Probably the most extravagant and (to my mind) beautiful ocean liner ever constructed, the Normandie is the the ultimate example of Art Deco design.
At the time of her construction, she was the largest moving object the world had ever seen. With her modern bows, three funnels (which diminished in height fore to aft) and uncluttered, terraced decks, she was much more daring and modern than the RMS Queen Mary under construction for Cunard at the same time.
Her first class spaces were not to be matched, before or since. The restaurant was over 300 feet long, three decks high, and featured a great, tumbling staircase for the elite to make a grand entrance. At the top of these stairs were cloakrooms for the privileged to check their furs, despite the fact that they did not need to go outdoors to walk to dinner!
Another, even grander staircase descended from the Grill to the Smoking Room, which could be combined with the Grand Lounge by elaborate sliding panels. A Winter Garden for’ard on the Promenade Deck was complete with tropical plants and caged birds.
The First Class staterooms were equally elaborate. Two enormous apartments de grand luxe featured multiple bedrooms, sitting and dining room, servants’ quarters and a large private terrace. Some of the “ordinary” first class rooms also had private balconies, a harbinger of things to come 60 years later, as these are prerequisites on today’s cruise ships.
She was constructed by Penhöet yards in St. Nazaire, France, in 1931-32. Construction stopped during the Great Depression, and she finally made her maiden voyage in spring 1935. She captured the Blue Riband on her maiden voyage. Three months later, the Queen Mary took the honour, only to lose it back to the Normandie the next year. In 1938 the Mary won it again.
Similarly the two ships’ owners competed, almost childishly, for the title of largest liner. The measurement of gross registered tonnage, which is a unit of space, not weight, was altered on each ship by the construction of unnecessary deckhouses, etc.
During the four years she ran on the North Atlantic, she never made a profit for her owners. Many people felt her interiors were grand to the point of being intimidating, preferring the traditional “homey” feeling of the Queens! Nevertheless, she was a sensation and often carried the rich and famous to and fro across the Atlantic.
The burned out remains of the SS Normandie (by then renamed the SS Lafayette) made a controversial appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur. Although the ship is not named, it is implied that the villainous saboteur Fry was responsible for its destruction, which angered the US Navy for its insinuation that their security was lax.
USS Lafayette (1941-1946)
In August of 1939 the Normandie was idled at Pier 88 in New York, as the threat of war in Europe intensified. She would never sail again. Seized by the US Navy and renamed the USS Lafayette in December 1941, she was destroyed by fire two months later while being converted into a troopship. Flooded by tons of water poured into her upper decks, she rolled over and sank at her berth, lying on her side in the mud. After an enormous salvage operation which involved cutting away her entire superstructure, she was raised and scrapped in 1946.
Fortunately, because the ship was being converted for wartime use when she was destroyed, much of her furniture and artwork had been removed from the ship and was preserved. Most of the furnishings were re-used on the Liberté, a German-built liner which was seized by the Allies after the war and and given to France as a replacement for Normandie.
Great seals from the doors of the first class restaurant now adorn the doors of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn. The sliding panels between the Smoking Room and the Grand Salon, after serving on the Ile de France, are at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Other artwork from the the ship was used to create a specialty restaurant aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Summit.