February, 2012 Archives


Consider the Flounder

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The "Costa Allegra" is an oddball in the Costa fleet. Only an eighth the size of the ill-fated "Costa Concorda," this ship is a converted container ship.

Odd coincidence that the Costa Allegra debacle happened right after I read the late David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster.”

It seems that some real idiots are in charge of operations and maintenance at Costa Cruises. Fire broke out in the engine room of the Costa Allegra on Monday, February 27, while the ship was in the middle of the pirate-infested Indian Ocean.  1,000 passengers and crew are stuck on a powerless, stifling ship, full of decaying food and human excrement, as she is being towed slowly to the Seychelles Islands for repairs.  A miserable ordeal, indeed.  The threat of attacks by vicious Somali pirates, no doubt salivating over such a fat prize, doesn’t exactly add to the sense of adventure.

Ships nowadays should not lose power in mid-ocean.  They should be equipped with back-up emergency electrical systems that kick in once the main power plant fails.  Loss of power not only causes instant panic, but can often be deadly in itself.  When the captain of the Titanic realized his ship was doomed, his first mandate to the engineers was to keep steam flowing to the generators — the lights and the radio transmitter had to stay operational as long as humanly possible.  Remarkably, the boilers and generators held up for over two hours, until the Titanic cracked in half and rapidly sank. When the Lusitania lost electrical power shortly after being struck by a German torpedo in May 1915, the ship was not only plunged into darkness, but the ship’s two elevators (both in first class) jammed, trapping dozens of passengers like rats inside the cages.  For survivors who witnessed that horrifying spectacle, it was a sight they would never forget.

Since then, naval architects made sure their electrical systems were backed up in case of a fire or catastrophic impact.  The United States, for example, had two engine rooms and a double electrical system to prevent a complete power outage.

The Costa Allegra incident also recalls an infamous and very embarrassing incident in 1951, when the brand-new French liner Flandre — a smaller running mate to the venerable Liberte and Ile de France — lost all electrical power during her maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York.  The crippled ship had to be towed into New York by four tugboats, and did not even have enough power to salute greeting fireboats and spectators gazing curiously from the Battery.

At least there were no pirates off the American coast.

The Flandre was repaired and served on the North Atlantic run until the late 1960s without major mishap.   But longshoreman and the traveling public gave her a name that stuck: “the Flounder.”

Another misfit: the French Line's "Flandre" of 1951 entering New York harbor, under her own power this time.


Arthur Foote and the New England Romantics

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I’m a Northeast shuffler: a native New Yorker who went to college in New England and now lives in Philadelphia.  As an undergraduate, I found out about a group of composers known as the “Boston Six” who in the early twentieth century exerted a tremendous influence over musical life in America.  Centered around Harvard and Boston’s Back Bay, these five men (George Whitfield Chadwick, John Knowles Paine, Horatio Parker, Edward MacDowell, Arthur Foote) and one woman (Amy Beach) sought to bring American classical music up to the high standards set by their German contemporaries.  Many of them were trained by German musicians. They taught at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the New England Conservatory of Music, and trained an entire generation of American musicians and critics.  They later became known as the “Second New England School.”

I’ve sung music by Paine and Beach in college and although impressed by their skill, was never particularly moved by their work.  My music group sang Paine’s Mass in D minor in concert (a student composition from 1862 that was first performed in Berlin) and we laughed aloud when we sang the opening bars of “Et Resurrexit” for the first time — it was basically an inverted “Et Resurrexit” from J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor. This is not to say that I feel that their music is merely derivative.  It’s not.  At it’s best, it’s expressive, sensitive, and tonally rich.  At its worst, it’s as ponderous and affected as the decor of a Pullman railroad car.

