When I was very young I was privileged to have a friend who understood the language of locomotives. His name was Mr. Caldwell, and he was a thin, leathery old man who took his own sweet time about everything he did, whether it was filling his pipe or speaking his mind. Mr. Caldwell had been a railroader all his life, and until he retired he had been a passenger engineer on the Louisville and Nashville for 20 years. On long summer evenings when there was scarcely any sound at all, Mr. Caldwell and I would sit together on his front porch and watch the lightning bugs blink and listen for the far-off mournful wail of train whistles. Mr. Caldwell always knew what they were saying. "That's a li'l ole switch engine roundin' up a crew," he might say, or, "That's No. 26 blowin' for the cross-in' at Irondale." Sometimes he would take out his heavy railroad watch and snap open the cover and say, "The Seaboard's runnin' 13 minutes late from Atlanta," or he might laugh quietly and say, "That's ole Ed Bowles. I know his touch. He's a-ballin' the jack an' wants everybody to know it."
One summer evening as we sat together in the darkness, Mr. Caldwell said—for no particular reason that I can recall—something that I have never forgotten. "I feel sorry for you, son," he said. "By the time you're grown, everybody will be getting places so fast they won't even know what it was like to relax and ponder along the way."
Over the years there have been many times when I have had good reason to recall Mr. Caldwell's prophecy. I have thought about it often when I have booked passage on an airline and have not even asked which route my plane was following but only how long it would take to reach my destination. I have remembered it on some weary occasions when I have driven more than 500 miles in one day and have not paid much attention to anything except highway signs and a couple of roadside restaurants and filling stations. I have had particular reason to reflect on it a few times when I have flown halfway around the world at one stretch and have sat in a sort of mental vacuum, scarcely glancing at the countries passing under my window like sections unreeling from a gigantic relief map.
Despite these dreary experiences, I have grown up to discover one form of travel that still is practically untouched by the jet and plastic age. When I have the time, the money and the inclination, I can travel with style amidst gilt and glitter and splendor that Mr. Caldwell never saw in even the grandest Pullman palace car. I do it simply by booking passage on one or another of the famous luxury liners plying the North Atlantic run. These floating Elysiums have schedules, to be sure, and in offices hidden somewhere there must be people who are concerned with seeing that they make money. But such vulgarities are not supposed to concern passengers, and they seldom do. Where other forms of travel peddle speed as their most important commodity, or, at least, make it a consideration, the ocean liners promise nothing really except splendor and luxury.
October 30, 1961
Altogether there are 24 shipping firms operating about 60 passenger ships on North Atlantic routes during the summer season. At least half a dozen of these ships—perhaps more, if someone has a favorite he insists on including—are luxury cocoons of the premier rank. Deciding which one has the most to offer is an intensely personal and mysterious matter, and a man shouldn't have to explain his choice or even necessarily base it on logic, just as he shouldn't be expected to explain why he can keep company with a succession of glamorous and beautiful women and finally honorably propose to only one. So I am not trying to influence anyone or provoke an argument when I confess that my heart belongs to the Liberté.
The Liberté is, of course, a French ship, long the pride of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, known in this country as the French Line, and referred to by employees and seasoned travelers as La Transat. Along with hundreds of her faithful admirers, I was saddened recently to learn that La Transat has decided that the stiff and furious competition in the North Atlantic is too much for the glamorous old Liberté. She will be taken off the run next month and replaced by a new ship much heavier and reputed to be infinitely more beautiful and artful, named the France.
When I made a westbound crossing on the Liberté last spring, a farewell gesture to an old friend, I could find no signs of decrepitude in her pampered 936-foot hull nor was there any evidence that the joie de vivre is fading from her 120,000-horsepower heart. Still, the Liberté made her maiden voyage in 1930 as the Europa, and that does make her old. Compared with some of the sleek young rivals that have been launched in recent years, the Liberté is a veritable grande dame. Besides, though nobody mentions it much anymore, the Liberté is a lady with a rough and checkered past. She began life as a German liner 30 years ago and was a well-known fixture on the North Atlantic run. The Europa went off into hiding during World War II, and when American forces entered Bremerhaven in 1945 they found her sitting there placidly with a German crew still aboard and almost no damage.
