By Richard René Silvin and Robert Versteeg of Silvin Books
Richard René Silvin has now lectured for the membership of the Lifelong Learning Society at FAU Jupiter three times. On Thursday, April 21 at 3:15 p.m., René returns for a fourth presentation and invites you on board the SS Normandie, the 1930s flagship of the French Line, which is considered the most majestic ocean liner ever built. As always, René’s lecture aims to give the audience an entertaining experience which many guests say is “just like going to the movies.”
Some background: René’s parents lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic throughout his childhood. This unusual situation created the opportunity for him to travel frequently on the great French and British liners that survived the Second World War, like the Liberté, the Ile de France, the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary. These regular crossings constitute his happiest memories and gave rise to a life-long study of ocean liners, most notably the legendary “floating museum” Normandie.
Although Normandie had met her tragic end in 1942 in New York City, several years before René was born, everyone he met as a child, crossing the Atlantic on her successors, could not stop talking about the magnificent ship. His fellow passengers raved about Normandie’s art work, the magnificently decorated rooms, and the extraordinary service they remembered from the heydays of the Normandie. René envisioned himself one of the “mousses”, the red livery-clad bellboys who served first-class passengers on the ill-fated ship. He created imaginary stories of how it would have been to sail on Normandie; wandering around in the magnificent one-of-a-kind Winter Garden, helping passengers find their way around the museum-like hallways, and serving drinks in the art-deco bar to such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope and the Disney brothers.
This past year, René finally translated these fantasies into a book, Normandie, the tragic story of the most majestic ocean liner, and subsequently into a lecture, which uses rarely seen footage of Normandie’s launch in France, and life on board Normandie. She entered service in 1935 as the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat, and she remains the most powerful steam turbo-electric-propelled passenger ship ever built. Unfortunately, the glamorous story leads up to the tragic accident that resulted in a huge fire and Normandie’s tragic “death” in the harbor of New York City in 1942. Only two months after Americans saw images on TV of their Navy fleet lying on its side in far-off Pearl Harbor, the visual of Normandie capsized in the middle of New York brought the reality of America’s involvement in World War Two home. Images of medics rescuing workers as they were evacuating the doomed ship are eerily comparable to those of 9/11.
Much of the art, furniture and items saved from Normandie were sold at a series of auctions after her demise, and many pieces are considered valuable Art Deco treasures today. The rescued items include the ten large dining-room door medallions and fittings, and some of the individual Jean Dupas glass panels that formed the large murals mounted at the four corners of her Grand Salon. One entire corner is preserved at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The dining room door medallions are now on the exterior doors of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn, New York. René has been accumulating items and furniture for over thirty years including two large doors made of three different types of wood with brass inlays.
Normandie’s influence can be witnessed in many modern day cruise ships, where homage is paid to her with copies of her artwork and renderings of her image. René ends his book with a quote from Cicero: “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living. The love you gave in life keeps people alive beyond their time. Anyone who was given love will always live on in another’s heart.” This certainly goes for Normandie!