14
Aug

Reflections on “Springboard” by G. Richard Shell

For readers of all ages, but especially recent graduates, Wharton School professor G. Richard Shell’s new book Springboard reminds us that life is a journey, not just a game, and at the end of the day nobody has it all figured out, no matter their advantages or proficiency.  ”Understanding your own story is a powerful way to think about the future,” he writes. “It becomes about the next chapter in your story and not the next rung on the ladder that others expect you to climb.” By using personal stories (including his own), years of research, and spirituality, Shell invites us to look at the meaning of “success” not through achieving goals set by others, but by ones we set ourselves, based on who we are as individuals.

In today’s competitive, tough economic environment, many of us are grasping for security for ourselves and our families while trying to be happy and fulfilled.  One of the trends in today’s higher education system is that colleges and universities are demanding more and more extracurricular talent, not just high grades and test scores.  Potential applicants have the best chance of being admitted when they have a particular “hook” or “passion,” something they do naturally, often at virtuoso levels.  As Shell writes, “Before luck can work its magic, success starts with the thing  you do better than most, whether that is writing, working with your hands, making a tight and convincing argument, cooking, or creating designs.” For these students, these passions are not mere diversions.  They bring effortless elation while in the throes of competition or creation.  In a word: joy.   These passions are the core of who we are.

Joy. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa, 2013.

In her 2005 commencement address for the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, Billie Tsien described “joy” in the following way:

You see the world through a special set of lenses.
You have been trained to connect seeing with thinking,
With passion, with sorrow, with ecstasy,
With a thousand golden glinting ideas.
With your eyes you measure and judge, you dream you grow.

Several months ago, I had the pleasure of assisting Shell with the chapter “Influencing Others: Credibility and Dialogue,” which featured the story of naval architect William Francis Gibbs.  When I started writing A Man and His Ship in 2007, one of the things that drew me to the ocean liner SS United States was that she was designed by an obsessive introvert who transformed himself so that he could pursue his passion for ships beyond his willfully sheltered, “Proper Philadelphia” upbringing.  I realized that Gibbs’s story was worth telling not just because he created the greatest ocean liner ever built, but also he, as Richard Shell points out, developed an “unapologetic, I-am-who-I-am philosophy.”

Shell reminds us, as David Brooks has in his book The Social Animal, that even the most introverted people cannot operate in a vacuum, no matter how smart or creative we are.  Obviously, we have to win friends and influence people in order to get ahead.  Yet Shell argues that in the long run, we will succeed because the people who truly matter in our lives will appreciate us for who we really are, not who we are trying to be.  Self-improvement cannot lead to that illusion of self-perfection. The contradiction in today’s high-stakes, social-media fueled world is that we are feeling pressure to be “perfect” rather than “authentic.”  Although so many of us strive to be happy, we easily and subconsciously fall into the believe that praise, comfort, and riches will cradle us from conflict and attacks.  How do we avoid the slippery slope from confidence and skill to arrogance and smugness?

As I read Shell’s book, I was reminded what it means when I do what I believe I’m best at, the best I know how. Yet as my father likes to say, “At the end of the day, we are all just a bunch of farmers trying to make a living.”  Or as my grandmother constantly reminded me when I was little:  ”Every day is a gift.”

It’s easy for these simple messages to get drowned out in the pressure to perform and jump through hoops. Students at elite institutions such as Shell’s University of Pennsylvania are under increasing pressure (from parents, socio-economic expectations, and crushing tuition and debt) to conform to very specific paths as soon as they leave campus.

 For some, these expectations align perfectly with their interests. One piano-playing friend of mine at Harvard loved risk arbitrage so much that he played Bach while thinking about it.  At 3am.  He was doing exactly what he was meant to do, and was going to get paid a lot of money to do it.

But many of us have questioned how to balance passion with work, and have spent our twenties in what Shell terms our “Odyssey Years,” and he shares not only his own struggles during his 20s as the prodigal son of the commandant of the Virginia Military Institute, but also provides empathetic and concise sketches of his own students.  One of his most compelling vignettes is the Cape Cod plumber who worked his way through medical school and became a superb surgeon.

