80 YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF MAIDEN VOYAGE
Shawn J. Dake
QUEEN MARY departing on Maiden Voyage May 27, 1936.
By any standards, reaching the age of 80 years is an occasion to be celebrated. But when it comes to ships, such longevity is nearly unprecedented. The QUEEN MARY, the most famous ocean liner in existence, has achieved that milestone. Setting out on her maiden voyage on May 27, 1936, the QUEEN MARY achieved fame in both peacetime and war, establishing herself in the hearts of travelers on the Cunard Line, and as the unparalleled lexicon of luxury travel in the minds of the general public.
QUEEN MARY maiden Dining Room
For 31 years, the ship plied her intended trade on the North Atlantic making 1,001 crossings while in active service. That was followed up by an unlikely, but active retirement as a tourist attraction and hotel in Long Beach, California where for the past 49 years she has been an icon of the city.
QUEEN MARY entrance showing banners for current events. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2016.
Randolph Churchill, great-grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, providing opening remarks. Photo © Shawn Dake 2016.
To mark this momentous event the operators of the QUEEN MARY planned three days of commemorative activities, kicking off on May 25th with a media event in the recently renovated 4D Theater. It featured the American premier of a new film titled “QUEEN MARY: Greatest Ocean Liner,” which had aired in Great Britain the day before on BBC-TV to huge ratings. [An edited U.S. version, one hour in length is scheduled for air on August 21st] The guest of honor at the screening was Randolph Churchill, great-grandson of Sir Winston Churchill, who had a life-long relationship with the QUEEN MARY, and today has both a suite and a restaurant named for him aboard the vessel. Randolph Churchill attended many of the maiden voyage anniversary events but one of his primary tasks was to open a new temporary exhibit gallery aboard the ship called “A Passion For Painting: The Art Of Winston Churchill.” Churchill’s artwork includes still life paintings, landscapes and seascapes. Also featured in the film and in attendance at the premier were honored veterans of World War II who traveled aboard the QUEEN MARY, along with several War Brides who came to America on the ship in 1946 and Ralph Rushton, a member of the ship’s crew from the 1950’s. Following the screening a wine reception was held in the unique setting of the QUEEN MARY’s aft engine room. To keep some historical perspective, 80 years to-the-day earlier on May 25, 1936 nearly the entire Royal Family created some pre-maiden voyage excitement by touring the brand new ship. It was one of the rare public appearances during his short reign of King Edward VIII, accompanied by his mother Queen Mary (seeing her namesake for the first time since the christening two years earlier), the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and their young daughters Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose among others. After exploring throughout the liner, with Queen Mary insisting on seeing the galley, the entire party of Royals enjoyed a luncheon in the Main First Class Restaurant. That afternoon, the Princesses enjoyed sliding down the chute in the children’s playroom and watching a Mickey Mouse film in the cinema. Her Majesty Queen Mary presented the ship with a gift of her own personal Royal Standard which remained housed throughout the ship’s seagoing career in a glass case on the main staircase, mid-ship, where it begins its descent from Promenade Deck. Before disembarking, Queen Mary said, “I am delighted with the ship. She is even more beautiful than I had expected to find her.”
Queen Mary with Princess Elizabeth and Margaret Rose
Back in the present, the evening of May 26th saw an elegant 80th Anniversary Celebration Dinner held in the Grand Salon, that very same First Class Restaurant the Royal Family had dined in all those years before. With supposedly no known copies of the first menu from the actual maiden voyage available, the chef had to re-imagine a largely French-centric meal based on the gastronomy of the period. While not authentic, the menu was certainly inspired by what the original must have been like. Proceeds from the dinner benefited The Queen Mary Heritage Foundation dedicated to preserving, presenting and restoring the QUEEN MARY. Guests were treated to remarks by Randolph Churchill and a discussion by noted Churchill scholar Lord Alan Watson (MP), the Baron of Richmond. For an additional charge, guests could extend the evening in style with an exclusive After Party in the historic Verandah Grill, transformed for the evening into the Starlight Lounge. The event sponsored by Cunard Line featured live music, dancing, scotch and cigars indoors and out on the aft Sun Deck.
