The noise was utterly stupendous.
A vast armada of floating, bustling tugs, yachts and small ferries tooted, shrieked and wailed in salute as the brand new SS. Normandie eased slowly out of her berth in Le Havre, at the start of her long anticipated maiden crossing to New York. Crowds blackening the waterfront cheered themselves hoarse as the new liner, carrying some 1,013 passengers, stole with almost effortless ease out toward the breakwater, her three enormous, black and red smoke stacks looming over everything in sight.
From her forward funnel came a stately, sonorous kind of boom that shook windows and tugged at every heartstring for miles around. And then she was gone, immortalized in film reels and buzzed by local aircraft as she surged towards the west.
The most dazzling, auspicious and spectacular maiden voyage in the history of sea travel had officially begun.
The ship that emerged from the spring sunshine off the French coast was unlike anything else that had ever cut salt water before or, indeed in many respects, ever since. The first ship to exceed the 80,000 ton mark, and the first to ever come in at over a thousand foot in length, the Normandie was already serenaded by scores of materialistic drum rolls long before she ever put to sea.
Of course, she was a ravishing beauty. Her pert, gracefully flared clipper bow and diamond style cruiser stern were just the entrees to a vast, snow white superstructure, completely devoid of all the usual mechanical clutter that looked like pimples on a supermodel’s face. The three great, graceful, black and red ovoid funnels that crowned her upper deck seemed to diminish slightly in height from bow to stern. On that most perfect of bows, a snow white whaleback covered all the anchors, winches and steam capstans.
The sum total was a streamlined, almost space age piece of stunning technological magnificence. No ship ever combined such an excess of grace, pace and sheer, jaw dropping beauty with such effortless, elegant ease as did the Normandie.
But it was the details that truly set her apart. From the three hundred and twenty five separate items listed on her first class dinner menu to the wine cellar, loaded aboard a full six months before she ever sailed. This allowed the wine to settle so that, if by unforeseen chance the Normandie should ever roll, then that rolling should least upset the wine. And, naturally, table wine was always free at lunch and dinner on the Normandie. After all, this was France afloat.
Of course, the French Line asserted that you were in France the moment that you crossed her gangways. The Normandie was a glittering confection of scarlet, gold, glass and lalique; vast, anodized bronze panels and bas reliefs lined the walls of the two storey public rooms that flowed, one into another, in an unbroken run hundreds of feet long.
There was a winter garden, complete with bubbling fountains and chattering birds, a café grill room that never really got lively until after midnight, and scattered, casual groupings of sofas and chairs decorated with hand stitched Aubusson detailing. Vast, spectacular staircases flanked the full width of the interior, allowing for magnificent vistas from any part of the ship.
The overall effect was staggering, and it was meant to be. The Normandie resembled nothing so much as a Hollywood movie set afloat. It would be no coincidence that she would become so beloved of motion picture’s royalty. More film stars, fashionistas and fun lovers sailed on her than on any other ship. Internally, the Normandie was simply the most stunningly beautiful, original ship that has ever been seen.
Of course, announcements on board her were always made first in French, even though around eighty per cent of her passengers on average would be American. There were scarlet jacketed mousses to operate the lifts, and then guide Monsieur or Madame to wherever they wished to go.
If all of this is suggestive of overkill, then there is truth in that also. Many ordinary tourist and third class passengers were actually put off by the high style, glittering luxe of the Normandie. For sure, she was a ship that was built primarily for first class passengers. One tenth of her total cost went on internal decoration; one tenth of that would have been enough, but then, of course, it would not have been magnificent.
And, of course, she took the Blue Riband at the first attempt. Naturally, the Normandie had not been actually trying for the speed record; no lady of any breeding ever did, after all.
Still, when she thundered past the finish line at Ambrose Light at 11.03 on the morning of June 3rd, her steam whistles let out a single, triumphant scream, and a thirty metre long blue pennant- which ‘happened’ to be on board- was unfurled from her mainmast. It signified one knot for each metre. At the same time, every single passenger was presented with an engraved, celebratory medallion to commemorate the historic event. They just ‘happened’ to be on board as well.
Her triumphal entry into New York harbour remains the greatest seagoing welcome ever extended to any ship. Buzzed by squadrons of planes and even shadowed by a blimp, the Normandie was surrounded by literally hundred of small yachts, pleasure boats and fireboats hurling plumes of water skywards in welcome. An estimated two hundred and fifty thousand people blackened the banks of the Hudson to see her come in.
By the time she finally docked at New York’s Pier 88 in mid afternoon, the Normandie had garnered a level of world news coverage that would not be equalled until the first Moon landing, some thirty four years later.
The first crossing of the Normandie had been a spectacular, show stopping triumph of the first order, carried through by a ship that could do nothing undramatic. Most importantly for both the ship and her owners, it had been carried through with the kind of breezy, Gallic panache that made it all look effortless, somehow inevitable.
Time and tide has garlanded this greatest of all ocean liners with many crowns. But she wore none so jauntily as the one she earned on that first, historic crossing of the Atlantic, which began eighty years ago today.