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.

The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In March 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with one of the most macabre dénouements in his entire body of work. Called Hop-Frog, it was the tale of an eponymous court jester who endures repeated humiliations from an abusive king and his ministers before finally exacting his revenge. Like other works of the great horror master, it may have been inspired by historical events—in this case, by a particularly grisly episode from 14th-century France.

In Poe's short story, both Hop-Frog and Trippetta are people with dwarfism stolen from their respective home countries and brought as presents for the king from one of his generals. Hop-Frog is described as having a disability that makes him walk "by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle." Forced to be the court's jester, he's the target of the king's practical jokes, and while enduring near-constant humiliations grows close to Trippetta, whose status at the court isn't much better.

One day, the king demands a masquerade, and as the evening draws near, he asks Hop-Frog what to wear. After a scene in which he and Trippetta are abused once again, Hop-Frog sees the perfect chance for revenge. He suggests the monarch and his ministers dress as escaped orangutans chained together, which he calls "a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades." The king and his ministers love the idea of scaring their guests, and especially the women. The jester carefully prepares their costumes, saturating tight-fitting fabric with tar and plastering flax on top to resemble the hair of the beasts.

On the evening of the masquerade, the men enter in their special outfits just after midnight. The guests are duly terrified, and amid the hubbub, Hop-Frog attaches the chain that surrounds the group to one hanging from the ceiling that normally holds a chandelier. As the men are drawn upwards, he brings a flame close to their bodies, pretending to the crowd that he's trying to figure out who the disguised men really are. The flax and tar ignite quickly and the noblemen burn to death, suspended above the crowd. "The eight corpses swung in their chains," Poe writes, "a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass."

Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Rijksmuseum, Europeana // Public Domain

The gruesome scene was likely inspired by a historical event: the Bal des Ardents (literally, "the Ball of the Burning Ones"). This obscure episode took place during the reign of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), known to posterity as "Charles the Mad." His periods of illness are well-documented by contemporary chroniclers, who tell us that he ran through his castle howling like a wolf, failed to recognize his own wife and children, and forbade anyone to touch him because he believed he was made of glass. After his first bout in 1392, when delirium led him to kill several knights, his physician prescribed "amusements, relaxations, sports, and pastimes."

Meanwhile, the royal council was controlled by his brother Louis d'Orléans and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy—who both had their eyes set on the throne. It was also the middle of the Hundred Years' War, and England was seen as a severe threat to national stability. In spite of the unrest, on January 28, 1393, Charles's wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, held a ball in the royal palace of Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting Catherine de Fastaverin. The plan was also to entertain the king, as the royal physician had prescribed. One of the guests, the knight Sir Hugonin (sometimes Huguet) de Guisay, suggested that a group of nobles dress as "wild men" or "wood savages," mythical creatures associated with nature and pagan beliefs. The king liked the idea so much that he decided to join in as one of the masked dancers.

The six noblemen wore garments made of linen covered in pitch and stuck-on clumps of flax, so they appeared "full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot," according to contemporary historian Jean Froissart. Poe preserved these details in Hop-Frog, though his characters weren't dressed as wild men, but as orangutans—an animal he had also used in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) to great effect.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, Charles VI was aware that the costumes were highly flammable, so he ordered all torch-bearers to keep to one side of the room. As they entered the ballroom, five of the wild men were chained to one another. Only the king was free. The men probably humiliated the newlyweds, howling and dancing; some historians believe the wild dance was a charivari, a folk ritual intended to shame newlyweds at "irregular" marriages. (As a widow getting married for the third time, Lady Catherine would have been a target.)

But there was an important guest missing: the king's brother, Louis d'Orléans. He arrived late, carrying his own torch, and joined the dance. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, before long his torch had set fire to one of the wild men's costumes. The fire spread quickly. Two of the knights burned to death in front of the guests, and two more died in agony days later. Court chronicler Michel Pintoin, known as the Monk of St. Denis, describes the dancers' "flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood."

Only two of the wild men survived. One of them, named Nantoiullet, had reacted to the blaze by throwing himself into a barrel of water, which spared him a horrid death. The other was the king. He was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who used her gown to extinguish his costume before it was too late.

The event shook French society. It was seen as the height of courtly decadence, causing outrage and further unrest. That the king had engaged in this extravagant amusement, and that his life had been spared only by chance, was further proof that he was unfit for the throne.

Meanwhile, the part that Louis d'Orléans played in the tragedy was subject to some debate. Most chroniclers blamed his youth and recklessness for the terrible accident; some reportedly suggested it was a prank to "frighten the ladies" that got out of hand.

Although it seems that the Bal des Ardents wasn't a planned crime, the king's brother must have felt responsible for the fatal accident, since he founded a chapel in the convent of the Célestins shortly afterwards, hoping it would buy him a place in heaven. It didn't save him from a violent end, however: In 1407, Louis was assassinated on the orders of his cousin and recently minted political rival the Duke of Burgundy, which triggered a civil war that divided France for decades. The Duke of Burgundy justified the murder by accusing Louis of having used sorcery and occultism to attempt regicide on several occasions—one of them, he claimed, during the Bal des Ardents.

