SS Normandie – too excessive for passengers?

Although celebrated for her design and décor, the idiosyncratic SS Normandie suffered where it mattered most – popularity with her passengers.

Throughout the 1930s, the French SS Normandie became fashionable as the transatlantic poster child of choice.

Entering service in 1935 and considered the ultimate symbol of technological and aesthetical advancement, SS Normandie secured the coveted Blue Riband and quickly attracted the crème-de-la-crème of society.

In essence, at least for a short while, the Atlantic belonged to the French. The ship’s impact on history is still widely celebrated in contemporary society. For example, there’s an imposing Normandie poster that adorns the office of our London HQ, casually distracting all who walk by.

Both experts and historians frequently consider SS Normandie as the strongest contender for ‘Greatest ship in the world’. And yet, the opulent liner – built for Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) – struggled to attract passengers throughout the vessel’s four-year service, with sailings commonly operating at less than half capacity.

So, what went wrong?

To understand the full story, you’ve first got to visit the office of the President of the United States, under Calvin Coolidge’s administration (1923-1929).

SS Normandie: founded for a changing world

Largely considered the Versailles equivalent of ocean-going travel, the origins of the lavish SS Normandie can be traced back to a small table upon the White House lawn.

Except, this unlikely genesis had nothing to do with shipbuilding between nations. Instead, geopolitics stepped in to curb spiralling immigration.

Up until this point, the attraction of finding fortune on US soil had drafted millions of hopefuls through North American ports. However, the signing of 1924’s Immigration Act served to suppress the opportunity for most people.

Limiting the number of immigrants granted entry into the United States through a national origins quota, only a fraction of previous entries to the USA would now be permitted.

In a widely foreseen domino effect, shipping companies adapted their approach to passenger accommodation accordingly. With immigration capped, the client demographic practically changed overnight with a vastly reduced European market for traditional steerage class.

A new emphasis was placed on upper-class tourists, many of whom were affluent Americans seeking an escape from prohibition, which instigated new plans from companies such as White Star Line and Cunard (later to join forces as one company – Cunard White Star). With that changing environment, the golden era of super-liners had firmly taken hold.

With competition between nations for the Blue Riband at an all-time high, Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) devised plans for a French liner to rule above them all.

As a bonus, the French acquired the skills of Vladimir Yourkevitch, a former Russian naval architect with impressive concepts who had already been dismissed by Cunard for designs deemed ‘too radical’.

The interior of SS Normandie.

Inside the SS Normandie: Versailles of the sea

The Palace of Versailles remains a celebrated and treasured icon of French history. Yet, it has an overbearing problem. Progressing from room to room, visitors can often feel suffocated. Too many busy surfaces. Too much gold leaf. Too many attempts to inject every square inch with eye-popping opulence and grandiosity.

Tourists to Versailles can find themselves hastily making for the outside world, hopeful for relief from the rich exhaustion that has built up from exposure to such an intense splendour. SS Normandie suffered from the very same problem.

While CGT commissioned dramatic yet tasteful publicity posters, the ship’s interiors were a somewhat different matter. The ‘Versailles Syndrome’ aboard was inflamed by lashings of Art Deco and streamlined Modernè style, designed by one of the fearless founders of Art Deco - Pierre Patout.

The vessel’s open spaces were peppered with sculptures, paintings, photographs and large drawings, garnished with etched wood panelling, thick carpets, and a vast array of ornate furnishings – all highlighted by batches of glittering diamond-effect lighting.

With most of SS Normandie’s voluminous public spaces dedicated to first-class, opulence intensified throughout the dining room, grill room, metropolitan café bar, theatre and winter garden.

Meanwhile, the children’s dining room was decorated with large paintings of Babar the Elephant and his companions; crafted by the original author Jean de Brunhoff.

Grand staircases and elaborate entrance halls bartered for passenger attention, while those residing in first-class suites were bestowed with unique designs by CGT-selected artists.

SS Normandie’s main dining room was dominated by Lalique glass, akin to Versailles's Hall of Mirrors, complete with 38 matching columns, two large chandeliers, and huge bronze medallions from celebrated artist Raymond Subes.

The menu showcased the finest French cuisine, with dishes presented like works of art, adding to the sense of burnout for some.

If it all felt too much, you would not find respite in the smoking room, panelled high with large murals of figures from Ancient Egypt.

In fact, there was little headspace to be found anywhere, and while SS Normandie struck a successful chord with critics and journalists alike, transatlantic passengers instead congregated for tickets aboard the more traditional RMS Queen Mary.

It wasn’t long before CGT realised that the ship’s greatest features were actually her largest shortcomings.

SS Normandie was the ultimate transatlantic ocean liner.

