Seventy-five years after she lay burning and capsized in the New York harbour, the French SS Normandie still holds the record as the most powerful steam turbo-electric-propelled passenger ship ever built. She is considered one of the greatest of ocean liners in history, a floating palace of Art Deco majesty so dazzling, they nicknamed her the “Ship of Light” similar to Paris as the ‘”City of Light”. The gilded first class dining hall was longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and guests included Ernest Hemingway, Colette, Fred Astaire, Walt Disney and even the von Trapp family singers, who all sailed aboard the Normandie during her career of 139 westbound transatlantic crossings from Le Havre, France to New York City. She was, for a brief time, Queen of the seven seas, before war, negligence and possibly sabotage, sealed her fate.
The Normandie was the fastest transatlantic ship during her career, in direct rivalry with the British RMS Queen Mary. She was a product of the roaring twenties when the U.S had closed its door on most immigration and steamship companies no longer found themselves catering to huge numbers of steerage-class European immigrants, but instead, to upper-class American tourists, particularly those wishing to escape the Prohibition for alcohol-fueled holidays in Europe.
In 1935, three years after the stock market crash (and considerable subsidy from the French government)– the SS Normandie was sensationally launched in front of 200,000 spectators. There was no question that the Normandie was designed predominantly with first-class passengers in mind. Most of the public space, filled with grand perspectives, over-the-top entryways and grand staircases, was devoted to the highest paying customer…
Facilities included lavish dining rooms, lounges, swimming pool, a luxury department store, theatre, nightclub, chapel, beauty parlour, and even a winter garden.
Passengers entered the dining room through 20-foot-tall doors adorned with bronze medallions and sauntered past its 12 pillars of Lalique glass flanked by matching columns along the walls. The café grill turned into a nightclub and the smoking room next door was paneled with ominous Egyptian murals.
Each first-class suites was decorated by a different designers and the most luxurious accommodations featured dining rooms, baby grand pianos, multiple bedrooms, and private decks.
But Normandie’s excessive luxury was also perhaps its greatest flaw as a profitable ocean liner. While the ship’s income covered her operating expenses almost exactly, throughout her career, the Normandie often carried less than half of its potential passenger capacity.
The problem was, there weren’t enough passengers willing to pay that first class fair. With less space and consideration given to second and tourist class, Normandie‘s luxurious if not slightly intimidating art deco interiors ended up being a deterrent to most travellers. She was regarded of as a ship for the rich and famous only, an unattainable dream voyage. Meanwhile her rival, the Queen Mary had placed just as much emphasis on decor, space, and accommodation in second and tourist class as in first class– and making a profit.
Before the French Line behind the Normandie had a chance to re-think their marketing plan, the war had other plans for her. With Hitler’s invasion of Europe looming, the Normandie made its way to New York, seeking haven on the Hudson River. Although America was not yet involved in the war, when France declared war on Germany in 1939, American authorities immediately put Coast Guard troops on board the Normandie and interned her in accordance with international maritime law.
French crew remained aboard but for three years, she remained motionless at pier 88, guarded by the Coast Guard.
In 1942, France had been invaded by Hitler and was technically now a German ally under the Vichy government. Within days of the Pearl Harbour attack and America’s entry into the war, the French crew were removed from Normandie and the was ship seized. To defend it against possible sabotage and under the American right “to seize and apply for the purposes of war any kind of property on belligerent territory, including that which may belong to subjects or citizens of a neutral state”, President Roosevelt officially approved the transfer of the SS Normandie to the US Navy.
The ship would be renamed the USS Lafayette, in honor of the French General who had helped make U.S. independence possible during the revolution, and converted into a troopship. The sheer size of the ship saw much of neglected and unmonitored, including the Normandie’s elaborate state of the art fire-watch system which ensured that any fire would be suppressed before it became a danger.
On the afternoon of 9 February 1942, sparks from a welding torch set fire to stack of flammable life vests being stored in the first-class lounge. None of the former floating resort’s woodwork had been removed yet, and the flames were able to spread quickly and a strong wind saw them engulf the upper decks of the ship in less than an hour. The Normandie had been built with an efficient fire protection system, but since its French crew had been removed, it had been disconnected and its internal pumping system deactivated.
As the New York City fire department tried in vein to control the fire, the ship’s designer arrived at the scene, offering his help, suggesting to enter the vessel, open the sea-cocks and flood the lower decks so she could stabilise at the waterbed and avoid the risk of capsize. He was barred from the scene by police, his suggestion rejected by the Naval commander, and sure enough the Lafayette eventually capsized, nearly crushing a fire boat in the process.
In what might have been an attempt to divert blame and embarrassment on the Navy’s part, all kinds of accusations of enemy sabotage were flying around. It was even suggested that the maffia were responsible for the alleged arson that nearly engulfed the ports of New York, where the mob had strong influence with the unions.
A congressional investigation later concluded that the fire was indeed completely accidental due to a careless and poorly-planned conversion effort; aka. a testament to human stupidity.
Although salvaged at great expense, restoration was deemed too costly and she was sold as scrap in 1946, for US $161,680 (approx. $1,997,000 in 2017 value). Needless to say, that money did not go to the French company that built it on borrowed money from the French government.
Many Art Deco treasures recovered from the Normandie were later sold at auctions. One entire corner of the first-class dining room is preserved at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and its doorsare now on the exterior doors of a Brooklyn cathedral (Our Lady of Lebanon Maronit).
More than a decade after the ship’s capsize, one of the 8 foot bronze sculptures from the grand stairway from the first class smoking room was found in a scrapyard in New Jersey. It was later installed in the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach and now sits on a cruise ship called the Celebrity Summit.
The true splendour of the most elegant ocean liner ever built might be lost to us forever, but the Museum of the New York keeps a very substantial archive of photographs from the SS Normandie. If you Art Deco gorgeousness is your thing, I’d suggest a leisurely browse through the extensive collection.