Meeting John Maxtone-Graham, the Scottish-American author and expert on ocean liners and maritime history, ranks among my all-time thrills as a travel writer.
An amazingly elegant and distinguished presence, I thought Mr. Maxtone-Graham very easy to admire. A 1951 graduate of Brown University, he served as a lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War and later worked as a Broadway stage manager. Despite his impressive background, he had a forthright and gentlemanly manner, all delivered in what he called his signature "trans-Atlantic" accent.
The funny thing is it was only later I learned of his noteworthy past. The day we met, somewhere around 1997, I was attending a Cunard Line media gathering and he was acting in his role as renowned ocean-liner historian.
As we talked he offered some kind and encouraging words. Later he handed me a signed a copy of "The Only Way to Cross," his seminal history of trans-Atlantic ocean liners. On the inside flap he'd written, "With the author's warmest and best wishes. Bon voyage always!"
Both then and since I've considered Mr. Maxtone-Graham as the tall, immaculate personification of the sophistication and class attached to the classic ocean liners, the preferred mode of transport for yesteryear's one percent. So naturally after learning luxury operator Crystal Cruises has forged an agreement to return the SS United States to service, my thoughts turned to the erstwhile author, who passed away on July 6, 2015.
I've yet to read Maxtone-Graham's book on the vessel, "S.S. United States: Red, White and Blue Riband, Forever." But in looking back on "The Only Way to Cross," his words resonate clearly as Crystal Cruises officials undertake a stringent study to assess the feasibility of operating the classic liner, currently docked at Pier 82 in Philadelphia.
Removed from service in 1969 and largely idle in the years since, the United States is aged and outdated to such a degree that Edie Rodriguez, Crystal's president and CEO, said the company's most significant challenge will be renovating the vessel to meet current safety and environmental standards.
PHOTO: Passengers aboard the SS United States (Photos by Brian Major).
That the United States would become outdated a relatively brief 17 years after her maiden voyage was likely never considered in 1952. After all, after more than a century in operation, Cunard Line experienced its most profitable decade ever in the economic boom that followed World War II's end.
"It is quite probable that Cunard's singular success prompted American enthusiasm to enter the Atlantic lists once more," wrote Maxtone-Graham.
Indeed the United States was designed and built as an expression of American ingenuity, if not outright flag-waving, by naval architect William Francis Gibbs.
The Philadelphia native bore "a basic antagonism for Europeans and their accomplishments," according to Maxtone-Graham. He was determined to prove Americans could operate a ship as fast and feature-filled as any of the magnificent English, French and Italian liners that then dominated trans-Atlantic channels.
Gibbs thus created a ship that emphasized speed and safety. In his obsession to produce a vessel capable of capturing the Blue Riband for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing, Gibbs literally snuck into the engine room of the finest ship then afloat, the Normandie, to take detailed notes on the vessel's power plant.
Later, aboard the United States itself Gibbs "elevated fire precaution to a religion," wrote Maxtone-Graham, banishing wood from all interior spaces in favor of aluminum.
"An effective publicity gimmick for the new ship claimed that the only wood on board was contained in the butcher's chopping block and the pianos," the author wrote. Gibbs' mania became such that he harangued piano maker Theodore Steinway to craft a piano encased in aluminum for the vessel.
"Steinway refused and won his point only after promising to ignite a fireproof mahogany piano doused with gasoline at his own expense, to prove that it would not burn," wrote Maxtone-Graham.
PHOTO: William Francis Gibbs, the SS United States' designer.
To Gibbs' delight, the United States captured the Blue Riband on its maiden voyage, averaging 35 knots and completing the eastbound crossing in three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes. Furthermore the ship was "an instant hit," said Maxtone-Graham.
"The ship received no higher accolade than the near continuous patronage of the Windsors, who transferred their affection from the [Cunard Line] Queens to their new American rival," he wrote.
It seemed trans-Atlantic travel's greatest era was just ahead. But only five years after the United States' launch "a sinister milestone was passed," wrote Maxtone-Graham.
Simply put, "In the summer of that boom year, as many crossed by air as by sea." The emphasis on speed so critical to Gibbs' plans soon swept aside the entire trans-Atlantic shipping industry as scheduled consumer airline travel began its ascent.
Today the same aluminum construction that was key to the United States' innovative status and great speed will likely be scrapped if and when the vessel resumes service. Maritime experts I spoke with said the superstructure will almost certainly be rebuilt entirely to meet current maritime regulations.
The "new" United States by Crystal Cruises will be an 800-guest-passenger ship with staterooms measuring about 350 square feet, plus dining, entertainment, spa and other amenities "true to the ship's storied history," said Rodriguez. The refurbished vessel's interiors will include replicas of the United States' original Promenade and Navajo Lounge.
Yet should the new designers seek to faithfully re-create the ship's original interiors they would do well to exercise some restraint. "Inside, she was impeccable if slightly cold," wrote Maxtone-Graham. "There was little monumental luxury in the traditional sense. All was metal and synthetics, low key and understated." As the author observes, the ship's "real glory lay below" in the United States' powerful engines.
Regardless of the ship's eventual interior profile, there's little dispute Crystal Cruises will be re-launching an authentic American landmark should its plan succeed. I like to think Mr. Maxtone-Graham would have approved.
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