Home / History / The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Luxury Liner of the Twentieth Century

The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Luxury Liner of the Twentieth Century

Published: February 2, 2018

The SS Normandie was the most luxurious ocean liner of its day. Sadly, that didn’t prevent her from meeting a cruel fate.

Boat

The SS Normandie. (Wikimedia Commons)

The ship represented the best of French design as well as engineering — it featured innovative turbo-electric engines and a revolutionary hull design. Its elaborate dining halls, lounges, and swimming pool were designed and built on a scale never before seen. Photos of its rooms hint at some of the lost glamour of this ultra-luxury liner.

Dining Room

The grand dining room of the ocean liner SS Normandie. (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Bill

A menu from Grand Salon dining room of the SS Normandie. (Arthur H. Rumpf menu collection, New York Public Library).
Click to Enlarge.

But like that other great luxury liner, the RMS Titanic, the Normandie was fated to meet repeatedly with bad luck and a short life.

The ship was launched in 1935, in the middle of a global depression, and never achieved the financial success its owners planned on. (The Normandie was really built for first-class passengers. With scant second- and third-class accommodations, the ship lost many passengers to its competitor, the RMS Queen Mary.)

Boats in NY Harbor

The Normandie’s arrival in New York in 1935. (Library of Congress)

When World War II began, the Normandie was docked in New York harbor. The owners decided to leave it there rather than let it be sunk by German submarines.

It was still there on May 16, 1941, when France was overrun by the Germans and the U.S. put the Normandie into protective custody.

It was still sitting in a New York dock when the U.S. entered the war. German-occupied France was now technically an enemy of the America. The Normandie was seized by the U.S. government, which proceeded to turn the world’s greatest luxury liner into a troop transport, renaming it the USS Lafayette.

The following February, a workman’s blowtorch started a fire onboard. The boat’s fire extinguishing system had been switched off and New York’s firefighters couldn’t get their equipment to work with the French system onboard. Standing on the dock, fire fighters sprayed the ship with water, which soon froze in the cold February air. The ice accumulated, making the Normandie top-heavy and eventually tipping it on its side.

A ship on fire

The SS Normandie on fire, February 9, 1942. (U.S. National Archives)

 

A ship capsized

The capsized SS Normandie. (Wikimedia Commons)

On August 7, 1943, the ship was turned right-side-up again. But after sitting in water for a year and a half, the Normandie had deteriorated too far to make refitting worthwhile.

In 1946, after eleven years of unprofitable, interrupted service, the world’s greatest luxury liner was cut up for scrap metal.


Video of the SS Normandie, including her sea voyages, fire, and aftermath.

When the Post published “Resurrection of a Lady” in 1943, the Navy was still confident it would right the ship and return it to service. And while the Normandie never sailed again, the 1943 resurrection of 68,000 ton, 12-story, thousand-foot-long ship was a masterpiece of nautical engineering.

 

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  • What a terrible loss the early death of this majestic ocean liner was and still is now. Although I’d heard of the SS Normandie in connection with World War II, I didn’t know much about it until reading the 1943 plans to save it and seeing the video.

    It was a victim of bad timing and circumstances with the Depression and then the War. $60,000,000 in 1930’s dollars to build. I’m glad there was a serious attempt to try and save it, even if (in the end) it couldn’t be. It’s the kind of ship that deserved ‘retirement’ like the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California with a new life and purpose reaching into the present day.