February 8, 2016 – What do Cary Grant, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Debbie Reynolds, Sean Connery, Judy Garland, Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace Kelly (to drop just a few names) all have in common? Aside from being Hollywood legends, they also traveled to or from Europe aboard “the world’s fastest and most modern superliner,” the SS United States, an American built passenger ship that shattered speed records for racing across the Atlantic from 1952 to ’69. After 400 fabulous voyages in seventeen years, her fabled career was ended by the advent of jet air travel, and she was unceremoniously retired to mothballs in her birthplace of Newport News, Virginia. Thus began her longest and most improbable journey to date—a forty-seven year odyssey drifting aimlessly from one failed revitalization scheme to another all while trying to avoid running aground on the ship-breaking shores of India.
Against all odds and defying all logic, the SS United States is still with us, moored and decaying at a pier in Philadelphia, her mid-century modern furnishings and interiors long-pillaged and stripped, and her paint faded and peeling. She’s a tough old broad who simply refuses to throw in the towel, or in the words of maritime historian Bill Miller, “She’s like a soap opera character that never goes away.” In my opinion, that’s a very good thing.
I have been fascinated by the story of the SS United States ever since “discovering” her in the late 1980s, so much so that I adjusted the time period of my debut novel, City of Whores, to allow my 1950s Hollywood characters to travel to Europe aboard the maiden voyage in ’52. Smitten with the storied vessel, I joined forces with a band of intrepid preservationists in 2004 when I became a founding board member of the SS United States Conservancy (“SSUSC”), a non-profit organization that currently owns the liner and is dedicated to preserving her for posterity. In 2008, I produced the first in-depth documentary about the ship for American Public Television. Entitled SS United States: Lady in Waiting, the film helped raise public awareness of the superliner’s history, significance, and ever-perilous plight. Years after the movie’s premiere, and thanks to the generosity of Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest as well as the ongoing support of our dedicated constituency, our group was able to purchase the United States and keep her afloat, though the specter of her destruction has always loomed large given that it costs a whopping $60,000 per month in dockage fees, insurance, maintenance, etc., to keep her safe.
Recently, as funding dwindled, we were forced to issue yet another Save Our Ship (“S.O.S.”) appeal and to actually begin the cruelly ironic process of soliciting scrap bids for the very piece of American history we were charged with protecting from such an inglorious fate. Which brings us to the most recent chapter in the vessel’s post-service peregrination.
Last week, at a well-attended gathering at Manhattan’s Pier 88 (right next door to the United States’ old berth), Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer and now the Executive Director of the Conservancy, greeted the press alongside Edie Rodriguez, CEO of Crystal Cruises, to drop a bombshell on the media and the community of passionate aficionados and fans of the “Big U” (as she’s also affectionately known). Gibbs and Rodriguez were pleased to announce that Crystal had signed a nine-month purchase option agreement with the Conservancy with the intention of conducting feasibility studies to return the venerable old ship to six-star luxury passenger service. On two large screens flanking the American-flagged dais, a video played showing highlights of the United States’ career and vintage amenities, followed by the unveiling of an artist’s rendering of the reconfigured and modernized liner.
The news was greeted by dropping jaws and wagging tongues. While The New York Times and Fox & Friends were the first to break the story that morning, a tiny handful of us had managed to keep silent about the highly confidential deal in the weeks prior to the press conference. Our board of directors had voted to approve the agreement, well aware that the announcement would be greeted with mixed reactions from our supporters. Understandably so, I might add.
In all honesty, my opinion has been that returning her to sea-going service wouldn’t be the ideal way of preserving the United States’ historical integrity. The concept of putting her back to sea has been the dream of many preservationists, but has always seemed the most expensive undertaking—impractical if not impossible. Her once state-of-the-art steam engines aren’t “up to code,” and her design no longer complies with Safety Of Life At Sea (“SOLAS”) regulations. In my heart, I’ve always felt that the ideal preservation scenario would be to have the ship’s exterior restored to her pristine 1952 appearance, and she should be permanently moored in New York as a stationary mixed-use attraction not unlike the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. In the years that followed our purchase of the vessel, we had been courting a few serious suitors who shared that vision while insisting on anonymity. The complexity of such an undertaking, requiring adherence to convoluted government and environmental regulations and approvals, constantly mired our progress and kept us in a world of uncertainty, all while we were still paying that burdensome $60,000.00 per month. The other option, returning the vessel to service, would require enormous modifications that would forever alter her sleek, historic profile. Both schemes would be prohibitively expensive, but building a new ship inside the old one would cost far more that the stationary option. Still, as our funding began to dwindle, the Crystal Cruises proposal was presented as legitimate, and the pragmatist in me trumped the dreamer and I added my voice to the “yeas.”
And now… the backlash. You see, the Big U has been down this road before. In 2003, Norwegian Cruise Line (“NCL”) made a similar announcement only to abandon their plans and put the ship up for sale a few years later, generously offering the Conservancy first dibs at a price below her scrap value. It was believed at the time that even NCL knew it would be calamitous P.R. to be the company that sent the United States to the breakers. Now, in face-to-face conversations, online forums, Facebook comments, the press and elsewhere, people are asking why the Crystal Cruises proposal should have a different outcome. A legitimate query, to be sure.
