The Sway Of The Grand Saloon

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“THIS IS NOT A CANOE”

Der Doppelschrauben Schnelldampfer Kronprinzessin Cecilie , loaded with about eleven million dollars’ worth of gold and silver bullion and more than one thousand passengers, was halfway from New York to Plymouth, en route to Bremerhaven. On the night of July 31, 1914, the man on duty in the little shack on deck that housed the wireless was subjected to an intense crackling on his ear set. “Urgent and Confidential … Urgent and Confidential,” followed by a message addressed to the ship’s captain: “Erhard has suffered attack of catarrh of the bladder. Siegfried.” The Marconi man at once took this message to the bridge. Captain Polack—“our precious Polack” to many Americans who had known him since the days, twenty years before, when he was second officer on another German liner, the Spree —recognized it as instructions in code, a code he had earlier been supplied with the means to decipher.

The burden of the message was twofold: war was about to be declared between the Central and Allied powers; the captain was to take every precaution to prevent the capture of his ship—Germany’s most famous liner—by the British. He ordered the course of the Kronprinzessin Cecilie to be reversed, then grandly descended to the grand saloon that was ornamented with paintings representing “ideal” landscapes—motifs from the gardens of the Italian Renaissance palaces of Lante, Farnese, Palmieri, Gorgoni, Albani, Doria, Borghese, and d’Este, and from the Vatican gardens. He silenced an orchestra playing for an after-dinner dance and summoned a few socially prominent individuals among the passengers to join him in that “acme of cosiness,” the Rauchzimmer (“smoking room”). There, as the player piano waited for someone to pump out “The Whistler and His Dog” or “The Skater’s Waltz,” the chosen few lit cigars beneath busts of Apollo and Minerva. “Gentlemen,” the captain said, “it is my duty to inform you that I have orders from the Imperial German Government to take this ship to a neutral port in the United States.”

In no time at all the word had spread to the Vienna Café (where a single à la carte meal cost just about as much as a steerage passage ticket for the whole crossing), to the wind shelters on deck—“an ingenious invention of Director von Helmholt, of Bremen, which has been patented in all civilized states”—to the Imperial suites with their dining and drawing rooms, to the nether regions of the ship where hearty German-Americans played cards in the dim light of barren lounges or slept off big dinners in their iron bunks. In spite of general consternation and disbelief, anyone with an eye to see could tell that the backtracking of the great liner was already a fait accompli : the moon that had lately shone on the starboard was now coldly eyeing the port.

Captain Polack, assuring his passengers that their ship had ample fuel and food to bring them safely into port, asked them “to keep their heads.” Most passengers accepted the circumstance, since there was nothing else to be done anyway. But for men of affairs dismay was unrelieved and desperate. Among the first-class passengers were American executives on financial missions, United States senators en route to an international conference, a large shooting party on the way to Scotland for the grouse. The most affluent of these got together and made up a purse. Then, ready to plunk their cash on the barrelhead, they went to Captain Polack. If he would replace the German imperial standard with the American flag, they said—and thus proceed in safety right under the bowsprits of the British Royal Navy—they would pay five million dollars for the ship and throw in a hefty bonus for the captain himself. The captain refused to be rescued by these Yankee plutocrats. He thanked them, had his ship’s name blacked out, ordered black bands to be painted around the tops of her four yellowish funnels, and proceeded to carry out the instructions he had received from Berlin. His notion was to make his ship look, at least at a distance, like the four-funnelled Olympic , the British White Star liner.