Though the grave of a real J. Dawson exists, and has proved boundless spectulation for Titanic history buffs, one Titanic passenger had a similar real-life love story to the fictionalized character Jack Dawson in James Camerons' movie.
Emilio Portaluppi was an Italian artist who changed his travel plans to join the Titanic at the last minute. He traveled as a second class passenger, according to new archival research into the elusive Titanic survivor. And though he may not have had the charms of Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Cameron's 1997 blockbuster movie, Portaluppi was a romantic with first class tastes.
He had a crush on an upper class married American woman who was traveling with her husband on the doomed ship. She was no one less than Madeleine Astor, the young and beautiful wife of millionaire John Jacob Astor IV. By the time she returned to New York she would be a widow.
Recently reconstructed through late interviews given to Italian local newspapers, Portaluppi's story is now revealed in a new documentary, "The Italians on the Titanic."
"It is reasonable to think that his story was the starting point for Cameron's screenplay," Ezio Savino and Stefano Giussani, the documentary authors, said.
The show, which airs today on the Italian version of the History Channel, tells the little known story of 37 Italians, mostly third class passengers, waiters and workers hired by Luigi Gatti, the manager of the Titanic's exclusive A La Carte restaurant.
All but three of the Italians onboard died during the sinking. Thirty-year-old Portaluppi was one of the fortunate survivors, but exactly how he managed to escape the disaster is still a mystery.
Commonly thought to be one of only four passengers pulled from water and rescued in lifeboat 14, Portaluppi never made it clear how he managed to survive. For decades, he refused to talk about that tragic April night.
"Only in the last years of his life, when he returned to Italy, he told the tale of his Titanic journey to local journalists," Claudio Bossi, the author of "Titanic," printed by Italian publishing house Giunti, told Discovery News.
To reconstruct Emilio's life, Bossi pieced together newspaper cuttings ranging from 1912 to 1974, the year of Portaluppi's death at 93.
Born in 1881 in Arcisate, near Varese in northern Italy, Portaluppi first came to the United States in 1903. He started work in Barre, Vt., but within a short time he moved to Milford, N.H., where he found various jobs requiring his skill as a stonecutter, designer and draughtsman (technical illustrator).
Indeed, he was much respected for his extraordinarily talent. An article published in the Milford Cabinet in April 1912 reported as much, just after the disaster. "He is an artist, and has become well known here through his work in the school of design which he taught in 1910-1911, and where he developed some excellent work," the article stated.
It added that in 1911 Portaluppi carved a piece in Milford granite and "was watched by hundreds of stonemen who believed the difficult feat could not be accomplished."
According to the documentary, Portaluppi worked on symbolic reliefs for the New York Stock Exchange Building and on the restoration of the Astor's Beechwood Mansion in Newport, R.I. There he would have met Colonel John Jacob Astor IV, one of the country's wealthiest men.
"At the time of the sinking, Portaluppi was returning to his home in Milford, following a visit to his family in Italy. Perhaps he had hoped his wife would return with him to the U.S.," Bossi said.
In later interviews, Portaluppi said that he had originally booked a ticket on another White Star liner, Oceanic II, but then changed it after receiving a telegram from the Astors to join them on the Titanic's maiden voyage, embarking out of Cherbourg, France.
For Portaluppi, the telegram came as an unexpected and unique opportunity, like it did too for the fictional and talented artist Jack Dawson. In James Cameron's movie, Dawson wins a third class ticket for the maiden voyage during a last-minute card game in Southampton, U.K., just before the Titanic begins her journey across the English Channel to France and then on to meet her fate in the Atlantic.
Traveling back home to New York after holidaying in Egypt, the Astors invited Portaluppi to join them on the Titanic. Portaluppi later said that they wanted him to work on some new outdoor statues in their Newport villa.
The Italian man couldn't believe his luck. Although he had bought a second class ticket, he traveled first class as a guest of the Astors.
"Portaluppi was already in his mid 80s when he revealed that he had a crush on Madeleine Astor. But he did not add much. He was a gentleman," Bossi said.
Like Jack, Emilio was invited to dinner in first class on April 14, 1912. He had retired to bed when the Titanic collided with the iceberg. Thinking that the ship had reached New York and was docking, he left his cabin in a bathrobe and went on deck.
"It was plain that something serious had happened, so Mr Portalupi returned to his stateroom to get dressed. Once back on deck, he found that the lifeboats had been unlashed and were being hurriedly filled with women," wrote the Milford Cabinet.
Exactly what happened then remains a mystery.
Portaluppi provided many versions of his survival story. Following the example of others and wearing a life-belt, he took a 50 foot leap into the ocean's chilly waters, swam to a huge cake of ice, and managed to keep afloat until he was seen and picked up by one of the lifeboats.
In another, more improbable version, he noticed that a boat was being lowered near him. As there were no women where he stood, he attempted to board, but lost his footing and fell into the ocean.
He then swam in the icy waters for two hours until he was pulled out by those in lifeboat 14, one of the last boats to leave the Titanic. With all the other survivors, he reached New York on April 18 aboard the Carpathia.
The unlikely two hour swim version is confirmed by a Jan. 16, 1913 New York Times story, which reported that Portaluppi sued the Ocean Steam Navigation Company for $25,000 for personal injury and property.
"I was in the water of the Atlantic Ocean for upward of two hours, suffering excruciating pain of body and agony of mind, and have been and will be caused GREat pain and suffering," read Portaluppi’s legal claim.
Immediately after the rescue, rumors also spread that he had entered the lifeboat dressed as a woman.
"Women and children first" was the noble edict ruling on the Titanic, and men who disobeyed risked being shot.
Emilio was first listed as "Mrs. Portaluppi" when the names of the rescued were transmitted by Carpathia’s wireless.
In his later interviews, Portaluppi again changed the story, adding that he drank half a bottle of cognac before jumping in the ocean with a nacre gun in his mouth. He swam in the chilly waters until Lady Astor, on lifeboat 14, pleaded the sailors to pick him up.
Matching the film's horrific depiction of dead people turned into human Popsicles, Portaluppi told of half-frozen men floating near him, described a living child hanging on his mother's cadaver, and, as is depicted in Cameron's film, recalled that as the night wore on, only the voices in the lifeboats broke the deadly silence.
After the disaster, he continued an adventurous life. Naturalized as a United States citizen, he joined the Italian army during World War I. He returned to the US in 1919, but made several other journeys back and forth to Italy.
In 1965, at 84, Portaluppi made his final voyage to Italy aboard the S.S. Cristoforo Colombo. He remained in Italy until his death in 1974 at 92.
"We will never know the truth. It is possible that he managed to simply board a lifeboat and that he made up everything," Bossi said.
"And yet...?" he added.