When the World had Normandie

By Andrej Mrevlje |

In Paris in the mid-eighties, in a small art shop around the corner from La Sorbonne, I found a poster of the Normandie, the French transatlantic liner that navigated between Le Havre and New York in 1930’s. It was a very well-preserved reproduction of an advertising manifesto of Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. The painting was a piece of art. It had a touch of futurism though, as I learned later, A.M. Cassandre, the painter, and designer, was more known for his cubist and surrealist strokes. The poster was not cheap for my student budget, and I did not yet have a permanent wall to put it on but, because from my teenage years on I always wanted to board one of those steamboats and travel across the Atlantic, I bought it. It was not about America; it was about traveling by boat…

I came to America a lot but always flying, never fulfilling my longtime desire to travel for months on the ocean. Even when I finally loaded my stuff, Normandie poster included, into a container to traverse the Atlantic, I took a plane to New York. Then, just last week, I got this text from my friend Mark Lasswell, a writer and former WSJ editor from New York: “New York Times has a story today about the Sotheby’s auction on June 6 of beautiful big glass panels from the ocean liner Normandie. They are on display until then.” It’s still incredible, how the Normandie, after all these years continues to be a story, her endless treasures discovered then rediscovered, similar to the gold of the pharaohs, scattered around the world in private collections. Mark’s message was a nice reminder of the interest that, among other things, links us.

I got to know Mark when I helped him drag a huge branch that broke from a tree off the roof of his family’s cozy house in the midst of the forest in Amagansett. It was the day after Hurricane Irene stormed the area and caused quite a lot of damage. Mark and I had fun doing a bit of physical work, and after we had been done, we entered the house, and I saw the same Normandie poster I now keep in my New York apartment, right there on the wall of the living room. I was flabbergasted. Why would this silent man, also, to be an American, care about a French liner from seventy years ago, I wondered?

“Because it burned down at the Hudson piers in New York,” Mark said bluntly. I didn’t know that; I was sad to hear it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I preferred to believe that the Normandie would still sail, or was getting tired and rusty resting somewhere for eternity. But burned? As he pulled out a picture book on Normandie and started explaining, I realized Mark was even more obsessed with the Normandie than I was. I always found this disparity very fascinating; while me and many Europeans like the idea of things, their distant romance, the Americans I met around the world were always more grounded, always exploring something concrete, to its absolute end. The reason I did not follow the fate of the Normandie was that it did not matter to me. The poster was a merely the perfect illustration of my desire to cross the Atlantic as Thomas Mann did in May 1934, a sort of meditation that ended a long political essay he entitled Voyage with Don Quixote.

An image of the Normandie superimposed on New York City streets as photographed by Byron Co., 1934.

“The catalyst for this self-examination is the physical voyage itself and the reflective journey prompted by Mann’s reading of Don Quixote. The comparison of the reading of a book to a journey is an old, tired metaphor drawn by Mann himself when he speaks of ‘this ocean of a book,’” Gene R. Pendleton, philosopher and academic, observed. Pendleton was right. The old, tired metaphor lost its credence to concrete and pragmatic American thinking; while I was still dreaming about a trip on a boat across the ocean, Mark did the work of an investigative reporter, making sense of the significance of both, the desire to discover one’s self among the expanse of the ocean, as well as his obsession with it. This time, I did not want to miss the fascinating story of the Normandie, a tale that crosses civilizations, cultures, and histories.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (more commonly known as the French Line or CGT) had really established itself in the North Atlantic. The marvelous trio consisting of France, Paris and De Grasse had earned the company a reputation of taking the very best of France to the high seas. Splendid interior designs, superb service, and unparalleled cuisine were a few of the French Line’s hallmarks, making their vessels indeed something extraordinary.

But although the distinguished French trio were fantastic ships, it was a ship that entered service in 1927 that would stand as one of the company’s all-time masterpieces – the Île de France. Where previous vessels had been decorated in styles of the past, the Île de France had been done in the new Art Deco. The appearance of the Île de France stunned the world, and for the first time in history, hotels began imitating a ship – instead of the other way around. This daring innovation was warmly embraced by the traveling public, and along with the other French Line characteristics, this undoubtedly made the Île de France a queen of the North Atlantic.

The report comes from a chapter on Normandie in The Ocean Liners. The success of the Île de France made the CGT think of building a larger version of it. If not for Vladimir Yourkevitch, a former Russian citizen who fled the motherland after the revolution and ended up in Paris, the Normandie might never have existed at all. Yourkevitch, who designed four battle cruisers for the Russian Navy, approached the French with a suggestion to use his own revolutionary hull design. He was initially, politely, firmly, asked to go away.

But with the aid of some friends in high places, Yourkevitch soon managed to make the French engineers listen. They were impressed with what they heard and saw. From Yourkevitch’s specifications, they constructed a model that was tested against their own hull design. The result was astonishing. Yourkevitch’s design proved to be far more efficient than any hull design constructed before. With the slanting clipper-like bow and the bulbous forefoot beneath the waterline in combination with the slim hull, this revolutionary design would create a hull with so far unprecedented hydrodynamic qualities, making almost no bow-wave and leaving only a thin, calm wake in its trail. It was obvious to the Penhoët-engineers that with this type of hull, their future vessel would not need as much horsepower as first calculated.

