(As always a click on a photo will enlarge the image so you can get a closer look at the details!)
An SS Normandie promotional poster, 1935 © MCNY
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…
One of the salons aboard of the SS Normandie © MCNY
Facilities included lavish dining rooms, lounges, swimming pool, a luxury department store, theatre, nightclub, chapel, beauty parlour, and even a winter garden.
First class swimming pool © MCNY
Cinema and theatre © MCNY
Chapel © MCNY
Le Bon Marché luxury department store aboard the Normandie © MCNY
Dog Kennel © MCNY
Salle de sport © MCNY
Wine cellar © MCNY
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.
First class suite © MCNY
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.
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.
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.
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 Art Deco gorgeousness is your thing, I’d suggest a leisurely browse through the extensive collection.
Heave a little nostalgic sigh ... and then go make something beautiful!
(¸.•´♥ Tristan ♥
(¸.•´♥ Tristan ♥
A sampling of the photo/memory albums I've been working on this summer, getting ready for the holidays! I know it's only September, but a boy has to think ahead!