The Burning of ‘Normandie’

Liberia - StampWorld #3912 (2001)
Liberia – StampWorld #3912 (2001)

On February 9, 1942, the SS Normandie — arguably, the most beautiful ocean liner ever built — caught fire while being converted to a troopship, having been seized by U.S. authorities and renamed USS Lafayette. Although the fire had been declared to be under control late that afternoon, early in the morning of February 10,  the 1,029-foot (313.6-meter) long liner capsized onto her port side and came to rest on the mud of the Hudson River at Pier 88, the site of the current New York Passenger Ship Terminal.

Built in Saint-Nazaire, France, for the French Line (Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, CGT), Normandie entered service in 1935 as the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat; she is still the most powerful steam turbo-electric-propelled passenger ship ever built. Her novel design and lavish interiors led many to consider her the greatest of ocean liners. Despite this, she was not a commercial success and relied partly on government subsidy to operate.

During service as the flagship of the CGT, she made 139 westbound transatlantic crossings from her home port of Le Havre to New York. Normandie held the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing at several points during her service career, during which the RMS Queen Mary was her main rival. Although salvaged at great expense, restoration was deemed too costly and she was scrapped in October 1946.

SS Normandie, French Line (1935)
SS Normandie, French Line (1935)

The beginnings of Normandie can be traced to the Roaring Twenties when shipping companies began looking to replace veterans such as RMS Mauretania (1906) and RMS Olympic (1911). Those earlier ships had been designed around the huge numbers of steerage-class immigrants 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 upper-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 newer ships on the scene; such vessels included the record-breaking Bremen and Europa, both German. The French Line began to plan its own superliner.

The French Line’s flagship was the Ile de France, which had modern Art Deco interiors but a conservative hull design. The designers intended their new superliner to be similar to earlier French Line ships. Then they were approached by Vladimir Yourkevitch, a former ship architect for the Imperial Russian Navy, who had emigrated to France after the revolution. His ideas included a slanting clipper-like bow and a bulbous forefoot beneath the waterline, in combination with a slim hydrodynamic hull. Yourkevitch’s concepts worked wonderfully in scale models, confirming his design’s performance advantages. The French engineers were impressed and asked Yourkevitch to join their project. He also approached Cunard with his ideas, but was rejected because the bow was deemed too radical.

Vladimir Yourkevitch working on his design of SS Normandie
Vladimir Yourkevitch working on his design of SS Normandie
Adolphe Cassandre's famed 1935 depiction of SS Normandie.
Adolphe Cassandre’s famed 1935 depiction of SS Normandie
Cutaway view of SS Normandie.
Cutaway view of SS Normandie.

The French Line commissioned artists to create posters and publicity for the liner. One of the most famous posters was by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, who was also a Russian emigrant to France.[14] Another poster by Albert Sébille, showed the interior layout in a cutaway diagram 15 feet long. This poster is displayed in the Musée national de la Marine in Paris.

Work by the Société Anonyme des Chantiers de Penhoët began on the unnamed flagship on 26 January 1931 at Saint-Nazaire, soon after the stock market crash of 1929. While the French continued construction, the competing White Star Line ship (intended as Oceanic, and started before the crash) was cancelled and Cunard’s Queen Mary was put on hold. French builders also ran into difficulty and had to ask for government money; this subsidy was questioned in the press. Still, building was followed by newspapers and national interest was deep, as she was designed to represent France in the nation-state contest of the great liners and was built in a French shipyard using French parts.

The growing hull in Saint-Nazaire had no formal designation except “T-6” (“T” for “Transat”, an alternate name for the French Line, and “6” for “6th”), the contract name. Many names were suggested including Doumer, after Paul Doumer, the recently assassinated President of France; and originally, La Belle France. Finally, Normandie was chosen. In France, ship prefixes properly depend on the ship name’s gender, but non-sailors mostly use the masculine form, inherited from the French terms for ship, which can be paquebot, navire, bateau, or bâtiment, but English speakers refer to ships as feminine (“she’s a beauty”), and the French Line carried many rich American customers. French Line wrote that their ship was to be called simply Normandie, preceded by neither “le” nor “la” (French masculine/feminine for “the”) to avoid any confusion.

