The SS United States: Dreaming Again

By Dea Adria Mallin | Special to the Weekly Press |
  •   Wed, Jul 28, 2010
In September 1957, when my parents sailed out of the New York harbor on the SS United States, the jet plane was not yet a regular mode of travel. It was the luxury liner that captured the American and European imagination, and the SS United States, launched in 1952 from Pier 86, was the best of them all.

My father was the lawyer for a gentleman from an old Philadelphia family, with a remarkable story of his own. Though he had pretty much thwarted his parents’ expectations by becoming a tinkerer, an “inventor,” he made them proud when he invented stretch yarn. The inventor, my father, and the Italian-American with a textile mill on Haines Street in Germantown who had lent the inventor a second-floor space to tinker, in return for a portion of the profits from anything invented there, were on a transatlantic journey to England, on their way to Switzerland to get some patents in order. My parents returned in October 1957 on the prettiest and the largest and the fastest ocean liner ever built in America; this magical ship to which I once waved goodbye in 1957 still holds the record for speed, safety, and style, and was a testament to American efficiency, quality, power, ingenuity, an America at peace, and buoyant American confidence. In other words, the stuff of legend. 

Know, now, that the legendary ship has been moored and dormant in the Delaware River, not dry-docked, in Philadelphia since 1997, her mighty 55-foot funnels unpainted for more than thirty years, badly faded, rainwater accumulating along the lower decks, and the last remains of the fuel oil placed aboard for her last voyage leaking out. She has been “quiet, dark, and totally stripped.” Residing now at Pier 82, she has had several owners, the last of which, in 2003, was the Norwegian Cruise Lines, which originally intended to bring her back as an ocean liner but most recently intended to sell her for scrap metal.

A product of the Cold War, the United States was secretly designed for dual use: she was a luxury passenger liner that could carry 3,500, but she could be immediately transformed into a Navy-sponsored troop transport that could carry 15,000 soldiers more than 10,000 miles without refueling. Many of her technical specifications, including the highly secret underwater hull form, remained military secrets until the ship was declassified in 1968.

On her maiden voyage in July 1952, in 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, with an average speed of 35 astounding knots, she broke the record of the Cunard Line’s Queen Mary by 10 hours — which thrilled her builder, William Francis Gibbs, a native Philadelphian whose granddaughter, Susan Gibbs, is now president of the SS United States Conservancy in Washington, DC.

Dan McSweeney, the Conservancy’s Executive Director, whose father emigrated from Scotland to be part of the crew of this ship with 550,0000 square feet of inner space, noted that “today’s cruise ships go about 20 knots, and the United States could do that going backwards! At one point on the return trip she did 42 knots.” McSweeney said that “she was never really let loose on the open seas, but there are those who say she could do 50 knots!”

In her day, she was a veritable who’s who of celebrities: Ike and Mamie Eisenhower, John F. and Jackie Kennedy, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Salvador Dalí, Benny Goodman, Walt Disney, Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Kim Novak, Liz Taylor, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Leonard Bernstein. Even the Mona Lisa! When the SS United States carried the Mona Lisa for a crossing, she had her own stateroom, and every night, a pair of men’s Size 17 shoes were put outside the door to be shined – under the assumption that the guy in that stateroom was too big to mess around with.

Vogue did fashion shoots on her decks, and Playboy commissioned shots. Painter LeRoy Neiman said that it was all about glamour and elegance, with women on board who would change their outfits six and seven times a day. There were two spiffy crew members to every two passengers, and Chief Purser David Fitzgerald remarks, in chronicler William H. Miller’s wonderful “Picture History of the SS United States” (Dover Publications, $17), that while she was glamorous and meticulous from end to end, “she was like Americans, she wasn’t stuffy, and a high spirit pervaded throughout.”

The last voyage of the SS United States ended in November 1969, without any notification to the crew or to passengers who had signed on for future voyages. Suddenly, lifestyle in America was all about speed. By 1958, a jet could make it to Europe in seven hours instead of several days, and by 1970, when Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, foretelling the fast-forward of the next 50 years, the speed of the jet aircraft had unraveled the appeal of the luxury liner, and too soon, the SS United States was running in the red, at enormous losses.

The ship, which had logged 2.7 million miles in her seventeen years, was moved around from port to port. At one point she was hermetically sealed and dehumidified. At another point, in 1997, she was seized by U.S. marshals, since the Turks still owed about $2 million on their $2.5 million purchase price from 1992. At still another point, she was towed to the Ukraine to have asbestos removed if she were ever to be refurbished as an ocean liner. She changed owners repeatedly. When New Jersey businessman Edward Cantor paid $6 million at auction for her, he’d hoped to revive her as a cruise ship. Then he changed his mind, trying to sell her for $35 million, but found no takers. Her scrap price was estimated at $2 million. Eventually, she was totally gutted, and in 1984, at a huge New York City auction, whose catalogue prices are on e-bay, Guernsey’s auctioneers were selling her wine buckets for $5,000 apiece.

