SS Normandie Lectures

The Tragic Story of the Most Majestic Ocean Liner

Most people are familiar with the dramatic sinking of the Titanic. However, three decades later an even more luxurious, more sensational, and more opulent French ocean liner sank in New York City. Silvin describes the ship as the “most beautiful object built by man during the Twentieth Century” as he brings the SS Normandie to life.

Normandie Bow

Why Normandie?  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.

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 driven 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 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. Rene 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!

The lecture begins with a review of the history of transatlantic travel during the Nineteenth Century, when countries competed to own and operate ever larger and faster ocean liners. These ships became symbols of technological progress as they connected the Old and New Worlds. The presentation then focuses on the Twentieth Century when the race to build the ultimate ship reached its pinnacle, beginning in the “roaring nineteen twenties”. Each competing European country sought to have the largest, fastest and most luxurious liner. The various countries’ flagships became national ambassadors proudly boasting each individual nation’s technological achievements and dominance.

When Normandie made her inaugural entry in New York on June 3, 1935, it is estimated that two hundred thousand spectators lined both sides of the Hudson to welcome her. Silvin explains why most authorities consider the Normandie the ultimate luxury liner. The sleek leviathan was a unique trendsetter, a “floating museum” as many called her. She was a ship offering the finest service amid the best example of Art Deco style. Her Grand Salon and Winter Garden were the locations where the world’s most sought after entertainers performed, where elegant soirees were conducted and refined conversation took place.

Normandie 1Normandie was loved by glamorous and sophisticated actors, brilliant philosophers and playwrights, world leaders and politicians, business magnets from both sides of the Atlantic, and by many fortunate ordinary people.

The audience will become conversant with the coveted “Blue Riband” award given to the fastest ship to cross the North Atlantic. The prize that became synonymous with national prominence and identified the ship’s country of registry as deserving the reputation for achieving the highest industrial accomplishment.

Finally, Silvin describes the perfect storm of accidents that took place while the rechristened Lafayette was being converted into a troop ship at the outbreak of the Second World War. Normandie’s untimely and futile death eliciting concerns that the new war had already reached American shores.


If you would like to schedule Rene Silvin for a lecture on any of these topics, please contact Robert Versteeg, Associate of Silvin Books LLC, at 954-554-6061 or