The Bible may counsel us to “put away childish things” as adults, but Shell — who addresses many spiritual traditions in his book, including his experience with Buddhism — reminds us that a child-like passion for love, work, and relationships — as opposed to pettiness and certainty — is healthy.  As children, we are constantly learning, and at our best, we can approach the world not just with wonder, but joy.  If we spend our lives primarily trying to live up to an image rather than taking joy in what we do, we run the risk of becoming what Shell calls (borrowing Buddhism terminology), “hungry ghosts.”  These include people like Greg Mortensen, Tucker Max, many former reality TV stars, and the recently-convicted hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam.  They lived for fame and praise, but not for their work and relationships. A soaring Superman can easily become a tumbling Titan.  As a friend of mine said about many chic social gatherings: there might be much to charm the senses and stroke the ego.  But there is not much joy.  And comfort and joy may not be one and the same.

Often the greatest artists despise the work that has their greatest popular appeal.  Abstract painter (and Yale drop-out) Mark Rothko only developed his deceptively-simple color band style after years of what art historian Simon Schama described as “trying too hard.”  When asked to name a piece by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, most of us will immediate name the “1812 Overture,” with its booming canons and catchy theme. But Tchaikovsky hated the piece, which he conducted at the opening of New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1891.   It was, he complained, “very loud and noisy, but [without] artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love.”   He was, however, very attached to the Serenade for Strings in C, which he wrote on his own free will.  Why?  Because, as he said, it “comes from the heart.” And it was written in 1880s Russia, a period which the composer called “terrible times.”

Shell uses this provocative quote from Albert Einstein in his chapter “An Easy Answer: Be Happy”: “The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.”

In my own research for A Man and His Ship, I connected with how Gibbs evolved from tongue-tied introvert into a formidable businessman and creative force, an engineer with the soul of an artist.  Somehow, he balanced sharpness and integrity in his dealings with the U.S. Navy and steamship companies, getting many lucrative contracts while running his own business in the most frugal possible way.  His office had no trappings of power such as walnut paneling or Persian carpets, but his firm’s products were so well-built, safe, and reliable (and correspondingly more expensive) that Gibbs & Cox became known as the Tiffany’s of shipbuilders.  In 1944, he cleared himself of charges of war profiteering in front of the House Naval Affairs Committee.  If he had failed, his business and reputation would surely have been ruined.

Yet the urge to design his masterpiece ocean liner SS United States was something more primal and artistic than merely the pursuit of a fat commission.  It was an obsession that began in his youth, before he knew how to balance a ledger or knit-pick a contract.  He also realized by his 30s that he had to have an attitude adjustment.  He could not succeed as a shipbuilder by being meek and polite.  He developed an arsenal of curse words that he used to shock and goad his designers and shipyard workers. As Shell pointed out, “He was, in short, not a nice man. But he succeeded because he was an authentic one.  In the rough-and-tumble world of shipbuilding, this was what he needed to establish professional credibility.”  Shell also reminds us that, “most of us will never be as well known or well-regarded as he [Gibbs] was. And when you have a credibility deficit because people do not know enough about you, you will have to make adjustments. The best moves involve ways to help your audience became more familiar with what you have to offer.”  In his later years, he joined “establishment” institutions such as New York’s Century and India House clubs, yet he never let them dominate his life or identity.

As one of Harvard’s great drop-outs, Gibbs did not place much emphasis on higher education when it came to naval architecture.  He had the diction of a Philadelphia aristocrat and the mouth of a sailor, and didn’t care at all about how he dressed, except on Sundays when he donned a  formal morning suit for church.  And he learned his stock-and-trade not by going to engineering school, but by finagling a mentorship in his late 20s with Admiral David W. Taylor, chief constructor of the United States Navy.  Similarly, Frank Lloyd Wright spent only a semester at the University of Wisconsin’s architecture program before dropping out and talking himself into a job with Louis Sullivan, the best architect in Chicago.  And Franklin Roosevelt did not learn how to be a master politician in the rarified halls of Groton and the Harvard Crimson, but the smoke-filled rooms of Tammany Hall, where the Irish bosses taught this coddled young man known mockingly by his college classmates as “Feather Duster”  how to knock heads together.

