“when Does This Place Get To New York?”

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The first commercial transatlantic flight still lay three years in the future when the Queen Mary began her maiden voyage in May, 1936, but Sir Percy Bates, chairman of the Cunard Line, made the sailing the occasion for an extraordinary forecast. “The crux of the matter,” he said, “will lie whether, twenty-five years from now, it would be the universal desire to travel like rockets at supersonic speeds in a closed metal container, probably without windows, or whether many would still prefer a more leisurely progression.”

Sir Percy’s vision was correct even to the Concorde’s postcard-sized windows. Fate timed the Queen Mary’s lifespan well. She arrived when the going was good and she quit when she was ahead. Of all the liners that sailed the North Atlantic in the twentieth century, the Mary was the greatest. The ship was not as big as the Queen Elizabeth or as fast as the United States , or as elegant as the Normandie . She lacked the magic of the Mauretania . But the Mary was timed for grandeur; she was not only one of the last expressions of the golden age of ocean travel, but also a gallant and hardworking American ally during World War II. It could be argued that she did more for America at war than any other foreigner since Lafayette.

The keel of the Mary was laid on the Clyde in Scotland in 1930, but the Depression stopped the work almost immediately. For two years her unfinished frame stood, skeletal, rusting, and abandoned at Clydebank. Funds ultimately were found for completing her, and on September 26, 1934, in a freezing rainstorm, she was christened by Queen Mary with a bottle of Australian wine.

Ships’ names traditionally are kept secret until the launching, and the myth of the Mary ’s name is more amusing than the reality. Cunard ships usually had ended in “ia,” and legend has it that Cunard intended to name the ship Queen Victoria . While grouse shooting with King George V, Lord Royden, a Cunard director, asked permission to name the ship “after the most illustrious and remarkable woman who has ever been Queen of England.” The King replied, “That is the greatest compliment ever made to me and my wife. I shall ask her permission when I get home.”

The facts are mundane. Cunard had merged with the White Star Line, which ended the names of its ships in “ic” (as in Titanic ), and the two lines had agreed to break with their traditional name-endings.

In 1936 the Mary was ready for her maiden voyage, during which it was hoped she would win the coveted Blue Riband for the fastest ocean crossing; it was then held by the French Normandie . She was a superb sight, just over 81,000 tons, black with white superstructure and three funnels in red and black. She was the first thousand-foot ship, beating the Aquitania by ninety-nine feet. The world had been combed for materials and ideas for decor. The marble and furniture were modeled on those at Versailles and Chantilly, the balustrading was copied from Fontainebleau, some of the doorways from Pisa Cathedral, the friezes from those on the Roman theater at Aries. The world’s rarest woods were gathered, fifty-six varieties in all, including the silken avodire from West Africa, yellow angelón from South America, padouk from Burma, Brazilian peroba, and Ceylonese satinwood. The swimming pool was two decks deep, with slide, slip-proof tiles, and luminous ceilings of synthetic mother-of-pearl. The ship even had a Scroll Room for Jewish worship, believed the first synagogue aboard a liner. The world press offered analogies of the grandest absurdity. Her power was equal to the strength of 7,000,000 galley-slaves pulling together. Her weight was 22,000 tons more than that of the entire Spanish Armada, and so on. In the United States she made the cover of Life magazine. The interior received a poorer press. Critics spoke of “engraved Dianas with streaming hair and big-eyed unicorns racing across mirrors” and “strip-lit Winter Gardens with rubber plants.” Others made comparisons with “Leicester Square cinema palaces” and Radio City Music Hall.

 

On May 26, 1936, five special trains carried 1,849 passengers from Waterloo Station to Southampton. Among those on board was Frances Day, who was to London musicals what, a decade or so later, Ethel Merman would be to Broadway. Miss Day brought her own hens because she doubted the ship’s eggs would remain fresh over four days (they did). Henry Hall, one of Britain’s most popular bandleaders led the orchestra, and twenty-two-year-old Larry Adler played the harmonica. At Cherbourg, the first stop . before the crossing to New York, a champagne firm sent aboard three bottles for every passenger, which took almost the entire voyage to deliver.