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From 1936 through the 1950s, Cunard’s RMS Queen Mary provided the fastest way for passengers to travel between New York and Southampton, England. At a breakneck 29 knots (53 km/h), the trip took about four days. As one of the world’s largest ocean liners, the Queen Mary might have also been the most luxurious way to cross the Atlantic— at least for the Royals, celebrities, executives, and others with the means to purchase an elite Cabin Class ticket. But lesser mortals could take advantage of more affordable Tourist Class or Third Class accommodations. Each of the three classes had their own “separate but unequal” facilities and amenities, and the Third Class cabins were anything but luxurious. But they all sailed just as fast.
(After World War II, Cabin Class, Tourist Class, and Third Class became, respectively, First Class, Cabin Class, and Tourist Class. The renaming probably reduced confusion at the time by conforming to then-current convention, but it creates confusion today. I’ll use the original 1930s designations.)
The threat of German U-boats halted transatlantic passenger service during World War II. But a ship as fast as the Queen Mary could evade submarines, making it very useful for transporting troops— and also for carrying Prime Minister Winston Churchill to and from meetings in North America. Painted battleship gray to camouflage it against the overcast North Atlantic sky, and with the luxury accoutrements replaced with Spartan high-density military bunks, the refitted “Gray Ghost” could carry 15,000 men. It once carried 16,082 American troops in December 1942, an unbeaten record for jamming people on a ship.
After refitting and modernization, the Queen Mary returned to civilian service in 1947, along with her sister ship the Queen Elizabeth. Together, these ships offered a popular and profitable transatlantic “shuttle” through the 1950s. But the jet airplanes that began carrying passengers at transonic speed between the East Coast and London in 1958 dethroned the two Queens. Cunard briefly tried the Queen Mary as a cruise ship, but quickly found that a ship designed to speed across the frigid North Atlantic did not suit sun-seeking holidaymakers. By 1965 Cunard could no longer afford to operate the ship at a loss, so they put it up for sale. The expected buyer was one of the Japanese shipyards that were busily dismantling the world’s fleet of obsolete ocean liners into scrap metal.
Long Beach, California is well known as a port and Navy town. But it also has very productive oil fields. Over the years, city officials had earmarked a portion of their oil drilling royalties for a maritime museum. And what would be more a appropriate venue for that museum than a venerable ocean liner? Thanks to the oil, the city was able to outbid the Japanese scrap merchants. After a valedictory round-the-world cruise, the Queen Mary arrived in Long Beach in 1967 to begin the four-year process of converting it into a combination of museum, hotel, and conference center.
Regrettably, Long Beach officials and their nine successive concessionaires lacked the coherent vision that could have made the Queen Mary both a satisfying historical monument and a financial success. Having spent $3.5 million for a genuine relic of a bygone age, they proceeded to destroy most of its historical interest. Maximizing the revenue from the museum, meeting and banquet spaces, and shop leases mattered more than preserving the ship.
The conversion removed nearly all the infrastructure on the lower decks to house the long-planned museum. This was a privately-run venture, to which the celebrity oceanographer Jacques Cousteau contributed his name and some design suggestions. With only a quarter of its planned exhibits, and plagued by the frequent deaths of various marine creatures on display, it limped along for a decade with dismal ticket sales before finally closing.
Most of the ship’s original dining rooms, lounges, and public spaces were stripped of their furnishings and turned into nondescript banquet and meeting rooms. These are locked when they’re not in use for private functions; and some of them are relegated to storage space for meeting room furnishings. Other historically-significant spaces were gutted for leased shops.
The concessionaires apparently believed that the ship’s genuine history lacked sufficient pizazz. So they’ve tried various approaches to creating a theme park around the ship. A concessionaire in the 1980s built a giant dome next to the ship to house Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” flying boat. The Walt Disney Company bought them out, and decided the plane did not belong in the new maritime theme park they were planning. The Spruce Goose moved to Oregon, but the dome remains as a terminal for the Carnival Cruise Line. Disney ultimately abandoned the ship, and built a theme park in Japan that includes an idealized replica of a ship somewhat resembling the Queen Mary. In 1998, a subsequent concessionaire berthed a former Soviet submarine alongside the Queen Mary.
The Queen Mary’s current concessionaire is Delaware North
Companies. When they took over in 2009, they began a renovation and
restoration project that they claimed would showcase the ship’s history.
