From Paris to Pittsburgh:

Sailing on the Normandie

 Two Carnegie Museums supporters recall what it was like to be a passenger on the Normandie

Two Pittsburghers remember crossing the Atlantic on the great ship in the 1930s. Both agree that traveling on the Normandie was an absolutely deluxe experience, and both agreed to share their memories with us.

Mrs. Martha Mack Lewis was eighteen in 1937 and had just completed her first year at Smith College when her parents took her to Europe—crossing on the Queen Mary. They visited England and northern France, and returned on the Normandie—the ultimate symbol of French transportation.

A problem with the engines caused a three-day delay (in Paris) before the ship’s departure from Le Havre, and Martha worried over being three days late in starting the semester at college. (The college claimed the right to expel students who did not appear on the first day.) Afterwards, she discovered that a number of Smith professors were also on board, and were equally late in reaching the college for opening day.

She remembers well the elegance of the ship and the decorated walls of the Dining Room and other public rooms, and the details of her stateroom. “You never dressed for dinner on the first night out, nor on the last,” she recalls, “but you dressed every other night.”  The Normandie rocked from bow to stern (and the Queen Mary from side to side) she felt, and she was queasy with a touch of sea-sickness on the second night at sea when she dressed for dinner.  She didn’t know if she could go through with it—but she did. They served eight-course dinners.

Her mother like so many travelers bought postcards to remember the ship, and her father took photographs on board.  After seeing the recent film Titanic, Mrs. Lewis offers only one criticism based on her years of travel on luxury liners: the young man could not have gotten out of lower class into first class areas of the ship  as easily as the film depicts.

The Normandie rivaled the Cunard line’s Queen Mary—both ships having set sail in the mid-1930s. While aboard the Normandie, Mrs. Lewis remembers seeing quite a few movie stars: Leslie Howard, who always had a pipe in his mouth; figure skater Sonja Henie, who was coming to the U.S. for the first time; and the great Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Mrs. Farley Whetzel, age 13 in 1936, had motion pictures to remember the voyage—including some footage her father took of actress Marlene Dietrich and her daughter waving to the crowd. Farley traveled to England with her family on the Normandie, and returned on the Queen Mary. There was a game onboard with a cash prize, and to her delight she won $60—more money than she had ever had. She promptly got permission to spend it, and she did, in London, where she went to Harrod’s department store and bought a dog—a West Highland White! But then she also had to rent a kennel to bring it back on the Queen Mary.

—R. Jay Gangewere

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