- - Sunday, December 18, 2016


By William H. Miller

The History Press/IPG, $36.95, 96 pages, illustrated


Most of the attention paid to transatlantic ocean liners centered on the North Atlantic route, dominated by British, French, Dutch and German vessels, with the occasional American superstars like the interwar SS Leviathan and the postwar SS United States. Then, of course, there is the RMS Titanic, hubristically dubbed unsinkable, which nonetheless rapidly went to the bottom after striking an iceberg on its maiden voyage to New York in April, 1912. That tragic ship has probably spawned more books by itself than all the others that crisscrossed the Atlantic.

But if it was undeniably overshadowed by its counterpart to the north, the balmier crossing between the Mediterranean ports through the Straits of Gibraltar to New York had its share of superstar liners, as is apparent in this lavishly illustrated book by the maritime expert and prolific author William H. Miller. Not to forget a host of passengers who appreciated its sunnier route and picturesque ports of call on the Iberian Peninsula, the French Riviera, Italy, Greece and its Aegean Islands, Turkey and Israel.

The southern route even had its own dramatic sinking, even if fortunately it did not match the Titanic’s spectacular death toll of 1500 plus. On a foggy late July night in 1956 off Nantucket, only hours before the Italian liner SS Andrea Doria was due to dock in New York, she was struck by the outward bound SS Stockholm. Unfortunately, icy Scandinavian conditions necessitated a reinforced bow which inflicted such damage on the Italian vessel that she capsized and sank. Fortunately, this didn’t happen until the next day, allowing most of the passengers to be rescued, although some were killed in their cabins by the collision, nearly four dozen dying. The Andrea Doria foundering was captured by newsreel cameras.

There is no doubt that Italian vessels were the superstars of the Mediterranean transatlantic route. This started with Benito Mussolini, whose megalomania extended to his nation’s merchant marine. In the early 1930s, he commissioned two of the largest and most glamorous liners to fly its ensign, the SS Rex and the SS Conte di Savoia. The many exterior shots of both in this book show their lines to be uncommonly elegant. If there was a more lavishly decorated room afloat than the Rex’s 1st Class ballroom, which Mr. Miller aptly captions “Luxury at Sea,” I can’t think of one. The Rex even held the coveted Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing between 1933 until 1935, until it was wrested away by France’s SS Normandie. By a happy coincidence, the distance of northern and southern crossings, as measured for the trophy, are similar.

Mussolini’s maritime megalomania extended far beyond the Atlantic: the SS Diulio and SS Giulio Cesare challenged the longstanding British monopoly on shipping between Europe and South Africa; and an extensive fleet sailed between Italy and the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. But postwar Italy was no slouch either, as we have seen from the Andrea Doria, along with its sister ship the Cristoforo Colombo and the more dramatically streamlined 1960s pair the Raffaello and Michelangelo. A unique feature of the home port of these vessels Genoa, shown in countless illustrations here, is that all ships, even the enormous Rex and Conte di Savoia, tied up by their stern rather than alongside pier or wharf as in other harbors.

But if Italy dominated the area’s shipping, it does not do so in this book. Who remembers that Israeli ships once carried passengers from New York through those picturesque Mediterranean ports of call to Haifa; or Greek ones? The United States had its own pair of celebrated liners, the American Export Lines’ SS Independence and SS Constitution, the later having its day in the metaphorical as well as literal sun when it took Grace Kelly and her family to her wedding in Monaco. The next year it was seen in the movie “An Affair to Remember” and in 1955 had been the ship “I Love Lucy“‘s eponymous heroine had to board in typically unorthodox fashion after missing its departure from New York.

Of course, the chief bonus of a Southern Crossing was that it gave passengers a Mediterranean cruise thrown in. I doubt, though, that there were many who experienced such a voyage in the tantalizing fashion of a hapless classmate of mine at Yale. I noticed his absence for about six weeks in the fall of 1968 and when he returned, he had a distinctly sheepish look. Turned out he had gone to see a friend off on a Greek liner, only to imbibe overly enthusiastically at the Bon Voyage party and pass out in a secluded corner of the ship. Discovered the next day by its crew, he had to work his passage until it returned to New York. With no passport, he could only gaze longingly at the ports he glimpsed but could not visit. I have never seen this story in the myriad volumes I have read on ships, but I think it is truly one for the books in every sense of the term.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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