A GROUP of European friends recently suggested we all sail to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, and because of my Greek shipping connection, I was appointed tour director and Fuhrer for all things maritime. Mind you, it is not as easy as it sounded. As everyone who has ever been sardined into a jet knows, the only way nowadays to cross the pond between the Old and New Worlds is by air, or in the manner of NR’s editor-at-large, by private sailboat.
Although the latter is still a possibility, my friends are as useful as the bottom half of a mermaid when it comes to roughing it, so for the moment I’m looking around for a miracle in the form of a luxury liner steaming from England, Germany, Italy, or France to the eastern shore of the United States, sometime in the summer of 1996. There is always the QEII, of course, but as Fuhrer, I wouldn’t recommend her. The last time I sailed her across the Atlantic, there was REOT written all over her. The acronym stands for Radical Egalitarianism of Today, despite the fact that this was twenty years ago, in April 1974, to be exact. Worse, it was also modern, all plastic, glass, and steel, without the wasted space that gave the old boats their luxurious aura.
Although it was three months before the collapse of the Greek Colonels, I had smelled a rat and had moved my operations to London. Once there, I was invited to compete in the world’s richest backgammon tournament of the time, 100,000, winner take all, everything paid for by the sponsor, Dunhill’s. Dunhill’s flew us over first class, put us up for one night in the Big Apple, and then sailed us back to Blighty on the QEII, where the tournament took place. I quickly got over my depression about the Colonels’ plight and accepted with alacrity.
I will not bore you, dear reader, with descriptions of the other players involved. Suffice it to say that all 32 were characters, in that it takes character to withstand the rigors of indolence. What followed was a bacchanalian revelry that would have made Byron proud. My oldest English friend, Charles Benson, won the tournament and the money, but had to jump ship at Le Havre as word had slipped out and the bookies he was deeply in debt to were already lining the White Cliffs of Dover in eager anticipation. Clement Freud, grandson of the man who started the mind rot, and a future MP, won the unpopularity stakes, and was unceremoniously thrown in the first-class pool fully clothed. The Honorable Michael Pearson, son of Lord Cowdrey, of polo and Financial Times fame, bet his best friend, Robin Millborn, that he wouldn’t streak the length of the ship–all 963 feet. When Robin took up the challenge he was grabbed by irate third-class passengers and almost lynched.
Be that as it may, the trip was far from perfect. The problem was the REOT syndrome again. In fact, the. service was lousy. The waiters were mostly from Liverpool, and a surly lot they were. High-jinks have always been a part of first-class travel at sea, but these types reminded me of cops who give speeding tickets to someone going through a car wash. After particularly unpleasant service one evening at dinner, I asked one of them if he had ever worked the Gulag, and he answered with a simple no.
The food was no great shakes, either. As I was disembarking, a reporter happened to ask me how I had enjoyed the trip. I said that thanks to Dunhill’s I had, but that I hadn’t eaten such bad food since I left the Monastery of Mount Athos. No sooner had I said it than a spokesman from Trafalgar House, the company that owned the ship back then, demanded that I retract. Which I did. I said it was worse than prison food, although at the time I had not yet been Her Majesty’s guest.
Needless to say, this was not the case when liners were the only way discerning people traveled. I first crossed from New York to Cannes in July 1952, on the Constitution, built in 1951, 30,293 tons and 683 feet long. Although I was only 15, I had a sundeck cabin to myself, and my parents pretty much left me alone. To say that romance was always in the air would be a bit like saying that President Clinton is not confined by fact. Everybody was constantly on the make. The service was impeccable, the people all faring to have fun, and the ladies on board mysterious and beautiful at least in the eyes of someone who had been locked up in boarding school since the age of 12 (with 4 years of German occupation before that).
A rather important romantic occasion took place during that trip, and perhaps that is why I shall remember the Constitution to my dying day. Many ocean crossings followed. The United States, all 53,329 tons and 990 feet of her, was the ship on which two of my best friends and I chose to cross the Atlantic once freed from school. That particular trip remains memorable because my friends and I were taken to the cleaners by a white-haired gentleman of impeccable breeding who just happened to play poker better than we did. He was Nicky Sergeant, born Sigaloff, and we were later told it was his 23rd consecutive crossing. Nicky, whom we later befriended, was a card shark, and made a grand living out of rich mugs.
The Liberte, owned by the French Line, was another grand ship. My friends and I sailed her in 1958, having reserved three suites in anticipation of finding beautiful women to share them with. Two days out of Le Havre, we hit a storm that would have made Moby Dick seasick. The Liberte was all wooden paneling, with enormous public rooms and the highest of ceilings. The noise was deafening, and the waves were the height of a California redwood. Everybody got sick. There we were, confined to our expensive cabins for five days, and the only thing that crossed our portals that resembled something feminine was our gay steward inquiring about our health. On the last day, just before we came into New York, the weather subsided and we made it into the dining room with our hopes still high. It was the beginning of the end. Eighty-two Venezuelan businessmen were the only other passengers, and they were returning from a convention. We almost were sick all over again.
Well, you know the rest. One by one the great ships went to the scrap yard, and with them went romance on the high seas. But as the song says, thanks for the memories. And those are not about to be scrapped.