11 Facts about the R.M.S. Queen Mary

Joe Klamar, AFP/Getty Images
Joe Klamar, AFP/Getty Images

Even larger than the Titanic and just as elegant, the R.M.S. Queen Mary was once considered the finest ocean liner traversing the Atlantic Ocean. The Queen Mary made exactly 1001 transatlantic crossings in the mid-20th century before it was converted into a hotel in Long Beach, California. Read on for more facts about this famed luxury liner.

1. IT WAS BUILT BY THE SAME FIRM AS THE R.M.S. LUSITANIA.

The Queen Mary was built during an age when countries such as Britain, France, and Germany were all racing to be the top provider of luxury transatlantic travel. Two rival British companies, the Cunard and White Star lines, sought to outdo each other’s ships in terms of size, speed, and amenities. A British shipbuilder called John Brown & Company, commissioned by Cunard, began construction of the Queen Mary—initially known only as Hull Number 534—in December 1930 at a Clydebank, Scotland, shipyard. The company was already well known for having built the R.M.S. Lusitania, which was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in 1915.

2. THE GOVERNMENT KEPT HER CONSTRUCTION AFLOAT—BUT WITH STRINGS ATTACHED.

With the onset of the worldwide Great Depression, construction on the Queen Mary came to an abrupt halt. Eager to spur on the sluggish economy, the British government agreed to give a loan that would allow construction on ship #534 to continue, but only if Cunard and White Star would merge. (Like Cunard, White Star—famous as the owner of the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic—had fallen on hard times.) In 1934, the new Cunard-White Star Line was born, and construction on the ship immediately resumed. As part of the merger, the government stipulated that a sister ship to the Queen Mary also be built—which was to become the Queen Elizabeth—so the two ships could together dominate transatlantic travel. The Queen Mary’s $30 million price tag would be the equivalent of more than $560 million today.

3. THE SHIP'S NAME WAS SHROUDED IN MYSTERY.

While it was under construction, the ship’s name was a closely guarded secret. On September 26, 1934, Britain’s King George V and his wife, Queen Mary of Teck, were on hand in Southampton, England, to christen #534 after the royal consort herself. "As a sailor I have deep pleasure in coming here today to watch the launching by the queen of this great and beautiful ship,” the king said to the thousands of cheering onlookers gathered on the docks:

“We come to the happy task of sending on her way the stateliest ship now in being. It has been the nation’s will that she should be completed, and today we can send her forth no longer a number on the books, but a ship with a name in the world alive with beauty, energy and strength.”

The queen then cut a ribbon and broke a bottle of wine to christen the ship. The R.M.S. Queen Mary began its maiden ocean crossing two years later, on May 27, 1936, from Southampton to New York. (R.M.S. stands for "royal mail ship"—all vessels with this designation had a government contract to carry British mail.)

4. SHE WAS ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL SHIPS EVER BUILT.

The Queen Mary ocean liner
Express/Getty Images

At 1018 feet long and more than 81,000 tons, the Queen Mary was one of the largest ships ever built at the time, second only to the French liner Normandie. (Titanic, by comparison, was only 883 feet long and about 46,000 tons.) Queen Mary’s rudder, at 150 tons, was then the largest ever built. Its amidship dining room, located between two of the ship’s three funnels, was the largest room ever constructed inside a ship at the time—at 143 feet long and spanning the vessel's entire width, it could seat 800 first-class passengers at once. Two dozen boilers and four sets of turbines generating 160,000 horsepower fueled four propellers, which turned at a rate of 200 revolutions per minute. Because of its technological innovation, a 1932 Popular Mechanics article called the Queen Mary “the Sovereign Ship of the Seas.”

5. THE QUEEN MARY'S LUXURIOUS AMENITIES ATTRACTED ELITE PASSENGERS.

Inside, the ship boasted five dining areas, two swimming pools, beauty salons, and a grand ballroom, which attracted wealthy passengers and celebrities to the ship’s first-class accommodations. A first-class breakfast menu included eggs and pastries as well as onion soup gratinée and broiled kippered herrings. An Art Deco mural in the main dining room used a crystal model of the ship to track its progress between England and New York. Royalty, Hollywood stars, notable business magnates, and well-known politicians all traveled on the Queen Mary, including the likes of Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill—and even comedy duo Laurel & Hardy and Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame. In addition to first-class, the ship also had “tourist class” (a.k.a. second-class) and third-class accommodations, with the most cramped quarters reserved for the crew, who sometimes bunked 10 to a room.