The Americans promptly gave the already aging ship the toughest experience of her life. They crammed her full of bunks, turned her grand salon into a basketball court and pressed her into duty as a troop carrier. For almost a year she shuttled the Atlantic, returning home thousands of GIs, most of whom whiled away the tedium of the voyage by carving their initials into everything in sight or by scrawling scandalous messages in all the usual, and sometimes some highly unusual, places. In 1946 the Inter-Allied Reparation Agency awarded the ship to the French. Since she cost well over $19 million to build, she was, as far as anybody can determine, the biggest single war prize ever awarded a nation in history.
The French rechristened their prize the Liberté and sent her off to the shipyards for a complete remodeling job. The task took three and a half years and cost an astronomical number of francs, which finally totaled up to $19.5 million, or just about what the ship cost in the first place. The French did more than beautify and repair the Liberté, of course. They installed new engines and a new lighting system, shifted her ballast to make her ride more smoothly, equipped her with all sorts of modern devices to detect and fight fires and even slenderized her hull. They redecorated her from scratch, and when the Liberté took to sea there were only a few inconsequential bits and pieces of German equipment hidden around to remind one of her Teutonic origin.
The Liberté is not really a big ship, as modern liners go; she has never been considered very large (the Queens, Elizabeth and Mary, are more than 30,000 tons heavier). Nor does everybody think the Liberté is the grandest and most palatial ship. Over the years people frequently have said slighting, and even harsh, things about the Liberté's rich and varied furnishings and appointments. They claim that her thick rugs, crystal chandeliers, tapestries, mosaics, statuary and murals add up to a sort of modernistic Versailles. Some of these critics prefer the functional and avant-garde décor of American and Italian liners. Others feel more at home amidst the paneled and polished brass elegance of British ships. But I happen not only to enjoy, but to esteem, the Liberté's gilded and glossy atmosphere, from the murals in the enormous lounges right down to the old-fashioned wallpaper in some of the staterooms. It all seems to me to be gloriously French; perhaps a bit more frenchified than natural life but glorious all the same.
Passengers demand different things from a ship anyway. Some of us hold that returning from Europe by ship instead of by plane is the classic way to wind up a strenuous vacation devoted to sightseeing or funmaking. It is the ideal way to unwind, to get the digestion back on schedule, to relax and finally to get some rest before submitting to the daily grind back home. People making a business trip to Europe sometimes like to take a ship both ways. It gives them a restful interval of luxury, a respite from jangling telephones and pestering secretaries; for days on end they don't have to make any decisions more momentous than what they will order to eat or whether they will have consommé at 11 or ice cream with their tea at 4.
There is a second group of passengers aboard every ship—and sometimes it seems to predominate—which wants gaiety and action and is willing to turn the ship upside down to find it. These passengers want a party every hour on the hour and many of them also want to splash in the pool, play table tennis or shuffleboard, or wham golf balls on the driving range and shoot skeet from the sundeck. They also want to drink champagne and dance until dawn and they like to wear paper hats and throw paper snowballs and pop balloons.
There is always a tiny third group of passengers aboard every ship. They are usually making their first voyage and they are not quite sure what they want, except that they don't want to be overlooked or forgotten. Usually they are either very elderly or very young. Sometimes they are schoolteachers or working girls who have saved up for a fling. Often they are widows or widowers. Almost always they are alone, and sometimes they are bewildered or embarrassed by shipboard routine and they are not sophisticated enough to realize it is permitted to ask questions.
Sprinkled among these three major groups are always a few passengers de marque—travelers who, because of their wealth, influence or celebrity, merit special attention from the shipping lines. These are the people who sit at the captain's table or have drinks with the purser. If they are entertainers, usually they are prevailed upon to display their talents at the captain's gala, a festive party that always is held two nights before a ship docks. But ordinary passengers, too, require vast attention. On rare occasions they are born; on more occasions than one might think they die. Oldtime card sharks have almost disappeared from the scene, but there are a few around still and ship officers must do what they can to see that passengers stay out of their clutches. Passengers sometimes require medical attention; they always need barbers and hairdressers and tailors and stenographers. And there are always minor emergencies—a lonely poodle in the kennel refuses to eat, or a queasy passenger gives up the struggle and gets sick in the middle of the dance floor.
