Crossing on SS Normandie: Paris to New York Between the Wars

The Ship
Art Deco and Cities
The Package


The Rich and Famous Creating a Buzz for Normandie
by Cristina Vignone

It is not difficult to imagine the infatuation with ocean liner travel in its golden age, especially when the dazzling liner being considered is Normandie. Upon its launching on October 29, 1932, it was clear that the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique had truly created the greatest French liner ever, an eighth wonder of the world.1 Every feature of Normandie was infused with the speed, luxury and progress associated with ocean liners at this time2 and travel itself changed as a result. The ocean liner now became a hub for the dreams of ordinary passengers from both sides of the Atlantic, their one opportunity to escape reality and encounter extravagance. But the ship was also the playground of the elites and famous people whose presence on board helped create the media buzz and publicity surrounding Normandie.

The ship and its crew attended to this diverse passenger population. Because of its varying accommodations – from the simplest third class cabins to the most luxurious private suites – “teachers, students, and tourists,” middle class or bourgeoise families, wealthy grand notables and famous people from around the globe could each find a place on Normandie.3 As a result, the on board dynamics transformed Normandie into something much more than a ship. Instead, it became a floating world divorced from reality, the unique space in which even the average person could encounter celebrity and fame.

The connection between this kind of travel and the media are important: “Publicity in written and pictorial media was intended to entice people. . . and suggest good times and unique experiences [on the ocean liner].”4 In addition to the press conferences prior to disembarking, the events occurring during Normandie's first sailing were undoubtedly engineered to generate this kind of attractive publicity for the ship.5 On May 31, 1935, during Normandie's maiden voyage, for example, the French president's wife Madame Lebrun who had publicly christened the liner hosted an unforgettable and exclusive gala dinner for the ship's elites in Normandie’s Café-Grill.6 Upon her arrival in New York, moreover, the ship would spend a few days docked in Pier 88 on the Hudson River, exposed to tremendous media coverage and countless curious city dwellers. On June 3, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia hosted a gala to welcome both Normandie and Madame Lebrun to his city at the ritzy Waldorf-Astoria.7 (Fig. 1)

On June 4, those New Yorkers willing to pay fifty cents were allowed on the liner for a escorted tour, their one chance to experience the luxury and grandeur that they heard Normandie had to offer.8 That night a French Line-hosted gala treated Manhattan's social elites and company higher ups to dinner and a Parisian-themed fashion show while a less exclusive ball was also held on board.9 On June 5, another gala – whose invitation called it “Starlight in Normandie” – was held at the Roof Garden of the Waldorf-Astoria, this time for the Seamen's Church Institute of New York.10  The New York Times covered all of these events in their newspaper, even narrating the occasional chaos – including parked cars on the West Side Highway, airplane salutes and fireboat water displays – that accompanied Normandie's arrival in New York.11 All of these events, the mere presence of Normandie in New York and the atmosphere that she created fueled the media and popular obsession with the ocean liner and the famous passengers she had on board.12

Once the ship had sailed out to sea where the prying eyes of city dwellers, the outstretched lenses of photographers and the ready pens of journalists could no longer reach her, the famous passengers on board resumed the creation of hype for Normandie. The liner was an extraordinary, celebrity-infused space where famous and first-class travelers were in close proximity with ordinary cabin and tourist-class passengers. Some of the latter travelers might be able to catch a glimpse of their favorite movie star walking accidentally through the wrong hallway or anxiously parting the crowds of the chaotic embarking and disembarking periods.

From the cabin and tourist-class decks, these passengers might also observe with envy the wealthy or famous travelers enjoying their own private balconies connected to the ship's luxury suites.13 First-class and famous travelers stood out on board, glamourous anomalies reflecting the opulence of Normandie itself. What is left to be questioned, however, is who exactly the passengers of Normandie would be able to see while on their voyage. The answer is one reflective of both the appeal of a luxury liner like Normandie and the French Line's intent on advertising their ship using the very famous people they attracted.

