…was not the SS United States.
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.
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….
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
On this cold February day, wouldn’t you want to sail away on a luxurious Caribbean cruise aboard the SS United States? Travel with Jim and Frieda Green in 1964, who met aboard the ship years before on a transatlantic crossing, when Jim was working as a purser and Frieda was traveling as a passenger! I interviewed Jim and Frieda while researching A Man and His Ship aboard the RMS Queen Mary in 2008, and they are some of the nicest people imaginable, just two of thousands of people for whom a trip aboard the Big U was a life-changing experience.
During these winter cruises, first and cabin class were combined into one class, while tourist class was closed off. By the early 1960s, these warm water cruises were crucial to keeping the ship viable, as jets devastated passenger bookings during the rough winter months on the North Atlantic.
Note the shipboard entertainment back then: deck chair sitting, outdoor concerts by the Meyer Davis Orchestra (heard on this film), drinking bloody marys in the bar…and turtle races?! No waterslides, casinos, or staged-musical productions. As film collector Mark Perry says, watching this film is “almost like being there.”
Relax and enjoy!
In A Man and His Ship, I describe about how the young William Francis Gibbs was terrified of the bullies that lived in his dormitory at Harvard, mostly arrogant scions of privilege who mocked him for his ship drawings and collections of naval architecture publications. He feared he would be labeled “the eeriest of all the eccentrics in three centuries of Harvard life if it were known that he was busy improving British battleships.”
In an era when Thomas Arnold’s Tom Brown’s School Days heavily influenced upper-class Edwardian educational culture, bullying must have been especially cruel for a tongue-tied, gangly nerd like Gibbs. Historian Samuel Eliot Morrison described the Harvard social system as a “cruel machine,” one that discouraged, even crushed individuality. Aside from playing on the club tennis team, Gibbs appears to have joined no societies or activities. Painfully shy and preferring to keep to himself, the young Gibbs was so afraid that his eccentric “hobby” would be found out that he kept his desk drawers and his dorm room locked at all times. His own rich, status-conscious father urged him not to go into naval architecture, telling him that it was a foolish career choice.
For years after leaving Harvard without a degree, William Francis Gibbs did not send any updates to his class of 1910 alumni report: “Mr. Gibbs has not been heard from” was the constant refrain. Finally, in 1946, the frightened young man who had dropped out because of his family’s fall from wealth and Philadelphia society returned to campus not as an eerie eccentric, but as a hero. The university bestowed on him an honorary Phi Beta Kappa degree for designing most of the ships built during World War II, including the Liberty ship and the Normandy landing craft.
These creations were not mere machines or money-making schemes. They came, as my friend Judge Thomas D. Watkins noted a few years ago, “from the very depths of his soul and the wellspring of his unique experiences.”
Yet even as a successful naval architect, patron of the arts, public speaker, and designer of the greatest ocean liner ever built, Gibbs insisted on a maze of barriers and security guards at his firm’s New York naval architecture office.
His official explanation was military security.
I believe there were other, much deeper reasons for his obsession with secrecy. And then there was his superhuman drive to succeed at achieving his dream when so many people told him to quit. For forty years.
“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.
Please watch and share this video if you or someone you know can relate to this. And has successfully — and productively — overcome it with creativity, drive, and compassion.
To read my Harvard Magazine piece that goes more into depth on the collegiate culture of Gibbs’s day, click here.
Aired on February 17, 2013. Click here if embedded video above does not load.
“There is a pride that goes along with the sort of work we do on the ships that many people in this world today will never know. This feeling transcends price. I believe there is a need inside of all of us to care for and fix things. It’s an intrinsic need that has, I perceive, been strategically taken away from us in this consumerist world we live in. Gazela gives back to us the soul of caring and fixing in a way that few aspects of materialism can begin to match.” -Chris Simmons
As part of my preparation for writing Chariots of Glory: The Great Clipper Ship Race, I’ve started volunteering aboard the barquentine Gazela Primeiro, Philadelphia’s official tall ship.
If a California clipper was the Bentley of tall ships, a fishing barquentine like Gazela would be the Mack truck. The oldest operational wooden sailing ship in North America, Gazela was built in 1901 in Setúbal, Portugal. At 177 feet in length overall, 26 feet of beam, and grossing 299 tons, she is about as long as the 1846 American clipper Sea Witch, built for the high-speed run from New York to Canton. Built not for speed but for sturdiness, Gazela sailed to the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland each year, where her men left the ship in small dories and laid out their nets for cod. The life of a Portuguese fisherman was a rough and spartan one: cooking was done over a coal-fired stove, ventilation was almost non-existent. Inside, the ship stank of fish, bilge water, and soiled laundry. The crew — usually fathers, sons and cousins — slept two or three to a berth.
