“The traveler is perfect king aboard his boat.” So claimed a mid-19th-century Lloyd’s guidebook to the Nile, writes historian David McCullough in Mornings on Horseback, his book on the early life of Teddy Roosevelt. The object of this sanguine proclamation was a dahabeah—an opulent vessel designed to carry its linen-clad passengers in stately comfort along the river’s reeds and blue waters. The Roosevelt family—an energetic tribe of adventurous Knickerbockers—enjoyed this peculiar waterborne sovereignty in the autumn of 1872, when Teddy was 15. While Mrs. Roosevelt reclined beneath a sun-drenched canvas canopy, Theodore Senior—mulling his cigar and glancing up occasionally from a volume of Egyptology at the shifting shoreline and distant vistas of the Valley of the Kings—listened to the soft wake of his floating principality, the Ibis. Perhaps the elder Roosevelt even reflected on the observation of his friend Henry Adams, who remarked that, until he had 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 that followed the privations of the Civil War. In imitation of European royalty, U.S. merchant princes cast their industrious eyes upon the waters, where they began to dream 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 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 rewarded himself at age 60 with a 270-foot steamship fed by four boilers and outfitted with 10 staterooms of Louis XV-style rosewood furniture and polished marble walls. Christened the North Star, the ship set sail for the capitals of Europe to demonstrate, for the benefit of the various crowned heads, how much this upstart nation had already achieved.
The Commodore’s family would inherit his taste for pageantry. In 1886, grandson William K. Vanderbilt, at the urging of his wife, commissioned what was then the world’s largest private yacht, which he named for her.
The Alva stretched 285 feet long, provided a private bath in each of its staterooms, and boasted a marble fireplace in its library, a crew of 52, and the requisite French chef. The yacht’s impressive size once prompted a Turkish warship, which mistook her for a hostile navy cruiser, to open fire. Nevertheless, her regal bearing ensured the couple a royal reception wherever they went.
Even so, if the Alva made the globe a private sporting ground for the Vanderbilts, they found plenty of company there. Along with Czar Nicholas II’s Standart and Kaiser Wilhelm’s Hohenzollern, the Alva shared the seven seas with Jay Gould’s Atlanta, J.P. Morgan’s Corsair, and William Astor’s 233-foot Nourmahal. The latter actually fulfilled the military role into which 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 palaces adrift were deployed for pomp or glory. Joseph Pulitzer’s 269-foot Liberty was conceived and constructed as an insular world into which the blind, neurasthenic publisher could retreat from the cacophony of civilization. At the center of this microcosm, he ruled through a system of bellpulls that, as nimbly as marionette strings, manipulated each member of his 60-man crew. The Liberty not only sheltered the sensitive Pulitzer from the offenses of the city, but also on one occasion from the wrath of an outraged president. In 1908, when Mr. P.’s newspaper accused Roosevelt (once again) of impropriety in the Panama Canal purchase, the Administration charged him with five counts of criminal libel. Pulitzer promptly put out beyond the three-mile limit to avoid incarceration until the scandal subsided.
By this time, more than 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.