Like many artists during the “American Renaissance” of the late 19th and early 20th century, they were seeking for a creative language of expression that reflected the increasing sophistication and prosperity of America, and where else to look than the great examples set by European masters.   For architects of the period, like McKim, Mead, and White  (or it’s Boston counterpart Peabody and Stearns), their architectural models for their New York and Boston private clubs and latter-day palazzos was Florence and Rome.  For the Boston Six, it was the giants of mitteleuropen music: Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, and above all, Felix Mendelssohn, whose elegance and understatement was especially appreciated by the British.  After surveying their swaggering, smoke belching industrial giant of a nation, the budding culture patrons of post-Civil War America were desperately looking for a higher “voice”, one that went beyond the counting house, the coal mine, the steamship, and the steel mill.  Under the patronage of beneficiaries — some might say exploiters — of this new American system, families such as the Lowells of Boston and the Morgans of New York reshaped or created new cultural institutions along European lines.  Universities from Germany. Boarding schools from England. Conservatories, architecture ateliers, and museums from France.

By the coming of the Second World War, much of the cultural product of this age would be regarded not only as derivative and irrelevant, but un-American in inspiration.  The mansions of Stanford White were torn down. The Bauhaus and the followers of Le Corbusier shoved the classicists aside to become the establishment in American design. Compositions of Beach and Paine were shelved in favor of a new generation of American composers who were not ashamed of using American vernacular tunes and harmonies for inspiration: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives, George Gershwin. As one university president and contemporary of Theodore Roosevelt wrote in the 1930s, the term “Victorian” had morphed from a complement to an insult within his lifetime.  Much of this was rightfully so. George Gershwin’s snappy “Rhapsody in Blue” versus Horatio Parker’s top-heavy “Hora Novissima”? It’s a no-brainer.

Yet one of these Boston composer who I feel really deserves more recognition is Arthur Foote (1853-1937), a member of the generation that produced Theodore Roosevelt, Stanford White, and other important movers of the “American Renaissance.” Foote came from a rock-ribbed family of Salem sea captains and newspaper publishers.  He graduated from Harvard in 1874 after serving as president of the glee club, and then went on to work as an organist at a number of Unitarian churches in the Boston area. A musical giant in his time and known as the “Dean of American Composers”, Foote’s popularity fell off following his death.  According to the Chamber Music Journal, “Foote’s chamber music is first rate, deserving of regular public performance…I believe that the only reason this work never received the audience it deserved and deserves is because it was written by an American who was ‘out of the loop.’”

Although a singer, I’m not a musician per se. I don’t play the piano. I know very little about music theory. But for me, what appeals to Foote’s music is that while it is firmly rooted in European models, there is a simplicity, straightforwardness, expressiveness, and above all earnestness that I have not heard in other America composers of the period.  His music has a tinge of salt-air that to me seems distinctly New England.  While expressive and romantic, I’ve never found Foote’s music maudlin or affected.  Foote’s music very disciplined in its structure and construction — confident, assured, and crisp.

Over the past several summers, I’ve spent a few weeks on the South Shore of Massachusetts with friends and family.  I’ve also done a lot of writing there.  This is the music that for me brings to mind the gloomy fogs, the pounding surf, the shrieking gulls, the lapping of water against the stone sea wall, and the trembling tidal pools.

And as I sat in the dining room working on my manuscript, it was wonderful to hear the voice of a composer like Arthur Foote.

Copyright Steven B. Ujifusa, 2012.


Downton Abbey does “Titanic”

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JuIian Fellowes, executive producer and writer of Downton Abbey, will be releasing a major television drama about the Titanic.  It is set to air in April 2012, on the 100th anniversary of the infamous White Star Line flagship’s maiden voyage.

It’s pointless to expound further on why the Titanic story has such a grip on the public imagination. Suffice to say that according to the most recent issue of Smithsonian, the word “Titanic” is the third most recognized word in the world, following “God” and “Coca-Cola.”

There are many connections that the SS United States has with the RMS Titanic. The United States Lines was the direct corporate descendant of the International Mercantile Marine, a company formed in 1902 by J.P. Morgan which attempted to monopolize the lucrative transatlantic trade. One of the American-based combine’s biggest acquisitions was England’s White Star Line. The Titanic, although built in Ireland and registered in Britain, was financed entirely by American money. The United States Lines biggest stockholder, Vincent Astor, had lost his father Col. John Jacob Astor IV in the disaster. General John M. Franklin, United States Lines president at the time of the construction of the SS United States, also had a personal stake in the Titanic disaster: his father Phillip Franklin was the American head of the White Star Line in 1912 and bore the brunt of his nation’s wrath when the ship went down. And William Francis Gibbs carefully studied all of the Titanic’s design flaws to make sure that his ship could survive the impact that sent the ill-fated liner to the bottom forty years early.

