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Name: S.S. Normandie
Owner: Compagnie GŽnŽrale Transatlantique
Builder: Penho‘t, Saint Nazaire, France
Laid down: 26 January 1931
Launched: 29 October 1932
Christened: 29 October 1932
Maiden voyage: 29 May 1935
Fate: Caught fire, capsized at Pier 88 in the New York Passenger Ship Terminal in New York City in 1942; wreck remained on site throughout WWII, and was sold for scrap on 3 October 1946.
Tonnage: 79,280 / 83,423 gross tons
Displacement: 71,300 tons (approximate)
Length: 1,029 feet (312.81m)
Beam: 119.4 feet (36.4 m)
Height: 184 feet (56.1 m)
Draft: 37.00 feet (11.3 m)
Installed power: Four turbo electric, total 160,000 hp (200,000 hp max).
Propulsion: Four 3 (later 4) bladed, 23 tons each
Speed: Designed speed 29Êknots (54Êkm/h), max speed recorded 32.2Êknots (59.6Êkm/h)
Capacity: 1,972: 848 First Class (cabin), 670 Tourist Class, 454 Third Class
S.S. Normandie was a French ocean liner built in Saint-Nazaire, France, for the French Line Compagnie GŽnŽrale Transatlantique. When launched in 1932 she was the largest and fastest ship in the world, and she maintains the distinction of being the most powerful steam turbo electric propelled passenger ship ever built. Her novel design features and lavish interiors have led many to consider her the greatest of all ocean liners. Despite this, she was not a commercial success, and relied partly on government subsidy to operate. During her service career as the flagship of the CGT, she made 139 transatlantic crossings westbound from her home port of Le Havre to New York (but only 138 eastbound).
During World War II, the S.S. Normandie was seized by United States authorities at New York and renamed U.S.S. Lafayette. In 1942, while being converted to a troopship, the liner caught fire, capsized, and sank at the New York Passenger Ship Terminal. Although she was salvaged at great expense, restoration of the vessel was deemed too costly, and she was scrapped in October 1946.
The beginnings of Normandie can be traced to the Roaring Twenties when shipping companies started to look for new ships to replace aging veterans such as the R.M.S. Mauretania, which had first sailed in 1907. Those earlier ships had been designed around the huge numbers of steerage class immigrants coming from Europe to the United States; when the U.S. closed the door on most immigration in the early 1920s, steamship companies ordered vessels built to serve middle class tourists instead, particularly Americans who traveled to Europe for alcohol fueled fun during Prohibition. Companies like Cunard and the White Star Line planned to build their own superliners to rival the newer ships on the scene; such vessels included the record breaking Bremen and Europa, both German ships. The French Line was not to be left out of this new race and soon began to plan their own superliner. At the time, the French Line's flagship was the Ile de France, which had modern Art Deco interiors but a relatively conservative hull design. The designers of the new French superliner initially intended to construct their new ship similar to French Line ships of the past, but then they were approached by Vladimir Yourkevitch, a former ship architect for the Imperial Russian Navy who had emigrated to France before the revolution. His ideas included a slanting clipper like bow and a bulbous forefoot beneath the waterline, in combination with a slim hull. Yourkevitch's concepts worked wonderfully in scale model tests which supported his design's performance advantages. The French engineers were so impressed that they asked Yourkevitch to join their project. Reportedly, Yourkevitch also approached the Cunard Line with his ideas, but was rejected on the grounds that the new bow shape was too radical.
Construction and launch
Work began on the as yet unnamed French Line flagship in January 1931, soon after the terrifying stock market crash of 1929. While the French continued construction, the competing White Star Line's ship (intended as Oceanic) started before the crash had to be cancelled and the Cunard ship was put on hold, both because their financing, organized before the crash, ran into trouble. Soon, the French builders also ran into difficulty, and had to ask their government for money to continue construction; this subsidy was questioned in the press. Still, the building was followed heavily by newspapers and national interest was deep. Though she was designed to represent France in the nation state contest of the great liners, and though she was built in a French shipyard using French built major parts (including the 29 boilers, the turbines, generators and even the 4 massive engines, designed by Alsthom, which later worked on the Queen Mary 2), a few secondary parts of her came from other European countries e.g., the ship's great rudder was built by Skoda Works in Czechoslovakia, while the steering mechanism, including the teak wheel, came from Edinburgh.