Here’s my take on that: during the production of Lady in Waiting, we interviewed several of the key players at NCL, and we always asked for visual material (it was a film, after all). Could we please see renderings of what she might look like when returned to service? Would it be possible to share deck plans of the reimagined liner? All of those queries were met with evasive answers about claims of confidentiality and so forth, but honestly, the pervasive sense was that they didn’t have any such materials to share. Many rumors were circulating at the time that NCL had only purchased the Big U for her American-made hull which would help the cruise line circumnavigate the Jones Act, an arcane piece of maritime law that’s still in effect and gives great leniency to ships both built and crewed by Americans. Such vessels can sail from American port to American port unfettered, unlike ships built and crewed elsewhere who must add a foreign port in between. When NCL’s plans for a US-flagged fleet began to crumble under the weight of the reality of commerce, the company put the irreplaceable vessel up for sale and she wound up under the stewardship of the SSUSC.
Speaking as a private citizen and not as a board member of the Conservancy, I do believe that NCL was motivated more by financial considerations than historical ones when they purchased the ship. That said, I’m convinced that their then CEO, Colin Veitch, and a few of their department heads were genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of putting the vessel back to sea, but that business ultimately quashed their chimera. The current crop of Debbie Downers and Ned Naysayers are whining all over the Internet that the Crystal endeavor will simply be history repeating. They say it’s a publicity stunt. Well, generally publicity stunts are done to garner positive publicity, and if Crystal isn’t serious about succeeding with their proposal for the United States, why would they announce it in such a way that would be picked up by media outlets around the globe and shine a blinding spotlight on them? Why put themselves in exactly the same position NCL was in when it opted to lose money and sell the liner to the Conservancy? And why would a company whose goal is to be profitable sink a minimum of just over half-a-million speculative bucks into an enterprise when another company had already proven that failure really was an option? I believe, again not speaking for the SSUSC, that it’s because Crystal Cruises has a vision, and when they look at our ship, they don’t see a rusting hulk and financial liability, they truly see an opportunity for success and a way to capitalize on the United States’ glamorous and historic past, the nostalgic allure of 20th Century ocean travel, all while making a lot of money in the process. Not to be crass, but isn’t that the American way? No other theory makes any sense.
Crystal’s plan also differs from NCL’s in that they’ve made it clear that the “United States by Crystal Cruises” will be an 800-passenger, high end, luxury cruise vessel catering to the upscale and well-heeled—a far more practical approach than trying to convert a sixty-four-year-old purpose-built ocean liner into a mass market party ship.
To those who say Crystal’s true plan is to run the clock, buy the vessel from the Conservancy for a rock bottom price, then turn around and sell her for scrap to recoup their investment, I’d answer by saying that’s a terrible business strategy given that the scrap metal market is practically at an all time low and they’d barely break even if not lose money. And again, there’s that pesky bad P.R.
To those who say Crystal should make a goodwill gesture and paint the ship and/or her funnels in situ while conducting their feasibility studies, I counter that regardless of the fact that it would be a waste of money, it’s quite simply environmentally impossible to sandblast lead-based paint without some of it getting into the Delaware River.
And for those dreamers who say—and I’ve read this comment more than once since the news broke—that the preliminary artist renderings of the reimagined ship are so unappealing that they’d rather see this beloved icon scrapped, I’d answer by saying those commenters obviously don’t truly care one whit about saving the legacy of the SS United States. Crystal Cruises has said that the aluminum superstructure of the vessel—the white decks between the black hull and the iconic red, white, and blue funnels—will have to be replaced with SOLAS-compliant steel to accommodate staterooms with the much-in-demand private balconies for today’s cruise market along with modern navigation and life-saving equipment. They also said that no decks will be added as was done when the venerable SS France was converted into the cruise ship Norway. Yes, her profile will change, and purists may hate that, but if she returns to service as Crystal has described, with her rakishly patriotic funnels in place and interior spaces honoring the spirit of the originals along with onboard historical exhibits curated by the Conservancy, she will introduce this celebrated vessel to a new audience, thus accomplishing one of the SSUSC’s primary goals: to ensure that America’s flagship will never be forgotten. A modified United States traveling the globe will be an ambassador for her legacy, as will the Conservancy’s proposed land-based museum which is envisioned to be the definitive collection of her most important artifacts. These two endeavors will complement one another and assure that the Big U will continue to inspire future generations. To me, that’s the true spirit of preservation, and it’s practical, as well.
Fortunately, the SSUSC has more fans than detractors, but it’s still disheartening to read the disparaging comments from people who haven’t been on the front lines of the preservation effort, and don’t seem to understand the colossal complexity of saving a 990-foot long vintage ocean liner. I got involved because I believe wholeheartedly in the cause, and would much rather have a modernized ship that embraces the integrity and spirit of the original while preserving her legacy, than to see her scrapped and relegated to the dustbin of history and obscurity.
I tried to bring the SS United States back to vivid life in my novel, and I’ve also tried to save her in reality by putting my money where my mouth is by producing the documentary and my continued involvement with the SSUSC. True fans of the ship should be rooting for Crystal Cruises to exceed even their own expectations for success, rather than armchair quarterbacking, criticizing, and thus in effect rooting for the demise of the ship they claim to love.