Regardless of the truth behind the matter, the horror of the event filtered down through the centuries to inspire one of Poe's most macabre works. (It's not clear where the author first heard about it, but it may have been in the pages of The Broadway Journal, where he was soon to become editor, and where a writer likened it to the accidental onstage burning death of the dancer Clara Webster in London.) Today, the shocking historical event lives on in Poe's story—and in Hop Frog's memorable final line: "I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest."

Additional source: Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys

9 People Who Have Been Called America's Sweetheart

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

The term “America’s Sweetheart” first appeared in the early 1900s, back when motion pictures were still a novelty. Over the years, it’s been applied to a vast number of celebrities—largely young, bubbly, wholesome-seeming ladies who women want to be and men want to introduce to their mothers. (The occasional man has been dubbed America's sweetheart, too, but the moniker has never quite defined famous men the way it has defined a certain genre of female celebrity.) Here are nine people who have been called "America's sweetheart" in the past.

1. THE ORIGINAL: MARY PICKFORD

Mary Pickford circa 1910
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Mary Pickford—perhaps the most iconic actress of the Silent Era and a founder of Hollywood institutions like the United Artists studio and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—was the first to hold the unofficial title of "America's Sweetheart," a nickname reportedly given to her by influential theater owner David Grauman. The title would later be used in ad copy for her films and by magazines writing about her work. In a 1918 feature in Photoplay magazine called "Women I Have Loved," actor Elliott Dexter, in enumerating all of the actresses who had served as his on-screen love interests, wrote that "Mary Pickford absolutely captivated me as she does everyone who goes near her. Her genius, her brilliancy, her charm, her beauty—oh, what's the use? All of that has only been said two or three thousand times more or less and all of it is true." Dexter played opposite Pickford in A Romance of the Redwoods, a 1917 silent Western. (To give you an idea of her comparative clout, she received top billing, while his name didn't appear on the film's poster at all.)

"In more than 200 films, including 52 full-length features, she was the brave little girl whose hair hung down in golden ringlets," The Washington Post described in her obituary in 1979. "She was scarcely 5 feet tall, but she never gave up when times got bad. She was funny and sad, tough and vulnerable, innocent and ingenious, and she always won out in the end."

Oddly enough, Pickford proved that you didn't need to be from the U.S. to become America’s sweetheart—she was Canadian.

2. SHIRLEY TEMPLE

Shirley Temple, circa 1934.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Several decades after Pickford pioneered the name, Shirley Temple took over as "America’s Sweetheart," so effectively embodying the title that many have mistakenly called her America's first sweetheart. The dimpled, ringlet-sporting Depression-era child actor was famous by the time she was 6, singing and tap-dancing her way through more than 40 films before she retired from the pictures at the ripe age of 22 and selling millions of dolls in her likeness to American children in the process. As an adult, she went on to become a U.S. delegate to the U.N. and ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

The title of America's sweetheart stuck with Temple throughout her life. When Fox released box sets of her complete works on DVD in the early 2000s, the studio called them the America's Sweetheart collection.

3. DEBBIE REYNOLDS

Debbie Reynolds circa 1955
Keystone, Getty Images

Debbie Reynolds became America's latest sweetheart in the 1950s, starting with her star turn in Singin’ in the Rain, which debuted in 1952 when she was 20 years old. She went on to appear in multiple movies a year throughout the 1950s and had several hit songs on the Billboard charts. "Her girl-next-door looks, bouncy personality and energy in a string of comedies and musicals quickly earned her the title of America's Sweetheart," The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana explained in 1988.

Unfortunately, Reynolds's position as America's sweetheart was often juxtaposed with the sex-symbol status of her close friend Elizabeth Taylor. Reynolds's husband Eddie Fisher (himself an American sweetheart) divorced her to marry Taylor in 1959, a scandal that garnered tremendous media coverage at the time and still appears in headlines today. Reynolds died in late 2016, and nearly every obituary referenced her years as America's sweetheart.

4. MARY TYLER MOORE

Mary Tyler Moore, circa 1969
E Milsom, Getty Images

In the 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore took over the title of America's sweetheart—though there was often a caveat. "Just as surely as Mary Pickford was America's sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore is the viewers' sweetheart," a UPI newswire story about The Mary Tyler Moore Show declared in 1972, not quite giving her the full title. Moore became a household name in the early 1960s while playing Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and went on to star in her own eponymous show between 1970 and 1977. In 1977, the New York Daily News called her "America's TV sweetheart." But in other publications, there was no descriptor required. Both Esquire and Rolling Stone labeled her "America's sweetheart' in cover stories in 1977 and 1980, respectively.

And yet, America can't focus on one sweetheart for too long. Already, her title was already at risk of being passed off to someone else. In 1979, The Pittsburgh Press wrote that Donna Pescow of Saturday Night Fever, who was then starring in the ABC show Angie, "may replace Mary Tyler Moore as America's sweetheart." (That one didn't quite come to fruition.)

