You are embarking on a dream vacation, a cruise - a taste of the good life. There will be rituals to remember: lining up for the life boat drill, straightening your bow tie for dinner, charting your course on the map near the purser's desk. You will watch the sun rise, or see it set, and feel part of an ocean going tradition as old as recorded time.
But if you think you are embarking on a classic voyage, in the storied tradition of the Normandie, or even the Titanic, think again. The great ships of today are remarkable in size and scope. But they are not royalty. They are only distant cousins.
Their ancestors were the queens of the sea, Elizabeth and Mary, and great titans with names like Rex, and Europa and Lusitania. Once, they ruled the waves and their stories created legends. There was greatness in them, and ambition. They would come to symbolize a different age, an age when steel and steam gave birth to industry and power, when nations fought for supremacy, and when a man with enough money could build a dream and make it float.
The great ships of yesteryear were designed with a destination, a goal: to get from here to there and back again. They were designed for speed, as well: to get there faster, and to win the mythical Blue Riband, the imaginary prize for the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic. And they were designed to woo the wealthy, the celebrated rich who would attract headlines and gossip and mentions in the press.
The results were extraordinary: Art Deco splendor and Victorian excess; burled woods and carved bannisters; soothing lounges with silk upholstery; French cuisine served in mirrored halls. There were midnight sailings from the port of New York, with flowing champagne and ladies in evening gowns and a twinkling skyline bidding you farewell, as you sailed into waters as black as ink.
In the 1930s, the greatest of these classic ships was France's Normandie, to this day considered by many the quintessential ocean liner. As one devotee put it, "What the Chrysler Building is to skyscrapers, the Normandie was to ocean liners." Designed by a Russian, but executed with typical French taste, the Normandie came to define everything elegant about ocean travel: there was the Winter Garden, with caged birds and fountains; bronze doors at the main restaurant decorated in lalique and hammered glass; towers of light illuminating the dining room. She even had the high seas' first movie theater. Stars sparkled not just on screen, but also on deck; Josephine Baker, Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich made Normandie the only way to cross.
In time, Normandie and Britain's venerable answer to her, the Queen Mary, came to symbolize a world of fantasy, wealth and privilege. The world couldn't help but notice. In Des Moines, or Lubbock, or Cheyenne, you could sit in a darkened movie theater at the height of the Depression, and there, on screen, newsreels celebrated these vast and beautiful creations - floating palaces gliding into port. At a time of dictators and dustbowls, these ships appeared on the horizon, like glittering dreams come to life. Ocean travel had been touched with magic.
It could not last. War brought an interruption to this great age of travel. Then, in February of 1942, the unthinkable happened, and the great jewel of the sea, Normandie, caught fire while at port in New York City. Firefighters poured water onto her. In the winter air, it turned to ice. Within hours, she became top heavy and sank. After that, nothing would ever be quite the same.
In the 1950s, jets became the rage. Desperate ocean lines proclaimed air travel was only a fad. They couldn't have been more wrong. Soon, the tide had completely turned. Few traveled to Europe by ship. Shipping lines closed up shop. The ports of New York harbor stood empty. Midnight sailings became only a happy memory.
We have some sense of that golden age in today's modern cruise. There is still an air of expectation, and celebration, and escape. But it is not the same. It can't be. The great liners came about at a particular time, to enliven a particular age. And they are gone.
But somewhere, in memory, a lounge awaits. There is a carved banister to hold, a wooden deck to walk. A whistle sounds and an anchor is raised and a voyage begins to some place across the horizon. London, perhaps, or Paris, or Rome. For a brief time, there are no wars, or breadlines. There is only the sea, and the promise of a welcoming port.
Greg Kandra first got his sea legs on the Norway in 1995. When he's in port, he's a writer and producer for CBS News in New York, currently the Story Producer and Writer for 60 Minutes II, and one of the head writers for "9/11," the CBS documentary which aired on September 10, 2002. Other writing credits include "60 at 30" on the 30th anniversary of the popular news magazine, 60 Minutes, a BIOGRAPHY of Jerry Seinfeld, which aired on May 11, 1998 on the A&E network show of the same name, and SUPERLINERS, a documentary produced for the Discovery Channel which first aired in the Fall of 1998.
Over the last 20 years, Greg has won a Peabody Award, an Emmy and two awards from the Writers Guild of America.
Greg can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Normandie just happens to be my favorite ocean liner of all time. There are many good sites on the internet which contain information and photos of this majestic ship. Although the first of my two favorite sites listed below is still under construction, those of you who appreciate the beauty and classic nature of Normandie will marvel at the photographs found here taken in New York in 1936 by a gentleman from Muncie, Indiana. And, you will no doubt shed a tear when you read more and view photos of her demise and destruction.
Uncommon Journeys: Normandie
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