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.
Built 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.
In 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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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” 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]
The 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.
At 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.
On 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.
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]
A 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.