Save the United States

Many years ago, my wife and I were caught in traffic coming from the bridge in New Jersey. I don’t remember which bridge or why we were in traffic—but I remember my wife was wearing a turquoise dress with embroidered flowers and we were somewhere along the Delaware River. We saw a bar that I labeled “threatening” and she called “weathered” and agreed to go in and get something to eat.  As we entered, a guy among the old guys ensconced at the bar invited us to stand nearer where he was sitting because we “could see the United States just across the river from there.” We knew he was too inebriated to be making pithy social commentary, so my wife played along and sure enough, there it was—just across the river, the United States—the SS United States.

Now, whenever I go down to Columbus Avenue to do unmentionable shopping: paper towels in bulk, liquid soaps, potting soil, or electric cork screws, I enjoy my covert first-light-of-day car trips because the ship still stands there—5 blocks long and 17 stories high—like the Parthenon on the Acropolis—defying and defining time. I find myself staring—now from the same side of the river, but still from afar because as near as I can get to the fabled ship—even in my imagination—is a distance.  

In my mind, Pier 82 bustles with travelers dressed in tasteful suits with hats and gloves, who embark while uniformed porters carry their luggage. On board, I pass the First Class observation lounge where Charles Ryder and Lady Julia Flyte pretend to study the concave gesso and gold-leaf mural of the North Atlantic not to look at each other.  At a corner table Basil Plante is attempting to trick the already besotted Ann Grenville into revealing her secret. Continuing forward on deck, I spy Nickie Ferrante and Terry McKay rendezvousing at the rail. As always, Nickie wears cashmere socks paler than the color of his slacks; Terry carries Janou’s mantilla against the brisk sea air. I enter the luxurious First Class dining room to reserve my second-seating table close to Lorelei Lee’s to eavesdrop on the blonde bombshell making machine-gun-rapid “conversations” with every eligible male on the ship. While walking back to find my stateroom, I pass a door ajar revealing the Duck Suite reserved four times a year (at an arranged half-price rate) by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Custom drapery and a leopard skin throw rug have been installed for them. Standard lighting has been moderated with pink light bulbs flattering to the Duchess’s complexion and stewards have replaced the towels and bed linens with monogrammed Porthault.  A secretary will survey their 150 Louis Vuitton steamer trunks and suitcases to inventory the Duchess’s pug throw pillows, jewelry, and haute couture wardrobe for the crossing (First Class passengers make about four daily changes of clothes).

OK, movie history errors abound because none of those movies filmed aboard the SS United States (Although Gentlemen Marry Brunettes did). And even if I claim sanctuary in poetic license, this fantasy passenger list is an anachronistic hodge-podge of movie characters—but wait, Wallis Simpson was not a movie character, she was just an ordinary person…you have me there again.

I’m evoking all luxury sea travel, all the deluxe transatlantic crossings of the past. The SS United States is sole custodian of all that glamour—fictional and historical. Albeit a magnificent ruin, built for speed and capable of being turned into a troop ship, the epitome of mid-century design, she is our country’s beautifully engineered and operated Blue Riband Ship of State.

I read earlier this year that the SS United States is going to be completely rehabbed and returned to service. But nothing has yet materialized and I’ve followed previous failed plans for her future over the almost 20 years she has been docked in Philadelphia. I admit I would miss seeing that ghost liner docked here, but I am far more fearful of this beautiful ship’s being lost to us forever. I remain hopeful that the SS United States will sail again. But we simply cannot allow this piece of history to be lost.

The ocean liner, movies, and history are kinetic—they all move, and must always move—forward. I appreciate this is not 1952. But surely beauty must remain integral to motion. Thus restoring the SS United States will provide us graceful passport into the future.