In a way the discipline, commitment and responsibility of being a crew member aboard an ocean liner isn’t very different from the military. On board ocean liners it is called being “shipshape”. Every day we had to line up for inspection by the Chief Steward, the First Officer, and sometimes the Captain, accompanied by the Boatswain.
They’d be joined by the Chief Housekeeper and his assistant. Together they’d all go around the vessel, wearing white gloves. Woe to those who were responsible for dusting or polishing brass, whether it be in the washrooms, or public areas. Those who had neglected their duties were penalized through a point system, and on the next port of call would have to remain aboard ship, cleaning, polishing, and washing. Also hygiene and fire prevention were, and still are, very high on the list priorities on ocean-going vessels. In terms of activities for the passengers, in those days the program consisted mostly of things such as Clay pigeon shooting (aft), Ping-pong, shuffleboard, horse or turtle races, bridge, poker, chess, checkers, backgammon, engine room and bridge tours, swimming, relaxing on deck, movies in the air-conditioned theatre (a rarity on ships in those days). The daily “bet” to see how far the ship had sailed in the past 24 hours (the daily pool) was a favourite, and of course the classic daily Quiz. Also, entertainment (but not the Las Vegas-style spectacles you find on cruise ships today), passenger and crew talent shows, the ship’s band, a piano player – these were regularly scheduled.
(No art classes or lectures on culture, though. Experience and knowledge of this routine on board ships, which I’d stored away in the little grey cells, helped many years later in the 1970’s when I woke up one morning with a vision of teaching art aboard ships. [And giving talks on art forms of various ports of call]. In the late 1940’s there was nothing like that available. Today’s it is called “Enrichment Program”, which yours truly pioneered.) Those of us who worked as stewards in the dining room were on duty at all times, seven days a week until we reached the next port of call. (With very short breaks in mid-morning and mid-afternoon.)
So we’d be among the first to notice the patterns and behaviour of the passengers. There were the early-risers, those who had breakfast in their stateroom, those who frequented the bars, and those who stayed up long after the sumptuous midnight buffet. Bars only closed when the last guest left. Many romances also blossomed. The ‘shady’ types were usually amongst those where arguments broke out. Fights were quickly put out by officers and security staff.
The ship had two classes: First and Second, completely separate from each other, and each with their own dining room of course. There were always a few movie stars or celebrities on each voyage. Some travelled incognito, some with a spouse or mistress. Older women were sometimes accompanied by a gigolo.
This all took place 60 years ago, so I can’t remember them all, but on one occasion we had Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor in our section of the dining room. They were married and on their way for a holiday in Europe. Always courteous, friendly, and knowledgeable about gourmet cuisine. Both were open to trying new dishes, such as the Indonesian specialties nasi goring, bahmi and Rijsttafel. They never complained or commanded. Ideal passengers for a steward.
On one crossing from NY to Rotterdam, the entire New York Philharmonic was on board with conductor and Maestro par excellence Leopold Stokowski. The weather was very fine and the rehearsed on the open deck. My frequent attending of their rehearsals nearly cost me my job, because sometimes I’d be a bit late for duty. Some passengers also travelled with their valet.
Oh yes! While taking a few moments of fresh air on deck, and looking out for dolphins or whales, a movie star came over to me. She asked if I could bring a telegram up to the Radio Room. I said, “Of course”, and with the telegram she tucked a folded paper into my hand. When I looked at it, on my way to the Bridge Deck, I was astounded to see a $50 bill. There in my hand was 2 ½ months wages. And this for just taking a telegram up one deck.
In 1951 the end of my days of being a steward at sea approached. A neglected cold, which evolved into double pneumonia, pleurisy and then tuberculosis on both lungs, put me into a TB Sanatorium in the Netherlands for a long time. It was there that I discovered I could paint. But as noted earlier, I returned to the Seven Seas.
How did I do it? By combining my experience as a steward on board ships, with my career as an artist, I literally dreamt up the idea of teaching Art on ships. This resulted in three around-the-world voyages and numerous month-long sailings in the capacity as Guest Artist & Lecturer. Proving “if you never have a dream, you’ll never have a dream come true”. Bon voyage! Henri