The annals of polar exploration are filled with tales of canine heroes who earned their fame by blazing trails and tracking through the wilderness. But one of the most beloved polar characters on four paws in the 1920s was a fierce little black-and-white Fox Terrier named Titina, who gained her glory by sitting on her master’s lap.
Titina was the inseparable companion of one of the tragic figures of Arctic exploration, Umberto Nobile, the Italian inventor and airship pilot who flew over the top of the world in the dirigible Norge in 1926. At first revered as an Italian national hero, and then reviled, Nobile would be abandoned by almost all the world, except for his most loyal crew member, a faithful companion who stood only 10 inches high, weighed about 12 pounds and once barked down a polar bear.
Umberto Nobile said Titina found him in 1925 as he walked the streets of Rome preparing for his inaugural trans-polar flight. She was a starving little puppy, wandering lost and alone, only a few months old. The skinny orphan stood on her hind legs, and “with her fore paws beat the air beseechingly” until he patted her on the head. A boy passing by was whistling a popular tune of the time, “La Titina,” and so she became his Titina. The homeless dog had found her home, and wherever Nobile went, she would always follow. “The man lived a life of chance and of daring,” one journalist wrote, “and the dog also.”
Life with Nobile would take Titina literally to the end of the Earth, a notable achievement, especially for a dog who hated to fly. But as much as she disliked flying, she simply hated being separated from her master even more. Nobile claimed he had no intention of taking Titina on board the historic flight across the North Pole in 1926, but Titina would not have it any other way. Titina—“wild with joy” and wearing an Italian sash of green, red and white around her neck—was pressed against Nobile’s chest as thousands cheered their departure from Rome. As the airship headed north, Titina stepped into the annals of polar history.
Nobile was both the designer and chief pilot of the Norge, while the commander of the expedition was the Norwegian adventurer, Roald Amundsen. Amundsen, to put it politely, was furious that Nobile had brought Titina along because the conditions on board the airship were so incredibly crowded.
The crew of 16 men and one dog were crammed into a tiny living compartment about six feet square that hung beneath the giant bag of hydrogen. There was literally no room in the gondola for anyone to sit down (except Titina, who lay flat on a stack of clothes and supplies). Antonio Quattrini, an Italian journalist on board, said the only way he could take notes was to crouch down; however, that proved hazardous because Titina “has taken a ferocious dislike to my notebook. Whenever she sees it in my hands she wants to tear it to bits.” But Quattrini loved the little Terrier nonetheless—calling her an outrageous flirt—and wrote her official biography for the New York Times. In Quattrini’s words, Titina was “a dog marked by destiny, a dog of greatest character.”
As the world followed the Norge’s polar journey, fascination with Titina grew. One dispatch written “in answer to the queries of a great many persons, particularly women” eager to hear news of Nobile’s dog, reported: “Over the Pole she wore clothes—a red woolen jersey—and during the greatest part of the flight she slept, covered by Colonel Nobile’s sleeping bag ….”
The flight of the Norge made aviation history, and Nobile and Titina became international celebrities. She accompanied him on their world tour, greeting and posing with the likes of Mussolini, the royal family of Norway, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, Rudolph Valentino and even the president of the United States. Nobile so loved the little dog that he refused to be photographed unless Titina was with him. He seemingly went nowhere without his pet, including the Metropolitan Opera—where Titina was forced to wait downstairs until the performance was over—and the White House—where Titina peed on the carpet during their meeting with President Calvin Coolidge. (Apparently Titina’s indiscretion loosened up “Silent Cal,” because one attendant said afterward he had never seen the President so “good-humored and chatty.”)
Given the success of the Norge flight, Mussolini made Nobile a general and commanded him to build another airship, the Italia. Instead of promoting fascism as Mussolini intended, however, the Italia would become synonymous with disaster. It crashed in a storm over the frozen wastes of the Arctic in 1928, and half of the crew was killed. Titina and General Nobile, who broke his leg in the crash, were among the survivors.
In the wake of the catastrophe, Nobile’s reputation and character were also shattered. Not only did many blame him personally for the crash, but most importantly, he was charged with abandoning his men; he had allowed himself and Titina to be rescued first, leaving the rest of the survivors behind on the drifting ice pack for weeks. Disgraced and disowned by his native country, he was forced to resign his commission.
By the time Nobile died in 1978 at age 93, he had spent 50 years trying to salvage his tarnished reputation, writing six books trying to explain the Italia disaster. His last, The Red Tent, became a Hollywood film starring Sean Connery, and featured a little Terrier as Titina, the only member of Nobile’s crew who never abandoned him.