SS Normandie under construction, 1932

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 launched and the wave crashed into a few hundred people, but with no injury. The ship was christened by Madame Marguerite Lebrun, wife of Albert Lebrun, the President of France. Normandie was outfitted until early 1935, her interiors, funnels, engines, and other fittings put in to make her into a working vessel. Finally, in May 1935, Normandie was ready for sea trials, which were watched by reporters. The superiority of Yourkevitch’s hull was visible: hardly a wave was created off the bulbous bow. The ship reached a top speed of 32.125 knots (59.496 km/h) and performed an emergency stop from that speed in 5,577 feet (1,700 meters).

In addition to a novel hull which let her attain speed at far less power than other big liners, Normandie was filled with technical feats. She had turbo-electric transmission, with turbo-generators and electric propulsion motors built by Alsthom of Belfort. CGT chose turbo-electric transmission for the ability to use full power in reverse, and because, according to CGT officials, it was quieter and more easily controlled and maintained. The engine installation was heavier than conventional turbines and slightly less efficient at high speed but allowed all propellers to operate even if one engine was not running. This system also made it possible to eliminate astern turbines. An early form of radar was installed to prevent collisions.

The rudder frame, including the 125-ton cast steel connecting rod, was produced by Škoda Works in Czechoslovakia.

The luxurious interiors were designed in Art Déco and Streamline Moderne style. Many sculptures and wall paintings made allusions to Normandy, the province of France for which Normandie was named. Drawings and photographs show a series of vast public rooms of great elegance. Normandie‘s voluminous interior spaces were made possible by having the funnel intakes split to pass along the sides of the ship, rather than straight upward. French architect Roger-Henri Expert was in charge of the overall decorative scheme.

The firs-control center of SS Normandie was the most modern aboard any ship of the period.
The firs-control center of SS Normandie was the most modern aboard any ship of the period.
Looking forward towards two of Normandie's three massive funnels.
Looking forward towards two of Normandie’s three massive funnels.

Most of the public space was devoted to first-class passengers, including the dining room, first-class lounge, grill room, first-class swimming pool, theatre and winter garden. The first-class swimming pool featured staggered depths, with a shallow training beach for children. The children’s dining room was decorated by Jean de Brunhoff, who covered the walls with Babar the Elephant and his entourage.

The interiors were filled with grand perspectives, spectacular entryways, and long, wide staircases. First-class suites were given unique designs by select designers. The most luxurious accommodations were the Deauville and Trouville apartments, featuring dining rooms, baby grand pianos, multiple bedrooms, and private decks.

The first-class dining hall was the largest room afloat. At 305 feet (93 m), it was longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, 46 feet (14 m) wide, and 28 feet (8.5 m) high. Passengers entered through 20-foot-tall (6.1 m) doors adorned with bronze medallions by artist Raymond Subes. The room could seat 700 at 157 tables, with Normandie serving as a floating promotion for the most sophisticated French cuisine of the period. As no natural light could enter, it was illuminated by 12 tall pillars of Lalique glass flanked by 38 matching columns along the walls. These, with chandeliers hung at each end of the room, earned the Normandie the nickname “Ship of Light” (similar to Paris as the ‘”City of Light”).

A popular feature was the café grill, which would be transformed into a nightclub. Adjoining the café grill was the first-class smoking room, which was paneled in large murals depicting ancient Egyptian life. Normandie also had indoor and outdoor pools, a chapel, and a theatre which could double as a stage and cinema.