6. THE QUEEN MARY HELD THE BLUE RIBAND FOR MORE THAN 15 YEARS.

In August 1936, clocking in at just over 30 knots, the Queen Mary nabbed the Blue Riband, an unofficial accolade for the ship crossing the Atlantic with the highest average speed, making the crossing in just four days. (Riband is an archaic word for “ribbon.”) Her rival the Normandie briefly captured the title in 1937, but Queen Mary earned it back the following year, and held onto the speed record until 1952, when it was eclipsed for good by the S.S. United States, an American passenger liner whose record of over 35 knots is still unmatched by any ship of its class. (It’s probably no coincidence that Blue Riband candy, a chocolate-covered wafer now owned by Nestle, emerged in the UK in the late 1930s.)

7. THE SHIP GOT A NEW LOOK FOR WORLD WAR II.

The Queen Mary ocean liner in battleship gray
U.S. Navy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In September 1939, the Queen Mary had just crossed to New York when the British government ordered that it remain in port there until further notice. Eventually, Allied forces determined that the Queen Mary, along with the Normandie and Queen Elizabeth, also docked in New York, would become troopships to carry soldiers to various battlefronts. The ship’s hull and funnels were painted battleship gray, earning the ship the nickname the “Grey Ghost.” It was also outfitted with a degaussing coil, which altered the ship’s magnetic field and helped to protect against the enemy’s use of magnetic mines. These highly valuable troopships were capable of moving as many as 15,000 soldiers at a time.

8. THE SHIP WAS INVOLVED IN A TRAGIC ACCIDENT.

British forces assigned the H.M.S. Curacoa, built during the First World War, to serve as an escort ship for the Queen Mary during World War II. On October 2, 1942, the two ships were scheduled to rendezvous off the coast of Ireland. As was typical during wartime, the Queen Mary was on a zig-zag course meant to throw off pursuit by enemy U-boats. Historians believe the cruiser Curacoa was on a straight course—and the two were headed right for each other. Before the ships’ crews could take evasive action, the Queen Mary collided with the Curacoa, cutting it in two and sending it to the ocean floor. Although more than 100 sailors were rescued, 337 men were killed. A British sailor on the Queen Mary named Alfred Johnson later recalled, “I said to my mate … ‘I'm sure we're going to hit her.’ And sure enough, the Queen Mary sliced the cruiser in two like a piece of butter, straight through the six-inch armored plating.”

9. AFTER THE WAR, SHE RECEIVED A MODERN UPGRADE.

Once the war ended, the Queen Mary required 10 months of work to be retrofitted so that she could go back into commercial passenger service. The Cunard-White Star Line added more berths in all three classes, as well as air conditioning. She returned to the seas in July 1947, along with her sister ship the Queen Elizabeth, and remained a popular oceangoing vessel for the next two decades.

10. SHE HAD A CAMEO IN A FRANK SINATRA MOVIE.

A 1966 action-adventure film written by Twilight Zone writer Rod Serling and starring Frank Sinatra, Assault on a Queen, takes place in part on the Queen Mary. Sinatra plays a bandit who gets involved in an elaborate heist to rob the liner during an ocean crossing. The film’s score is by legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington. Despite the promising setting, reviews of the performances were tepid. "Sinatra swashbuckles like a pirate is supposed to. He's quick with the bitter or sarcastic remark and he evokes some pity. Miss Lisi [Virna Lisi, Sinatra's bombshell co-star] is lovely to look at, even though she's not called on for too much acting," The Miami Herald wrote.

11. THE QUEEN MARY IS NOW A FLOATING HOTEL.

By the late 1960s, the popularity and ease of air travel had effectively signaled the end of the great transatlantic passenger liners. Cunard (which had reverted to its pre-merger name) decided to sell the Queen Mary, which departed on its final cruise on October 31, 1967. After navigating nearly 3.8 million nautical miles, the ship docked in Long Beach, California, on December 9 of that year, where it has been ever since. The iconic ship is now a floating luxury hotel, museum, and tourist attraction, complete with three restaurants, shopping, and dining. The Queen Mary Heritage Foundation is now developing a museum and educational facility to preserve and enhance the ship’s remarkable story.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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