As early as the age of ten, I was mesmerized by stories of the French Line’s legendary officers. The Paris and Ile de France’s decorated and confident Captains, Pugnet and Thoreux, as well as Chief Purser, Henri Villar, and the Champlain’s Headwaiter, Olivier Naffrechoux. These consummate professionals all ended up serving on Normandie.
I listened intently to explanations of how Chief Purser Villar came up with menus, music and entertainment meant to alleviate seasickness and divert his passengers’ attention away from the occasional rough crossings. I also remember hearing how Olivier Naffrechoux never forgot any passengers’ names, meal preferences, hometowns or details about their children. And, of course, there were stories about “the floating museum,” Normandie! Not “the” Normandie, just Normandie, as if to say: “There is no other. She is not just a ship; she has a soul and demands a unique place in history.”
PART ONE: 1855-1932, The French Line-Henri Cangardel
Fifty-one year old Henri Cangardel entered the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique’s imposing headquarters at 4, rue Auber in Paris’ 9th Arrondissement, near the Place de l’Opéra at 9AM on July 13, 1932. As usual his perfect posture gave him a well-deserved look of self-confidence, which was further strengthened by his impeccably tailored dark blue suit, coupled with an immaculate, starched white shirt and accented by a navy blue tie. It was, however, his intense yet tranquil piercing eyes that mostly commanded people’s attention – and respect.
On this beautiful early summer morning, the balding yet handsome Cangardel was experiencing a heightened sense of elation coupled with a slight hint of apprehension. For over a year, the diligent, enthusiastic executive had acted as the threatened Compagnie Générale Transatlantique’s Chief Operating Officer and he was just beginning to emerge as the man of the hour.
The illustrious and prestigious Company was in a state of flux encompassed by considerable turmoil. America’s Great Depression was taking an appalling toll on international travel. The Company’s beloved President, John Dal Piaz, who was widely credited with guiding the company through a golden age, died suddenly of pneumonia four years earlier. Since that time the company had a succession of interim Presidents; not an enviable position for any business, much less one which was facing governmental scrutiny, and adverse economic conditions.
PART TWO: May 1935-September 1939, Normandie’s Active life-Henri Villar
The following day, the second full day at sea, was, as is typical of North Atlantic crossings, slightly rougher. Despite this, it is usually a most enjoyable day. The journey is young, any worries or thoughts about activities on the other side of the ocean are still very far off and a ship-going rhythm begins to set in.
Madame Lebrun and her secretary were busy rearranging the evening’s guest list for the reception inaugurating the Café Grill. The French President’s wife was eager to have the American socialite, Florence Gould, seated near her. She eventually decided to have Captain Pugnet seated on her right, with Mrs. Gould, who was fluent in French, seated on his right, close enough for her to speak with the woman she had admired for many years.
Fifty-year-old, tall, beautiful Florence LaCaze Gould was Jay Gould, the American multi-millionaire’s third and last wife. She was the daughter of a Frenchman who had made a fortune as a publisher in San Francisco and who raised his daughter to be bilingual. When she married 46-year-old Frank Jay Gould at the age of 28 she had already earned a well-deserved reputation as a gifted opera singer. After her marriage, she became well-known for her creation of artistic and intellectual salons, which she conducted at her homes in New York, Paris and the South of France. Being a devotee of all things modern, she was most eager to see the much talked about Café Grill.
PART THREE: September 3, 1939-October 6, 1947, Normandie speaks
Captain de la Garanderie could hardly have imagined when he ordered “all engines stop” on August 28, 1939 at Pier 88, that the silence of my engines would be permanent.
I was scheduled to leave New York, two days later, on Wednesday August 30. The day before, on August 29, the two ships we passed on our trip West, the British Aquitania and Germany’s Bremen, arrived in New York.
That same day, the British Cabinet received a letter from Herr Hitler, informing the British Government what everyone already knew: Germany was in the final stages of preparing to invade Poland. However, the “third Reich” had no intention of aggressing England, so the letter said. The British Cabinet worked late into the night preparing a written response to Hitler, a reply which stated that England would stand by its ally and keep its earlier commitment to protect Poland.
Just as I was being readied to board passengers on August 30, Captain de la Garanderie received a notice from the head of the New York Port saying I must delay passenger boarding. My departure was hindered while I was thoroughly searched to verify I was not going to transport any “implements of war.”
Normandie’s loss dealt a near deathblow to the French Line just when it appeared that the cursed company was finally going to dominate the European merchant marine. Never before had the prestigious, 100 year old countess of French enterprise been so well positioned as it was at the outbreak of World War Two.
The French Line weathered the deaths of three Chief Executives. It withstood the perils of the worldwide financial crisis. And the French Line remarkably stood firm despite losing five ships in the decade preceding Normandie’s destruction. But Normandie’s loss was a far greater defeat than all of the other setbacks combined.
After the war, France was on her economic knees. The country had to be restored and rebuilt. Roads, telephone systems, major corporations and the French stock exchange were all in shambles. But a renewed and vigorous spirit was pervasive at the French Line. France would, yet again, emerge from the ruins of war, just as she had done twice in the preceding 70 years. The French Line would, of course, participate in the struggle.
In order for the Transat to survive it had to – once again – be competitive with the British. Germany could not, and never again would, build a luxury North Atlantic liner. Italy could not attempt to do so for at least another decade. That left only the British.