Story of the S.S. France evokes memories of transatlantic travel

At the end of its seafaring days, the former S.S. France, which had been described as the "paradigm of elegance, style and speed" and had been transformed into the cruise ship Norway and finally the Blue Lady, was towed in 2006 to the Indian port of Alang, south of Mumbai.

Here the tug dropped the great ship with the distinctive winged funnels in the shallows, where it waited with the other doomed liners for teams of scrappers to perform their ugly handiwork.

"The imminent death of a beloved ship triggers regret, and Blue Lady-ex-Norway-ex-France proved no exception," writes John Maxtone-Graham in his recently published book, "France/Norway."

"One belated savior, a Canadian shipping entrepreneur, announced plans to re-engine her with diesels, but he was too late. Blue Lady was aground forever on Alang's toxic sands and no one had the means, the money or the will to refloat her," Maxtone-Graham writes. "Ships are frighteningly transitory; once they are gone, little remains."

For nearly 40 years, he has brilliantly and elegantly preserved and chronicled in his various books, beginning with "The Only Way to Cross" in 1972, a world of transatlantic travel, ships and a time that has largely vanished.

The author lays out his intention very early on, explaining that books are written for a variety of reasons and that this one is nothing more than a "heartfelt memoir of two vessels, aboard which this maritime historian sailed many times," he writes.

The first hull plates of what would eventually become the 1,035-foot-long France (it would not be eclipsed in size until the launching in 2004 of Queen Mary II at 1,132 feet) were laid down in 1957 at the Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard in St. Nazaire, France.

The great black-and-white liner with two red-and-black funnels was blessed by the bishop of Nantes.

At 4:15 p.m. May 11, 1960, in a highly orchestrated christening that would take advantage of a flood tide, Madame Yvonne de Gaulle, wife of President Charles de Gaulle, who was also present, snipped the restraining tricolor ribbon that sent a double jeroboam of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne exploding onto the ship's glistening black hull.

Down the ways it went, reaching a launch speed of 21 mph as the crowd roared its approval.

"What had been an apparently fixed structure for so many months was suddenly, electrifyingly, thrillingly in motion," writes the author. "A great cry arose, buttressed by a joyful chorus of ship's whistles offshore and the ponderous opening chords of 'La Marseillaise.'"

The building of Hull G19 — the ship's yard designation — took some 32 months, and the ship did not enter the chilly waters of the Loire until Nov. 19, 1961, when it departed for sea trials.

Delivery to its owners, the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique — better known as the French Line — would take 50 months.

The author points out that the ghost of the Normandie, the great Art Deco-style French liner that entered service in 1935 and burned and sank at its pier in New York during conversion to a troop ship in 1942, forever haunted the France, which was its legitimate successor.

But, Maxtone-Graham writes, there were differences between the two ships. The France's first-class accommodations were half that of the Normandie, and its tourist class accommodated four times the number of passengers than its first class.

"What an astonishing sea change from Normandie's fatal, aristocratic hubris," he writes. "At the same time, France cosseted first class. Its public room dimensions offered spatial promise replicating the company's best. Though welcomed within Formica and tapestry rather than walnut and silk, service, food and space aboard France represented unequivocally the North Atlantic's last giddy gasp."

Its interior decoration was designed by "fantasists," points out Maxtone-Graham, adding that as "beloved as the France was, her decor disappointed. Shipwide cohesion remained elusive."

On the France's maiden voyage to Pier 88 in New York in February 1962, it plowed through a force-11 gale with 40-foot waves, confining many of the ship's passengers to their cabins, where they were left to cope with mal de mer.

Hardier souls strolled the promenade deck, watched the waves and storm, and still had stomachs sound enough to dine on classic French cuisine selected from a special crossing menu — Diner d'Honneur — that had been designed by artist Salvador Dali, who was also aboard for the maiden voyage.

Longtime Gourmet Magazine contributor Joseph Wechsberg wrote that the "French Line's gastronomic tradition was always closer to the Rabelaisian concept of overabundance than to the leaner style of the modern cooks."

The ship made its triumphal entry into New York Harbor on Feb. 8, and as it approached Pier 88, crew and passengers glimpsed a huge banner that had been draped across the pier's apron with a message reading: "WELCOME S/S FRANCE."

The ship's maiden voyage ended with the report of a stowaway on board, according to Maxtone-Graham. The man was Marc Tesler, a French newsman who was in love with an American woman. Two days out of Le Havre, a guilty Tesler turned himself into Capt. Georges Croisile.

It wasn't until 1968 that the author first sailed on the France, on a Caribbean cruise, and he recalled that the ship was "blessed with a bountiful servant ratio, incomparable food, and exquisite service."

It was the beginning of a love affair that ended in 1974 when the France was withdrawn from service after 377 North Atlantic crossings because of escalating fuel costs and jets that whisked passengers to Europe in a matter of hours rather than days.

Laid up for six years, it emerged in 1980 with a new owner and a new name. The France had been sold to the Norwegian Cruise Line in 1979, and after being converted into a cruise ship, sailed the Caribbean until 2003, when a boiler room explosion ended the vessel's career.

Billy Harwood, a former Baltimorean who now lives in Short Hills, N.J., where he is an insurance executive, recalled sailing on the France in 1973.

"I was on the trip with Mom and Dad. It was one of the ship's last voyages. We had been in London and took the boat train from London to the Ocean Terminal in Southampton. As I recall, all the paperwork had been done in London, so when we got to Southampton, we just boarded the ship," Harwood recalled.

"We had a couple of lovely large cabins, and each evening they dressed in black tie. We dined with the captain one night," he said. "The service was superb and the ship was in wonderful shape. Even though it was a rather rough voyage, we didn't get ill."

Maxtone Graham includes among many hundreds of fascinating shipboard tidbits the story of one special lady who occupied a stateroom with two companions on a westbound crossing in 1962. She, or it, was Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," on its way for exhibition at Washington's National Gallery.

Maxtone-Graham's evocative writing and vast knowledge of the France and Norway, its captains and crew, and its seaborne institutional life makes one sad that it is no longer.

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