QUEEN MARY Maiden Voyage departure
The QUEEN MARY Maiden Voyage certificate reproduced for the 80th anniversary.
Culminating events on May 27th, the ship was opened to the public so they could share in commemorating the 80th anniversary, with free admission and programming throughout the day. At 11:00am, a ribbon cutting was held on the well-deck of the bow with local dignitaries to officially open the Churchill art exhibit on “A” Deck forward. That evening fireworks lit the skies over Long Beach harbor, her adopted home for more years than she was at sea.
The QUEEN MARY then and now. May 27, 1936 and 2016.
The QUEEN MARY bathed in the glow of the setting sun about to enter her 9th decade.
From this starting platform in the aft engine room, the maiden voyage of the QUEEN MARY got underway 80 years ago.
The Grand Salon, elegantly set up for the 80th Anniversary Dinner.
The art deco splendor of the Verandah Grill is the setting of Cunard’s Starlight Lounge.
Just like all of us, the QUEEN MARY has seen her share of ups and downs throughout her long life. Pre-War glamour gave way to years of hard wear and tear transporting troops across the Atlantic and throughout the world. After the war, she was able to rekindle an all too brief heyday from the late 1940’s throughout the ’50’s before the jet airplane took away much of her reason for being. On one voyage alone, the likes of Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Merle Oberlin and Howard Hughes found themselves together in First Class. By the mid-1960’s those lavish public rooms and staterooms were nearly empty, housing dozens of passengers rather the hundreds that had been intended. Quite a contrast from the Second World War, when the QUEEN MARY had transported entire divisions of troops, well over 15,000 men per voyage. Then came her retirement from Cunard Line service in 1967, a memorable final voyage to Long Beach, transformation into a stationary tourist attraction and years of residency under the sun and stars in Southern California. In at least one way there are parallels that can be drawn between those earlier passenger numbers and her remarkable afterlife in retirement. On busy weekend days in the early 1970’s, when seeing the great liner was still a curiosity, there were times when she would attract 15,000 visitors in one day. In later decades, when times were not as good, her decks were practically deserted. But through it all, the QUEEN MARY has been a lucky ship. No other ocean liner from her era remains in existence. She is the only example. Few other ships of any type have managed to stay in the water for over 80 years. Today, she is still with us, attracting good size crowds with a variety of innovative offerings to draw people to her decks once again.
QUEEN MARY maiden arrival NYC
QUEEN MARY maiden-voyage arrival New York
History records the QUEEN MARY leaving on her maiden voyage at 4:30pm on May 27, 1936 bound across the channel to Cherbourg, France. She followed up with a fast, but not record breaking trip across the Atlantic to New York where she received one of the most tumultuous welcomes ever accorded to a ship in that port that has borne witness to nearly every great ocean liner at one time or another. That first passage took 4 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes (Bishop’s Rock to Ambrose Lightship) at an average speed of 29.133 knots. The QUEEN MARY was built for speed and transporting passengers, mail and cargo from one side of the ocean to the other. It is perhaps fitting that 80 years later, on nearly the same date, May 26, 2016, the newest ship to hold the title of the largest passenger vessel in the world departed from Southampton, ironically bound for Cherbourg as well. The HARMONY OF THE SEAS is built for cruising, not transport, with a vast array of diversions to attract the huge masses of passengers that will no doubt flock to her decks. The new ship is 227,700 gross tons with a crew capacity alone of nearly the same number as the entire passenger complement on the 81,237 gross ton QUEEN MARY. About the only thing both ships have in common other than being the largest in their day, is that each serves the needs and desires of their respective eras. The QUEEN MARY has endured for 80 years as one of the most beloved ships of all times. The future is yet to be seen for those ships of today that are following in her wake. In closing, the phrase comes to mind, “They just don’t build them like that anymore.” Long live the Queen.
With thanks to Martin Cox, Johanna Felix, and Ralph Rushton.
QUEEN MARY maiden voyage ad, Southern Railways
Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years. A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary. A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs. Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America. With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
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