Cruise Ship History: The French Line’s SS NORMANDIE. The greatest liner ever to sail “across the pond”! Will the SS United States and QE 2 face a similar demise?

Visit the SS Normandie website celebrating the extraordinary museum honoring the great liner created by John “Crash” Miottel by clicking here for information on this great ship.

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SS Normandie arriving in New York on her maiden voyage.

The French Line’s Normandie is one of the relatively few legitimate contenders for the title “Greatest Liner Ever”. She was a ship of superlatives: the largest ship in the world for five years, more than 20,000 tons larger than White Star’s Majestic; the first liner to exceed 1000 feet in length; the first liner to exceed 60,000 tons (and 70,000 and 80,000, for that matter); the largest turbo-electric powered liner; and the first to make a 30 knot eastbound Atlantic crossing. All told, Normandie earned the Blue Riband for five record-breaking crossings; twice westbound and three times eastbound, including both legs of her maiden voyage. And yet, all these technical qualities are only part of Normandie’s greatness; her design and decor were equally innovative, distinctive and luxurious. All of these factors contributed to her being described as “the ultimate ocean liner—definitely of the 1930s and possibly of the century”. (Braynard and Miller’s Fifty Famous Liners.) And, in the end, her demise was as ignominious as she herself was glorious.

moittelcollectionmuseum001.jpgBuilt by Chantiers et Ateliers de St. Nazaire and launched in 1932, Normandie made her maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York on 29 May 1935, setting speed records both westbound and eastbound. She was overhauled during the winter of 1935-36 to correct significant vibration problems which were evident from the time of her maiden voyage. (In the process, her gross tonnage was increased from 79,280 to 83,423. This permitted her to remain the largest liner even after Cunard White Star’s Queen Mary, 81,235 tons, entered service in May 1936.)

Normandie’s career as a passenger liner was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. At the end of her 139th Atlantic crossing, she arrived in New York on 28 August 1939, and would never sail again. Mothballed at Pier 88, she was taken into custody by the U.S. Coast Guard when France was occupied in June 1940, and less than a week after Pearl Harbor she was taken over by the U.S. Maritime Commission and was renamed U.S.S. Lafayette.

news1_1normandie.jpgIn January 1942 the U.S. War Department took her over and by 9 February her conversion into a troopship was nearly completed. But on that date, while she was being loaded with supplies, a spark from a welder’s torch ignited a bale of lifejackets. The fire spread rapidly, and a series of mistakes by the ship’s crew and firefighters led to the ship’s turning on her port side and sinking at her berth. The stern slipped under Pier 88, while the bow moved close to the adjacent Pier 90. Refloated in September 1943, she was then towed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Plans to convert her into an aircraft carrier were abandoned as too costly, and she remained in Brooklyn for the balance of the war. Unwanted and unusable, she was scrapped in Newark, NJ, in 1946-47, the last pieces of steel being removed by rail on 6 October 1947.

Another wonderful video from Aaron1912 celebrating the SS Normandie.ss_normandie_revisedfirstclass_a_manger.jpg

The First Class dining salon.

Her novel design features and lavish interiors have led many to consider her the greatest of all ocean liners.  The SS Normandie was far more impressive than the Cunard Liners RMS Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.  Passengers flocked to it and the great liner attracted the celebrities of the day.

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Charles Boyer, well-known film star, pictured with his wife, the former Pat Patterson, also well-known for her film work, on the S. S. Normandie, when they sailed for Europe today, 

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6/3/1935-New York, NY- A scene on the SS Normandie, largest and speediest trans-Atlantic passenger ship, as Mrs. Albert Le Brun, wife of President Le Brun of France, was welcomed to NY by Mrs. Fiorello H. La Guardia, wife of the Mayor of New York City. The picture was made shortly after the Normandie had dropped anchor in quarantine, upper New York Bay, at the end of the fastest ship crossing of the ocean. In foreground is key to NYC.

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Marlene Dietrich and Carry Grant, two of Hollywood’s brightest stars, are pictured posing amid the posifs in the garden of the S.S. Normandie as they arrived from Europe today, just in time for Thanksgiving Dinner.

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6/3/1935-New York, NY- The first Lady of France, Madame Albert Le Brun, wife of the French president, is shown broadcasting from the first ship of the land, the new trans-Atlantic champion, SS Normandie. French notables are looking on. The ceremony took place during the maiden crossing of the World’s largest vessel.