CGT: excluding the working class

The ship’s overbearing and boorish excess may have stemmed from the 1924 Immigration Act, but SS Normandie’s main deterrent for ticket sales also came from the very same flick of President Coolidge’s pen. It was a perfect paradox.

With so much attention and space given to first-class passengers, and less consideration allowed for more common tourist class travellers, a general consensus quickly brewed where potential passengers believed the SS Normandie was primarily for the wealthy and the famous. Naturally, the ship’s styling emphasised such a notion.

The image was everything, and the main rival – Cunard White Star’s RMS Queen Mary – had put the same effort into accommodation for tourist class as it had for first-class inhabitants.
Although the once-vast number of immigrants had dried up, rather than placing all emphasis on decadent first-class, the RMS Queen Mary offered much of the same first-class comfort to holders of cheaper tickets.

One thing that CGT seemed to overlook was the geopolitical cash source for shipping firms at that time. The large-scale immigration curb didn’t mean that only the rich could travel.

Tourists who didn't boast a double-barrelled surname, or a royal connection, simply couldn’t afford first-class cabins and consequently, RMS Queen Mary catered for these passengers. This subsequently allowed Cunard White Star to gain greater popularity with transatlantic clientele – especially American tourists.

The SS Normandie was anSS Normandie was built in Saint-Nazaire, France, for the French Line Compagnie Générale Transatlantique.

French excess: too much for some

The second main problem revolved around Normandie’s triumphant décor. The French concept of prepotent Art Deco interior styling amid an inordinate lashing of static bestrew proved uncomfortable and somewhat intimidating for passengers. Some claimed that the ship’s interiors installed a sense of claustrophobia, leading to migraines and heightened levels of motion sickness.

Once again, the RMS Queen Mary offered a tonic for Normandie-sponsored burnout. While Art Deco was also incorporated into the interior design of Cunard White Star’s flagship, the British interpretation remained far less radical, and made for a more agreeable journey.

The direct result for CGT was an exuberant level of financial boom-and-bust. It wasn’t uncommon for SS Normandie to cross the Atlantic with less than 50 per cent of her cabins filled. Rival liners claimed the lion’s share of passengers throughout the 1930s, before the Second World War put a stop to proceedings.

Not that CGT required government subsidies to stay afloat, quite like the Urban Legend dictates, however. While Italian rivals – SS Rex and SS Conte di Savoia – very much depended on assistance from the tax-payer, and German shipping companies felt the impact of the Nazi-orientated political effects and international boycotts, the SS Normandie did not need governmental help while in service.

In fact, her income-generated revenue was just over 158 million Francs, after operational expenses had been deducted. Albeit impressive on paper, the plot thickens when documents highlight CGT’s failure to repay a loan granted by the French government to build SS Normandie in the first place.

SS Normandie leaving New York.

SS Normandie: a legacy beyond passengers

There is no doubting the svelte authority with which designers engraved SS Normandie’s structural DNA. The ambience and ‘sense of occasion’ that radiated from the ship’s mantra have long been recognised as the source of inspiration for Disney Cruise Line’s matching vessels.

The daring internal aesthetic style has also been credited with influencing the design of buildings – including the Normandie Hotel in Puerto Rico, where the roof signage was originally a part of SS Normandie before an early refitting – and generating nicknames for desirable and stylish quarters in China and New York City.

Fixtures and fittings that were removed from SS Normandie, before the fire that sealed her fate, were sold through a series of auctions. These items now command eye-watering sums of money whenever they appear on the market.

As a styling exercise and demonstration of engineering prowess, the SS Normandie remains second to none. Her fate may have been an ignoble catastrophe, but her legacy is celebrated as the ultimate specimen of innovation and panache upon the seas.

Yet, that wasn’t necessarily the case back when SS Normandie was as contemporary as Chaplin’s Tramp, belted waistlines and Duke Ellington. Historians claim that visitors to the ship were almost always impressed with her build quality, proportions, and elegance. However, that did not necessarily translate into ticket sales.

As queues built around the Cunard White Star ticket office, CGT could only dream of the traffic numbers enjoyed by the RMS Queen Mary. Yet, as time’s onward march removes us further from the first-hand passenger accounts and generations long since evaporated, SS Normandie’s legacy becomes ever more golden.

The ship turned an impressive profit and waged a friendly war for the Blue Riband, while changing the face of cruising as people knew it.

Large numbers of passengers may not have cherished SS Normandie’s crowded and elaborate styling, but the ship’s fashion has since influenced an immeasurable number of aspects that we take for granted in our cultural heritage.

Quite simply, don't believe anyone who tells you SS Normandie was a 'failure'.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.