For renowned newsman Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), this neglect of the SS United States was “a crime against history.” Certainly, he said, “it was a crime against shipbuilding,” and he was perplexed that “nobody cared; there was a callousness among the American people to let her die so miserably. Even Eli Whitney’s cotton gin has been preserved!” But this brilliant working vessel didn’t deserve such treatment. To refit her, mused Cronkite, would be to restore American pride.

And the sale for scrap would have happened had not Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest stepped in just now, in 2010, to give the SS United States Conservancy $5.8 million to buy the ship. But this is not the end of the story. Between now and February 2011, the ship’s purchase agreement with Norwegian Cruise Line/Genting Hong Kong will be worked out. Then, there will 20 months of hard work and imagination to gain financial support to decide on the ship’s mission and refit the ship — and make Lenfest’s legacy more than another hopeful move.

At the celebration in front of the ship on July 1, 2010, Lenfest, it turns out, told a unique story of his own relationship to the SS United States: it was his father who made the water-tight doors from the ship’s bowels up to B deck.

And here is another father story. At the Independence Day SS United States celebration on July 1, I met Charles B. Anderson, on the Executive Board of the Conservancy, whose father, Commodore John W. Anderson, was captain of the SS United States from 1952 to 1964. I was deeply awed by meeting the son of the captain who had safely transported my parents on their transatlantic crossings. Anderson tells the story of the tugboat strike in New York City, when there was no help in docking the enormous ship, a task which usually took six tugboats. And because of her very large and wide funnels, wind was always a special concern with the United States. Commodore Anderson brought her entire 990-foot length into the dock – and then he parallel parked her!

There’s also the grandfather story with a powerful but rarely told Philadelphia connection. Susan Gibbs, president of the Conservancy, is the granddaughter of naval architect William Francis Gibbs, of Gibbs and Cox, the largest private ship designing firm in the world, who built the United States. Gibbs grew up on North Broad Street, and then at 18th and Walnut, on Rittenhouse Square. He would often walk down Walnut to the Delaware River and watch the ships coming in to port, dreaming, perhaps…

His father, a wealthy financier, lost all his money in the panic of 1907, and young William would have to work for a living. At Harvard, he studied engineering and science, and in his dorm room, plans of British battleships, but left without a degree. Trained at Columbia University as a lawyer, Gibbs had no formal ship building training except at the Jersey shore, but he was a prodigious reader of books on the subject. With his brother, he eventually got a job redesigning a large German ship, the Vaterland, and subsequently designed 5,000 vessels. For the United States, there were 4,600 detailed working plans, sketches, and diagrams, and Gibbs, who called the ship “a product of a prodigious power: American industry” also gave credit to others, stating that “about 50% of the maritime engineering brains in the country have been applied to this vessel.” Gibbs was reputed to have a salty tongue, and he wore the same hat all his life, long after it was threadbare.

For Susan, her grandfather was mostly a very, very busy man who adored the ship that he had largely created. The SS United States was delivered seven weeks in advance of the contracted delivery date, and until his death in 1967, Gibbs monitored her every arrival and departure, even in pre-dawn darkness as she passed through the Narrows, and later, under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Then, he raced to Pier 86 to watch the docking procedures, and was among the first to go aboard to the captain’s quarters and then to the chief engineer’s quarters to assess the ship’s performance.

The ship had been built to stay afloat if there was a fire or a collision, and her hull was super solid, built with five compartments where today’s ships are built with two or three. No one else ever did this. In violent storms in the Atlantic, with 70- to 80-foot waves one after another, the passengers barely felt a thing. Also, in deference to Gibbs’ phobia about fire, there was virtually no wood on this ship – not even to knock on for luck. Actually, there were butcher blocks in the kitchen and there was a wood piano. But even there, Gibbs had tried to get Steinway to manufacture an aluminum piano!

Today, the hull, the steel, the rivets are all apparently in good shape. “She was so overbuilt to begin with that even with the 8% erosion, she’s more fit than any ocean liner afloat!”

So what’s next? Self-sustaining mixed use complex – a waterfront attraction either here or at her original New York City harbor’s Pier 86 with museum, restaurant, retail, and entertainment? That seems to be the sustainable direction, though each member of the Conservancy expressed longings for her to be the dazzling and dynamic sailing ship she once was. Greg Norris, who came up from Palm Beach Gardens to attend the celebration of Lenfest’s gift, looks at the ship with that longing, fueled by childhood memories of the five crossings with his parents on the ship. He appears as a little boy in the PBS documentary, SS United States: Lady in Waiting, which was shown at the July 1 celebration.

Just before the film began, across from the long, sleek, low hull, the 12 decks, the 19 elevators, the razor-sharp bow, and the 60-foot long and 55-foot wide funnels, a tradition, begun in 1999 by artist Robert Wogan, was once again enacted. As the gathered crowd turned to look at the ship, slowly, the funnels, then the bridge, the radar, the mast, and the running lights came on, transforming the derelict ship into something splendid. And the gathered enthusiasts saw, for a moment, the once-upon-a-time luxury liner, as much a gleaming beacon of a dream as the ship in Federico Fellini’s Amarcord that transformed the spellbound villagers forever.


To find out how to help preserve this legacy, call the SS United States Conservancy at 1 888 488 7787 or

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