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Famous author P. G. Wodehouse, his wife Ethel. and a brace of Pekes aboard the S.S.Normandie in 1936 – arriving in America for a second crack at Hollywood.

The SS Normandie abandoned the rather severe decor of the Cunard Ships and incorporated the glamor of inventive Art Decor design.

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Major Edward Knight, publicity director of the French Line, is shown welcoming George Raft, polished movie actor, aboard the S.S. Normandie just before he sailed on vacation to Europe. The screen, stage, radio, sports, business, diplomacy, and government were all represented in the record crowd of passengers that headed East on the world’s largest liner.

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Sailed On Normandie. Ruth Draper, actress, pictured aboard the S. S. Normandie, sailing from New York City, November 24th. She will vacation abroad.

The SS Normandie was impressive, brilliant and lasting.  Many famous celebrities sailed aboard the great linr.  She was a true definition of chic afloat.

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Many of the models dedicated to the great ship. 

Despite this, she was not a commercial success, and relied partly on government subsidy to operate. During her service career as the flagship of the CGT, she made 139 transatlantic crossings westbound from her home port of Le Havre to New York (but only 138 eastbound).

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Normandie Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico… one of the many architectual tributes to the greatest liner of them all.
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A tragic view of the great liner in New York  following the “fire” or sabotage!

Who was to blame for how this great liner ended her life?

History of the Normandie…

SS Normandie…

normandiebe067390.jpgSS “Normandie” was a French ocean liner built in Saint-Nazaire France for Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. When launched in 1932 she was the largest and fastest ship in the world, and she maintains the distinction of being the most powerful steam turbo-electric propelled passenger ship ever built.Ardman, Harvey. “Normandie, Her Life and Times,” New York, Franklin Watts, 1985] Her novel design features and lavish interiors have led many to consider her the greatest of all ocean liners.”Floating Palaces.” (1996) A&E. TV Documentary. Narrated by Fritz Weaver] Despite this, she was not a commercial success, and relied partly on government subsidy to operate. During her service career as the flagship of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT, or French Line), she regularly sailed transatlantic crossings between her home port of Le Havre and the port of New York.

In 1942, while being converted to a troopship during World War II, “Normandie” caught fire, capsized, and sank at the New York Passenger Ship Terminal. Although she was salvaged at great expense, restoration was deemed too costly, and she was scrapped in October 1946.Maxtone-Graham, John. “The Only Way to Cross”. New York: Collier Books, 1972, p. 391]
Origin

normandiecrew1.jpgThe beginnings of “Normandie” can be traced to the Roaring Twenties when shipping companies started to look for new ships to replace the aging veterans, such as the RMS|Mauretania|1906|6 which had first sailed in 1907. Those earlier ships had been designed around the huge numbers of steerage-class immigrants coming from Europe to the United States; when the U.S. closed the door on most immigration in the early 1920s, steamship companies ordered vessels built to serve middle-class tourists instead, particularly Americans who travelled to Europe for alcohol-fueled fun during Prohibition. Companies like Cunard and White Star Line planned to build their own super-linersMaxtone-Graham 1972, p. 268-69] to rival the newer ships on the scene. These new ships included the record-breaking SS|Bremen|1929|2 and SS|Europa|1930|2, both German ships. The French Line was not to be left out of this new race and soon began to plan their own supership.

normandienyc001.jpgAt the time, the French Line’s flagship was the SS|Ile de France|3=2, which had modern Art Deco interiors but a relatively conservative hull design. The designers intended to construct their new ship similar to French Line ships of the past, but then they were approached by Vladimir Yourkevitch, a former ship architect for the Imperial Russian Navy before the revolution who had emigrated to France. His ideas included a slanting clipper-like bow and a bulbous forefoot beneath the waterline in combination with a slim hull, a design which worked wonderfully in his scale model.Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 273] Model tests supported his design’s performance advantages. The French engineers were so impressed that they asked Yourkevitch to join their project. Reportedly, Yourkevitch also approached the Cunard Line with his ideas, but was rejected on the grounds that the new bow shape was too radical.

