Transatlantic travel is, to say the least, a chore. X-rays, fold-down trays, paranoia and deep-vein thrombosis – it’s a wonder anyone bothers with it at all. Between the wars, on the other hand, in the heyday of the great liners, it was a different matter. Yes, the voyage took longer (several days longer, in fact) but it was conducted with a sense of style, a sense of occasion. How we moderns look back with envy at the passengers on that great Art Deco behemoth the Normandie, the largest and without a doubt the most lavish ship of her time.

Her first-class dining room alone was larger than the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles – an appropriate comparison, given that it was kitted out with towering looking-glasses rather than portholes, allowing passengers to dine in an environment unaffected by the vagaries of the north Atlantic climate. Great crystal fountains by Lalique were dotted about the place, serving as obstacles for unwitting waiters, while a gilded 13ft statue of Peace by the sculptor Louis Dejean surveyed the room. One diner recollected that, rather than the customary olive branch, Peace held in her hand a bucket of caviar which diners could dip into at will. (The author, however, treats this anecdote with a certain scepticism, pointing out that one would have required a stepladder to do so.) This combination of Olympian grace and opulence, so characteristic of Art Deco, was maintained throughout the Normandie. There was an onboard winter garden, complete with tropical birds; artists were recruited to produce countless bas-reliefs on Norman themes; seemingly every available surface was covered in lacquer, mirror or morocco-leather. Maxtone-Graham documents this embarras de richesse with an astonishing thoroughness; every aspect of the ship’s construction and voyages is covered, the attention to detail leavened with an engaging lightness of tone.

But the Normandie’s life on the ocean wave was brief. Launched in 1935, she lasted a mere four years before the outbreak of war left her stranded in Manhattan. Berthed alongside her erstwhile rival, the Queen Mary, the ship was left in dock with a skeleton crew and peeling paint for some two years, until FDR requisitioned her to become the troopship USS Lafayette. The Deco fittings were torn out, battleship grey eclipsed the dashing French Line paintwork, and the great statue of Peace was taken down – Normandie’s fate was, in effect, a microcosm of the transition from the 1930s to the 1940s. To add to the tragedy, it was all in vain: the ship was destroyed by fire before she ever saw active service.

First published in World of Interiors issue 302. Reproduced with permission.

Normandie: France’s Legendary
Art Deco Liner

by John Maxtone-Graham  (Norton)

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