The machinery of the top deck and forecastle was integrated within the ship, concealing it and releasing nearly all the exposed deck space for passengers. As such it was the only ocean liner to have a regulation-sized open air tennis court on board. The air conditioner units were concealed along with the kennels inside the third, dummy, funnel.

Normandie's large shipboard sign between funnels 2 and 3.
Normandie’s large shipboard sign between funnels 2 and 3.
Cover carried aboard SS Normandie's maiden voyage with French Line cachet and bearing a copy of the stamp France released in April 1935 to mark the ship entering service (Scott #300).
Cover carried aboard SS Normandie’s maiden voyage with French Line cachet and bearing a copy of the stamp France released in April 1935 to mark the ship entering service (Scott #300).
SS Normandie's maiden departure from Le Havre, France, May 29, 1935.
SS Normandie’s maiden departure from Le Havre, France, May 29, 1935.
SS Normandie arrives in New York harbor following her maiden westbound transatlantic voyage on June 3, 1935.
SS Normandie arrives in New York harbor following her maiden westbound transatlantic voyage on June 3, 1935.

Normandie departed on her maiden voyage on May 29, 1935. Fifty thousand saw her off at Le Havre on what was hoped would be a record-breaking crossing. Normandie reached New York after four days, three hours and 14 minutes, taking away the Blue Riband from the Italian liner, Rex. This brought great pride for the French, who had not won the distinction before. Under the command of master Captain René Pugnet, her average on the maiden voyage was around 30 knots (56 km/h) and on the eastbound crossing to France, she averaged over 30 knots (56 km/h), breaking records in both directions.

During the maiden voyage, French Line refused to predict that their ship would win the Blue Riband. However, by the time the ship reached New York, medallions of the Blue Riband victory, made in France, were delivered to passengers and the ship was flying a 30-foot-long (9.1 m) blue pennant. An estimated 100,000 spectators lined New York harbor for Normandie‘s arrival on June 3. All passengers were presented with a medal celebrating the occasion on behalf of CGT.

Normandie had a successful year but RMS Queen Mary, Cunard White Star Line’s superliner, entered service in the summer of 1936. Cunard White Star said the Queen Mary would surpass 80,000 tons. At 79,280 tons, Normandie would no longer be the world’s largest. French Line increased Normandie’s size, mainly through the addition of an enclosed tourist lounge on the aft boat deck. Following these and other alterations, Normandie was 83,423 gross tons. Exceeding the Queen Mary by 2,000 tons, she would remain the world’s largest in terms of overall measured gross tonnage and length.

 

On June 22, 1936, a Blackburn Baffin, S5162 of A Flight, RAF Gosport, flown by Lt. Guy Kennedy Horsey on torpedo-dropping practice, buzzed Normandie a mile (2 km) off Ryde Pier and collided with a derrick which was transferring a motor car belonging to Arthur Evans, MP, onto a barge alongside the ship. The aircraft crashed onto Normandie‘s bow. The pilot was taken off by tender, but the wreckage of the aircraft remained on board Normandie as she had to sail due to the tide. It was carried to Le Havre, France. A salvage team from the Royal Air Force later removed the wreckage. The pilot was Court-martialed and found guilty on two charges. Evans’ car was wrecked in the accident, which was brought up in Parliament.

In August 1936, Queen Mary captured the Blue Riband, averaging 30.14 knots (55.82 km/h), starting a fierce rivalry. Normandie held the size record until the arrival of RMS Queen Elizabeth (83,673 gross tons) in 1940.

During refit, Normandie was also modified to reduce vibration. Her three-bladed screws were replaced with four-bladed ones, and structural modifications were made to her lower aft section. These modifications reduced vibration at speed. In July 1937, Normandie regained the Blue Riband, but the Queen Mary took it back next year. After this the captain of Normandie sent a message saying “Bravo to the Queen Mary until next time!” This rivalry could have gone on into the 1940s, but was ended by World War II.