Construction and launch

Work began on the ship (not yet named “Normandie”) in January 1931, soon after the terrifying stock market crash of 1929. While the French continued construction, the competing White Star Line’s ship (intended as “Oceanic”) – started before the crash – had to be cancelled and the Cunard ship was put on hold, both because their financing, organized before the crash, ran into trouble. Soon, the French builders also ran into difficulty, and had to ask their government for money to continue construction, a subsidy that was questioned in the press. Still, the building was followed heavily by newspapers and national interest was deep. [Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 269-272] Though she was designed to represent France in the nation-state contest of the great liners, and though she was built in a French shipyard and, using French-built major parts including the 29 boilers, the turbines, generators and even the 4 massive engines (designed by Alsthom, which later worked on the RMS|Queen Mary 2|3=2), a few secondary parts of her came from other European countries – e.g., the ship’s great rudder was built by Skoda Works in Czechoslovakia,Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 275] while the steering mechanism, including the teak wheel, came from Edinburgh.

” which is not grammatically correct); but English speakers usually refer to ships as feminine (“she’s a beauty”), and the French Line carried many rich American customers. After discussion, French Line officials wrote that their ship was to be called simply “Normandie,” preceded by no “le” or “la” (French masculine/feminine for “the”) to avoid any confusion.

normandiewire1-1-copy.jpgOn October 29, 1932 – three years to the day after the stock market crash – “Normandie” was launched in front of 200,000 spectators. The 27,567 ton hull that slid into the Loire River was the largest ever launched and it caused a large wave that crashed into a few hundred people, but with no injury. “Normandie” was outfitted until early 1935, meaning all her interior, funnels, engines, etc. were put in to make her into a working vessel. Finally, in April 1935, “Normandie” was ready for her trials, which were watched by reporters. The superiority of Vladimir Yourkevitch’s hull design was immediately visible: hardly a wave was created. The ship demonstrated impressive performance during these trials, reaching a top speed of convert|32.2|kn|km/h and performing an emergency stop from that speed in only 1,700 meters.

One of the most famous posters of “Normandie” was made by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre who was a Russian emigrant to France, like Yourkevitch himself.

Interior

salonnormandie001.jpgIndeed, the interior was quite dazzling but perhaps the most dazzling was the first class dining room.

Three hundred and five feet long, convert|46|ft|m wide and convert|28|ft|m high, this was by far the largest room afloat. Passengers entered the dining room through convert|20|ft|m|sing=on tall doors adorned with bronze medallions by the artist Raymond Subes. The ten medallions featured French castles, cathedrals, and the French ocean liner SS “Ile de France”. The medallions and dining room door elements survive today as part of the Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church. in Brooklyn Heights, at the corner of Remsen and Henry, having been sold at auction in 1945.

This first class dining room could seat 700 diners at a time with 150 tables, serving them with some of the best meals in the world. This ship was a floating promotion of the most sophisticated French cuisine of the period. However due to the design of the ship, no natural lighting could get in. The designers illuminated the room with twelve tall pillars of Lalique glass and along the walls stood 38 columns equally bright. In addition, two chandeliers hung at each end of the room. From this gorgeous display of lights came the nickname “Ship of Light”Maddocks, Melvin “The Great Liners”. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1978.] (similar to Paris as the ‘”City of Light”). The French Line marketed the dining room as longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 276]

u307775acmenormandie.jpgA popular feature was a cafe which led to the grand salon, one of the most popular rooms on board which would be transformed into a nightclub during voyages. In addition, “Normandie” boasted both an indoor and outdoor pool (the second ship to have one, after the Italian liner SS|Rex|3=2), a chapel and a theatre which could function as both a stage and cinema.

The interiors were filled with long perspectives and spectacular entryways such as long, wide staircases in order to give a suitable frame to the many upper middle-class ladies who saw an Atlantic crossing as a way to show off their clothes and jewels, and sometimes their husbands.

First-class suites on “Normandie” were given unique individual designs by a team of renowned designers. The most luxurious accommodations on the ship were the Deauville and Trouville apartments, [Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 279] which came with their own dining rooms, baby grand pianos, multiple bedrooms, and private deck. A disproportionate amount of public space was devoted to the first-class passengers, including the dining room, first-class lounge, grille room, first class swimming pool, theatre, winter garden, and other amenities. The first class swimming pool featured staggered depths, and a training ‘beach’ with very little depth for children.

