When many picture an ocean liner, they see towering black-topped funnels, a sharp prow and a long dead age of gilded transcendent beauty. Carrying the rich and poor across the oceans of the world to new horizons, the great ocean liners of yesteryear are long gone. Still, their legacy remains. There are some true icons of this age that inspired popular culture more than we may ever know.
SS Normandie is, to quote author John Maxtone-Graham, "The ocean liner," and I wouldn't dare argue that fact. Her ethereal extravagance helped popularize everything Art Deco. With her dramatic clipper bow protruding like a well-trained nose in search of a venerable vintage, she sliced through the Atlantic Ocean for years, ferrying the crème de la crème of society in unparalleled luxury. Some would-be travellers were actually intimidated by the lush, nearly-suffocating interiors of the French giant and booked passage on more "welcoming" ships such as the RMS Queen Mary.
The stunning design of Normandie was unrivalled in every way - so much so that any imagery shown here is deserving of respective spacing and breathing room. No other liner of the period came close whatsoever (other than the Ile De France, the French Line's vessel launched before Normandie). Everything from her crystal glassware to her monolithic grand dining saloon was spotless, awe-inspiring and likely evoked a "don't touch" sort of feeling among passengers. Her overall design became the symbolic "look" of passenger liners afterwards, even playing a role in the design and planning of modern vessels such as the RMS Queen Mary 2. Then, of course, there's the poster; the one which inspired generations and got me firmly hooked on ocean liners.
Yes, that poster, by advertising genius Cassandre. Its allure has stretched even into modern times, being featured in everything from Van Halen album covers to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. In a way, Normandie herself is timeless. However, she's been physically absent for years now. Entering service in 1935, she only made 139 crossings, during which she competed with the RMS Queen Mary for the title of the fastest liner in service. On 3 September 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland, the U.S government interned Normandie in New York where she sat mothballed until 1941. It was then decided to convert the massive vessel into a troopship, and her fine fittings were stripped down. Unfortunately, the conversion was hastily done due to the need of a troop transport, and Normandie, now renamed USS Layfayette, would suffer from the decisions made. During a cutting job in the first class lounge, a careless welder's flame found its way to a pile of life vests bundled with kapok and tar paper. Everything burned, and the ship's exquisite woodwork hadn't yet been removed. Within an hour, the fire roared through the top three decks of the ship's superstructure. Vladimir Yourkevitch, her designer, arrived at the docks but wasn't permitted entry. He pleaded with Rear Admiral Aldolphus Andrews to let him on board.
"I can find the seacocks blindfolded. The ship will sink three feet and be perfectly level. She will not capsize."
Andrews raised an egotistical hand.
"This is a Navy job."
And so she was utterly destroyed with those words, water from hoses pooling on her upper decks. She rolled onto her side like a wounded whale and was stuck for months in the mud and ice along the docks. She was eventually raised, but it came at the cost of her entire upper superstructure and funnels; she was shaved right down to the breakwater on her bow. Plans were drafted to convert her into an aircraft carrier but never materialized. Thus, the ship was towed out for scrap, her sleek clipper bow now shaving the faces of soldiers rather than the Atlantic waves. Very little of Normandie exists today other than a few paltry pieces of furniture (the larger pieces usually sell for tens of thousands of dollars). Her dining saloon doors are installed at Our Lady of Lebanon Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn Heights, New York, and a large statue currently resides onboard the cruise liner Celebrity Summit. It is but a mere sliver of what she once was, but better than nothing.
As enraged as I will remain over Andrews' decision, being bitter won't bring her back. Still, I remember reading about how the public reacted. It was like the loss of a superstar to many. People came down to the docks to see the once-proud vessel and cried, bewildered. The world was utterly shocked. In retrospective, the Normandie was something we as humanity truly didn't deserve. We're a foolish, selfish and simple-minded race, really. The ruins of Palmyra, the rainforests of the world, and the ice caps all share this sad position in our existences.
Still, perhaps if we wake up, we can hold on to nice things. We just have to learn to respect them.
Photo Credit, World Ship Society, Wikimedia Commons