In her lifetime Normandie attracted a wide variety of famous passengers. As some of the most prominent travelers made their way onto or off of the boat, photographers snapped pictures of these celebrities and personalities to be featured in the TRANSAT publication Gangplank. (Fig. 2, 3) A quick flip through the magazine demonstrates their presentation: “Among Our Guests” and “Who's Who” are the titles of two star-studded pages, each filled with photos of GangplankNormandie celebrities including comedy actress Kitty Carlisle, athlete and tennis star champion Kay Stammers and English actor Lawrence Olivier. Bits of information occasionally accompany the photos. On one of these pages, a small description alongside the photos informs readers of the names of celebrity passengers on Normandie as well as their respective claims to fame: “Sailing at various times on the S.S. Normandie: Noel [sic] Coward, British actor, playwright, producer. Gladys Swarthout, opera, screen, radio star, and her husband Frank Chapman.”14 (Fig. 4)

It should be noted that the French Line actively sought out and paid for many of the famous people who graced her decks, dining rooms and dance floors.15 As a result, an amazing array of incredibly famous actors, actresses, writers, artists, athletes and socialites happily accepted invitations to sail on one of Normandie's voyages. The liner attracted passengers from around the globe: French author Colette, German novelist Thomas Mann, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, and Spanish artist Salvador Dalí spent time onboard as did American actor James Stewart, expatriate entertainer Josephine Baker and writer Ernest Hemingway, Indiana-born songwriter and composer Cole Porter and Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks.16 (Fig. 5) The British were also incredibly well-represented on Normandie. English actresses Jeanne Stuart, later known as the Baroness Eugene de Rothschild, Elsa Lanchester and Anna Neagle sailed on Normandie along with fellow countrymen actor Leslie Howard and conductor John Barbirolli.17

Internationally-known media darlings like Marlene Dietrich did the most in creating a buzz for Normandie. Her voyage, accompanied by her daughter, hair dresser and maid as well as sixty pieces of luggage, was photographically documented by Harper's Bazaar in 1936. The two-page spread in the magazine entitled “Royal Progress on the Normandie” features a short article about her glamourous stay along with a collection of photos of Dietrich posed in her private suite, on Normandie's decks and next to a poster for her film Desire. According to Harper's Bazaar, the whole ship was dedicated to pleasing Dietrich: “All the rules of astronomy stopped. The earth – and the ship – turned round Marlene instead of the sun.” Her private deck off of the Rouen suite, moreover, was only thirty feet away from the third class deck and the dowdy pajama-clad passengers who stared in her direction, constantly in awe of her presence.18 (Fig. 6)
Dietrich reportedly held a gala dinner on July 29, 1938 for another internationally acclaimed actor, Cary Grant, in the Café Grill. The French Line prided itself in stating that “a different menu was planned each day” by their chefs but they also noted that “the tourist class did not have the same menu as the first class travellers [sic].”19 The gala hosted by Dietrich proves this. According to a menu of the food served on that night – including famed Besserat de Bellefon French champagne, delectable filet mignon, fresh salmon canneloni, and a Bavarian cream dessert infused with Calvados, an apple brandy from the Normandy region of France – the food selection for celebrity dinners eclipsed that of first class dining.20 Grant, who includes his stay on Normandie in his autobiography, would  go on to meet his future wife, Barbara Hutton, on the same voyage after both accepted an invitation to dine at the Captain's Table.21 (Fig. 7)

While the ocean liner in its golden age was remarkable as a space where celebrities from around the world gathered and as a source of unending media buzz, a ship like Normandie was also the unique, Hollywood-infused space where the common person could encounter superstardom. One young girl, Barbara Foye, who along with her parents “looked forward to capitalizing on Normandie's eastbound maiden”22 had the opportunity to do just that as the ship was delayed on its arrival in Southampton. In one of the ship's crowded public rooms, Foye trailed Walt Disney, asked for and received his signature, a rare one because of Disney's usual refusal to sign autographs. In that very instant the Foye's trip experienced an unexpected and unquestionable change.

Though the family would later literally capitalize on their voyage, selling the Disney autograph for five thousand dollars, monetary benefits are of less importance for this discussion.23 What is truly special is that this opportunity, one which would have been previously unimaginable for the Foye family from New Jersey or any other family like them, was made possible by Normandie. The attraction of sailing on a ship like this, whose every move was documented visually and textually in newspapers and magazines and whose famous and rich passengers came from all around the world to add their unique presence to the on board dynamics, was undeniable during the golden age of ocean liner travel.