In addition to a novel hull shape which made it possible for her to attain her great speed at lesser power expenditure than that of the other big liners, “Normandie” was filled with technical feats. She had turbo-electric engines which improved fuel efficiency and made control and maintenance much easier. The machinery of the top deck and forecastle, normally an eyesore or an annoyance for passengers on the other liners, had been integrated within the ship, concealing it completely and releasing nearly all of the exposed deck space for the passengers’ use. [Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 273-75] An early form of radar was installed to detect icebergs and other ships. The voluminous nature of her public rooms, particularly in first class, were made possible by having the funnel intakes split and pass along the sides of the ship, rather than straight upward, to allow room for lounges and other features to have an uninterrupted space.


Career

After more fitting out and final touches, the maiden voyage came on May 29, 1935. Fifty thousand people came to Le Havre to see the large ship off, on what was hoped would be a record-breaking crossing. And indeed it was. “Normandie” reached New York after just four days, three hours and fourteen minutes, thus snatching away the Blue Riband from the Italian liner SS|Rex|3=2.Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 284] This prize was a source of great pride for the French. They had watched other countries gain this prestigious award year after year but had never had it themselves, until “Normandie”. Under the leadership of her master, Captain Rene Pugnet, her average speed on the maiden voyage was around convert|30|kn|km/h and on the eastbound crossing to France she averaged over convert|30|kn|km/h, shattering records on the way.

At the time of her maiden voyage, the French Line publicly refused to predict that their new flagship would win the Blue Riband. However, by the time the ship reached New York, commemorative medallions of the Blue Riband victory, made in France, were delivered to the passengers, and the ship was flying a convert|30|ft|m|sing=on long blue pennant.

With the Blue Riband hers, “Normandie” had a successful year but come 1936 a new ship was on the scene. The RMS|Queen Mary, Cunard’s superliner, entered service in the summer of 1936. They had announced the “Queen Mary” would surpass 80,000 tons. At 79,280 gross tons, “Normandie” would in that case lose the prestigious title of being the world’s largest liner to her British rival. Therefore, the French Line decided to increase “Normandie”’s size, mainly through the addition of an enclosed tourist lounge on the aft boat deck. Following these and a few other alterations, “Normandie” was re-measured at 83,423 gross tons. Exceeding the “Queen Mary” by some 2,000 tons, she would remain the world’s largest in terms of overall measured gross tonnage. However in August of that year, the “Queen Mary” captured the Blue Riband from “Normandie” averaging convert|30.14|kn|km/h, thus starting a fierce rivalry.

During her refit, “Normandie” was also modified to address problems of vibration. Her triple-bladed screws were replaced with quadruple-bladed ones, and structural modifications were made to her lower aft section to reduce the occurrence of vibration. These modifications successfully reduced the problem of vibration at speed. [Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 286-87]

In July 1937 “Normandie” regained the Blue Riband once more, but the “Queen Mary” took it back the next year. After this the captain of “Normandie” sent a message to the British liner saying “Bravo to the “Queen Mary” until next time!” This rivalry could have gone on into the 1940s but was unfortunately put to a halt due to World War II, ensuring that there would be no ‘next time’.

In her short lived but prosperous life, “Normandie” was able to carry a number of distinguished passengers, including the French author Colette, the wife of French President Albert Lebrun, and film stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. “Normandie” also carried the von Trapp family Singers (the real family that “The Sound of Music” was based upon) from New York to Southampton in 1938, and from Southampton, the family proceeded to Scandinavia for a tour before eventually returning to America.

During her career, the French Line considered building a sister ship, named the SS “Bretagne”, which was to be longer and larger than “Normandie”, but the outbreak of war and finances prevented this from occurring.

Demise

The outbreak of war found “Normandie” in New York Harbor. Soon the “Queen Mary” docked near “Normandie”. She would later be refitted to become a troop ship. In addition, the newly launched RMS|Queen Elizabeth docked nearby, so for two weeks the three largest liners in the world were docked side by side. [Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 360-61] Soon, the Queens left and “Normandie” was left alone. In 1940, after the Fall of France, the United States seized the ship under the right of angary.