Blending so many different groups into a harmonious and manageable whole, seeing that they enter a shipboard world of their own choosing, feeding them and supplying their myriad demands, seeing that the lonely meet people and the celebrities get buttered up, that nobody is bilked or embarrassed or simply ignored, requires a bit of a miracle. Yet all the big ships pull it off on every voyage. Furthermore, most of them manage to do it with a flair or a graceful little twist that is a hallmark all their own. On the French Line it is called l'atmosph√®re Transat. It leaves passengers with a warm glow, a feeling that nothing is important except their comfort and everything they want done will be done well and done quickly. It does not necessarily involve an unusual or spectacular service.
For instance, when my wife and I embarked on the Liberté off Southampton in June, we were weary, disgruntled and ready to snap someone up for the afternoon of discomfort we had just experienced. A railroad strike in France had delayed the boat train so that the Liberté was more than three hours late sailing from Le Havre. This meant a similar delay for those of us who were waiting to board the ship at Southampton. Finally, we were herded aboard buses and taken to a local hotel and fed the kind of poorly prepared and unimaginative dinner that has given English cookery a bad name—gray and greasy lamb, stone-hard roasted potatoes and watery vegetables.
When the Liberté finally did arrive for her rendezvous, the tides were not right, so she had to anchor much farther offshore than she does normally. For almost two hours our tender had to feel its way slowly up one channel and down another to reach her. Probably because they also were tired of waiting, some of the British crewmen aboard the tender had hoisted too many and were un-Britishly plastered, bawdy and noisy. When we finally boarded the Liberté, chilled and gloomy, hungry and tired, I was prepared to complain to someone on the spot. But somehow, after one glance at the Liberté's polished decks, the brightly lit chandeliers and the bright smiles of welcome, it hardly seemed the time. A scrubbed-faced little mousse in red livery, who acted as if he had been eagerly awaiting our arrival all afternoon, quickly guided my wife and me to our stateroom. A blue-smocked porter delivered our baggage within a few minutes, and a smiling steward was making soothing inquiries. "Ah, Madame and Monsieur, I hope you are not fatigued. How unfortunate. What a bother for you. Is there anything you desire? A snack? Certainly, Monsieur—in one moment, Monsieur." He disappeared and in an incredibly short time had returned with a tray loaded with a variety of cold cuts, freshly baked brioches and creamy butter, and a bucket of champagne. L'atmosph√®re Transat began to glow just then.
It is not what is done so much as it is how it is done. It is based on tradition, intelligence, training, pride, a considerable amount of sensitivity and, unquestionably, cunning. The man chiefly responsible for keeping l'atmosph√®re Transat burning brightly on the Liberté was the chief purser, an urbane, thin-nosed and rather handsome man of 55 named Robert Bellet. Pursers start with a rank of seventh grade and work their way up. La Transat has only four who rank as chief pursers, and M. Bellet was the dean of this select group. He was purser of the Liberté when she made her maiden voyage for the French Line in 1950, and he was still her purser when he retired this summer, having reached La Transat's mandatory retirement age. M. Bellet will be remembered as long as the Liberté is remembered and, in a sense, he was the Liberté to some people because he was primarily responsible for the charm that made her unique. M. Bellet, with La Transat for 34 years, spent 33 of them as a purser aboard 24 ships. He could summon up a kind of Quai d'Orsay bland charm when dealing with passengers, but he was basically an uncommunicative, almost taciturn, man who looked as if he had seen a great deal of human frailty and fully expected to see more at any moment.
M. Bellet believed a good purser is always on duty, and although his well-trained assistants could cope with almost any conceivable emergency, he was on call 24 hours a day when the Liberté was at sea. He could detect the lightest malfunction in l'atmosph√®re Transat, and though most of them wouldn't know M. Bellet if they met him, many a lonely or moping passenger on the Liberté suddenly found himself in the main stream and enjoying all sorts of delightful activities simply because M. Bellet had detected his unhappy state and issued a command to do something about it.