Normandie carried distinguished passengers, including the authors Colette and Ernest Hemingway; the wife of French President Albert Lebrun; songwriters Noël 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 of The Sound of Music from New York to Southampton in 1938, and from Southampton, the family went to Scandinavia for a tour before returning to America.

SS Normandie and RMS Queen Mary
SS Normandie and RMS Queen Mary

While Normandie rarely was occupied at over 60% of her capacity, her finances were such that she did not require government subsidies every year. She never repaid any of the loans that made her construction possible. The French Line considered a sister ship, SS Bretagne, which was to be longer and larger. There were two competing designs for this ship, one conservative, one radical. The conservative one was basically Normandie with two funnels, possibly a bit larger as well. The radical one was from Normandie‘s designer, Vladimir Yourkevitch, and was super-streamlined with twin, side-by-side funnels just aft of the bridge. The more conservative design won, but the outbreak of World War II killed the plan.

Although Normandie was a critical success in her design and décor, ultimately North Atlantic passengers flocked to the more traditional Queen Mary. Two of the ship’s greatest attributes in reality, turned out to be two of her biggest faults.,

Part of the ship’s problem lay in the fact that the majority of her passenger space was devoted solely to first class, which could carry up to 848 people. Less space and consideration were given to second and tourist class, which numbered only 670 and 454 passengers respectively. As a result, the consensus among North Atlantic passengers was that she was primarily a ship for the rich and famous. In contrast, in Queen Mary, Cunard White Star had placed just as much emphasis on décor, space, and accommodation in second and tourist class as in first class. Thus, Queen Mary accommodated American tourists, who had become numerous in the 1920s and the 1930s. Many of these passengers could not afford first-class passage, yet wanted to travel with much of the same comfort as those in first. Second and tourist class became a major cash source for shipping companies at that time. Queen Mary would accommodate this and thus she had great popularity among North Atlantic travelers in the late thirties.

Another of the French Liner’s greatest triumphs also turned out to be one of her greatest flaws: her décor. Normandie‘s slick and modern art deco interiors proved to be somewhat intimidating and uncomfortable for her travelers. It was also here that Queen Mary triumphed over her French rival. Although also decorated in an art deco style, Queen Mary was more restrained in her appointments and was not as radical as Normandie, and proved ultimately to be more popular with travelers.

As a result, Normandie at many times throughout her service history carried less than half her full complement of passengers. Her German rivals Bremen and Europa, and Italian rivals Rex and Conte di Savoia also suffered from this problem; despite their innovative designs and luxurious interiors, they never made a profit for their respective companies, relying on heavy government subsidies. Normandie, however, did not require government subsidies in service, with her income covering her operating expenses almost exactly.

In contrast, Queen Mary, and Cunard White Star’s Britannic III, Georgic II, Mauretania II, and much older Aquitania, along with the Holland America Line’s SS Nieuw Amsterdam, were among the few North Atlantic liners to make a profit, carrying the lion’s share of passengers in the years preceding World War II.

The war found Normandie in New York harbor. Looming hostilities in Europe had compelled Normandie to seek haven there. The U.S. government interned her on September 3, 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland. Soon the Queen Mary, later refitted as a troop ship, docked nearby. Then, two weeks later, RMS Queen Elizabeth joined the Queen Mary. For five months, the three largest liners in the world were tied up side by side. Normandie remained in French hands, with French crewmembers on board, led by Captain Hervé Lehuédé, into the spring of 1940.

SS Normandie, RMS Queen Mary in her gray troopship colors, and RMS Queen Elizabeth still in her Cunard livery, moored in New York harbor, early 1940.
SS Normandie, RMS Queen Mary in her gray troopship colors, and RMS Queen Elizabeth still in her Cunard livery, moored in New York harbor, early 1940.

