TNY ship exhibit recalls glamor of Transatlantic crossings

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The Independent Online

The glamour of Transatlantic crossings has returned to New York with an exhibit on the Art Deco elegance of the French liner "SS Normandie".

"The 'Normandie' was the most magnificent of all the ocean liners," said Bill Miller, curator of the "DECODENCE" exhibit running until January next year at the South Street Seaport Museum in lower Manhattan.

The ship was the largest and fastest of what were known as "floating palaces" at a time when airliners could not yet make Transatlantic trip and ships were not just a mode of transport, but islands of fantasy.

The exhibit shows off the riches making "Normandie", which completed its maiden voyage to the United States in 1935, the pride of the French merchant fleet.

Original interior works by famous Art Deco artists, furnishings, film footage, voyage logs, uniforms, and a Gaveau piano played by German siren Marlene Dietrich in her first class suite hint at the extreme luxury.

Here was a ship where the first class dining room accommodated 700 guests sitting under 12 pillars of illuminated Lalique glass and 38 matching columns along the walls. There was a winter garden filled with exotic flora and fauna, a swimming pool, and a theatre.

First class suites had pianos, multiple bedrooms and their own decks.

There was even "a pale pink light to make women look younger," Miller said.

No wonder that on "Normandie's" arrival in New York 100,000 people lined the docks to witness the moment.

"It had the very best of French culture, design and style at a time when the French government wanted it to be a floating ambassador," Miller said.

The items in the exhibit are largely the property of New Yorker Mario Pulice, who collected them for years.

"New York is the best place to collect objects from the 'Normandie' because the ship was stripped here. The furniture was sold here so it is all around," he said.

The sad side of the "Normandie" exhibit is that other than these treasures, little remains.

The ship's 1,300-strong crew, looking after 2,000 passengers at a time, crossed the Atlantic 139 times.

But the ship was stranded in New York by the start of World War II and in 1942 it was requisitioned by the US government, then rechristened as "USS Lafayette" for use as a troop transport.

After a fire in 1942, the vessel was broken up and the incredible contents were auctioned off.

Now a ship that defined an era has vanished along with the famous passengers it carried - Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Joseph Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney.

"Normandie was the preeminent ship of her time and, in many ways, one of the finest to ever sail," said Mary Ellen Pelzer, director of the South Street Museum.

"This exhibition allows visitors to experience the beauty and grandeur of this majestic luxury liner and also appreciate the special meaning she has to New York where she ultimately met her inglorious end."

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