Sail the SS Normandie, the world’s loveliest ship

She was the most elegant Frenchwoman of her time.  The finest designs and the costliest materials were lavished upon her breathtaking form. Her beauty seduced men on both sides of the Atlantic. But after reigning for four short years, she met a tragic end.

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When launched in 1935, the SS Normandie was the most spectacular ship in the world. On her maiden voyage across the Atlantic, which took a mere 4 days 3 hours and 14 minutes, she also became the world’s swiftest. She sailed into New York harbor triumphantly flying the Blue Riband, proclaiming herself champion of the high seas.

 A ship for millionaires

With her crystal chandeliers, Aubusson tapestries, and Art Deco reliefs, she was first class all the way. Her dining room, dominated by a glorious gilt statue called La Paix (Peace), was longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The Normandie was made for millionaires and movie stars. In fact, she pretty much ignored the lowlier classes, and in the midst of the Great Depression, this was not the way to fill a ship. And so, while rival liners democratically ferried passengers of all types across the Atlantic, the Normandie rarely sailed more than 60% full. Not that she minded. She was subsidized by the French government. This lady didn’t have to work for a living.

ss_normandie_grande_salle_c3a0_mangerThe last voyage

At least, not until war broke out in 1939. For nearly two years, she idled in her New York pied a terre at Pier 88, safe from the enemy attack. But after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Government seized her, stripped her and converted her into a troop transport. They even gave her a new name, the USS Lafayette, in memory of another gallant French supporter of another American war.

Then, on a frigid day in Februrary 1942, fire broke out, ignited by a spark from a welder’s torch. The blazing ship listed and capsized. Its once-magnificent salons filled with mud, ice and water. The world’s most expensive salvage operation was launched, but it was in vain. In 1946, the Normandie was broken up for scrap metal.

pinelawn_angelThe legend lives on

She lives on, of course, in her legend as the world’s most glamorous ship. And in the souvenirs and furnishings coveted by collectors. And what of the statue La Paix, that hopeful symbol of the desperate 1930s wish to avoid war? It now watches over one of the few places on earth where peace really does reign: a Long Island cemetery.

Watch the extraordinary video (above), including rare color footage of the Normandie’s final voyage.

 

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