Crossing in style on the Queen Mary

In 1934, Queen Mary of England christened the ship that bore her name. This 81,000-ton ship was the biggest and fastest ship of its day and celebrated its maiden voyage in May 1936. The jewel of Cunard’s merchant fleet and the quintessence of grandeur, it represented the finest in ship travel.

I sailed the Queen Mary in September 1937, having arrived in Europe that June on Cunard’s Aquitania, “The Ship Beautiful.” While the Aquitania, Cunard’s last ship with four funnels, carried 2,000 in steerage, the Queen Mary was more fitted to luxury travel. Like most transatlantic liners in the ’30s, the Queen Mary was a 3-class ship. In first (cabin) class it carried 776 passengers, in second class 784 and in third class, which was generally referred to as steerage, 579.

In London, I boarded the “boat train” for the 11-hour ride to embark at Southampton. We were accompanied by a convoy of steamer trunks. There were more railcars carrying luggage than passengers. The 1930s were a period of sartorial affluence; each of the day’s diversions demanded a fresh wardrobe. After sailing from Southampton, we stopped at Cherbourg, France, to pick up more passengers for the 5-day Atlantic crossing.

The Queen Mary was a classically beautiful ship with ornate public rooms.

Life on board was dramatically different from that found on modern ships. There were no lessons in the French language, bridge or hula, no fitness classes and no gala floor shows. Passengers provided their own exercise and games while the crew and passengers provided the simple entertainment.

Sports activities, including quoits, shuffleboard and Ping-Pong, were very popular, and organized competitions were conducted for prizes. The strenuously active engaged in deck tennis, a fast-paced action which required optimum athleticism. Pedestrians paced briskly abreast on the broad decks, chalking up their mileage sans benefit of a fitness director.

Masquerade balls and funny-hat contests attracted enthusiastic participation. The finest dance bands in the world offered melodies for dancing and provided music for passengers’ entertainment. Motion pictures were huge favorites, as Cunard boasted that it showed films not yet released on either side of the Atlantic.

The less active sorts collected in deck chairs of highly polished teak, which they hired on a full-voyage basis for their restricted use. A name plate affixed to the chair marked its exclusivity.

The deck steward hovered about his charges providing steamer rugs, hand warmers, hot bouillon, reading materials and seasickness remedies. Afternoon tea was served by white-gloved stewards. This area served as a haven of serenity for its incumbents.

Our fellow passengers in first class were very “stuffy” and standoffish. It was not proper to initiate a conversation unless “properly introduced.” A perfunctory “Good morning” nod was de rigueur, nothing more!

Formal dress was required at dinner. I was but 18 years old in 1937 and resisted wearing the black tie, causing me to be denied entrance to the dining salon until “properly attired.” At that instant, Basil Loon’s proclamation re the dinner jacket reached me in its utmost clarity: “The one essential garment for a man aboard a ship is a dinner jacket. He can dispose of all else, but the dinner jacket is as necessary to an ocean traveler as a tailcoat to a waiter. Without it you may not come down to dinner and have to sneak out of the Smoking Room at 8 p.m.”

The popular Smoking Room not only lent itself to the omnipresent smokers but served as a cozy retreat for those enjoying parlor games (bridge, mah-jongg, backgammon).

Many first-class passengers were not disposed to pack or unpack their own bags, so this service was graciously provided by the room stewardesses. Some of the British were accompanied by their maid or valet. I even knew of a lady who carried her own bed linen aboard and of a man who brought his personal barber.

It was not uncommon for passengers to take their dogs with them. Some were domiciled in the staterooms with their masters, while the mastiff-type canines were installed in kennels on the upper decks where they were exercised regularly by their owners or members of the ship’s staff.

Prior to WWII, England was derided for its poor food and justifiably so, but the cuisine on board the Queen Mary was of Cordon Bleu quality. Diners were not restricted to menu items but encouraged to order anything they wished. The service was impeccable.

After five enchanting days crossing the ocean, we sailed past the Ambrose Lightship into New York Harbor. A cacophony of horns blasting and whistles shrieking from nearby ships heralded our arrival and reflected New York’s welcome to its most distinguished visitor.

Generous numbers of stars from stage, screen and radio plus political leaders, sports heroes and celebrated bon vivants were always included in the Queen Mary’s passenger list. These luminaries were coveted subjects for eager reporters and newsreel cameramen who stormed aboard for interviews.

Some years later I crossed on the “France” (now sailing as the Norway). A very grand ship, it was subsidized by the French government as a symbol of national pride and aspired to achieve parity with the more renowned Queen Mary. However, I sensed that it lacked the traditional dignity of its cross-channel counterpart and was more an expression of Francophile obsession with wine and cuisine.

I have logged more than 100 cruises/crossings in my career, but none remain so indelibly etched in my memory as that aboard the Queen Mary — a unique experience on a majestic ship reminiscent of a glorious era, long since vanished.

Cupertino, CA