Small wonder William Francis Gibbs preferred to spend his free time having earnest discussions with artists and actors rather than hobnobbing with fellow captains of industry and commerce.  He was, after all, a master performer himself.  Who delivered.

Using storytelling and years of research, G. Richard Shell’s Springboard invites us to take an hard look at ourselves and our own motivations, and reminds us that the American dream of success and aspiration can be a double-edged sword.  And Shell encourages us to be honest with ourselves because in the first chapter, this highly-regarded professor at the Wharton School is very candid about his own unusual life journey, one shaped by struggle and pain as much as joy and success.

Read and “know thyself.”

2
Jun

Reflections on First Nights: Throw It Away. Start Again!

Professor Thomas Forrest Kelly, Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music, Harvard University.

During my freshman year of college, I took a wonderful class by music professor Thomas Forrest Kelly called “First Nights,” which looked at the musical and historical circumstances of the premiers of five great pieces of classical music: Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,” Handel’s “Messiah,” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

As I was biking up the Schuylkill River on this hot but beautiful spring morning, the last movement of Beethoven‘s 9th symphony came on my iPod…a masterpiece of the Western canon that is something of a classical symphonic “warhorse,” to use WHRB parlance. Yet I had not listened to it for a long time. As it was playing, I remembered an analogy in class of how Beethoven introduced the themes from the previous movements of the symphony, only to shush them up with the cellos and double basses…as if saying, “No, not good enough. Drop it. Try something else.”

I pictured Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Kahn doing sketches on their drafting tables, only to curse, crumple them up, and throw them in the wastebasket. Then, the great idea, so simple and straightforward, almost childlike in its simplicity — the “Ode to Joy” theme, started flowing, and the cellos and double-basses “nodded” in agreement, as if saying, “OK, this is good. Run with it. See where it takes you.”

Frank Lloyd Wright: architect, egomaniac, charismatic genius, and a lifelong admirer of Beethoven. For the record: his buildings were beautiful but had their fair share of structural problems! Despite his flaws as a man, his buildings still speak for themselves.

And the theme continued to build on itself from the cellos and basses — those voices of inner-doubt and self-criticism–onward to the violins, violas, and winds. And then the bass vocal soloist enters after a loud descending roar from the orchestra, proclaiming:

Oh friends, not these tones!
Let us raise our voices in more
Pleasing and more joyful sounds!

The soloist and chorus then launch into Friedrich Schiller‘s “Ode to Joy.”

When I got back from my ride, I had to look up what famed architect Billie Tsien of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
said at my Penn Design graduation in 2005 about “joy” in one’s work:

You see the world through a special set of lenses.
You have been trained to connect seeing with thinking,
With passion, with sorrow, with ecstasy,
With a thousand golden glinting ideas.
With your eyes you measure and judge, you dream you grow.

Obviously, we cannot always live our lives this way. It’s impossible. It’s a struggle to make our way in the world, deal with every day tasks and obligations. We worry about what people think of us. And then there’s the constantly sorry state of world affairs.

Beethoven reminds of that with the very abrupt ending to the symphony.  The “First Night,” of course, must come to an end.

But it’s the great teachers in our lives who, when we reach back into our memories, remind us of what transcendence can and should be possible…

"Off with you! You're a happy fellow, for you'll give happiness and joy to many other people. There is nothing better or greater than that!" -Ludwig van Beethoven


A unique act of bravery in wartime: Dame Myra Hess plays a Mozart piano concerto with the Royal Air Force Orchestra in the National Gallery, even as the city is being pulverized by the Luftwaffe during World War II.

Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” as set to music by Ludwig van Beethoven
BARITONE, QUARTET, AND CHORUS
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter fire imbibed,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary.

Thy magic reunites those
Whom stern custom has parted;
All men will become brothers
Under thy gentle wing.

May he who has had the fortune
To gain a true friend
And he who has won a noble wife
Join in our jubilation!

Yes, even if he calls but one soul
His own in all the world.
But he who has failed in this
Must steal away alone and in tears.

