By Denise Mattia
Once the fun and frolic is over and the hoards are gone, the staff begins the cleanup and the ageing queen rests. Snuggled beside her berth in Long Beach, California, she’s as stylish today as when King George V christened her RMS Queen Mary in 1936.[slideshow id=32]
She wasn’t always a classy lady. From 1931 to 1947 the Grand Dame of the North Atlantic donned camouflage grey and was known by some as the “Grey Ghost,” eluding enemy submarines, while speeding troops across the Atlantic. The soldiers on board familiarly called her “Rolling Mary” due to the minimum stabilizers, which had been installed to add passenger cabins, causing her to pitch and roll as she sliced through icy waters during westbound passages. After WWII she carried war brides to the states before being refitted in luxurious accoutrements, sailing once again, as intended originally, with the rich and famous. For two decades more, the Queen Mary — the ship that was faster than any other and twice larger than the Titanic — was the epitome of luxurious trans-Atlantic travel.
I arrived in Long Beach at the Jet Blue terminal. On an airport tour with Jace Hieda, Regional Marketing Manager, West Jet Blue Airways, I learned that the modernized gateways, which were added recently to the historic airport, were completed without detracting from the original interior design of the main building. Preserved are the 80 year-old counters in the ticketing terminal and the vivid multicolored hand-tiled floor depicting the methods of travel during the 1930s. On view near the exit is a comprehensive photographic exhibition about the history of the airport from the 1920s. Included are the aviators who landed on the beach at low tide and then on the strip named Daugherty Field. Credit goes to the city’s planners for maintaining the streamlined white and red lettering and the metallic surfaces of the airport’s façade, which looks like the side of an ocean liner. The scene was a perfect setting for my stay aboard the Queen Mary.
A taxi sped me into the city, where the historic ship was docked. My stateroom on the main deck wasn’t ready, but I was assured it would be worth the wait. Leaving my luggage with the concierge I walked up the wide, plush carpeted staircase to the Promenade Deck, pausing momentarily to make note of the wood paneling and curved balustrade. I was surrounded by varieties of gleaming solid wood and veneer paneling from around the world – the hallways, the decks, ceilings, the front desk and the wood elevators, opposite of which hangs a mural depicting the Queen Mary made from 38 of the 56 types of wood veneer used aboard.
The Observation Bar — once known to the elite as the First Class Lounge — is through teak and metal-inlay doors, which accentuate the sleek lines of the period. What great fun it must have been for young bejeweled, satin-draped fashionistas, making grand entrances and greeting the “Who’s Who” of European society. Originally smaller and more intimate, the semicircular room was extended out to the starboard promenade in 1964, however, the designers paid close attention to detail in the renovation process and created a beautiful lounge. I met my friend Brett and we imbibed brut bubbly served from a stunning Queen Mary bottle, while savoring sumptuous appetizers. By evening, we were thankful for the soft light from the onyx torchier lamps and chandeliers that lit the room.
Although I wished I’d taken a suite, my cabin was large by today’s standards. I couldn’t imagine a steamer trunk fitting into the space until I realized that between the 30s and 50s king-size beds weren’t standard issue on European liners. Extra-large luggage would easily fit with a double bed in the room. To the left of the door was the area in which passengers performed their ablutions – a niche with a lava basin. In the bathroom, four faucets fed in hot, cold, sea and fresh water into the deep tub. Brett and I couldn’t help noticing how low the basins were. Either the fixtures in the cabin were designed for a shorter population or they were designed cleverly to make the room appear larger. Still, they fit the room. Other design features of the period included large working portholes with a stunning view of the Long Beach city skyline, two round swivel Bakelite vents opposite the bed, which originally pumped warm air generated from the engine room (air-conditioning was introduced in the 50s) and a niche for a passenger’s personal library. A modern-day flat screen TV fit discretely in the corner.
While Brett left to visit friends, I took the Haunted Encounters tour. Any man-made structure that’s 80 years old is worthy of tragedy and the Queen Mary is no exception. This Disney-type walk replete with lights and sound effects appeals to children and to aficionados of the paranormal. Admittedly, my enthusiasm had waned in the passing hour. It had been a long, enjoyable day. No self-respecting ghost would enter my boudoir that night.
In the morning I visited the exhibition, Diana: Legend of A Princess, a joint collaboration between the partners of the Queen Mary and the Pink Ribbon Crusade, Princess Diana’s favorite charity. The extensive display contained thousands of selections from the vast collection of the Royal Family, in addition to Princess Diana’s stunning gowns, traveling choices and specially made wax over porcelain dolls, which reflected the change in the Princess’s fashion sense over the years. A style icon for people all over the world, her dresses fetched 5.6 million dollars at auctions for the charities, with which she worked. (At one auction in 1997, a single dress was sold for $200,000.) The exhibition closes on June 13, 2013.
To learn more about the ship, I signed up for the Glory Days Tour, which takes guests on a behind-the-scenes excursion from the Bridge and Wireless Deck to the “R” Deck, formerly the “C” Deck, where the largest and most elaborately carved furnishings are located in the first class main dining room, now known as the Grand Salon. In the two-deck-high room a crystal model of the ship is displayed under a stainless steel clock that tracks the ship’s progress. Indirect lighting fixtures set into the wood-paneled columns accentuate the height of the room, giving it the typical Deco-glam look. Opposite the clock, lotus blossoms and mythical figures are featured on the 20-foot high doors, used by the captain and his special guests to make a grand entrance.
Almost directly below the main dining room is the first-class pool, which was refilled each day for the first-class passengers to use once the second- and third-class swimming sessions were over. Of all the myths and stories told about the ship, this area has the most. It’s said to be haunted by a boy and two women who drowned here and is considered by experts to be the focus of paranormal activity. Having visited the area, I could understand why. For all its elegance, I felt strangely claustrophobic in the cavernous space. The swimming pool is in disrepair, but the turquoise and soft pink tiles – the motif of the period – have withstood the test of time. Sadly, converting the pool to a workable recreation center seems unlikely due to cost and liability insurance.
I was never aware of apparitions aboard the Queen Mary. I enjoyed my stay too much to be visited by ghosts of the past. Like the aging queen I rested contentedly and left the reparations to others
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.