As construction went on, the growing hull in Saint-Nazaire had no formal designation except for ''T-6'' (with ''6'' for ''6th'' and ''T'' for ''Transat'', short for ''CIE. GLE. TRANSATLANTIQUE'' aka the ''French Line''), the contract name. Many names were suggested including Doumer, after the recently assassinated president Paul Doumer, and originally, La Belle France. Finally the name Normandie was decided upon after much speculation. In what may be a unique quirk of French nomenclature, the name carries no definite article. In France, ship prefixes are customarily masculine, inherited from the French terms for ship, which can be ''paquebot'', ''navire'', ''bateau'', ''b‰timent'', etc. (including le ''France'' which is not grammatically correct); but English speakers usually refer to ships as feminine (''she's a beauty''), and the French Line carried many rich American customers. After discussion, French Line officials wrote that their ship was to be called simply ''Normandie,'' preceded by no ''le'' or ''la'' (French masculine / feminine for ''the'') to avoid any confusion.
On October 29, 1932, three years to the day after the stock market crash, Normandie was launched in front of 200,000 spectators. The 27,567 ton hull that slid into the Loire River was the largest ever launched and it caused a large wave that crashed into a few hundred people, but with no injury. Normandie was outfitted until early 1935, meaning all her interiors, funnels, engines, and other fittings were put in to make her into a working vessel. Finally, in May 1935, Normandie was ready for her trials, which were watched by reporters. The superiority of Vladimir Yourkevitch's hull design was immediately visible: hardly a wave was created off the bulbous bow. The ship demonstrated impressive performance during these trials, reaching a top speed of 32.125Êknots (59.496Êkm/h) and performing an emergency stop from that speed in only 1,700 meters.
In addition to a novel hull shape which made it possible for her to attain her great speed at lesser power expenditure than that of the other big liners, Normandie was filled with technical feats. She had turbo electric engines, chosen for the their ability to allow full reverse power, and according to French Line officials quieter, more easily controlled, and maintained. This engine type was also heavier than conventional turbines and slightly less efficient at higher speeds, but allowed all propellers to operate even if one engine was shut down, this system also made it also made it possible to do away with astern turbines. An early form of radar was installed to detect icebergs and other ships.
Normandie's famous main dining room, was decorated with Lalique glass and compared to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The luxurious interiors of Normandie were marvels of Art DŽco and the Streamline Moderne style. Many of her sculptures and wall paintings made indirect or direct allusions to Normandy, the province of France for which she was named. Drawings and photographs from the era show a series of vast public rooms of great elegance. The children's dining room was decorated by Jean de Brunhoff, who covered the walls with Babar the Elephant and his entourage. Indeed, the interior was quite dazzling but perhaps the most spectacular was the first class dining room. Three hundred and five feet long, 46Êfeet (14Êm) wide and 28Êfeet (8.5Êm) high, this was by far the largest room afloat. Passengers entered the dining room through 20 foot (6.1Êm) tall doors adorned with bronze medallions by the artist Raymond Subes. The ten medallions featured French castles, cathedrals, and the French ocean liner S.S. Ile de France. The medallions and dining room door elements survive today as part of the Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church, in Brooklyn Heights, at the corner of Remsen and Henry, having been sold at auction in 1945.
This first class dining room could seat 700 diners at a time with 157 tables, serving them with some of the best meals in the world. This ship was a floating promotion of the most sophisticated French cuisine of the period. However due to the design of the ship, no natural lighting could enter the room. The designers illuminated the room with twelve tall pillars of Lalique glass and along the walls stood 38 columns equally bright. In addition, two chandeliers hung at each end of the room. From this gorgeous display of lights came the nickname ''Ship of Light'' (similar to Paris as the ''City of Light''). The French Line marketed the dining room as longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
A popular feature was the cafŽ grill (which led to the grand salon), one of the most popular rooms on board which would be transformed into a nightclub during voyages. In addition, Normandie boasted both an indoor and outdoor pool (the second ship to have one, after the Italian liner Rex), a chapel and a theatre which could function as both a stage and cinema. The voluminous nature of Normandie's public rooms, particularly in first class, were made possible by having the funnel intakes split and pass along the sides of the ship, rather than straight upward, to allow room for lounges and other features to have an uninterrupted space. The interiors were filled with long perspectives and spectacular entryways such as long, wide staircases in order to give a suitable frame to the many upper middle class ladies who saw an Atlantic crossing as a way to show off their clothes and jewels, and sometimes their husbands.
