Of all the famous ocean liners to sail the North Atlantic, the most elegant and the one to epitomize the 1930’s the best was the French Line’s S.S. Normandie. Built to compete with the North German-Lloyd record-breaking liners, Bremen and Europa and the unfinished Cunard-White Star superliner, Queen Mary, the Normandie was the first ocean liner to excede 1,000 feet in length. Originally the French Line envisioned the new ship as a larger version of their current flagship, the Il de France, a ship with a conservative hull and very modern interiors. During the early planning stage of the new ship, the French Line was approached by a Russian expatriate living in France since the revolution, Vladimir Yourkevitch. He had already proposed to the Cunard Line the idea of using a clipper bow and a bulbous forefoot beneath the water line for their new ship (the future Queen Mary). But the Cunard Line was too conservative and rejected these innovated ideas. The French Line embraced Yourkevitch’s designs and as a result the Normandie would be the most powerful steam turbo-electric propelled ship ever built and one of the fastest.
Originally known as T6, she was constructed at the Penhoet Shipyard at St. Nazaire on a 1017 foot slipway. The first sections of the keel were laid down in May of 1931. On October 29, 1932 T6, renamed Normandie, was launched. This was the French Line’s entry to the superliner realm and her attempt to win the Blue Riband as the fastest passenger ship on the North Atlantic. As stylish and modern as the Normandie’s exterior was, her interiors were a showcase for the finest, modern, French decor.
The Grand Salon featured a huge mural by Jean Dupas, entitled “The History of Navigation and tall illuminated glass pillars by Lalique.
The first class dining room was capable of seating 700 at a time. Illumination came from 12 Lalique columns and wall panels, plus two very large chandeliers on either end of the room. It is easy to see why the Normandie was nick named “the ship of light”.
One of the most popular public spaces on board was the Cafe Grill, which also served as a nightclub after hours. I love the chrome tube chairs that were in the Cafe Grill, I wish I had one of them in my collection.
The Normandie was the first ship to feature a full-sized theatre for shows and movies. Before this, movies were shown in the lounge and from this point on, all the major liners had theatres. With plush seats and indirect lighting, the Normandie’s theatre was almost the size of a legitimate theatre in a large city.
Here is a gallery of some of the other interior spaces –
And some of the Normandie’s staterooms –
The Normandie left it’s home port of Le Harve on May 29th, beginning her maiden voyage. After a brief stop in South Hampton, she began sailing across the Atlantic on May 31st. The Normandie won the Blue Riband, as the fastest ship on the North Atlantic, making the crossing from Bishop Rock, off the Cornish coast (the eastern most point of the North Atlantic shipping lanes) to Ambrose Light (the western most point and the entrance to lower New York Bay) in 4 days, 3 hours and 2 minutes. The Normandie took the Blue Riband away from the Rex of the Italian Line and arrived in Manhattan on June 3, 1935. 30,000 people were waiting at Battery Park, with another 5,000 on Bedloe’s Island, to greet her.
As great a ship as the Normandie was, her class intimidated all but the most confident of travlers and as a result she often sailed below passenger capacity. In 1936 she was joined on the North Atlantic by Cunard-White Star’s, Queen Mary. The two great ships would trade the Blue Riband between them for the next several years as the fastest ships in the world. During the summer of 1939 as Europe prepared for the next war, the Normandie sailed from its home port of Le Harve on August 25th. She arrived in New York on August 28th and planned to sail back to France two days later. With Germany set to invade Poland at any moment, the French Line cancelled the August 30th sailing. Passengers waiting to sail on the Normandie were transferred to Cunard-White Star’s Aquitania. What no one knew at the time was that the Normandie would never sail again. With the outbreak of war in early September the French Line felt it safer to keep the ship in New York with a skeleton crew, rather than risk having her torpedoed.
After the fall of France in June of 1940, the Treasury Department detailed 150 Coast Guard men on her and Pier 88 to protect her against potential sabotage. The week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Coast Guard took possession of the ship and on December 20, 1941 control of the ship passed to the Navy. Conversion to a troop ship began a week later and on January 1, 1942 she was renamed U.S.S. Lafayette. On February 9th during the retrofit, a spark from a workman’s welding torch set some life jackets on fire. The flames spread fast and by the middle of the afternoon the ship was ablaze. Trying to extinguish the fire so much water was poured into the ship that it began to list badly to port. Early the next morning the tugs holding the Normandie upright were ordered away and at 2:45 A.M. she capsized into the Hudson.
Salvage operations began in June and once the superstructure was removed the hull of the Normandie was raised. Floated to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in September of 1943, she was declared a total loss. Decommissioned after the war, she was sold for scrap in 1946 and was completely gone by 1947.
Leaving the Normandie as a capsized, burned hull, lying on her side at her Manhattan pier, is not the way that she should be remembered. Below is part of a French documentary about a 1938 voyage of the great ship. It features the best color film footage I’ve ever seen of the Normandie, including the magnificent interiors. Enjoy and imagine you are passenger sailing to New York like a 1930’s movie star.
Chris & Anthony (“The Freakin’ ‘Tiquen Guys”)
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