The renovation was nearing completion when I visited in October 2010, with
many areas of the ship closed for construction. It’s still too early to
tell whether they’ll be any more successful than their eight predecessors.
But it seems a much-belated step in the right direction.
The Queen Mary promises visitors a trip back in time to the Art Deco era of luxury ocean liners. But it can deliver only an obstructed view of the past through a glass, darkly. That’s still enough to be worth a visit— especially if the visit includes an overnight stay in one of the semi-authentic Cabin Class cabins. (The Tourist and Third Class cabins were removed during the initial conversion, on the assumption that modern American hotel guests would not accept such cramped accommodations with bathroom facilities down the hall. An “en suite” stateroom with a private bath and WC was one of the luxuries reserved exclusively for Cabin Class passengers.)
I call the hotel rooms “semi-authentic” because they have the original wood paneling, fixtures, furniture, and portholes. (The portholes can be opened, a feature surely neither available nor desirable for the original North Atlantic passengers.) But they have anachronisms that today’s hotel guests demand, including flat-screen television, iPod docking radios, coffee makers, and (very nice) beds quite different from the ones shown in historical photographs. The only missing modern amenity is soundproofing, which was presumably unnecessary on a functioning ship and may have been impractical to retrofit. Light sleepers should definitely bring earplugs; and couples seeking a romantic getaway might want to consider a more secluded venue.
You can buy various guided tours. Two of them are devoted to “paranormal investigation” and the ghosts that supposedly haunt the ship. Some areas of the ship are accessible only through a “ghosts and legends show” that offers up selected historical and “paranormal” tidbits with theme-park special effects. There’s also a free self-guided audio tour.
But spending some time wandering around the ship may be the best way to
discover the ghostly vestiges of what it was like in its heyday. (If
you’re interested in more than vestiges, plaques identify the locations of
ghost sightings.) The late afternoon is a good time to visit the bow area
and its display of maritime machinery. It’s also a good time for a visit
to the bridge (or “wheelhouse”), to view the original steering wheels and
engine controls. Two docking wings extend from either side of the bridge,
a cutting-edge innovation in the 1930s that provides a view of the entire
exterior of the ship. At the end of each wing is an empty booth that
originally held auxiliary controls that let pilots precisely maneuver the
311-meter-long, 81,961-tonne ship to a dock.
Some places on the ship offer reasonably authentic glimpses of what a Cabin Class passenger might have seen. (The planners of the ship’s original conversion to a tourist attraction did not consider the Tourist and Third Class public spaces worth preserving.)
The Main Hall of the Promenade Deck reproduces the original ceiling and floor, light fixtures, and some of the art work. It also includes one of the original Art Deco mirrored planter/light fixtures that was not put back during the “modernized” refitting after World War II. But the drawing room, writing room, telephone room, and library that adjoined the Main Hall were replaced with space for an undistinguished shopping mall.
The hotel rooms occupy three decks. Seven decks originally had staterooms, to which a series of elevators provided access. Most of these elevators were removed in the conversion. Their original doors remain, with apologetic signs noting the reduced occupancy of the current hotel. The Main Deck, now the uppermost hotel floor, originally held Cabin Class staterooms and suites. At its bow and stern ends were lounges for Tourist and Third Classes, which are now (locked) meeting rooms. Of course, the lounges originally had their own entrances, entirely separate from the one Cabin Class passengers used.
That Cabin Class entrance is now the entrance to the Main Deck floor of the hotel. It’s built around a room that was once a travel bureau offering train tickets and hotel reservations. This room is, of course, locked and off-limits; if you peek through the etched-glass window you’ll see a vintage decorative map of the world on the wall, along with nondescript office furnishings. But the outside still has Art Deco lettering and a 1930s version of a digital clock. The wood-paneled hallways of the hotel decks offer what might be the most authentic sight on the ship— if you ignore the anachronistic fluorescent lighting and key-card door locks.
While researching this Travel Photo Essay, I found this Web site. A meticulously researched collaborative effort of ocean liner fans in the US and Britain, it offers details about the Queen Mary’s past and present that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It includes detailed descriptions of each deck on the ship, with original and current deck plans, historical photographs, and informative essays. It also describes how the Long Beach “conversion” went wrong, and proposes alternative restorations that showcase the ship’s history in ways that could make the Queen Mary a more vibrant and profitable attraction. Given the ship’s very troubled history in Long Beach, city officials and the current concessionaire could only benefit from careful consideration of the authors’ recommendations.