On May 13, 1940, during the battle of France, the U.S. Treasury Department detailed about 150 Coast Guardsmen to go on board the ship and Pier 88 to defend it against possible sabotage. Under then-current U.S. law, the U.S. Coast Guard was a part of the Treasury during peacetime. When the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) became a part of the Navy on November 1, 1941, Normandie‘s USCG detail remained intact, mainly observing while the French crew maintained the vessel’s boilers, machinery, and other equipment, including the fire-watch system. On December 12, 1941, five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Coast Guard removed Captain Lehuédé and his crew and took possession of the Normandie under the right of angary, maintaining steam in the boilers and other activities on the idled vessel. However, the elaborate fire-watch system which ensured that any fire would be suppressed before it became a danger was abandoned.

On December 20, 1941, the Auxiliary Vessels Board officially recorded President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approval of Normandie‘s transfer to the U.S. Navy. Plans called for the vessel to be turned into a troopship (“convoy unit loaded transport”). The Navy renamed her USS Lafayette, in honor both of Marquis de la Fayette, the French general who fought on the Colonies’ behalf in the American Revolution, and the alliance with France that made American independence possible. The name was a suggestion of J.P. “Jim” Warburg, advisory assistant to Colonel William J. Donovan, Coordinator of Information, which was passed through multiple channels including the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Admiral Harold R. Stark, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), and Rear Adm. Randall Jacobs, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation; the name La Fayette (later universally and unofficially contracted to Lafayette) was officially approved by the Secretary of the Navy on December 31, 1941, with the vessel classified as a transport, AP-53.

SS Normandie's possible appearances had her conversion into a troopship or aircraft carrier been completed.
SS Normandie’s possible appearances had her conversion into a troopship or aircraft carrier been completed.
SS Normandie's name is removed early in the conversion process.
SS Normandie’s name is removed early in the conversion process.
SS Normandie in New York, January 1942.
USS Lafayette in New York, January 1942.

Earlier proposals included turning the vessel into an aircraft carrier, but this was dropped in favor of immediate troop transport. The ship remained moored at Manhattan’s Pier 88 for the conversion. A contract for her conversion to a troop transport was awarded to Robins Dry Dock and Repair Co., a subsidiary of Todd Shipyards, on December 27, 1941. On that date, Capt. Clayton M. Simmers, the 3rd Naval District Materiel Officer, reported to the Bureau of Ships (BuShips) his estimate that the conversion work could be completed by January 31, 1942, and planning for the work proceeded on that basis.

Capt. Robert G. Coman reported as Lafayette‘s prospective commanding officer on January 31, 1942, overseeing a skeleton engineering force numbering 458 men. The complicated nature and enormous size of the conversion effort prevented Coman’s crew from adhering to the original schedule; crew familiarization with the vessel was an issue, and additional crew members were arriving to assist the effort.

On February 6, 1942, a request for a two-week delay for the first sailing of Lafayette, originally scheduled for February 14, was submitted to the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations. On that day, a schedule extension was granted due to a design plan change: elements of the superstructure were to be removed to improve stability, in work that was expected to take another 60 to 90 days. However, on February 7, orders came from Washington that the reduction of the top-hamper had been abandoned and Lafayette was to sail on February 14 as planned. This abrupt reversal necessitated a frantic resumption of conversion work, and Captains Coman and Simmers scheduled February 9 meetings in New York and Washington to lobby for further clarification of conversion plans; ultimately, these meetings would never take place.

USS Lafayette, formerly SS Normandie, catches fire at Pier 88 in New York harbor, February 9, 1942.
USS Lafayette, formerly SS Normandie, catches fire at Pier 88 in New York harbor, February 9, 1942.

At 2:30 in the afternoon on February 9, 1942, sparks from a welding torch used by Clement Derrick ignited a stack of life vests filled with flammable kapok that had been stored in the first-class lounge. 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, unfortunately, did not fit the ship’s French inlets. Before the fire department arrived, approximately 15 minutes after fire broke out, all onboard crew were using manual means in a vain attempt to stop the blaze. A strong northwesterly wind blowing over Lafayette‘s port quarter swept the blaze forward, eventually involving the three upper decks of the ship within an hour of the start of the conflagration. Capt. Coman, along with Capt. Simmers, arrived about 3:25 p.m. to see his huge prospective command in flames.

