The France of 1962 at her Manhattan pier. The French Line called her ‘The last refuge of the good life.’
With the high water era of the Atlantic liners long since gone, many exaggerated claims have been made about those largely vanished times. Partly through the prism of warped memories recounted to star struck writers, former passengers waxed lyrical about entire tureens of caviar in first class, among other things. One woman in particular recalled the ill fated Titanic carrying ‘an entire herd’ of dairy cows to provide the first class passengers with fresh milk.
Add in a nostalgic fondness for a mostly wonderful experience that has all but vanished, and the possibility for exaggeration and distortion grows larger still. The line between fact and fiction blurs like fog on the horizon.
Drawing a perfect bead on those days is ultimately about as plausible as stuffing a cloud into a suitcase. But a great many of those lovingly embellished claims really do have at least some foundation in fact. Let’s look at some of the most famous excesses of the first class Atlantic crossing that actually do stack up.
French Line cuisine is often claimed to have been the finest afloat. In first class, the Ile De France offered no less than two hundred and seventy five different items to sample on the dinner menu. The same ship offered onion soup for breakfast, among other things.
A few years later, the still unparalelled Normandie listed some three hundred and twenty five items on the evening menu. It must have taken an hour just to peruse it. This menu was served up in the first ever air conditioned public room to go to sea.
Interestingly, the French Line never really went for separate, additional first class eating venues for dinner, such as the famed Verandah Grills of the Cunard Queens, or the Ritz-Carlton that was so popular on the Amerika.
True, the Normandie did have an aft facing, upper deck Cafe Grill located in approximately the same place as those on the Queens, but this was far more of a late night supper club venue than a dedicated, first class alternative for dinner. On many crossings, it seldom got busy before midnight.
Simply put, the French Line considered that it’s uniform standard of first class dining was of such a high level that creating a separate dining room was superfluous. Passengers could, of course, also dine in their suites. But that lack of an alternative first class venue for diners was as much a statement of intent as anything else. Even the flashy, much more modern France did not deviate from that rule when she came into service as late as 1962.
If the ships were over the top in first class, then they certainly did cosset- and covet- many over the top passengers. In the 1930’s it was nothing unusual for Count Rossi, of Martini and Rossi fame, to block book entire thirty cabin suites for himself and his entourage aboard the Conte Di Savoia or the Rex on the Italian Line’s ‘sunny southern’ route to and from New York.
Cunard devotees before and after the war, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor switched to the brand new United States from 1952 onward. The Duchess would think nothing of asking in advance for her suite to be decorated in a colour scheme that she herself had devised. However, that same couple rather let down their reputation for extravagance by insisting that they pay only a minimum, inside cabin rate for the same suite.
Mountains of personal luggage were an obvious norm. A lady travelling in first class on a transatlantic liner could be expected to change her clothes up to four times a day. The likes of the Astors, Wideners and Thayers boarded the ill fated Titanic with a whole raft of suitcases, steamer trunks and other sundries that they had picked up during their travels, not to mention an entire retinue of personal maids, valets, private secretaries, and even prized pets. In those days, this would not have even raised an eyebrow.
It is a common conception that such excess ended after the war. It almost did, but not quite.
On the QE2, the famous Mrs. L. Kirk Edwards- known to everyone as Lulu- spent so much time in residence on board that she became part of the fixtures and fittings. She once famously quipped that “I sent my yacht to the Falklands” after the ship’s heroic stint in the infamous 1982 conflict. She was in the habit of throwing cocktail parties for the ship’s off duty officers after church service on Sundays. They became known on board as ‘The thirst after righteousness’.
Another lady of a certain age sailed on the QE2 on every single one of her three month long circumnavigations of the world. She routinely took two suites- one for herself, and the other to store each of the ninety or so new designer outfits that she had created from scratch for each adventure.
Of course, QE2 always remained a singular, stubborn holdout to the end; a shining example of style over hype. I remember one particular lady, wearing over a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of jewels at one cocktail party. With a perfectly straight face, she told me that QE2 was the only place where she could wear such an excess of diamante and still feel perfectly safe.
There was a man- a brain surgeon as it turned out- who lost $45,000 in the casino on a single night. And many QE2 regulars will no doubt recall meeting the legendary Beatrice ‘Bea’ Muller, another lady of means that lived on board the famed vessel until the end of her Cunard career.
Excessive? Probably. Elegance? Certainly. Enigmatic? Beyond the shadow of a doubt.