September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
Though it was the largest ship in the world at the time, little besides size distinguished the Titanic from its sister ship the Olympic . Only after it went down did gigantism morph into myth. Suddenly, it marked the end of the old world, signaled our loss of innocence, replaced certainty with doubt, heralded modernism, and triggered World War I. In reality, the only things it changed were shipping regulations. The ship and its fate have become a blank page on which we write our own fables: in 1912, of upper-class male chivalry and female unfitness for equality; in the overblown 1997 movie, of working-class moral superiority. Meanwhile, a Republican candidate accuses his opponent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic , and a Democratic keynote speaker warns that a continuance of the Reagan-Bush administration is “like the captain of the Titanic calling for more icebergs.” The name has become a tired metaphor. It’s time to let it rest in peace.
If, as Kipling said, the liner was a lady, then, as Ludwig Bemelmans pointed out, the Normandie was a “femme fatale.” There is no mistaking her distinctive silhouette with its three dashingly raked funnels. Her hull marked a radical departure: Divided boiler uptakes allowed for breathtaking interior views from bow to stern through nearly 500 feet of extravagantly decorated public rooms. Her sensuous Art Deco cabins seemed to promise there would be no sharp edges to life aboard.
On her maiden voyage, in 1935, she took the Blue Riband for speed, and the sardine fishermen of Brittany, accustomed to being swamped by wash during liner trials, swore she skimmed the water like a gull. Her passenger list, studded with movie stars and café society, was as racy as her profile.
Her life was brief and dazzling, her death violent. On February 9, 1942, two months after the U.S. government seized and began to outfit her as a troopship, sparks from a worker’s torch ignited a mass of life jackets. As firefighters cascaded water into the listing ship, Vladimir Yourkevitch, the Russian émigré naval architect who had designed her, fought through the crowd to say that if the seacocks were opened, she would settle upright and safe in the shallow water. But the Navy refused his help. At 2:45 A.M. , the ship rolled over and died. For more than a year the Normandie lay at Pier 88 on New York’s West Side, her charred and blistered beauty an affront to the human eye and spirit.