As firefighters on shore and in fire boats poured water on the blaze, the ship developed a dangerous list to port due to water pumped into the seaward side by fireboats. The ship’s designer Vladimir Yourkevitch arrived at the scene to offer expertise, but he was barred by harbor police. His suggestion was to enter the vessel and open the sea-cocks. This would flood the lower decks and make her settle the few feet to the bottom. With the ship stabilized, water could be pumped into burning areas without the risk of capsize. The suggestion was rejected by the commander of the 3rd Naval District, Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews.

Between 5:45 and 6:00 p.m., authorities considered the fire under control, and began winding down operations until 8:00 that evening. Water entering the ship through submerged openings and flowing to the lower decks negated efforts to counter-flood, and Lafayette‘s list gradually increased to port. Shortly after midnight, Rear Admiral Andrews ordered Lafayette abandoned, and the ship continued to list, a process hastened by the 6,000 tons of water that had been poured on her. New York fire officials were concerned that the fire could spread to the nearby city buildings. Lafayette eventually capsized during the mid watch (2:45 a.m.) on February 10, nearly crushing a fire boat, and came to rest on her port side at an angle of approximately 80 degrees. Recognizing that his incompetence had caused the disaster, Admiral Andrews ordered all pressmen barred from viewing the moment of capsize in an effort to lower the level of publicity.

One man died in the tragedy — Frank “Trent” Trentacosta, 36, of Brooklyn, a Robins’ employee and a member of the fire watch. Some 94 USCG and USN sailors, including some from Lafayette‘s pre-commissioning crew and men assigned to the receiving ship Seattle, 38 fire fighters, and 153 civilians were treated for various injuries, burns, smoke inhalation, and exposure.

A U.S. Navy sailor stands sentry over the ruined liner, February 1942.
A U.S. Navy sailor stands sentry over the ruined liner, February 1942.

Enemy sabotage was widely suspected, but a congressional investigation in the wake of the sinking, chaired by Representative Patrick Henry Drewry (D-Virginia), concluded that the fire was completely accidental.[62] The investigation found evidence of carelessness, rule violations, lack of coordination between the various parties on board, lack of clear command structure during the fire, and a hasty, poorly-planned conversion effort.

Members of organized crime have retrospectively claimed that it was they who sabotaged the vessel. The alleged arson would have been organized by mobster Anthony Anastasio, who was a power in the local longshoremen’s union, for the purpose of providing a pretext for the release from prison of mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Luciano’s end of the bargain would be that he would ensure that there would be no further “enemy” sabotage in the ports where the mob had strong influence with the unions.

In one of the largest and most expensive salvage operations of its kind in history, the ship was stripped of superstructure and righted on August 7, 1943. She was renamed Lafayette and reclassified as an aircraft and transport ferry, APV-4, on September 15, 1943 and placed in drydock the following month. Extensive damage to her hull, however, deterioration of her machinery, and the necessity for employing manpower on other more critical war projects prevented resumption of the conversion program, with the cost of restoring her determined to be too great, and her hulk remained in the Navy’s custody through the cessation of hostilities with the Axis.

USS Lafayette lying in New York harbor, circa 1943.

A US Coast Guard Grumman J4F Widgeon flies over the wreckage of the USS Lafayette (AP-53) at Pier 88, New York harbor, on August 12, 1943.
A US Coast Guard Grumman J4F Widgeon flies over the wreckage of the USS Lafayette (AP-53) at Pier 88, New York harbor, on August 12, 1943.