Most importantly, both ships represented “the best” their respective nations had to offer in terms of technology, design, luxury, and service.  Both were social microcosms of two confident nations: an Edwardian England darkened by coming war clouds, and a 1950s America which had emerged victorious from the greatest conflict in history. Both ships were built to last 30 years. One never completed a single voyage.  The other sailed for 17 years without accident or mishap before being rendered obsolete by a new paradigm in international travel.

To read an excellent feature in this week’s Smithsonian magazine about why the Titanic remains one of the greatest stories ever told, click here.

To read the February 25 New York Times article “The Titanic That Really Won’t Sink,” click here.

"Downton Abbey" writer Julian Fellowes and his wife Emma Joy Kitchener.


A Crewmember’s North Atlantic Tone Poem

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Joe Rota started off working aboard the SS United States in 1955 as a teenage elevator operator, and eventually worked his way up to bellboy, then ship’s photographer.  At the end of his long days, Joe would lie in his berth (located deep in the ship) and listen to classical music records, with the roar of the ocean rushing by in the background.   During a spare moment during the day, Joe would pause for a few minutes at the rail and contemplate the seascape.  Even on the third biggest passenger ship in the world, the ocean’s vastness was overwhelming, awe-inspiring, even frightening.

Long retired, Joe now lives in upstate New York on the shores of placid Lake George, far from the treacherous North Atlantic. During one of my interviews of Joe, I asked him which pieces of classical music he found the most evocative of being at sea aboard the SS United States.  His responses: Dvorak’s Symphony #9 (“From the New World”), Debussy’s “La Mer”….and Arnold Bax’s tone poem “Tintagel.”

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) composed “Tintagel” as a portrait of the Cornish port that according to legend is the birthplace of King Arthur.  It is perched high on a rugged outcrop and battered by the waves of the Atlantic. A perfect sea composition.

Listen, and imagine yourself leaning on the rail of the SS United States as she plows through the sun-gilded swells, the wind whipping at your face, the salt air tingling your nose, and the deck gently swaying under your feet. Wonder, indeed.

With Joe Rota at his home in Putnam Station, New York in the winter of 2008.

Joe Rota in his bunk aboard the SS "United States," holding a record of Mussorgsky's "Night on the Bald Mountain."


The Duke Plays in the First Class Ballroom

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If you were fortunate to travel first class aboard the SS United States in the 1950s or early 60s, chances were you would run into a celebrity or two in the dining room, ballroom, Navajo cocktail bar, or smoking lounge.

Or on stage.

One evening in the ballroom, the Meyer Davis band leader announced to the assembled revelers that his men would be taking a break, but that jazz lovers had a special treat in store.

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra were on tour to Europe, and the man himself sat down at the Steinway to lead a few numbers for the passengers’ dancing pleasure.

Joining Duke’s men on stage that evening was another passenger: Broadway singer Ethel Merman.

Who knows what was played that night in September 1959, but if the Duke and his men played “Cottontail” in that beautiful space (described by a British journalist as on par with the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center), it must have been an evening to remember. The greatest jazz played aboard the fastest, most beautiful ship in the world speeding through the mid-Atlantic!

Just before the ship sailed, clarinetist Benny Goodman presented him with the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal.

Aboard the SS United States, unlike other places in pre-Civil Rights America, there was no segregation onboard. Blacks and whites could swim in the pool at the same time and freely socialize in the public rooms.


The Fifth Tallest Skyscraper in New York – Built to Last the Ages

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If stood on end, the 990 foot long SS United States would be the fifth tallest building in Manhattan. The competitive spirit that fueled the skyscraper wars of the late 1920s was the same that pushed naval architects to build bigger and faster liners. Industrial espionage and professional rivalries were rampant. Rich men staked reputations and fortunes on these projects. Workers defied gravity as they riveted beams or welded plates into place. Molten rivets were tossed fifty or sixty feet in the air. It was the desire to blend engineering and art. To push technology to the limit. This was the America that built things. Great things. Meant to last the ages.