By 1941, the United States Navy decided to convert “Normandie” into a troopship, and renamed her USS|Lafayette|AP-53, in reference to the historical American-French alliance. Earlier proposals included turning the vessel into an aircraft carrier, but this modification was judged to be too extensive and difficult. The ship was moored at Manhattan’s Pier 88 for the conversion. On February 9, 1942, sparks from a welding torch ignited a stack of thousands of life vests filled with kapok, a highly flammable material, that had been stored in the first-class dining room. [Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 367-68 ] The woodwork had not yet been removed, and the fire spread rapidly. The ship had a very efficient fire protection system, but it had been disconnected during the conversion, and the New York City fire department’s hoses did not fit the ship’s French inlets. All on board fled the vessel. As firefighters on shore and in fire boats poured water on the blaze, the ship developed a dangerous list to port due to the greater amount of water being pumped into the seaward side of the vessel by fireboats. About 2:45 a.m. on February 10, “Lafayette” capsized, nearly crushing a fire boat. The ship’s designer Vladimir Yourkevitch had been at the scene, and offered his expertise, but was barred from entering by local harbor police. [Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 373-74] His suggestion was to enter the vessel and open the sea-cocks. This would flood the lower decks of the ship and cause it to settle the few feet to the bottom of the dock. Thus stabilised, water could be pumped into the burning areas without the risk of capsize – however the suggestion was denied by port director Admiral Adolphus Andrews.

The ship was truncated and finally righted in 1943 in the world’s most expensive salvage operation. It was subsequently determined the cost of restoring her was too great. After neither the US Navy nor the French Line offered to do so, Yourkevitch, made a last-ditch proposal to cut the ship down and restore her as a mid-sized passenger liner. [Maxtone-Graham 1972, p. 392] This, too, failed to draw backing, and the hulk of “Normandie” was sold for a mere $161,680 to Lipsett Inc., an American salvage company. She was scrapped on October 1946.

Possible Sabotage

It has been suggested that the fire that destroyed “Normandie” was in fact an act of deliberate sabotage, in order to provide Luciano with a bargaining chip for his release. This has not been conclusively proven. However, similar incidents ceased as soon as the deal with Luciano was struck.

“A Lady Fights Back”

The 1944 documentary short “A Lady Fights Back” tells the story, up to that time, of “Normandie”. It does not mention she capsized or sank, saying only she listed heavily to port and showing many pictures of it in that position. It leaves the story with the ship floating free, though devoid of superstructure, saying it was destined to participate in the war effort and filmmakers were not allowed to show more-current pictures.

The film also makes the claim the Navy used the restoration of “Normandie” as a training exercise and used that training to repair ships damaged in the December 1941 Pearl Harbor raid.

The film is Installment 50 in John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade series, presented by MGM. It is included in the DVD of the 1944 movie “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”.

Influences

The S.S. “Normandie” inspired the architecture and design of the Normandie Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was designed by Félix Benítez, a Puerto Rican engineer, as a tribute to his French wife, Moineau, whom he met aboard the French ocean liner.

At first, the three funnels should have been classic cylindric-shaped, but Marin-Marie, a French designer working on the “Normandie” project, decided to use a modern aerodynamic shape instead. The last funnel was a dummy needed for the ship’s balance and partially used as the dog kennel. The main mast’s location, which was usually in front of the bridge, was changed in order to enhance visibility.

Marin-Marie gave an innovative line to “Normandie”, a silhouette which was since used in multiple following ocean liners including the “Queen Mary 2″.

Memorabilia

Items from “Normandie” were sold at a series of auctions after her demise, and many pieces are considered valuable Art Deco treasures today. Among the rescued items include the 10 large dining room door medallions and fittings, and some of the 2 X 4 foot individual Jean Dupas glass panels that formed the 50 x 20 foot murals mounted at each of the 4 corners of the walls of her Grand Salon. Also surviving to this day are some examples of the 24,000 pieces of crystal – some from the massive Lalique torcheres – that adorned her Dining Salon as well as some of the table silverware, chairs, and pink gold plated bronze table bases – all part of the furniture and fixtures that accommodated 700 passengers at one seating. Custom designed suite and cabin furniture as well as original art-work and statues that decorated the ship, or were built for use by the French Line aboard “Normandie”, also survive today.

The greatest tribute to the SS Normandie is John “Crash” Miottel’s fabulous museum located in Berkeley, California.

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