Lafayette was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on October 11, 1945, without having ever sailed under the US flag. President Harry Truman authorized her disposal in an Executive Order on September 8, 1946, and she was sold as scrap on October 3, 1946, to Lipsett, Inc., an American salvage company based in New York City, for U.S. $161,680 (approximately $1,997,000 in 2017 value). After neither the U.S. Navy nor French Line offered a plan to salvage her, Yourkevitch, the ship’s original designer, proposed to cut the ship down and restore her as a mid-sized liner. This plan also failed to draw backing. She was cut up for scrap beginning in October 1946 at Port Newark, New Jersey, and completely scrapped by December 31, 1948.

The scrapping of Lafayette, formerly SS Normandie, in Port Newark, New Jersey, circa 1947-1948
The scrapping of Lafayette, formerly SS Normandie, in Port Newark, New Jersey, circa 1947-1948
The last large piece of the former SS Normandie's keel is hoisted out of the water during scrapping operations at Port Newark, New Jersey, in late 1948.
The last large piece of the former SS Normandie’s keel is hoisted out of the water during scrapping operations at Port Newark, New Jersey, in late 1948.

Designer Marin-Marie gave an innovative line to Normandie, a silhouette which influenced ocean liners over the decades, including Queen Mary 2. The ambience of classic transatlantic liners like Normandie (and her chief rival, Queen Mary) was the source of inspiration for Disney Cruise Line’s matching vessels, Disney Magic, Disney Wonder, Disney Dream, and Disney Fantasy.

Normandie Hotel as seen from Munoz Rivera Avenue, San Juan Puerto Rico. Photo taken on October 19, 2007.
Normandie Hotel as seen from Munoz Rivera Avenue, San Juan Puerto Rico. Photo taken on October 19, 2007.

Normandie also inspired the architecture and design of the Normandie Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The hotel’s roof sign is one of the two signs that adorned the top deck of the ship but were removed from it during an early refitting. It also inspired the nickname ‘The Normandie’ given to the International Savings Society Apartments in Shanghai, one of the most fashionable residential buildings during the city’s pre-revolutionary heyday and home to several stars of China’s mid-20th century film industry.

Items from Normandie were sold at a series of auctions after her demise, and many pieces are considered valuable art deco treasures today. The rescued items include the ten large dining-room door medallions and fittings, and some of the individual Jean Dupas glass panels that formed the large murals mounted at the four corners of her Grand Salon. One entire corner is preserved at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The dining room door medallions are now on the exterior doors of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn, New York.

Also surviving are some examples of the 24,000 pieces of crystal, some from the massive Lalique torchères that adorned her Dining Salon. Also extant are some of the room’s table silverware, chairs, and gold-plated bronze table bases. Custom-designed suite and cabin furniture as well as original artwork and statues that decorated the ship, or were built for use by the French Line aboard Normandie, also survive today.

La Normandie statue from SS Norway in Celebrity Summit cruise ship. Photo taken on June 6, 2010.
La Normandie statue from SS Norway in Celebrity Summit cruise ship. Photo taken on June 6, 2010.

The eight-foot-high, 1,000-pound bronze figural sculpture of a woman named “La Normandie”, which was at the top of the grand stairway from the first class smoking room up to the grill room cafe, was found in a New Jersey, scrapyard in 1954 and was purchased for the then new Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. It was first displayed outside in the parterre gardens near the formal pool and later indoors near the then Fontainebleau Hilton’s spa. In 2001, the hotel sold the statue to Celebrity Cruises, which placed it in the main dining room of their new ship Celebrity Summit. The cruise ship also had a separate Normandie Restaurant, designed to reflect the interiors of the liner, and containing gold lacquered panels from Normandie‘s First Class Smoking Room. The Normandie Restaurant and associated ocean liner décor was removed in 2015.

The statue “La Paix”, which stood in the First Class Dining Room, now stands in the Pinelawn Memorial Park, a cemetery in New York. The steam whistle, after salvage, was sent to the Bethlehem Steel factory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania where it was used to announce shift changes. In 2010, it was at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City. It was used t ring in the New Year 2015 at the Pratt Institute’s Power House in Brooklyn and is now at SUNY Maritime’s Fort Schuyler.

