She was, of course, the result of a successive series of bigger and better French liners, beginning with the France of 1912 and continuing to the Ile de France (1927) and L'Atlantique (1931). Even the far smaller Champlain (1932) has often been called a prelude. She also drew from existing big Atlantic liners, ships such as the Bremen, Europa, Empress of Britain, Rex and Conte di Savoia. Her French creators, designers and decorators sought perfection and then, or so it would seem, went one step further.
Her purpose was distinctly threefold: To be the largest liner afloat (the first to exceed 60,000 tons and 1,000 feet in length), to be the fastest ship and, thirdly, to be an extraordinary floating center of ‘everything French’ – from food to decor to style and fashion. The French Government was very enthusiastic and subsidised much of $60 million construction cost, itself then the greatest amount paid for a passenger liner. (Comparatively, the 225,000-ton, 6,400-berth Allure of the Seas, the world's largest liner in 2013, cost $1.5 billion when built in Finland in 2010.) In buoyant foresight, her Parisian benefactors and owners realised that only the best possible image for France could result from this great ship. The Normandie succeeded in all three intentions and then even went further in terms of her almost extraordinary impact on the world in terms of decoration, dining, films, even children's toys. She was without question the most important ship and certainly the greatest and grandest of all French liners.
SS Normandie entered service in the spring of 1935, to great success, gala receptions and welcomes, and with further triumph at winning the prized Blue Riband for speed. With a record of 29.98 knots, she beat out the previous winner, Italy's Rex and her speed of 28.92 knots.
The interested public, especially at New York it seems, marvelled at her very contemporary, even advanced, raked silhouette of three funnels, each diminished height moving aft. Her outdoor decks were meticulously cleared – there was not a ventilator, deckhouse or chain locker out of place. Everything was thoughtfully hidden below. The bow was finely raked. But if her exterior appearance was striking, the interiors were the true masterpiece.
The Normandie – carrying 1,972 passengers (848 in first class, 670 in tourist and 454 in third) – was certainly the most extravagantly decorated liner of her day, perhaps of all time. The main dining room, for example, was done in hammered glass, bronze and Lalique and was slightly longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. It rose three decks in height. The theatre was the first ever fitted to a liner and included a complete stage. The indoor pool was 80 feet of tiled, graduating levels. The Winter Garden included exotic birds in cages, sprays of water and live greenery, and altogether creating an almost tropical jungle retreat. The main lounge was decorated with glass panels by Dupas and featured the largest Aubusson carpet afloat. Each first class cabin was done in totally different decor, resulting in 400 different concepts and themes altogether. Two deluxe apartments, located on the Sun Deck, headed the first class section. Each had four bedrooms, a private terrace, attached servants' quarters and a private dining salon with an individual serving area and warming kitchen. Visitors to the Normandie were almost always impressed with her proportions, her quality and certainly her elegance.
Sadly, the Normandie sailed for only 4 1/2 years before being laid-up at New York in August 1939, just days before the start of war in Europe. She would never sail again. While being converted to a Navy troopship for Allied troop service, she caught fire at Pier 88 and then later capsized. A complete loss she was later cut down, salvaged and then at war's end, in 1946, was sold for a scant $161,000 for scrapping. Indeed, a very tragic end for such a beautiful ship!
By William H. Miller