How History’s Well-Heeled Traversed the Seas

  • The North Star set sail for Europe to demonstrate, for the benefit of the various crowned heads, how much this upstart nation had already achieved.

In this month’s cover story, Jimmy ­Kimmel remarks that he has led a “buckety” life (see “The 2016 Bucket List,” page 88). Though this felicitous phrase likely applies to many of our readers, we all have items on our lists of personal goals that remain unfulfilled. One of mine is to travel the world by water. “The traveler is perfect king aboard his boat,” claimed a mid-19th-century guidebook to the Nile, according to David McCullough in Mornings on Horseback, his biography of the young Teddy Roosevelt. The object of this sanguine proclamation was a dahabeah—an opulent vessel designed to carry its passengers in stately comfort along the river’s reeds and then-blue waters. The family of Theodore Roosevelt Sr. enjoyed this waterborne sovereignty in the autumn of 1872, when Teddy was 15. While Martha Roosevelt reclined beneath a sun-drenched canvas canopy, her husband, Theodore Sr., listened to the soft wake of his floating principality, the Aboul Irdan, and possibly reflected on the observation of his friend Henry Adams, who had remarked that until he traveled the Nile on one of these yachts, he had never known what luxury was.

Adams was not the only American to make this cheerful discovery in the decades of plenty following the Civil War, when U.S. merchant princes cast their industrious eyes over the waters and dreamed of seagoing counterparts to the massive palaces with which they crowded Fifth Avenue. Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt was, appropriately, the first to build a private steam-powered, ocean­going yacht. A ferryboat operator who parlayed thrift and a congenital ruthlessness into the nation’s largest concern, the New York Central Railroad, the Commodore built a 270-foot steamship equipped with 10 staterooms, Louis XV–style furniture, and polished marble walls. Christened the North Star, the ship set sail for Europe to demonstrate, for the benefit of the various crowned heads, how much this upstart nation had already achieved. 

The Commodore’s family inherited his taste for pageantry. In 1886, grandson William K. Vanderbilt commissioned what was then the world’s largest private yacht, which he named for his wife. The Alva stretched 264 feet long and boasted a crew of more than 50, including the requisite French chef. Its alarming dimensions prompted a Turkish warship, which mistook it for a hostile navy cruiser, to fire shots across its bow in the Dardanelles. 

Fortunately, the Vanderbilts also found more congenial company on their aquatic treks. Along with Czar Nicholas II’s Standart and Kaiser Wilhelm’s Hohenzollern, the Alva shared the seven seas with Jay Gould’s Atalanta, J.P. Morgan’s Corsair, and William Astor’s 233-foot Nourmahal. The latter actually fulfilled the military role into which, on the Turkish strait, the Alva was erroneously thrust: At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Astor’s son, Jack, loaned the massive yacht to the government through the offices of the assistant secretary of the navy—a much older (and more bellicose) Teddy Roosevelt.

Of course, not all of these drifting palaces were deployed for pomp or glory. Joseph Pulitzer’s 269-foot Liberty was conceived as an insular world into which the blind, neurasthenic publisher could retreat from the cacophony of civilization. He controlled this microcosm through a system of bellpulls that, as nimbly as marionette strings, manipulated each member of the crew of 60. The Liberty sheltered the sensitive Pulitzer not only from the offenses of the city, but also on one occasion from the wrath of an outraged president. In 1908, when the publisher’s newspaper accused Roosevelt (once again) of impropriety in the Panama Canal purchase, the administration charged him with five counts of criminal libel. Pulitzer hastily put out beyond the 3-mile limit to avoid incarceration until the scandal subsided. By this time, 35 years had elapsed since Roosevelt’s adolescent Nile cruise, and the president’s liberal sense of lèse-majesté suggested to some critics that the mature Roosevelt was indeed a perfect king—whether aboard or ashore. 

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