L'atmosph√®re Transat requires a great deal of manpower as well as know-how. It required 263 officers and sailors to run the Liberté, but it took a staff of about 700 stewards, stewardesses, barmen, waiters and what is known as service personnel, to keep the passengers happy. On a seasonal average the Liberté transported in the neighborhood of 1,000 passengers per crossing and, at first startled glance, it sometimes appeared that there were more uniformed attendants aboard than paying customers. At least 90% of La Transat's employees are careerists, and most of them work on the same ship regularly. La Transat sets surprisingly high standards for its help, and whether he was passing out paper hats, decorating a birthday cake, polishing your shoes, or tucking you in your deck chair, you could be certain the attendant on the Liberté had spent a long time in learning the rudiments of his trade. Most started at a tender age in a merchant-marine school and they had to shine brightly and survive a thorough screening before La Transat hired them and sent them to an école h√¥teli√®re for two years more of polishing.
Qualifying for a purser's job with La Transat nowadays requires as much study and perseverance as it does to earn a doctorate. A candidate must have passed the equivalent of a college entrance examination even to be considered. Then he has to pass written and oral tests in French, English and Spanish, mathematics, accounting and law, and a few other subjects before he is allowed to approach a board of examiners that sizes him up as to appearance, personality, savoir-faire and savoir-vivre. If he passes this test, he is given a berth as a student purser at $90 a month, and after three years at sea he is examined by the French Ministry of the Merchant Marine and he must prove he is thoroughly grounded in history, maritime law, geography and commerce. If he passes again, he is given a brevet de commissaire de la marine marchande, which means that he is at last a purser—seventh-class.
Sea travelers are notorious eaters and food is one of their major preoccupations, so it is not surprising that all the great ships have superb kitchens. To say that the cuisine of one luxury liner is superior to that of another is not only foolhardy but futile, like arguing whether Car√™me was a better chef than Escoffier. But it is true that on no ship was good cooking such a tradition, was the ordering and preparation of meals such a ritual, and the art of gastronomy such a topic of conversation as it was on the Liberté.
It is a rare Frenchman who isn't interested in the art of cooking, to be sure, but on the Liberté the art had been elevated until it was almost a religion. He may prefer the simple delights of cuisine bourgeoise for himself, but every crewman, from the youngest recruit to the captain on the bridge, took a fierce pride in the Liberté's haute cuisine and was always willing to pause a minute and listen knowingly to descriptions of meals that had just been finished and to make suggestions for meals to come. Naturally, this consuming interest in food soon began to affect passengers. When they fell into conversation, sooner or later the talk turned to what they had ordered for dinner last night and what new sauce they had discovered at lunch. After a few days at sea, it was a rare passenger indeed who did not fancy himself something of an epicure, or who did not feel he had the palate to become one if he only let himself go. It was impossible to sail on the Liberté and remain indifferent to food. At times one got the feeling that it was only a mammoth seagoing restaurant, surrounded by facilities that allowed guests to rest or exercise before returning to table for another go at langouste d'Audierne froide √† la russe or cervelle d'agneau √† la polonaise.
Any meal was something of an event on the Liberté, but dinner was a full-blown fete. The ladies donned their prettiest gowns and the gentlemen wore dinner jackets, and the huge dining room with its high curved ceiling and illuminated columns and colorful murals had a festive glow. There were flowers on the table and one pretty dress after another appeared on the central staircase while serving chefs stood at attention behind the enormous central buffet, which was decorated with bonbon baskets carrying billowing spun sugar bows and covered with platters bearing four kinds of ham, and almost every other cold meat imaginable. Champagne corks popped discreetly, Burgundy corks were sniffed, old friends who had never laid eyes on each other until they boarded the Liberté chatted animatedly, plates were removed and compliments given, glasses were refilled, and nobody worried about a check, or, for the nonce, gave a thought to his waistline. Finally the fancy desserts began to flame, the Alaskas, the crepes suzette, the Jubilees. There was more laughter, more compliments, and bonhomie all around.