All the world’s creatures
Draw joy from nature’s breast;
Both the good and the evil
Follow her rose-strewn path.

She gave us kisses and wine
And a friend loyal unto death;
She gave lust for life to the lowliest,
And the Cherub stands before God.

TENOR SOLO AND CHORUS
Joyously, as his suns speed
Through Heaven’s glorious order,
Hasten, Brothers, on your way,
Exulting as a knight in victory.

CHORUS

Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter fire imbibed,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary.

Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss for all the world!
Brothers!, above the starry canopy
A loving father must dwell.

Can you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy.
Above the stars He must dwell.

Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss for all the world!
Brothers!, above the starry canopy
A loving father must dwell.

Can you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy.
Above the stars He must dwell.

Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter fire imbibed,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary.

Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss for all the world!
Brothers!, above the starry canopy
A loving father must dwell.

Can you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy.
Above the stars He must dwell.

Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss for all the world!
Brothers!, above the starry canopy
A loving father must dwell.

Can you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy.
Above the stars He must dwell.

Joy, daughter of Elysium
Thy magic reunites those
Whom stern custom has parted;
All men will become brothers
Under thy gentle wing.

Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss for all the world!
Brothers!, above the starry canopy
A loving father must dwell.

Joy, beautiful spark of Gods!,
Daughter of Elysium,
Joy, beatiful spark of Gods!

31
May

Review of “Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia”

In his new book Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), Greg Heller does a superb and thorough job highlighting this master planner’s many accomplishments (and shortcomings) as Director of Philadelphia’s Planning Commission.  As an undergraduate, Heller got to know Edmund Bacon intimately before his death in 2005, taking many long walks with the crotchety, opinionated, passionate former public official.  Yet we find in the book, the result of nearly a decade of research, a balanced assessment of Bacon’s life and career emerges.

It’s a common misconception that Bacon was the “Robert Moses of Philadelphia.”  Heller skillfully debunks the myth — Bacon was very much his own person.  He was definitely strong-willed, but Heller’s Bacon is not the ruthless egotist of Robert Caro’s Moses. Both were notoriously cantankerous men, especially in their later years.  Bacon’s hope for the city lay in neighborhood redevelopment and rehabilitation rather wholesale demolition and continuous highway construction. The demolition of historic structures that took place under Bacon’s tenure could be called surgical compared to the Dresden-like havoc which Moses wrought in the South Bronx and the Lower East Side.  Bacon was definitely a modernist, but he was not an ardent disciple of Le Corbusier. Compared to other planners, he largely respected his city’s historic fabric. Yet it is telling to learn that Ed Bacon was reluctant to return to his native city in 1939.  After graduating from Cornell’s architecture program, he traveled the world and cut his teeth as a planner in Flint, Michigan.  Philadelphia was in dire straits even then; Heller says that Bacon saw the city as a “corrupt and backward place” with broken streetlights, undrinkable water, and once-prosperous neighborhoods sliding into shabbiness.

In 1949, Ed Bacon was appointed Executive Director of the City Planning Commission, a position he would hold for the next thirty years.  Raised by middle-class parents in Powelton Village, Bacon was a New Deal Democrat: principled but not ideological.  This pragmatic approach caused public clashes with purists such as architect Louis Kahn and preservationist Charles E. Peterson. To Bacon, the private sector should be the driving force behind development projects, with local government serving as a facilitator or moderator. A lifelong Quaker, Bacon was a strong believer in urban living– he spent most of his married life in a townhouse on the 2100 block of Locust Street. Unfortunately, his sincere efforts — in the short term, at least — had relatively little immediate impact on stemming the tide of industrial and middle class flight out of the city.

Yet with persistence must come patience, and Bacon’s ideas have borne fruit in our day. Even if large swaths of Philadelphia continue to be plagued by abandonment, poverty, and crime, Heller reminds us that Bacon’s vision of a renewed, vibrant, and walkable Center City  has largely come to pass.  The themes of consensus building and collaboration — rather than authoritarianism — run throughout his career, although not always consistently. Moreover, Bacon did not silkily manipulate the marionette strings of power and patronage to enrich himself or his friends.  Trained as an architect, he was a vision person rather than a money person. His professional nemesis was the city development coordinator Bill Rafsky, who brought literally brought home the bacon from Washington, D.C. and controlled where increasingly limited federal dollars went.   At the end of the day, Heller points out that the secret to Bacon’s success was his “total vision of the city,” and being absolutely relentless and persistent in achieving that vision.