First class suites on Normandie were given unique individual designs by a team of renowned designers. The most luxurious accommodations on the ship were the Deauville and Trouville apartments, which came with their own dining rooms, baby grand pianos, multiple bedrooms, and private deck. A disproportionate amount of public space was devoted to the first class passengers, including the dining room, first class lounge, grille room, first class swimming pool, theatre, Winter Garden, and other amenities. The first class swimming pool featured staggered depths, and a training 'beach' with very little depth for children. The machinery of the top deck and forecastle, normally an eyesore or an annoyance for passengers on the other liners, had been integrated within the ship, concealing it completely and releasing nearly all of the exposed deck space for the passengers' use.
After more fitting out and final touches, the maiden voyage came on May 29, 1935. Fifty thousand people came to Le Havre to see the large ship off, on what was hoped would be a record breaking crossing. And indeed it was. Normandie reached New York after just four days, three hours and fourteen minutes, thus snatching away the Blue Riband from the Italian liner Rex. This prize was a source of great pride for the French. They had watched other countries gain this prestigious award year after year but had never had it themselves, until Normandie. Under the leadership of her master, Captain Rene Pugnet, her average speed on the maiden voyage was around 30Êknots (56Êkm/h) and on the eastbound crossing to France she averaged over 30Êknots (56Êkm/h), shattering records on the way.
At the time of her maiden voyage, the French Line publicly refused to predict that their new flagship would win the Blue Riband. However, by the time the ship reached New York, commemorative medallions of the Blue Riband victory, made in France, were delivered to the passengers, and the ship was flying a 30 foot (9.1 m) long blue pennant. An estimated 100,000 spectators lined New York Harbor for Normandie's triumphant arrival. With the Blue Riband hers, Normandie had a successful year but come 1936 a new ship was on the scene. The R.M.S. Queen Mary, Cunard's superliner, entered service in the summer of 1936. Cunard had announced that the Queen Mary would surpass 80,000 tons. At 79,280 gross tons, Normandie would in that case lose the prestigious title of being the world's largest liner to her British rival. Therefore, the French Line decided to increase Normandie's size, mainly through the addition of an enclosed tourist lounge on the aft boat deck. Following these and a few other alterations, Normandie was re-measured at 83,423 gross tons. Exceeding the Queen Mary by some 2,000 tons, she would remain the world's largest in terms of overall measured gross tonnage. However in August of that year, the Queen Mary captured the Blue Riband from Normandie averaging 30.14Êknots (55.82Êkm/h), thus starting a fierce rivalry. The Normandie held the size record through the 1930s, until the arrival of the RMS Queen Elizabeth (83,673 gross tons) in 1940.
During her refit, Normandie was also modified to address problems of vibration. Her triple bladed screws were replaced with quadruple bladed ones, and structural modifications were made to her lower aft section to reduce the occurrence of vibration. These modifications successfully reduced the problem of vibration at speed. In July 1937 Normandie regained the Blue Riband once more, but the Queen Mary took it back the next year. After this the captain of Normandie sent a message to the British liner saying ''Bravo to the Queen Mary until next time!'' This rivalry could have gone on into the 1940s but was unfortunately put to a halt due to World War II, ensuring that there would be no 'next time'. In her short lived but prosperous life, Normandie was able to carry a number of distinguished passengers, including the famed authors Colette and Ernest Hemingway, the wife of French President Albert Lebrun, songwriters No‘l Coward and Irving Berlin, and Hollywood celebrities such as Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Walt Disney, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, and James Stewart. Normandie also carried the Von Trapp family Singers (the real family that The Sound of Music was based upon) from New York to Southampton in 1938, and from Southampton, the family proceeded to Scandinavia for a tour before eventually returning to America. During her career, the French Line considered building a sister ship, named the S.S. Bretagne, which was to be longer and larger than Normandie, but the outbreak of war and finances prevented this from occurring.
The outbreak of war found Normandie in New York Harbor. Soon the Queen Mary docked near Normandie. She would later be refitted to become a troop ship. In addition, the newly launched R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth docked nearby, so for two weeks the three largest liners in the world were docked side by side. Soon, the Queens left and Normandie was left alone. In 1940, after the Fall of France, the United States seized the ship under the right of angary. By 1941, the United States Navy decided to convert Normandie into a troopship, and renamed her U.S.S. Lafayette (AP-53), in reference to the historical American French alliance. Earlier proposals included turning the vessel into an aircraft carrier, but this modification was dropped in favor of immediate troop transport needs. The ship was moored at Manhattan's Pier 88 for the conversion. On February 9, 1942, sparks from a welding torch ignited a stack of thousands of life vests filled with kapok, a highly flammable material, that had been stored in the first class dining room. The woodwork had not yet been removed, and the fire spread rapidly. The ship had a very efficient fire protection system but it had been disconnected during the conversion and its internal pumping system was deactivated. The New York City fire department's hoses also did not fit the ship's French inlets. All on board fled the vessel.
