On its maiden voyage to New York City in 1935, the French luxury liner Normandie, owned by the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, astonished everyone who saw it. It was the longest ship in the world and yet, with its long tapered bow and stern and the way it widened out amidships like an old-fashioned champagne glass, it had the graceful lines associated with yachts. Its luxurious interior was a showcase of French design and craftsmanship. Moreover, on that first crossing it set a new transatlantic crossing average speed record and won the coveted Blue Ribbon of the Atlantic. (This was not an actual prize, just an unofficial way to acknowledge speed records at sea.)
The ship was packed with celebrities on that voyage. In New York, 100,000 people jammed the harbour to await its arrival, 30,000 of them in grandstands put up for the occasion. The city’s eight daily newspapers each put the Normandie on the front page, and a radio station gave it seven hours of live coverage. This was news, glamour, romance.
Back in Paris, the excitement was equally intense. At the Bal des Petit Lits Blancs (an annual charity ball held at the Opéra to benefit tubercular children and attended by everyone who was anyone), four beautiful women dressed in long white gowns cinched with floor-length sashes carried a large model of the Normandie before an admiring crowd.
Now you’d think that with such a French triumph, the designer of that distinctive hull might be considered a celebrity in his own right. You’d be wrong.
The design was the work of a Russian émigré called Vladimir Yourkevitch. His story is told in detail in a wonderful article called “The Age of Ships” by Michael Anton. Here is a short summary.
As a junior naval architect in Russia, Yourkevitch had first proposed his design to the Imperial Russian Navy of Tsar Nicholas II. He was so junior that he had a hard time convincing anyone of the value of his idea for a hull tapered fore and aft that swelled in the middle, which he argued would reduce drag so the ship could go faster while conserving fuel. Only after his design had been tested in in Europe’s most advanced marine test tank in Bremerhaven, Germany, were his claims accepted. The order came through to build four ships to his design—but war broke out, followed by the Russian Revolution. The ships were never completed.
And Vladimir Yourkevitch, who fought on the losing side, had to get out of Russia. He fled first to Turkey, and fetched up in Paris, nearly penniless. He ended up taking a job on the assembly line in the Renault factory. But he was still determined to turn his advanced ideas into a real ship. When he heard of a plan to build a fabulous transatlantic liner to reflect the greatness of France, he put forward his ideas. Nobody listened. Eventually, a friend who had known him in Russia and who had found a job in the French military arranged a meeting with the chairman of the Penhoët shipyard, where the liner was to be built. The chairman assigned a staff engineer to look at the drawings, fully expecting that the engineer would sneer. Instead he said Yourkevitch’s design was better than anything the French had.
Well, that was embarrassing. The French wanted the ship, and the government even agreed to split the cost of construction with the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, but they weren’t going to make life easy for Yourkevitch. He got the job, but not office space. He drafted his dream ship in a cramped Paris apartment. And the French admiralty engineers insisted his ship model be tested against 25 different French-designed hulls. Back to Germany the design went. Same result as before—it was a superior design.
The Normandie was built, and outfitted in the grandest style, and it was every bit as fast and sleek as Yourkevitch promised. After its inaugural voyage in 1935 the ship shuttled passengers across the Atlantic to ports in North and South America. This was the heyday of luxury liners and leisurely crossings.
And Yourkevitch? Did people form a line outside his door asking for further designs? No. In frustration, he boarded his beloved ship and emigrated to the United States, and opened a naval architecture office in Manhattan.
But once again, war got in the way. The Normandie was in New York City awaiting a return voyage to Europe when in the autumn of 1939 war was declared. Nobody wanted to travel to Europe, so the voyage was cancelled. For months, the ship remained idle in port.
When the Americans entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Normandie was no longer just a luxury liner with nowhere to go. With Northern France under German occupation and the rest under Vichy government, which was considered to be cooperating with the enemy, the Normandie was deemed under international law to be a belligerent ship. It was seized by the American government, which wondered what to do with it.
The military decided to make it into a troop ship. That meant stripping it of its luxury interior. Paintings, woodwork, furniture, lamps, carpets—everything had to go.
On the morning of February 9, 1942, a work crew set about cutting down the steel supports of the four giant Lalique glass lamps that were the pride of the Normandie. (You can see them in the postcard view, below.) Sparks from an acetylene torch ignited a pile of life jackets and soon a raging fire engulfed the Grand Salon and spread to passageways and rooms.
Fireboats arrived to pump enormous quantities of water into the vessel. Nobody seemed to be aware that the Normandie actually had a built-in system to prevent the spread of fire and that pouring more water into the hull was the wrong thing to do. When Yourkevitch heard from a friend about the fire, he rushed (along with thousands of rubberneckers) to the harbour and tried to tell those in charge to stop. Yourkevitch even volunteered to go on board the burning ship to open the seacocks and fill the bilge tanks with seawater to force the ship to slowly sink into the mud eight feet below, which would have saved the hull. Nobody listened to him. Nobody ever listened to him.
The ship began to list and eventually fell over sideways. There was a public outcry, and accusations of sabotage. People really loved that ship and could not accept that it had been lost through sheer carelessness. Yourkevitch had a plan to bring his ship back to life. Surprise: no one listened.
In 1943, the ship was hauled upright and refloated. But refitting the ship for use would have been so expensive that eventually the beautiful hull was towed off and used for scrap.
To the bitter end, officials in France could not bring themselves to fully acknowledge Youkevitch’s contribution. The government decorated all the major players at the shipyard and CGT for services to France—with the exception of Yourkevitch. Yet, as Michael Anton points out, “No single figure more changed the course of naval architecture in the last 100 years. Virtually every ship in the water today—from cruise ships to tankers to cargo haulers to aircraft carriers—owes its form to Vladimir Yourkevitch.”
Yourkevitch did eventually find work in the States and was honoured by being asked to give lectures at major engineering and naval architecture schools including MIT and the Naval War College. But he never got a chance to do any more big jobs, either military or civilian.
So what has his story taught us? That in one’s life, one single fabulous and lasting achievement is still well above average. That he saw the future earlier than others. Consider the impressive 31 knots his ship achieved on its first transatlantic crossing. When that record was surpassed by the Queen Mary, which topped the Normandie’s speed by a mere 0.7 knots, it was using engines that created 40,000 more horsepower and consumed vastly greater quantities of fuel than the Normandie had.
Better that we remember these things, rather than conclude something even this optimist must have felt on various occasions—namely that no matter where one goes, once an outsider, always an outsider. Nonetheless we keep trying, as he did. And history rewards us, even if our contemporaries do not.
Text by Norman Ball
We’d like to thank two special contributors to this blog. The photographs showing the two interior views and of the Normandie leaving the shipyard are from John Sayers’s collection of transatlantic liner ephemera. And the images showing the Normandie in New York are from the New York postcard collection of Kyle Jolliffe.
The photograph of the model of the Normandie at the Bal des Petits Lits Blancs is from the Roger Viollet collection, available online at Paris en Images.
You can see an additional photograph of the Normandie in our posting about French advertising postcards.