Heller also describes how Bacon continued to seek the spotlight even in retirement, and at times his legendary persistence crossed the line into the histrionic.  In the early 1980s, he wrote blistering editorials about the erection of Liberty Place, the first building to break the “gentlemen’s agreement” that prevented structures from rising higher than Billy Penn’s hat atop City Hall.  For Bacon, the brassy Helmut Jahn-designed towers were a violation of the Quaker City’s sense of modesty. “The integrity of the city is not for sale,” he melodramatically proclaimed in 1984, “Maybe Athens will build a sixty story office building next to the Acropolis.”

Bacon lost, the towers went up, and the Phillies were cursed for twenty years.

Finally, Heller captures his subject’s eccentricities and at times endearing quirks.  These include performing tai chi exercises in the middle of meetings or his having his Penn students simulating San Francisco by “making spectators walk up several flights of stairs, arriving at the top floor to find one of the presenters dressed like a ‘Flower Child’ playing a guitar and distributing R-rated fortune cookies.”

And who can forget that October 28, 2002, when the 92 -year- old Bacon declared, “I conceived Love Park…And now, in total defiance of Mayor Street, I will skateboard in LOVE Park!” He did just that, with plenty of handlers and reporters in tow, of course. Both Moses and Bacon loved publicity, but it’s hard to imagine Moses being so whimsical and purposeful while performing an act of civil disobedience.

To Heller, Bacon’s greatest achievement is the rejuvenation of Society Hill in the 1960s, which he envisioned as an historic place for modern urban living, rather than a living museum. The neighborhood was his answer to snug (and often smug) suburban living, and Bacon proved to be a master salesman, getting Main Liners and Chestnut Hillers alike to purchase derelict historic homes for cheap and renovate them. As the Philadelphia Bulletin reported: “In Society Hill, he [Bacon] said, some old buildings have been preserved and rehabilitated. He contrasted this approach with that of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which, he said, evicts people and tears down homes.”

This biography is a must-read not just for those interested Philadelphia history, but anyone who cares about American urban history and the charismatic people who shape our cities.  The showman planner Bacon might have been erratic and combative, especially when it came to defending his own work, but he was also brilliant, devoted to his calling, and truly in love with his native city. To the end of his very long life, he never did stop trying.

30
May

Author Talk for the Penn Design Alumni Association in San Francisco

Steven Ujifusa @ SPUR – 5/17/2013 from Find Your Edge Media on Vimeo.

Steven Ujifusa addresses the University of Pennsylvania School of Design Alumni Association in San Francisco, May 17, 2013.

30
May

William Francis Gibbs Battling his Brother on the Tennis Court

A perfect follow-up to Billie Jean King’s announcement regarding her support of preserving the SS United States for future generations.
As a young man, William Francis Gibbs was an excellent tennis player, collecting so many trophies from his battles on the courts of Philadelphia’s Merion and Germantown cricket clubs that his mother complained that it was “a little vulgar to show them all.” Perhaps it was tennis that gave this otherwise shy, awkward young man the mental/intellectual grit to see complicated projects through to the end, often against very skilled rivals and opponents. “Learn to withstand body blows because it’s the man who’s standing at the end of the fight who wins,” he said late in life.
Above is a great photograph from granddaughter Susan Gibbs’s collection showing William Francis Gibbs (on the left) facing off against his younger brother Frederic on the grass courts, most likely in Philadelphia or Spring Lake, New Jersey, c.1910. Does anyone know where this might be?
The two brothers were not only business partners, but also best friends. William Francis was the salesman and designer, while Frederic, who inherited their father’s talent for finance, kept a close eye on the books and brought his older brother back down to earth whenever his creativity got the best of him. I owe Frederic a debt of gratitude for saving all the papers and correspondence related to the design and construction of the SS United States from destruction and donating them to The Mariners’ Museum.
If not for Frederic’s deep desire to preserve his brother’s legacy, A Man and His Ship would not have been possible. The story of the SS United States is not just about a ship, but also about two brothers and their devotion to each other. Thank you, Frederic Gibbs.

