Sea Stories

French Queen of the Seas

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The French Line’s Normandie is one of few contenders for the title Greatest Liner Ever. She was a ship of superlatives: the largest ship in the world for five years, the first liner to exceed 1,000 feet in length; to exceed 80,000 tons; the largest turbo-electric powered liner; and the first to make a 30 knot Atlantic crossing.

Normandie earned the Blue Riband for five record-breaking crossings, yet all these are only part of Normandie’s greatness. Her design and decor were equally innovative, distinctive and luxurious.

Main Lounge

Normandie made her maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York on 29 May 1935, setting speed records both westbound and eastbound. In 1935, her weight was increased from 79,280 to 83,423. At the end of her 139th Atlantic crossing, she arrived in New York on 28 August 1939 four days from the outbreak of WWII.  Seized by the U.S. Coast Guard she was later renamed U.S.S. Lafayette.

Jinxed or sabotaged by Hitler’s Reich? In January 1942 the U.S. War Department took her over for conversion into a troopship but 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 led to the ship turning on her port side and sinking at her berth.

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. She was a true definition of chic afloat.

The designers of the Normandie intended to construct their new ship similar to French Line ships of the past, but were approached by Vladimir Yourkevitch, a former ship architect for the Imperial Russian Navy who had fled the Bolshevik seizure of Imperial Russia and immigrated 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.

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. She was designed to represent France and built in a French shipyard and, using French-built major parts including the 29 boilers, the turbines, generators and even the 4 massive engines

On October 29, 1932, 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. Finally, in April 1935, Normandie was ready for her trials.

SS Normandie French Line CGT Ocean Liner New York. Painting Art Print

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 32 knots and performed 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 also an escapee from Bolshevik Russia.

Normandie and Queen Mary

The liner’s interior was quite dazzling but perhaps the most dazzling was the first-class dining room. Three hundred and five feet long, 46’ wide and 28’ feet high, this was by far the largest room afloat.

Passengers entered the dining room through 20’ tall doors adorned with bronze medallions by the artist Raymond Subes. 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. In fact, the liner was dubbed The Ship of Light.

A popular feature was a cafe which led to the grand salon, which would be transformed into a nightclub during voyages. Normandie boasted an indoor and outdoor pool, 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.

Normandie in New York, 1942

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, 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.

Normandie was filled with technical feats. She had turbo-electric engines which improved fuel efficiency and made control and maintenance much easier. An early form of radar was installed to detect icebergs and other ships.

The maiden voyage came on May 29, 1935. Fifty thousand people came to Le Havre to see the large ship off. The 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. Exceeding the Queen Mary by some 2,000 tons, she would remain the world’s largest in terms of overall measured gross tonnage.

In her short-lived 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 from New York to Southampton in 1938, and from Southampton, the family proceeded to Scandinavia for a tour before eventually returning to America.

During the inferno that engulfed the great liner, the ship’s designer Vladimir Yourkevitch at the scene offered his expertise but was barred from entering by harbour police. 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. The suggestion was denied by port director Admiral Adolphus Andrews.

Yourkevitch, made a last-ditch proposal to cut the ship down and restore her as a mid-sized passenger liner. 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. Like this story? Share with friends!

Related books: The Leaving of Liverpool, UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Volume I (The USAThe UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Vol II (The USAThe UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. III ( The USA and The UK) UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. IV ( The USA and The UK) and All I Ask is a Tall Ship by Liverpool writer Michael Walsh

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