The ship successfully served her original purpose for seven decades. In 1971, she was purchased by Philadelphia philanthropist William Wykoff Smith, and is now owned and maintained by the members of the Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild. Today, Gazela is a testament both to the Portuguese shipbuilders who crafted her and the devoted, eclectic American crew that maintains and sails her. And many of their memories have been recorded in a new book entitled The Heart of a Ship: Stories from the Crew of the Gazela Primeiro.
As a maritime writer, I believe that that ships represent not just transportation, but our highest dreams and aspirations. Tall ships like the Gazela and ocean liners like the SS United States are not only excellent at the tasks they were built to perform, but are also beautiful to behold, offering us a kind of transcendent awe that has been lost in today’s instant-gratification, lifestyle-obsessed culture. They challenge the sea, that most fickle and unpredictable of foes, and win only with the help of a skilled, dedicated crew. And if they are sailing ships, they depend on the capricious wind to live, move, and have their being.
Tall ships have of course inspired beautiful poetry and prose from the likes of Eugene O’Neill and John Masefield, but these ships were about excruciatingly hard work in the worst of conditions. They are also reminders of our own frailty. The turn of a wheel, the slip of a foot, or the crash of a wave could mean the difference between life and death.
Yet why to people join the crews of ships like the Gazela today? The answer, of course, is finding a community that is not hinged on corporate philosophy, faith in reason, and pursuit of status. We are drawn to these ships because are reminders of what really makes a compelling story: life, death, and love. They test our confidence, our conceptions of ourselves, and remind us that we have to learn things from scratch as well as build on existing skills. Why else would that most well-traveled of American writers, Mark Twain, use the sailing ship as a metaphor for taking one’s chances in the great, wide world:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
These stories come across vividly in the accounts of the volunteer crew of the Gazela, which has been a “people’s ship” for the past forty years, open to anyone who wants to put in enough volunteer maintenance hours to sail. Doctors, lawyers, writers, steamfitters, housewives, mechanics, and nurses have climbed her rigging, stood night watches at the helm, scrubbed her decks, cooked in the galley, and slept in her cramped foc’sle bunks. Many are self-described “square pegs.” They sailed to Nova Scotia, took part in the Statue of Liberty centennial, and raced against other tall ships to Bermuda. They have shared stories with surviving members of the Gazela’s Portuguese crew, who still love the ship. As her last Portuguese captain told Jerry Andrako, Gazela is a survivor, and she “always manages to get what she needs.” Or as ship superintendent Patrick Flynn says in the book, Gazela is “the public access square-rigger…because of this open nature, people of all walks of life have learned what it’s like to work together as part of a sailing ship’s crew. Regardless of the skills you have when you first come aboard, Gazela has this amazing ability to get you to go beyond far beyond what you thought you could ever do.” Challenges create tension, but also forge bonds. Small wonder that so many couples have met and subsequently married aboard the Gazela, a fact pointed out multiple times in The Heart of a Ship.
Anyone that loves ships and the sea should read this book. Not only is it the story of a unique vessel, but it gives us a look at why people challenge themselves physically and emotionally on a tall ship. These are not people who want to live in the past and go back to some idealized time when tall ships plied the waves. Rather, these are people who want to learn more about themselves and their place in the present day. They also forge a bond with those who have gone down to the sea in tall ships in centuries past.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve steadily put in my volunteer hours down on Penn’s Landing. I have loved ships my whole life. I spent much of my childhood weaving miniature rigging and carving wooden balsa hulls in the basement of my parents house. Yet working with an actual ship of wood, iron, and rope has proved a humbling experience, where I have to be both open-minded to new challenges and mindful of my own limitations as a novice. I’ve chipped rust from the engine exhaust funnel, helped dismantle part of the windlass, tied knots to make baggywinkle, puttied the galley roof, and scraped old varnish off a pine boom. I’ve yet to go to sea. The best I can do is learn from those around me, and do the best I know how.
Reporter Don Cuddy aboard the Gazela Primeiro in the summer of 2010.
I was interviewed by the CBS Sunday Morning team last August. The story will air on Sunday January 20, 2013.