December 19, 1997 BERLIN --—They called him ``Skirts'' behind his back and he had to build a high fence around his Kensington home to ward off curiosity seekers.
The local legend of William T. Sloper has prompted unabashed giggles and piqued the curiosity of area residents ever since the then-28- year-old survived the sinking of the famous luxury ship, the Titanic, more than 85 years ago.
``Oh god, yes, I remember the story about him,'' said Mildred Leola, a Meriden resident who lives near the Chamberlain Highway house where Sloper eventually settled. ``He was the rich guy who put on a dress so he could get on a lifeboat on the Titanic. ... When I was young I can remember my parents pointing out his house when we drove by. I always wondered if he was embarrassed about the whole thing.''
Sloper insisted he never disguised himself as a woman, but was rather a victim of an aggravated reporter trying to get a ``scoop.''
In his account, included as a chapter in the book he wrote in 1949 about his prominent father, Sloper contended the fabricated story appeared on the front page of the former Hearst-owned newspaper, The New York Journal, after he refused to talk to the throngs of New York reporters who were trying to get comments from survivors of the April 14, 1912, tragedy.
Sloper wrote that he wanted Connecticut newspapers, including the former Hartford Times and New Britain Herald, to get his story first.
He paid dearly for his loyalty to the local press.
A few days after forcibly having the unwelcome reporters removed from his room at the Waldorf-Astoria, Sloper was shocked to see this sentence in the Journal:
``William T. Sloper, son of a prominent Connecticut banker, was rescued from the Titanic disguised in a woman's nightgown.''
Because the Titanic did not have enough lifeboats for all those aboard, women and children were given preference. Most of the adult male passengers on the ship died, prompting a flurry of reports and rumors about those who survived.
Sloper, however, maintained that shortly after the ship struck an iceberg, many of the lifeboats were only half-filled and the crew was encouraging anyone to board them. Initially, there was little panic, according to Sloper's account, but his frantic female companions, including actress Dorothy Gibson, insisted that he and another male friend accompany them on the half-filled lifeboat. They climbed on with the blessing of the crew, he wrote.
Despite his account, which has been corroborated by historians, Sloper was never quite able to convince the public at-large that he was neither a coward nor the opportunist the Journal had suggested.
``Repercussions from that paragraph ... had to my knowledge several unexpected or tragic aftermaths,'' Sloper wrote in the book about his father, titled ``The Life and Times of Andrew J. Sloper.'' He said he received several anonymous letters calling him all kinds of names for not staying with the sinking ship.
At New Britain's Shuttle Meadow Country Club, then an exclusive enclave for men, he was privately referred to as ``Skirts.'' He was so annoyed by curiosity seekers who gawked at his Kensington home that he had a 10-foot-high stockade- style fence erected around the property, at Chamberlain Highway and Blue Ridge Lane.
Sloper died in 1955.
Robert and Marge Stewart, who own his former home, still surrounded by the high fence, say that while the tale is intriguing, there doesn't seem to be much substance to it.
``I've researched every historical reference I could find and there is no mention of him dressing up like a woman,'' said Robert Stewart, who is considering a ``Titanic'' party to celebrate the movie and the former owner of the infamous house.
For other residents who knew Sloper or knew of him, it's a silly bit of gossip that suggests that everyone should mind their own business.
``He didn't bother me. I took care of his dogs and cats and horses,'' said John ``Doc'' McIntosh, a 93- year-old retired, local veterinarian who now serves on the Berlin Town Council. ``His family was very congenial and nice, members of the upper crust, and as far as I'm concerned, I really don't care much about their dirt.''