Ma√Ætres d'h√¥tel and waiters on La Transat ships are masters in the art of seducing the timid and the stubborn into the pleasures of haute cuisine. It takes both guile and patience, for the passenger is royalty and they must not presume to question his regal order. They must not lift an eyebrow when he orders a glass of milk with his c√¥te de veau dauphinoise. They must not flinch or even avert their eyes when he douses catsup on his tournedos de Charolais Curnonsky. But quietly and subtly they usually manage to have their way with him. "This sauce is excellent, Monsieur, a spécialité, please to try it just as it is before you use the catsup. Good? Thank you, Monsieur. I am happy to know you like it." Or the sommelier may take over, "Pardon, Monsieur, but I am informed you have ordered the sole. It is also a favorite of mine, Monsieur. I have a white Bordeaux, a fine vintage, which complements it well, Monsieur. It goes with the meal—without charge, of course. Would Monsieur like to try it before he has his milk?"
During the course of every meal on the Liberté, the ma√Ætre d'h√¥tel appeared, inquired about your health, asked how you liked your délices de sole or aiguillette de boeuf braisée, and, then, invariably, "Is there anything I can order for Monsieur or Madame tomorrow? Perhaps a spécialité? A soufflé, Madame—certainly. And for you, Monsieur? No? Ah, I would like to prepare you something. Has Monsieur tasted the bouillabaisse? It is a fine spécialité, prepared by taking..." On an average there were at least 75 items on every menu on the Liberté, beginning with hors d'oeuvres and ending with beverages, but at every meal every passenger in first class was asked if he would like a spécialité.
Counting the crew and all classes of passengers, some 7,000 meals were served on the Liberté each day. The man responsible for seeing that they were prepared in the right way and served in the proper manner was the chef de cuisine, André Papion, a plump, apple-cheeked gentleman of 52, who, by his very position, must be ranked as one of the top chefs of his time. A native of Nantes, M. Papion had already served a long apprenticeship and worked in the H√¥tel Meurice and the Restaurant Viel in Paris when, at 22, he joined La Transat. He worked in all departments on all the great French ships—the Paris, the Ile de France, and the Normandie—before he was named chef de cuisine of the Liberté in 1952. M. Papion is, of course, skilled in all the almost infinite divisions of haute cuisine, and he has an impressive array of citations and medals to prove it. His work aboard the Liberté, however, was entirely supervisory. There were 165 chefs, culinary specialists of various skills, and kitchen workers on M. Papion's staff and he had to keep a record of all food they prepared in four entire kitchens. At the same time he kept an eye on the butcher shop, the poultry room, the hors d'oeuvre room, the fruit room, the grill room, the bakery, the pantry, and it was his responsibility to see that everything from the latest batch of croissants to the large and ornate sugar sculpture prepared to commemorate Bastille Day was up to the Liberté's exacting standards. Twice a day M. Papion held a conference with the ma√Ætres d'h√¥tel from the first class to discuss with them the preparation of the specialties they had persuaded passengers to order. He also kept tabs on the food supplies. On a normal trip this would include 14,000 pounds of beef, 66,000 eggs, 6,000 pounds of fish, 220 pounds of caviar and 40 or 50 different kinds of cheese.
We were entering New York harbor on the morning I said my farewell to this elegant and luxury-charged old ship. Most of the passengers had crowded on deck to see the Statue of Liberty, so the rest of the ship was practically deserted except for members of the crew. I wandered into the Café de l'Atlantique and looked at the white ash walls and the translucent floor where pretty ladies danced in their stocking feet when the sea was rough. I went into the smoking room and looked around at the paneled ceiling and the lacquered murals. I went into the grand salon and admired the Chinese-red tapestries and the murals and the glazed gold pilasters, and then passed into the library and looked at the cherrywood bookcases and the sculptures. I peeked into the children's playroom with its Punch and Judy theater and its mechanical horse and donkey. I was standing at the door of the theater when the plump little mustached assistant purser came along. He knew immediately what I was doing. He stopped and said, "It is a pity to see her go—is it not, Monsieur?"
"Yes, it is," I said.
"I have spent nine years aboard her, Monsieur," he said. "To me, it is like parting from a woman you love."
"I can understand that," I said.
He shook his head. "But how could you, Monsieur? You were only a passenger and knew only her good side. Think how much you could have loved her if you had known her faults."