1 Frank O. Braynard. Picture History of the Normandie: With 190 Illustrations, (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), v.
2 Catherine Donzel, Luxury Liners: Life on Board, (New York: Vendome Press, 2005), 11. Melvin Maddocks and others, eds. The Seafarers: The Great Liners, (Morristown: Time-Life Books, 1978), 80. According to Maddocks, at her launch the “Normandie was the biggest, swiftest and most sophisticated vessel afloat. She boasted the most advanced hull design, the most powerful engines, and her interior arrangements were awesome. . .”
3 Lorraine Coons and Alexander Varias, Tourist Third Cabin: Steamship Travel in the Interwar Years, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 26.
4 Coons and Varias, 137.
5 John Maxtone-Graham. Normandie: France's Legendary Art Deco Ocean Liner, (Verona: Mandadori Printing, 2007), 139.
6 Maxtone-Graham, 129.
7 Maxtone-Graham, 139.
8 Braynard, 33. According to Braynard, “9200 people paid a total of $4500 for a 40-minute tour of the ship. Some 200 mounted police and 150 special patrolmen were needed. . . During the entire stay, 27,891 paid $7560 into the Seaman's Fund to see the ship.”
9 Maxtone-Graham, 139. According to Maxtone-Graham, “There was dancing everywhere aboard the Normandie that night, in Grand Salon, Café Grill, along both Promenade decks and, of necessity, out on the open decks.”
10 “SEAMEN'S INSTITUTE GAINS BY GALA BALL; Event Entitled 'Starlight in Normandie' Staged in Roof Garden of Waldorf. STARS PRESENT PROGRAM Latest Fashions Displayed by Parisian Couturiers -- Mme. Lebrun and Party Attend,” The New York Times, June 6, 1935, Thursday, (accessed October 24, 2009).
11 Braynard, 27.
12 The arrival of the Normandie and its subsequent stay in Pier 88 were heavily documented by the New York Times; seventeen articles in the newspaper's archives document her arrival in New York in 1935. Some of its featured articles include: “9,200 PAY TO VISIT NORMANDIE AT PIER; Long Lines of Early Comers Wait Three Hours to Get Aboard Huge Vessel” (June 5, 1935), “NORMANDIE HAILED AS GOOD-WILL SHIP; De Linclays Cites Her Welcome as Indicating Cordiality Between Two Nations” (June 5, 1935) and “5,000 More Pay to See Normandie; Ship to Be Closed to Public Today; Throngs Continue Rush to View Interior of Record-Breaking Vessel and Are Handled More Efficiently as Staff Learns Its Way About -- Diplomatic Dinner Held on Board” (June 6, 1935).
13 Braynard, 38.  See the numbered dissection of Normandie to better understand the proximity of these decks.
14 All of the information regarding the Gangplank publication is derived Braynard's compilation of the publication's celebrity-themed pages, 71.
15 Maxtone-Graham, 120.
16 Wendy Moonan, “Art Deco Relics of the Normandie,” The New York Times, June 17, 2005,, (accessed October 24, 2009). Also see Ellen Feldman, “The Normandie,” The American Heritage Blog, February 10, 2007, (accessed October 24, 2009).
17 Braynard, 71.
18 Diana McLellan, The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), 255. As Harper's Bazaar does not have an open archive – the magazine's website has only 140 years worth of selected articles and covers – information on the Dietrich issue can only be attained from owners of the specific magazine issue who wish to sell it:  Worth Point, “1936 HARPER'S BAZAAR ERTE DIETRICH ONBOARD NORMANDIE,” August 5, 2007,  (accessed October 24, 2009).
19 French Lines, french maritime history, “Menus,” Object Collections of the French Merchant Navy, February 5, 2007, (accessed October 24, 2009).
20 Jim Kalafus, "Some Normandie Questions," Encyclopedia Titanica, July12,2004, (accessed October 24, 2009).
21 Marc Eliot, Cary Grant: A Biography, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005): 195-196. For the account in Grant's own words, see his autobiography: Cary Grant, “Archie Leach,” Archie – The Story of Cary Grant, (accessed October 24, 2009).
22 Maxtone-Graham, 139.
23 Maxtone-Graham, 139.

    The Team