Sunday, February 21, 2010

SS Normandie Sails into Manhattan

The 19th-century piers that once lined the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan are gone except for one. The trans-Atlantic ocean liners they serviced are also gone except for Cunard's Queen Mary 2, which now docks in Red Hook, Brooklyn, when she visits New York City. But the SS Normandie, considered by some people to be the most beautiful ocean liner ever built, has returned.

This past week, an exhibit called "DecoDence: Legendary Interiors and Illustrious Travelers Aboard the SS Normandie" opened at the South Street Seaport Museum on Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan. Photographs record the splendor of the Normandie but the array of objects in this exhibit come closer than any picture could to suggesting the magnificence of this ship.

Amid cases of bibelots and fragments of the ship's luxurious appurtenances, chairs and tables are skillfully arranged in front of wall-sized photographs depicting the rooms for which they were designed. It's easy to imagine those grand rooms decorated with Aubusson carpets, Lalique chandeliers and glass panels painted on the reverse side with gold and silver (a technique called verre églomisé) casting a flatterinf glow over the ship's elegant passengers. Add the detail mentioned by one passenger that the ship smelled of French cigarettes and expensive perfume, and it's possible to be back there again. Almost. If only.

The keel for the SS Normandie was laid on a cold January day in 1931 at Saint-Nazaire on the Loire. Though the world was going through an economic Depression worse than any since, the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) subsidized by the French government was determined to construct the most beautiful and most technologically advanced ocean liner ever built. The ship was to be a showcase of French design and the epitome of luxury.

The Normandie's completion was delayed by several years because of the Depression, but finally, on May 29, 1935, she left Le Havre on her maiden voyage. She arrived in New York City on June 3, accompanied by tugboats, excursion vessels, yachts, ferries and fireboats. Around 30,000 people lined the seawall at Battery Park to see her come in.

The Normandie's seagoing career proved to be brief. In August 1939, she nosed into Pier 88 in midtown Manhattan for the last time. On Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland and it was deemed better for the Normandie to remain in New York. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. government took over the ship, renaming her the USS Lafayette. She was stripped of all her finery, in preparation for becoming a troop ship. On Feb. 9, 1942, sparks from a welder's torch set some kapok-filled life jackets on fire. The fire raged out of control. On Feb. 10, she capsized, lying on her side at Pier 88 like a dying animal. Finally, she sank.

It's possible in the South Street Seaport Museum's exhibit to still feel the weight of that loss. The sadness is mitigated, however, because so much of what was in the Normandie was preserved. Almost all of the items in the exhibit come from the collection of New Yorker Mario Pulice, whose passion for the Normandie is only matched by his generosity in lending his collection to the museum for almost a year. The exhibit will be at the South Street Seaport Museum through January 2011, giving ample time to visit again and again.