Titanic sunk. Originally a Pre-Code film star, Stuart starred in horror movies like The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) in her youth. She also starred in two Shirley Temple musical movies.

Little over a decade into her career, Stuart’s second husband, Arthur Sheekman, asked her to leave acting. In 1946, Stuart appeared in what would be her last film for three decades, and turned instead to art, printing, Bonsai and miniature book-making.

Following a return to acting in the 70s and 80s, in 1997, Titanic marked a huge comeback for Stuart. Put in heavy makeup to play the 100-year-old Rose when she was only 86, Stuart was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her trouble.

Stuart felt the role – not to mention her Oscar nom – gave her a new lease on life. “For 33 years I’d been in the past, you might say, and Cameron brought me back,” Stuart said in one interview.

“I feel like I’m back in the business; I’ve become more active in the Screen Actors Guild, too,” she added. “In my old age, I feel that anything I can do to help. I would like to.” Having been rediscovered by Hollywood late in life, Stuart died in 2010 aged 100.

Beatrice Wood in 1908

The story of Jack and Rose is entirely fictional, but James Cameron did base Rose on a real woman. While he was writing Titanic, Cameron happened to read a biography about Beatrice Wood, an avant garde artist born in 1893.

Born in San Francisco, in her youth Wood fought hard to persuade her wealthy parents to support her in an artistic career. She also worked as an actress before winning fame as a painter and potter. After becoming a close associate of the artist Marcel Duchamp, Wood earned the nickname ‘Mama of Dada’.

Like Rose, Wood turned down an arranged marriage and a life of luxury to pursue her dreams. “I left home, a luxurious home, with $15, to be free,” Wood once said. “And I went through a few years understanding the word poverty. But I was free. And freedom means a great deal to me.”

Molly Brown with a Titanic ‘rescue award’

Although Wood had no connection whatsoever with the Titanic, Cameron felt sufficiently inspired by her to write a character much like her into his movie. “Beatrice was proof that the attributes of Rose’s character that I thought might have been perceived as far-fetched were not,” he wrote in his book Titanic: James Cameron’s Illustrated Screenplay.

Real-life Titanic figures who made it into Cameron’s movie included Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown (played by Kathy Bates), ship builder Thomas Andrews (played by Victor Garber) and Captain Edward John Smith (played by Bernard Hill).