Of all the great liners to emerge unscathed from the carnage of the Great War, I think the Leviathan had perhaps the saddest commercial career. In view of her high birth and her heroic war record, there’s something wistful and just damned wrong about her fate on the Atlantic. She was a flower that never seemed to fully bloom.
Designed and launched as the Vaterland, the second of the great Hamburg Amerika Line trio created by the brilliant Albert Ballin, she was in New York harbour, in the midst of her third round trip, when the war broke out. Shackled to her Hoboken pier, she was first interned, before suffering the ultimate indignity of becoming a troopship for the enemies of the Fatherland.
It was a role she performed beautifully. On one trip, she carried almost 15,000 doughboys over to General Pershing’s fledgling army in France, the largest amount of men ever to be ferried over any ocean at any time. At war’s end, she was awarded to the United States Lines as a prize. In all, she had carried an estimated 120,000 American troops. After trooping duties, the huge liner went down to Newport News, Virginia, for a long, protracted restoration to civilian service.
Here, the huge vessel was converted to oil burning, and a complete new set of blueprints for her was produced from scratch by William Francis Gibbs, a man later to achieve everlasting fame as the designer of both the America and the United States. While much of her original glut of Edwardian elegance was restored, some Art Deco touches were dotted around the ship. By June 1923, the reborn Leviathan, with her funnels painted red, white and blue, was ready to re-enter service on the Atlantic crossing.
She never really had a chance.
In the prohibition era, American liners on the Atlantic were dry in more ways than one. Though an enterprising passenger could always acquire a stash of booze on board, her official moniker as a ‘dry’ ship hurt the Leviathan from the start.
Secondly, the high labour costs inherent in running with an all American crew bit into her potential profit margins. And United States Lines simply had no experience of running such a large and extravagant ship. While rivals such as Cunard and White Star operated a balanced, three ship service across the Atlantic, the proud, doughty Leviathan had no comparable running mate.
Despite that, she was a very prestigious liner, right up there with her sister ships and commercial rivals. the Berengaria and the Majestic. She was certainly the fastest of the ex-Ballin trio. But in many ways, the Leviathan was essentially a ‘not quite as’ ship. Not quite as large as the Majestic. Not quite as fast as the Mauretania.
It was an incredible time; the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was an age defined by steamships, gangsters, flappers, baseball and jazz. And, in her day, the Leviathan was as prestigious and newsworthy as any of her rivals.
Then, in 1927, the arrival of the stunning, Art Deco suffused Ile De France signalled the beginning of the end for the armada of ageing Edwardian theme parks still crossing the Atlantic. Her debut was sensational; within weeks, she became the most striking, newsworthy and successful liner on the Atlantic by a mile. Veteran Atlantic travellers were prepared to wait a full week or more just to be able to sail on her.
The Leviathan was particularly hard hit. Then- irony of ironies- the advent of a new German champion- in the shape of the Bremen- made matters worse still. The onset of the Great Depression in October of 1929 almost finished her. Only a generous government subsidy kept the Leviathan sailing at all.
Even the end of Prohibition did nothing to ease the pain. By now, the Leviathan was being sent on short, five and six day ‘booze cruises’ just to make ends meet. By 1934, she was making only five transatlantic crossings a year, often carrying more crew than passengers. Her grand, ghostly salons, dotted with just handfuls of stoic, die hard passengers, would prove to be an eerie harbringer for the deserted ocean liners of the Jet Age, some thirty years later.
The Leviathan never made another commercial voyage. For four years, she remained shackled to her pier, slowly wasting away. In 1935, she was crowded to capacity for the first time in years, used as a giant viewing gallery for the maiden arrival in New York of the Normandie.
Finally, in January 1938, the great liner was sold for scrap. For the last time, her propellers kicked into life, and she limped across the Atlantic to her own destruction in Rosyth, Scotland. It was a sad, laboured, and undignified end for such a magnificent liner.
That final voyage was her 301st in all. In her years of service for the United States Lines, she carried something like 250,000 passengers. She never earned a cent in profit.
Poor, proud Leviathan never inspired the same awe and affection as her two sister ships. Yet she was every bit as magnificent and glamorous. Fate dealt this fabulous, posthumously fabled ship a series of lousy hands in rapid succession. They were storms she could not weather, sadly.