Pieces from Normandie occasionally appear on the BBC TV series Antiques Roadshow and also on its American counterpart. A public lounge and promenade was created from some of the panels and furniture from the ship in the Hilton Chicago. The dining room “Normandie” on the Carnival Cruise ship Carnival Pride was also inspired by Normandie, according to that ship’s designer, Joseph Farcus.

The first time Normandie was honored with a stamp release was in April 1935 when France issued 1.50-franc stamp to commemorate the ship’s maiden voyage (Scott #300, previously profiled on A Stamp A Day in December 2016). In seeking out images to use in today’s article, I discovered that a pre-paid postal card indicia using the same design also seems to have been released with a denomination of 1.25 franc in a shade of red (is that lake or carmine?). There is just so much material out there that appears only in specialized country catalogues rather than general worldwide catalogues such as the volumes published by Scott or Stanley Gibbons.

Much like yesterday’s stamp picturing the SS United States, today’s stamp was released during a period of civil war in Liberia by an overseas philatelic agency; it probably never saw postal service within that nation and so is not listed by the Scott Postage Stamp Catalogue. However, it is included on the StampWorld.com listings as part of their effort to become the most complete stamp catalogue ever assembled. Under their system (which simply assigns numbers chronologically, starting with #1 and doesn’t make distinctions between different types of back-of-the-book stamps, etc.), the Normandie stamp is #3912 and was released on September 1, 2001, as part of a set titled “They Sailed the Seven Seas” (which transposes the images of the two sheets of nine stamps each),

The set consists of four different denomination stamps — $10 (picturing U.S. Civil War ironclad ship Merrimac), $20 (Mississippi River paddle-steamboat Natchez), $25 (New England clipper Flying Cloud), and $30 (an odd choice, a Norwegian cutter named Winibelle II) — numbered 3891-3894. Then, there are two sheets consisting of nine $15 stamps (three rows of three). The first of these sheets is a mix of naval ships and older sailing vessels (and one steamboat which relied more on sails than her boilers): HMS Hood, USS Morten, HMS HoweLightning, SS Savannah, HMS Victory, SMS Hindenberg, SMS Admiral Scheer, and Cutty Sark (StampWorld #3895-3903). The second sheet contains stamps portraying mostly naval warships, including one submarine, and two ocean liners: SMS Pommern, USS New Jersey, USS Missouri, RMS Queen Mary, USS Oregon, HMS Nelson, USS Nautilus, USS Bainbridge, and SS Normandie in the bottom right corner (StampWorld #3904-3912). Finally, there are two $100 mini-sheets with RMS Titanic on one and RMS Lusitania on the other (StampWorld #3913-3914).  All of these stamps are unwatermarked and perforated 14½.

For the record, the same day also saw the release of numerous other sets of stamps covering the popular topicals of planes, trains and automobiles (but not in that order). The various trains sets consist of the catalogue numbers 3915-4011 (that’s 96 face-different stamps!), while automobiles cover StampWorld #4012-4032 (20 stamps, many contained within the standard mini-sheets), followed by aircraft (Stamp World #4033-4079, or 46 stamps and sheets). It appears that several different agencies were involved in producing these stamps as there is a marked inconsistency in the designs (and titles of the various sheets within each topical).

The sheer number of stamps produced by some of these agencies in the names of the countries they represent that are designed solely to separate collectors from their money rather than serve any sort of postal validity can mind-boggling and disheartening. I can understand the appeal of certain topicals (such as transport) — hey, I bought several singles out of this bulk — others are downright head-scratching. (Twenty-one stamps titled “Mushrooms of the World” on September 15, 2001 — by Liberia?!)

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5 thoughts on “The Burning of ‘Normandie’

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