28
May

Two Captured Giants Bringing the Troops Home Almost a Century Ago

Happy Memorial Day. Thank you for the men and women serving or who have served in our nation’s Armed Forces.

A striking photograph from almost a century ago. The two largest liners in the world (and the pride of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany) are now American prizes of war. Here, the USS Imperator on the left and the USS Leviathan(formerly the SS Vaterland) on the right are now flying the Stars and Stripes, safely bringing our troops home from the horrors of the World War I trenches, 1919.

The “Imperator” is still in her peacetime Hamburg-American colors, as she was captured by the U.S. Army at her berth in Hamburg, neglected since the outbreak of the war four years earlier. She was immediately pressed into service as a troopship. “Leviathan” was seized two years earlier in New York, stripped of her fittings, painted battle gray, and had ferried over 100,000 American doughboys to the Western Front from 1917-1918. Neither of the two sister ships would ever fly the German flag again: one would go to Cunard as reparations for the RMS Lusitania, the other to United States Lines.

It is estimated that over 16,000,000 people in total died on both sides during World War I, forever scarring a generation of men and women, and sewing the seeds for another, even more horrific conflict.

As John Russell Darbyshire eloquently wrote in his 1931 hymn:

O Lord of Life, whose power sustains
The world unseen no less than this -
One family in him who reigns,
Triumphant over death, in bliss;
To thee with thankfulness we pray
For all our valiant dead to-day.

As nature’s healing through the years
Reclothes the stricken battle-fields
So mercy gives us joy for tears,
And grief to proud remembrance yields,
And mindful hearts are glad to keep
A tryst of love with them that sleep.

Not names engraved in marble make
The best memorials of the dead,
But burdens shouldered for their sake
And tasks completed in their stead;
A braver faith and stronger prayers,
Devouter worship, nobler cares.

O help us in the silence, Lord,
To hear the whispered call of love,
And day by day thy strength afford
Our work to do, our faith to prove.
So be thy blessing richly shed.
On our communion with our dead.

Click here to listen to a musical setting of this verse by the late Reverend Peter J. Gomes of Harvard University.

11
Mar

The Favorite Liner in American Popular Song…

…was not the SS United States.

A striking depiction of the "Ile de France" off Cape de la Hague. Painting by John Stewart. Click on the image to go to Hansen Fine Art.

These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)

The park at evening when the bell has sounded,
The ‘Ile-de-France’ with all the gulls around it,
The beauty that is spring’s…
These foolish things remind me of you.

Lyrics by Eric Maschwitz and music by Jack Strachey

The ship that really captured the imagination of songwriters in the middle of the twentieth century was neither the largest or the fastest.  She was the Ile de France, built in 1927 and known as the “St. Bernard of the North Atlantic” for her reliability and certain “je ne sais quoi.”

At 44,000 gross tons and 790 feet long, she was a big ship, but smaller than the Queen Mary or even the older RMS Majestic and SS Leviathan.  With a cruising speed of 23 knots, she made crossings in 6 days as opposed to the 5 day express service of the Cunard Queens. Yet this French ship proved to be the most popular with the rich and famous, as well as with prosperous middle class travelers, for several reasons:  her first-rate kitchens, excellent service, and Art Deco interiors that were grand but not overpowering, her stability in rough seas, and a certain “chemistry” that only the finest liners had.  During the 1930s, she proved much more popular and profitable than her much-larger and fancier running mate Normandie.

The SS "Ile de France" in a convoy with the RMS "Aquitania," carrying troops to the front during World War II.

During World War II, she was seized by the British Admiralty following the fall of France and used as a troop transport, carrying thousands of soldiers to the Far East in convoys.  In 1949, she returned to the North Atlantic sea lanes after a complete refurbishment.  She lasted until 1959, when she was sold for scrap in Japan, but not before she was burned and partially sunk as a floating set for a Hollywood disaster flick called The Last Voyage….

