For work order number 534 out of the shipyard, John Brown & Co., Ltd., of Clydebank, Scotland, destiny plotted a course as twisted and sundry as any conceived by Thackeray for the most wanton of his adventuresses. By turns, number 534 would act as a spiritual and economic salve to a nation stripped bare by the Great Depression. During World War II, it would transport nearly 1 million souls to their own encounters with fate in the Pacific Theater; it would become a seafaring legend that would so infuriate the Third Reich’s führer that he would reputedly offer $250,000 for its sinking. And, throughout its eccentric career, it would remain not only an object of great strength and beauty, but the living expression of a queen’s own vanity.
Number 534 was originally conceived by the directors of the Cunard Line to deliver the firm from the deadly currents of economic uncertainty. From its founding in 1839 by Sir Samuel Cunard, the company had established hegemony over the transatlantic route from Liverpool to New York, yet in the waning years of the 1920s, fierce competition from foreign shores jeopardized this dominance. It was decided that two faster, larger ships could handle the weekly run to and from New York more profitably, and so the first of these, number 534, was commissioned.
When work halted on the 975-foot hull in 1931 because of a scarcity of funds, a campaign for intervention on 534’s behalf by the British government argued that completion of the ship would not only stimulate the British economy but also boost national morale. The government eventually agreed—provided that 534 was built to Admiralty specifications and would be made available in time of war.
Number 534 was by any standard a marvel of maritime architecture. Her sleek, curved hull alone stood nine stories high. The decor was a linear, elegant blend of Art Deco elements, from her magnificent first-class suites to her glorious dining salon, whose almost 17,000 square feet of space, some admirers have noted, could have easily housed one of the Line’s original steamers.
According to lore, the naming of 534 was a closely guarded secret. The most widely accepted account, however, suggests that the intended designation was “Queen Victoria,” a decision consistent with Cunard’s tradition of christening its vessels with names ending in “ia,” such as the Aquitania and Mauretania. When a delegation of executives from Cunard received an audience from King George, they asked His Majesty’s permission to name the ocean liner after Britain’s “greatest queen.” Before poor King George could respond, his wife, the former Princess Mary of Teck, announced that she would be delighted. And so the delegation—somewhat chagrined—returned to inform the world that 534 would be called the RMS Queen Mary.
During World War II, the Queen Mary would assume quite a different name. Requisitioned by the Admiralty to transport troops to the Pacific, she was stripped of all her finery and reconfigured to carry larger numbers of passengers—ultimately a staggering 16,000 soldiers and crew. Painted gray, this massive ship became notorious for her sudden appearances in ports of call from Singapore to Cape Town—and for her sudden, silent disappearances. Dubbed the “Gray Ghost,” the Queen Mary stayed one step ahead of Nazi spies throughout the war, though she did have close calls—the closest a refueling stop in Rio de Janeiro, where she escaped the attack of a German submarine by only a few hours. The Germans instead sank an unlucky tanker and returned believing, erroneously, that they had exorcised the Gray Ghost.
On her return to civilian duty, the Queen Mary was restored to her grandeur and would earn considerable profits for Cunard. But times soon changed: By 1965, only 650,000 people crossed the Atlantic by ship, and number 534 was retired and sold as a tourist attraction to the city of Long Beach, Calif., in 1967. And so it is ironic that, almost four decades later, the most sumptuous mode of transatlantic travel should return to the sea in the form of the Queen Mary 2, as Jack Smith reports in “The Concorde is Dead. Long Live the Queen.” The acceleration toward supersonic flight that gave us the Concorde, it seems, has culminated in the expenditure of three-quarters of a billion dollars spent on that most singular of modern luxuries: slowing down.