By Jack Sauter
(There cannot be too many members of the Ocean Liner Museum who do not recall the days when visitors as well as passengers thronged the corridors and decks on sailing day. For those who remember as well as for those who would like to learn, a fond look back at luxury liner row before the spectre of shipboard terrorism put an end to unrestricted embarking visitors.)
In the course of trying to organize
what seemed to be an endless progression of cartons and albums following a devastating house fire, I came across some images of myself and two friends standing on the deck of RMS Queen Elizabeth. The date scrawled on the back of the photo read April 1947, one of those glorious Saturdays when we could explore the great ocean liners on their day of departure.
My friend, Bob Lipeles (also a member of the Ocean Liner Museum)
introduced me into this magic world of ocean liners during the war. He had a marvelous collection of elaborate brochures from the Cunard, United States, French and Italian Lines he'd acquired back in the thirties. Sitting on his living room floor awash in folders, I stared wide-eyed at color photographs and drawings of lavishly appointed public rooms in such memorable giants as Normandie, Ile de France, Rex, Champlain, Bremen,
Washington and Queen Mary. In all my excitement, it did not occur to me that many of these gorgeous ships would never return to New York.
A Postwar Convert
But with the end of the war, some did return, and liners of many flags started to appear in the Hudson in ever greater numbers. Europe became once again a destination for tourists rather than soldiers. And, among them, fortunately, were some of the crown jewels that had set the standard of ocean travel in the twenties and thirties: Ile de France, Queen Mary, Liberte-ex-Europa and America.
All one needed in those simpler days was a few free hours on Saturday and a copy of The New York Times's Shipping News, which listed the outgoing liners and their piers of departure. The great vessels lingered longer then, sometimes three or four days. But public "visitor" access was restricted to sailing day.
During the first year or two, Bob Lipeles, Harold Czubaruk and I used to just walk aboard with the passengers. Later, some enterprising company functionary realized there was money to be made and we were gently shaken down for a quarter and later, fifty cents. (In fact, the visitors' embarkation usually fees went to seamen's charities, not the company-Editor)
For ocean liner buffs, this was the best money ever spent--a unique opportunity to see in the flesh what previously had been restricted to the printed page.
Stepping onto the tilting gangway, one was transported into a completely new world. Perhaps the best part of that brief journey was a quick glance down into that narrow but awesome canyon separating the steel hull from the pier. I can't imagine a more dramatic way to grasp the enormous height of these towering ships. In spite of the countless times I've boarded ocean liners, I'm still impressed by that sight. Once inside, the scene was best described as controlled chaos. Scores of passengers crowded the purser's desk, while stewards and stevedores moved with purpose through a sea of bodies, bags and bouquets.
Searching for elbow room, we struck out on our own. Even armed with deck plans (which we carried on occasion), we often found ourselves lost within a labyrinth of corridors and stairwells. We quickly learned that liner decks are not flat but curve gently, following the contours of the hull. And we never fully grasped the immensity of these huge vessels until the first time we gazed down the promenade deck on one of the Queens. It seemed a miracle that something this gigantic could float, let alone move.
Prowling Among the Passengers
Back in 1946 and 1947, we were a distinct minority, individuals wandering about the ship who were neither sailing nor seeing someone off. One phenomenon struck us immediately: everyone seemed deliriously happy. And why not? Most of them were about to depart on a great adventure to strange lands that only a few short years before had seemed forever out of reach. For a week or more, they would be ensconced within an unbelievable floating cocoon where everything promised in those brochures would become true in spades. On top of that, there would be a whole new cast of characters to share all this with. What could be more delightful?
Often in the course of admiring the breath-taking beauty of a public room, we'd be caught up in one of those elaborate Bon Voyage parties
where well-wishers were plied with Champagne and canapes. After the first hour and uncounted refilled glasses, no one seemed to care who you were and assumed you were one of the invited. As a result, on occasion, our Saturday lunch became caviar or smoked salmon rather than our customary fare of a hot dog and Coke wolfed down on the street.
Dressed in a jacket and tie (de rigeur for Manhattan in those days--and still for me today), we just became part of the scenery. There also seemed to be an over-supply of pretty girls who were eager to make our acquaintance, doubtless thinking that we might make suitable dancing partners for the upcoming crossing.
Away from the public rooms, more intimate parties spilled into the passageways from open staterooms. Often passengers in adjoining accommodations would join forces, until there was barely enough room to squeeze by all the merry-makers, holding drinks and shouting to be heard over the din. In the midst of all this gaiety, sweating stevedores struggled to deliver suitcases, while stewards deftly maneuvered flowers and baskets of fruit. Locked in this crush, I half-expected to hear Groucho's voice exclaiming: "Make that two more hard-boiled eggs!"
Marianne and I often reminisce that the disappearance of the Bon Voyage party has taken a huge bite out of the joy of sailing. Sometimes after a lunch and cruise ship tour organized by one of our steamship societies, we linger on the pier to watch the departure. (I daresay that fascination won't end until someone covers us with dirt.) It's rather sad to see the passengers striving to achieve some small degree of celebration while they stand at the rail (usually cold sober), waving at no-one in particular and having had only themselves for company since stepping on board.
Fifty years ago, in spite of the delectable press of pretty girls and all that gourmet fare, it was, after all, the ocean liners we had come to see.