5. MARY LOU RETTON … AND NUMEROUS OTHER FEMALE OLYMPIANS OF THE 1980s

Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Olympics.
STAFF/AFP, GettyImages

Not all of America's sweethearts have been actresses. Walter Cronkite bestowed the honorary on gymnast Mary Lou Retton following her wins at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Olympic runner Mary Decker occasionally donned the label in the 1980s, too, as did tennis star Chris Evert and swimmer Janet Evans. Just about every successful female athlete of the 1980s was at one point deemed to be America's sweetheart. The trope continues today, too—more recent Olympic gymnasts like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Aly Raisman have all been called America's sweethearts, too.

6. MEG RYAN

Meg Ryan circa 1993.
MYCHELE DANIAU, AFP/Getty Images

Meg Ryan became America’s sweetheart thanks to roles in a string of romantic comedies, starting with When Harry Met Sally… in 1989 and continuing throughout the 1990s. In one typical article of the time, a Detroit Free Press story in 1996 called Ryan "she of the giggle in the voice and the sparkle in the eye." Another, published by The Age in Australia, called her "cinema's intoxicating, decent-hearted sprite." But she fell out of Hollywood favor in the early 2000s after an affair with Russell Crowe brought about the end of her marriage to Dennis Quaid, a scandal that captivated the tabloids. If there's one rule to being America's sweetheart, it's that you have to keep your image scandal free—extramarital affairs are definitely not allowed.

Though she has been out of the spotlight for several years, Ryan recently discussed her time as America's sweetheart with Gwyneth Paltrow at a Goop conference, saying she never liked the title. "When you get labeled anything, like America's sweetheart—I didn't even know what that meant," she told Paltrow. "I remember thinking, 'Is that good?'" She went on to say, "It doesn't necessarily imply that you're smart or sexual or complicated or anything. It's a label. And what can a label do but guess at you?"

7. JULIA ROBERTS

Julia Roberts in ‘Runaway Bride,’ 1999
Getty Images

Julia Roberts got her start in Hollywood with films like Mystic Pizza (1988) and Steel Magnolias (1989) and became a true international star when Pretty Woman came out in 1990. In 1993, The Boston Globe called her "the closest thing there is to America's Sweetheart." Throughout the '90s, both she and fellow sweetheart Meg Ryan regularly made the top of lists like Harlequin's Top 10 Most Desirable Women and Men's Health's list of the top stars to "take home to Mom." And yet by the mid-1990s, some writers were already moving on to someone else. "Sandra Bullock emerged as the likely successor to the fading Julia Roberts as America's Sweetheart," the South Florida Sun-Sentinel announced in its end-of-year coverage for 1995. But she was soon back on top—after My Best Friend's Wedding came out in 1997, the Orlando Sentinel wrote that she "hardly seems ready to relinquish her title as America's Sweetheart." In 2003, National Enquirer released a biography of the star called Julia Roberts: America's Sweetheart.

8. SANDRA BULLOCK

Sandra Bullock talks on a cell phone while shopping for laundry detergent in 1999’s ’Forces of Nature.'
Getty Images

Anyone with a few hit romantic comedies under their belt is sure to become America's sweetheart, and Sandra Bullock was no exception. Bullock made her name starring as the plucky heroine in movies like While You Were Sleeping (1995), but when she tried to stretch her dramatic legs, she wasn't quite so beloved. "Sandra Bullock and Clint Eastwood are popular because of their personalities and looks, not necessarily because we want to see them perform," a Knight Ridder newspaper critic snarked in 1999. Bullock wasn't particularly invested in being America's sweetheart, however, and she certainly understood the rules of the game. "There's a different 'America's Sweetheart' every time they have to promote another romantic comedy," she told The Orange County Register in 2005.

9. JENNIFER ANISTON

A promotional image of Jennifer Aniston with her arms crossed, 1995
NBC Television/Getty Images

Even more fool-proof than romantic comedies, the quickest way to become America's sweetheart is to link up with another all-American celebrity. While Jennifer Aniston hit sweetheart status thanks to the massive popularity of her character on Friends—one Entertainment Weekly labeled as a Top 10 greatest pop-culture characters of the last 20 years in 2010—her romance with noted Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt definitely sealed the deal. When that ended in 2005, she got to keep the title, except she became "America's jilted sweetheart" (compared to the "superhumanly sensual" Angelina Jolie), as a writer from The Arizona Republic called her in 2005. (Another rule for these superfluous titles? Women must be pitted against each other, whether they like it or not.)

Even though Aniston no longer appears in our homes every Thursday night as she did during her run on Friends, she'll always be the country's sweetheart for many. "Look at Jennifer Aniston: she's America's sweetheart for a reason," fellow actress Allison Williams observed while talking about red carpet styles in Elle's 2014 Women in TV issue. "You know what she's going to look like when she shows up to something, and there's something so comfortable in that."

Maybe that's the key. If America's sweetheart is anything, it's comforting.

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