Built by Chantiers et Ateliers de St. Nazaire and launched in 1932, Normandie made her maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York on 29 May 1935, setting speed records both westbound and eastbound. She was a beauty and regarded as the greatest passenger liner ever created. Her construction costs were covered by the government because a 1,029-foot ship, with a capacity of 80,000 tons and a top speed of 32.2 knots could if needed, become a valuable military asset in wartime. But more than that, Normandie became a pride of France, built with the most advanced engineering marvels known, decorated with lavish interiors, fixtures, fittings and accommodations. The excellent French food was served aboard her, and she carried with her the best French wines. She was stunning as if the whole ship was a work of maritime art.

Arrival to New York after Normandie’s maiden voyage, June 1935

But Normandie’s career as a passenger liner was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. At the end of her 139th Atlantic crossing, she arrived in New York on 28 August 1939, and would never sail again. At the outburst of the WWII, the French, afraid that German U-boats might go after her, mothballed her at Pier 88. They thought that their crown jewel would be safe on the Hudson. But then the Germans occupied France and the government of Vichy stepped on the German side and the orphan Normandie passed into the custody of the U.S. Coast Guard. Then, a week after Pearl Harbor, as the U.S. entered the war, the Normandie was taken over by the U.S. Maritime Commission and was renamed, U.S.S. Lafayette. A year later, she was also stripped of all her beautiful decoration. The conversion of the Normandie to a troop transport was an enormous, destructive effort. All of the expensive carpets, paneling, and decorations intended for the comfort of rich ocean travelers had to be torn out, and instead, iron cots for soldiers were crammed into every possible space. She was going to war.

“VLADIMIR IVANOVITCH, your Normandie is burning.” It was 2 o’clock on a gray, cold afternoon. The date was February 9, 1942. For a few seconds, Vladimir Ivanovitch Yourkevitch could not quite make out what the voice on the telephone was saying, but it was insisting in Russian, “Your Normandie is burning,” according to the background report published by the New York Times on the fire after the beauty burned black and laid capsized like a dead whale at Pier 88, on the Hudson River.

Indeed, in spite of her conversion into a military transport ship, the Normandie was still Yourkevitch’s child. Ivan Ivanovitch was in New York when the flames consuming his ship burst irrevocably, sparks flying from flammable life preservers that were stacked in the salon on the promenade deck, the New York Daily reported. The cause? While many workers were still finishing their jobs, the impatient army had already started to load the boat with flammable materials. Yourkevitch did not know any of this and was wondering what might’ve caused the fire, assuming it must have been small, and probably immediately extinguished since his ship had very efficient and highly sophisticated fire protection. But in the end, he couldn’t resist and rushed down to the Piers to see his entire ship in flames and smoke.

The guards would not let him close to the burning Normandie, and would not listen to his advice on how to save her. “The fire was totally preventable and needless, but the bungled attempts to combat it, which was really what destroyed the ship, were so boneheaded and inept that people could scarcely believe it was an accident. Indeed, for years shadowy rumors and conspiracy theories have held that the Normandie was deliberately sabotaged by enemy agents or subversive Americans. What we’re sure of is that the tragedy at Pier 88 should never have happened, and it robbed the human race of a magnificent, one-of-a-kind artifact,” wrote Sean Munger many years later. The ship sat on the bottom of the Hudson for a year and a half, drawing great crowds. She was righted and refloated in August 1943. But because of the raging fire aboard, surveys on the Normandie proved that she was twisted and warped, unable to be salvaged, so then broken up, and sold for scrap.

Now, her full splendor exists only in Cassandre’s art. And there are aerial views of her triumphant arrival to New York harbor in June 1935, her maiden voyage. Normandie was the message of hope for a world coming out of the great depression, the beholder of a spiritual significance we still imbue to vessels today, except now big boats are built directly by the military and they carry warplanes. Down at the Piers today, you’ll find the old aircraft carrier Intrepid, a survivor of WWII, resting his old brittle bones. Would it not be nicer to be able to take a cup of tea on the Normandie and watch a movie in one of her salons instead?

The story of the Normandie has another contemporary signification. It tells us about a kind of Russian genius that no longer exists–pioneering engineer, radical visionary, dreamer–destroyed by long years of Stalin, Brezhnev, and now Putin’s dictatorship. Such viciousness has become something that the 45th president of the White House is now trying to learn from Putin and his predecessors, and well.
As for me, here is my piece of news. This summer, I will finally board a big cruiser and travel from New York to London, crossing an ocean with the world at once behind and ahead of me, slowly fading and materializing on the horizon, where I might find what all men seek on the water. I still haven’t chosen what book I will make the voyage with.

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