William Francis Gibbs and Raising the “Titanic”

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Clive Cussler wrote the best-selling thriller “Raise the Titanic” in 1976, and a movie starring Richard Jordan and Jason Robards followed a few years later.  The climax of the story is when the US Navy successfully raises the wreck from the North Atlantic to retrieve a rare nuclear substance stored in the hold.  Cut from this clip is the exclamation from one stunned naval officer: “Isn’t that a beautiful son of a b***h!?” The film was made before the wreck was discovered in 1985 — the real wreck is split in half and in much worse condition.  The interior wreck scenes were filmed aboard the old “Santa Rosa’ of 1932, designed by William Francis Gibbs for the Grace Lines and about to be send to the junkyard.

Despite the cast, critics panned the movie…except for the spectacular “raising” sequence. Among the “what if’s,” it’s interesting to think what kind of reception her arrival in New York would have been, over sixty years late. Would a celebration as shown in the movie be appropriate?

The SS "Santa Rosa," designed by William Francis Gibbs in 1932 for the Grace Lines. A quarter the size of the "Titanic," her deliberately "ruined" interiors were used as sets for the movie. The interiors for the "Santa Rosa" were designed by Dorothy Marckwald, the same woman who supervised the fireproof interiors of the SS "United States" 20 years later.

Raising the Titanic, 1979. The model used in the film was nearly 60 feet long. The movie was so expensive that Lew Grade, one of its major backers, is famously said to have remarked that it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly twenty years later, another "Titanic" film became the biggest box office moneymaker of all time.


The Voice of the SS “United States”

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A ship’s whistle is not only a signal. It is her voice. And the “Big U” had a voice to match her name.

A classical music lover, William Francis Gibbs took immense care in perfecting the timbre the ship’s three steam whistles. Before they were installed in the ship’s funnels, they were taken to the New Jersey Meadowlands, where Gibbs pitched each of them with a tuning fork. Not only would his ship’s horns sound harmonious, but distinct from every other big liner on the Atlantic.

Every two weeks, at twelve noon, the horns of the SS United States could be heard across Manhattan as the captain prepared her for departure. At sea, the SS United States could be heard ten miles away.

Today, one of the whistles is on the roof of a building in the Boston area, while the other two are in storage.

One day, we may be able to hear the “Big U’s” voice again.

Click on the picture to listen to her mighty bellow in a 1953 film.


Bon Voyage – The Ritual of Saying Goodbye…Sometimes Forever.

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In today’s era of jet travel and Skype, it’s easy to forget that there was time not too long ago that saying goodbye to friends and family meant you would not see them again for months, years…maybe even ever again. This was why steamship departures were pivotal moments in people’s lives. They were full of joy and sadness, especially as you waved goodbye to loved ones, the engines rumbling beneath your feet and tugs pushing the ship back into the Hudson River. Witness this evocative film of two families saying farewell to each other on the decks of the Italian luxury liner “Conte Biancamano” departing New York for Italy — once as a brand new ship in the 1920s, and again as a refitted but aging liner in the 1950s.  What happened to the Italian family in the 1920s is a mystery indeed. In the years to come, they would have separated not just by an ocean, but also by Fascism and a devastating world war.
Thanks once again to Mark Perry for making his rare film archive available on YouTube.


The SS “United States” at Union High School, Union, New Jersey

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Clayton Shaw, Matthew Ruiz, Anthony Alulema, Matt Massarelli, Kevin Cordova and Kunal Chawla of  Union High School in Northern New Jersey created a wonderful, illuminated wooden poster of the SS “United States” and presented it to me and Susan Caccavale as representatives of the SS United State Conservancy. Susan Caccavale’s mother Elaine Kaplan was the only woman engineer on the 50 person design team for the SS United States — she was in charge of designing the ship’s top secret propellers. A pioneering woman for her time, Kaplan’s story is featured in A Man and His Ship.

The theme of our presentation was America as an innovative nation that built great things.  Thanks to teacher Stephen March and the students of Union High School for raising awareness about the plight of the SS United States, and for such a great gift to the SS United States Conservancy.