A concert in the lounge aboard the SS "Ile de France."

Yet the Ile de France has been immortalized in two jazz standards composed while the great French liner was in her heyday: “These Foolish Things” (a favorite of Nat King Cole and Billie Holliday) and “A Fine Romance” (famously rendered by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong).

A Fine Romance

A fine romance, whith no clinches
A fine romance, with no pinches
You’re just as hard to land as the Ile de France
I haven’t got a chance. This is a fine romance.

Lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Jerome Kern

The former SS "Ile de France" (temporarily remained SS "Claridon") is burned and partially sunk off the coast of Japan during the filming of the 1960 film "The Last Voyage." The French Line was horrified, and succeeded in having her funnels partially repainted. In the future, the French Line and other companies would forbid the use of their old liners for uses other than scrapping post-sale.

8
Mar

She Could Roll the Milk Out of a Cup of Tea!

A choppy trip aboard the RMS Queen Mary in 1952.

Get seasick? Well, in the days before dramamine and stabilizers, motion sickness was a fact of life aboard even the biggest liners. Even the giant RMS Queen Mary, it was said, could “roll the milk out of a cup of tea” in bad weather as she surged through the Atlantic at 30 knots. Ocean liners had to content with two sorts of motion. The first was side-to-side rolling, which often depended on the ship’s center of gravity. The second was heaving and pitching, the up-and-down motion resulting from the ship plowing through waves.

Within a day or so of departure, most passengers got their “sea legs” and enjoyed the trip. Some even ventured outside to brave the wind. Others weren’t so lucky.

No pleasure cruise. The German superliner SS "Europa" plows through an Atlantic gale, c.1930.

Here is some footage of a very choppy trip aboard the Queen Mary from Southampton to New York in 1952, the year she lost the Blue Riband to the “Big U.” Note the safety lines strung out on deck. The music is by the Meyer Davis Orchestra, which played aboard the SS United States during the 1950s. Cunard installed stabilizers on the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in 1958, dramatically cutting down on their rolling.

One of the "Queen Mary's" Denny-Brown stabilizer fins. When deployed, they dramatically cut down on the ship's side-to-side motion during rough weather.

None were ever installed on the SS United States. Her controlling designer — who believed he had created the “ideal ship” —  did not want anyone meddling with her hull design.

‘QUEEN MARY’ STABILISER TRIALS

6
Mar

Knowledge@Wharton Interview with G. Richard Shell

Released today: my Knowledge@Wharton interview with G. Richard Shell, Thomas Gerrity Professor of Legal Studies, Business Ethics, and Management at the Wharton School, and author of Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People.

24
Feb

A Cruise to Bermuda aboard the SS “America”

If you’d rather go to Bermuda than than the Caribbean, you could also book a cruise aboard the SS America, built in 1940. Also designed by Gibbs, she was a smaller, slower, and yet many ways more luxurious forerunner to the Big U. During the 1950s, many passengers preferred the SS America to the SS United States and the big European liners, even if it meant an extra day or two at sea.

By the early 1960s, jets had devastated the transatlantic passenger business during the stormy winter months, and companies like U.S. Lines were sending their ships on warm water cruises to make up for lost revenue. The departure scene, showing the America backing away from her Hudson River pier — cheering crowds, streamers flying, whistles blowing — is one of those quintessential New York moments. By the time his film was shot, these scenes were turning into nostalgic swansongs. America’s days as an American ship were numbered — in 1964, the United States Lines sold her to a Greek shipping company, leaving the Big U as the only passenger vessel in the fleet.

The background music for this film is a medley from My Fair Lady, played by a band from one of the ships of the Furness Line, most likely the famed SS Queen of Bermuda, which sailed between New York and Bermuda from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Thanks to Mark B. Perry for making this rare collection available again to the public, and for preserving it for posterity!

A painting of the SS "America," completed in 1940, in service with the United States Lines 1940-41, 1946-1964. Sailed under various owners 1964-1980, laid up 1980-1993.

The SS "America" wrecked and broken in half off the Canary Islands, 1993.