The Ship That Died Of Carelessness

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To begin with, her 1,029-foot-long, 118-foot-wide hull was unique. The soaring clipper bow was hollowed out as it plunged toward the waterline to neutralize flanking turbulence; while amidships, at the waterline and below it, she had—there is no other word for it—thighs, a pear-shaped fullness that greatly increased her capacity. The three enormous oval funnels, each large enough to accommodate the Holland Tunnel, diminished in height from front to rear to emphasize the impression of speed and were raked 10 degrees. (The third funnel was a dummy visually balancing the other two and housing the dog kennel and the children’s playroom.) Not for twenty-seven years, not until the new France made her maiden voyage in 1962, would the world see a major ship with lines as spectacularly modern.

Inside, the Normandie was Art Deco fantasy—public rooms rich with murals, tapestry-covered chairs, gilded basreliefs, hammered-glass panels, bronze statues, lacquered metalwork, embroidered silk curtains, rare wood paneling, crystal lighting towers, and marble stairways. The main dining room, the largest room afloat, was 305 feet long, 46 feet wide, and 25 feet high—longer, noted Transat complacently, than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Its incredible length was made possible by the fact that the Normandie’s funnel uptakes, instead of running up through the center of the ship, as was usual, had been divided and routed up her sides. The coffered ceiling of the colossal room was gilded, the walls tiled in molded glass; a dozen crystal fountains, lit from within, provided illumination.

The other public rooms were equally sumptuous: the walls of the Grand Salon were etched-glass murals depicting the history of navigation; a winter garden teemed with tropical plants and exotic caged birds; the boat-deck grill had walls covered in varnished pigskin; and the 380-seat cinema/theater was the first of its kind on any ship.

The Normandie’s 11 decks were served by 23 elevators, each with two operators—one to work the car, one to guide passengers to their destinations. In fact, the ship had a surplus of crew members—1,345 to serve no more than 1,972 passengers (the Queen Mary, by way of comparison, carried as many as 400 more passengers, who were served by 75 fewer crewmen). In the kitchen 76 chefs and more than 100 assistants prepared as many as 4,100 meals every day. At lunch the passengers could enjoy one choice—or several—from 30 hot or cold repasts, ranging from loin of veal to foie gras àla gelée au porto .

Over the years a number of Transat ships had burned. Determined to save the Normandie from such a fate, the owners surrounded everything with asbestos insulation or fireproofed it, installed fire detectors and smoke alarms throughout, and saw that fire patrols were conducted day and night.

The Normandie was Art Deco fantasy—rich with gilded bas-reliefs.

If the Normandie had only been the most modern and most elegant liner afloat, her success would have been assured. But Transat had also seen fit to make her the world’s largest and fastest passenger vessel.

How big was she? Since there are so many ways to measure a ship—and it’s the rare shipping line that’s totally honest—one can always get an argument on this question, especially from Cunard enthusiasts. But by the most common method, the Normandie was measured at 83,423 gross tons, including all refits—although on at least one occasion, Transat claimed that she actually measured 86,496. (Gross tons are a measure of capacity, not weight. One gross ton equals 100 cubic feet of enclosed space.) If you accept the first figure (most authorities do), the Normandie was 2,186 tons larger than the 81,237-ton Queen Mary, but 250 tons smaller than the 83,673-ton Queen Elizabeth. If you accept the second figure, the Normandie was the largest passenger ship ever built, period. (Today’s QE2 , by the way, is 65,873 gross tons, and the France was about 1,000 gross tons larger.) The Normandie’s engines were turbo-electric rather than the conventional geared turbine, and they could drive the vessel at 32 knots. Imagine the Chrysler Building slashing across the Atlantic at nearly 40 miles per hour; the image gives some idea of the Normandie’s size and power.

On May 29, 1935, at 6:30 P.M., the Normandie steamed out of Le Havre, bound for New York on her maiden voyage. Among the passengers were Colette, Pierre Cartier, Jean Lanvin, Mrs. Frank Gould, Mrs. Morgan Belmont—and Vladimir Yourkevitch. A one-way ticket cost $266 first class, $141 tourist, or $91 third.