Making our way to the upper decks, we'd find knots of serious travelers huddled with deck stewards choosing their deck chairs for the coming week. Walking beneath those towering funnels (always two or more in those days), we'd gaze down on the neat rows of lifeboats, invariably thinking of Titanic.
None of these behemoths boasted an outdoor pool; the sole on-deck activity was shuffleboard. Later, poking around in what was literally the bowels of the ship, we did locate the pools, intricately tiled affairs, often adorned with faux mermaids and fish.
With the exception of Queen Elizabeth, every ship we explored had seen many years of passenger service in addition to performing their patriotic duty carrying thousands of troops. Regardless of how many coats of paint
and miles of new carpeting the owners had added, there was no denying a "lived-in" quality that invited your company. To me, this trait reminded me of a pair of old shoes; resoled, perhaps, but eminently comfortable.
And from the pride and confident maturity displayed by the crew, it was evident that many of the stewards and ship's company had invested a fair chunk of their lives in these hulls. It was not just a short-term job; it was their life's work. For me, it is this special quality more than anything else that separates today's cruise ships from the ocean liners of the past.
Resuming our tour, we entered the dining room, always the most lavishly decorated public space in every ship. I particularly recall the grandeur of the first class salle a manger on board Ile de France: two decks high and looking for all the world as if it had been lifted from the stage of Radio City Music Hall. If our liner was sailing at noon, this most popular area would be a beehive of activity with scurrying waiters and a
harried maitre d'hotel assigning tables to waiting passengers.
A World Cruise Sailing
Not all departures were during daylight. I recall one memorable evening aboard France when she was preparing for a 92-day world cruise. For a change, the bars were open and serving drinks gratis. This crowd was smaller, much more subdued and elegantly attired. Jewels sparkled in the overhead lights and full-length minks were sprawled carelessly across the couches. The enchanting melodies of Cole Porter mixed well with the sounds of tinkling glassware and soft laughter.
Marianne and I wouldn't have been aware of that particular sailing, except for a story in The New York Times about two single women from Texas who had each booked an extra cabin just for their wardrobes; they had planned and packed a different gown for each evening.
But on whatever ship, whether it was afternoon or evening, one thing that did not change was the sound of the chimes announcing that all visitors would have to leave the ship. This was always the most painful part of the visit. In our younger days, my friends and I had entertained the wild fantasy that someone would step forward and offer to take us to Europe--perhaps as a companion to his lovely daughter. (I did say fantasy, didn't I?)
We soon joined a crush of passengers and friends (in varying degrees of sobriety) heading for the gangways. Reality set in quickly when we found ourselves on the cold of a concrete pier, looking up at all those lucky ones crowding the railings. For those diehards who harbored doubts about the seriousness of those chimes, three deep-throated blasts on the whistle rang down the curtain in no uncertain terms.
Feeling that no visit is complete without the departure, we always lingered on the pier. A transatlantic sailing encompasses all the drama of a grand opera. While the passengers and relatives shouted themselves hoarse (secretly wishing that all this would come to hasty conclusion), two or three tugs quietly positioned themselves to help ease our leviathan on her first step toward the high seas. Longshoremen manhandled thick hawsers off the bollards and they were hauled in by the ship's capstans.
Then slowly, ever so slowly, a gap of water appeared between the pier and the massive steel hull. After a few high-pitched whistles, boiling white water suddenly erupted beneath the tugs' sterns. This was the moment for which everybody had been waiting. The great mass began to move ponderously out into the Hudson. This triggered another round of cheers and wails until, with ever-increasing speed, the bow passed from our view.
Many youthful interests fade with the stresses of marriage but I was fortunate in finding a mate (a perfect word for this maritime context) who shared my love of passenger liners. Marianne beat me to the draw, sailing transatlantic on the S.S.Washington in 1951, a full year before I saw blue water in the navy. We later indulged our passion to include all maiden arrivals, from Brazil to France and Michelangelo to QE2.
Did those Saturday excursions have any lasting effect on my erstwhile companions, Bob Lipeles and Harold Czubaruk? Scarcely a year after our last outing, Harold was accepted at the Merchant Marine Academy at Fort Schuyler. This appointment led to duty as a naval officer and a stint with both Isbrandtsen and United Fruit.
By an odd coincidence, Harold and I crossed paths in Hong Kong in October 1953, he as a second mate in Flying Eagle and me serving in USS Lake Champlain, recently the flagship of Task Force 77 off Korea.
Bob held out much longer but his first cruise many years later was a memorable one. On board less than 12 hours, his cruise ship ran aground near the Cape Cod Canal and he had to be evacuated! But his deep-seated love of liners overcame any misgivings and he's now a dedicated cruiser.
I know there are some very good reasons for not granting today's ship buffs the same freedom we enjoyed. The world has become a much more dangerous place, and the economics of the short turn-around time preclude the accommodation of any but the paying passengers.
The number of today's ships, which seems to grow larger with every passing month, are light years away from the liners we cut our teeth on so long ago. Passengers travel in a style of luxury undreamed of half a century ago. But in spite of evermore lavishly appointed cruise ships, none of them can match the thrill we used to feel turning the corner from 42d Street and seeing our "new" ocean liners for the first time. Those glorious Saturday mornings introduced us into a golden world of ocean travel we'll long remember and sadly never see again.