U.S.S. Lafayette capsized in New York harbor (1942). As firefighters on shore and in fire boats poured water on the blaze, the ship developed a dangerous list to port due to the greater amount of water being pumped into the seaward side of the vessel by fireboats. About 2:45 a.m. on February 10, Lafayette capsized, nearly crushing a fire boat. The ship's designer Vladimir Yourkevitch had been at the scene, and offered his expertise, but was barred from entering by local harbor police. His suggestion was to enter the vessel and open the sea cocks. This would flood the lower decks of the ship and cause it to settle the few feet to the bottom of the dock. Thus stabilised, water could be pumped into the burning areas without the risk of capsize, however the suggestion was denied by port director Admiral Adolphus Andrews. The ship was truncated and finally righted in 1943 in what was then the world's most expensive salvage operation. It was subsequently determined the cost of restoring her was too great. After neither the U.S. Navy nor the French Line offered to do so, Yourkevitch made a last ditch proposal to cut the ship down and restore her as a mid sized passenger liner. This, too, failed to draw backing, and the hulk of Normandie was sold for a mere $161,680 to Lipsett Inc., an American salvage company. She was scrapped on October 1946.
The 1944 documentary short ''A Lady Fights Back'' tells the story, up to that time, of Normandie. It does not mention she capsized or sank, saying only she listed heavily to port and showing many pictures of it in that position. It leaves the story with the ship floating free, though devoid of superstructure, saying it was destined to participate in the war effort and filmmakers were not allowed to show more current pictures. The film also makes the claim the Navy used the restoration of Normandie as a training exercise and used that training to repair ships damaged in the December 1941 Pearl Harbor raid. The film is Installment 50 in John Nesbitt's Passing Parade series, presented by MGM. It is included in the DVD of the 1944 movie ''Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo''.
The S.S. Normandie inspired the architecture and design of the Normandie Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was designed by FŽlix Ben’tez, a Puerto Rican engineer, as a tribute to his French wife, Moineau, whom he met aboard the French ocean liner. At first, the three funnels should have been classic oval cylindric shaped, but Marin-Marie, a French designer working on the Normandie project, decided to use a modern aerodynamic semi-tear drop shape instead. The last funnel was a dummy needed for the ship's balance and partially used as the dog kennel. The main mast's location, which was usually in front of the bridge, was changed to behind the bridge in order to enhance visibility. Marin-Marie gave an innovative line to Normandie, a silhouette which was since used in multiple following ocean liners including the Queen Mary 2. The design of Normandie and her chief rival, the Queen Mary, was the main inspiration for Walt Disney Cruise Line's first two vessels, the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder.
Items from Normandie were sold at a series of auctions after her demise and many pieces are considered valuable Art Deco treasures today. Among the rescued items include the 10 large dining room door medallions and fittings, and some of the 2 x 4 foot individual Jean Dupas glass panels that formed the 50 x 20 foot murals mounted at each of the 4 corners of the walls of her Grand Salon. Also surviving to this day are some examples of the 24,000 pieces of crystal, some from the massive Lalique torcheres that adorned her Dining Salon as well as some of the table silverware, chairs, and pink gold plated bronze table bases, all part of the furniture and fixtures that accommodated 700 passengers at one seating. Custom designed suite and cabin furniture as well as original art work and statues that decorated the ship, or were built for use by the French Line aboard Normandie, also survive today. A detailed cut away 1/46 scale S.S. Normandie model, built by Fr. Roberto Pirrone of Los Angeles, is on display on board the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor. This model features full interior and exterior detail, including a recreation of the CafŽ Grill where celebrities, potentates and ''everyone who was anyone'' gathered for midnight champagne and caviar. The actual CafŽ Grill piano is part of the Miottel Museum collection. Normandie memorabilia also exists on a smaller scale. In April 1935 France commemorated the ship's maiden voyage by releasing a 1.50 Franc dark blue stamp depicting S.S. Normandie. Following Normandie's Blue Riband win this stamp was reissued in a rarer lighter shade.