It’s a fact that, while many ocean liners achieve fame, few actually achieve immortality. And those that do very often do so on the back of some catastrophic event. Those that actually become immortal over the course of a long career can probably be safely counted on the fingers of one hand.
That point made, I’d argue that if any liner can be called immortal, it is surely the Ile De France.
Why the Ile De France?
At first glance, she might seem a strange choice to some. Viewed externally through the prism of history, she was neither the biggest nor the fastest liner in the world when she emerged in 1927. And the hull, with its knife like bow and three towering, black and red funnels, looked as if it could just as easily have been a product of Edwardian designers. Yes, she was proud and dignified but, from afar at least, she was hardly cutting edge.
But inside, she was a very different lady indeed.
The entire, fabulous interior of the Ile De France was sheathed in bow to stern Art Deco styling, rivalling the greatest and most luxurious hotels ashore. Whereas all of her slowly ageing, sometimes ponderous rivals were decorated in a pre war style that made them resemble so many fusty, Edwardian theme parks, the Ile De France was stunningly, totally modern. Those new interiors were the architectural equivalent of a brick hurled through a frosted up window. They were like nothing ever seen before and, after her, nothing on the Atlantic would ever be the same again.
The French Line insisted that ‘To live is not to copy; it is to create’, and in the concept and completion of the Ile De France, that notion- one that was to become something of a hallowed mantra- was carried through to massive acclaim. In short order, the Ile De France became so popular that veteran travellers were prepared to wait an additional week or more to make sure that they could sail on her. She was new, and she had panache; as such, she was bound to prosper in the early days.
So what, then, explains her extraordinary longevity? Not until 1959 would the veteran liner call down ‘finished with engines’ for the very last time. It had to be something more than could be created by that initial, sensational splash. Something deeper and more grounded. Something far more subtle was at play here.
For sure, she had flair. The first class dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less than two hundred and seventy five separate items nightly. On her maiden voyage, one particular lady upbraided her captain, saying that the Ile was neither the biggest or the fastest. The captain’s reply was pure class;
‘No, madame. But neither is the Ritz’…..
And that single sentence sums up the Ile De France with more singular brilliance than I ever could. With her all French crew, including the scarlet jacketed little bell boys who were there solely to operate the lifts, the Ile De France took every strand of the hallowed French Line traditions of exemplary service and matchless cuisine, and then wove them into the most internally dramatic and stunning ship ever built.
The result was pure magic. Noel Coward was so enchanted with her that he worked a reference to the Ile De France into the lyrics of These Foolish Things. Even when the far bigger and faster Normandie made her sensational debut in the mid thirties, the Ile De France continued to be one of the most popular ships afloat; one that had, indeed, by that time already developed a true cult following.
And, of course, her war record was nothing less than heroic. Taken over and managed by Cunard Line during the Second World War, the grey shrouded Ile De France carried literally thousands of troops to all the major theatres of war. It took a huge toll on her, both materially and mechanically. Not until 1946 would the battered, grimy trooper make her first return home to France in some seven years.
Already twenty years old, the Ile De France needed drastic rebuilding and refurbishment; a task easier envisaged than accomplished in a devastated, post war France. It would be 1949 before the ‘new’ Ile De France emerged to resume first rate French Line service on the Atlantic.
Though as lavish and loved as ever, and with her three funnels replaced by a pair of stockier, newer models, the Ile De France still had an exterior that was obviously from another era when she arrived back in New York to a fabulous, fire boat and siren welcome. But, with her return to service, the French Line served due notice to the opposition. The legend- and she was already that- was back. And how.
The service and cuisine remained as lavish as ever. On the Ile De Franc, onion soup was offered for breakfast even in tourist class. In those first, post war years, the Atlantic liner trade boomed as never before.
Paired with the reborn Liberte, formerly the rival German Europa, the Ile De France offered the most highly styled and diverse service afloat. No matter that the Cunard Queens were bigger and faster; the French duo had that same effortless, elegant sense of art de vivre that made the French Line the natural first choice of the beau monde. For years, the two ships raked in massive profits for the French Line.
As the fifties picked up pace, the veteran liner finally began showing her age. But in July 1956, the Ile De France made world wide headlines once again, when she rescued most of the 1600 plus survivors of the Andrea Doria, after the beautiful Italian liner- the very emblem of 1950’s built, ocean going modernity- sank after being rammed in thick fog off Nantucket. There was life in the old girl yet.
In the winter season, the Ile De France sailed on leisurely, lavish cruises to the Caribbean from New York; a role in which she was to prove surprisingly popular. During the course of one of these, she ran aground and damaged her keel. Though taken back to Newport News and repaired, the Ile De France was clearly on borrowed time. And, when it came, her end caused uproar across her native land.
In 1959, the thirty-two year old Ile De France was finally sold to a Japanese company for scrapping. But, before commencing the task, the Japanese hired the Ile De France out to a Hollywood movie company. She was about to become the biggest floating film prop in movie history.
Over the course of The Last Voyage, the Ile De France- restyled as the S.S. Claridon for the sake of the film- suffered the indignity of having her forward funnel being toppled onto the superstructure, followed by numerous dramatic internal ‘explosions’. Then, the veteran liner was sunk in shallow water as a climax of sorts. Once raised post filming, her devastated, degraded carcass was patched up, and towed away to be butchered in a scrapyard.
Even that final, degrading barbarism has done nothing to diminish the reverence and sheer awe in which the Ile De France is still held, both in her native land, and by the maritime community as a whole. For the Ile De France had not just panache; she had soul. She was the absolute epitome of finely styled, ocean going finesse and elegance. Of a truth, she was beloved, and in a way that few, more pretentious vessels ever were, or will be.
Those striking, Art Deco interiors marked her out as a true, ocean going game changer; a ship as bold and daring as she was beautiful and dramatic. And, of course, she was fun.
Abreast of her smoke stacks, on either side, giant electric letters used to spell out her name. And, even now, it is all to easy for the mind’s eye to see those same, brilliant letters blazing out across the Atlantic at sunset as the cocktail hour approaches.
At the same time, they were both her epitaph, and the endorsement of her own, immortal legend.
ILE DE FRANCE.