Part 3 - 4, Holland America Line 1948-51, First-Class Dining Room Steward

These blogposts about my time as a steward with Holland America Line (HAL) have ‘morphed’ or taken on a life of their own. We share these experiences because they’re part of history and of the time when, slowly but surely, Europe began to recover after WWII. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time, to not only witness this “Phoenix” phenomenon, but be part of it.
In Part 2, I spoke of being a waiter in Amsterdam at the 5-star Hotel Pays Bas and wrote of Han van Meegeren, the notorious art forger. His forgeries were discovered through X-rays. Once it was confirmed the “Vermeer” and other “masterpieces” were in fact fakes, it wasn’t long before the finger was pointed at Han van Meegeren. He was charged, arrested and put on trial.
van Meegeren was given a 1-year sentence in prison, but in the process of appealing this decision he died of a heart attack, age 58, the same year I met him 1947.

Going back to the late 1940’s and Holland America Line’s “Nieuw Amsterdam”, in that era the passengers were an eclectic mix: ‘old money’, ‘new money’ (often profiteers from WWII); plus card sharks who fleeced the unaware passengers; underworld figures, bankers, US army officers either going home or returning to base in Europe. Some passengers travelled with their valets, and of course, movie stars.
Far below the passenger decks in crew quarters, four of us shared a small cabin, two bunk-beds. Wake up call was 04h30, and at port, even earlier, since all hands were needed for the luggage. I mention this to give you a picture of that era, especially the way it was in the First-Class dining room, where I worked as waiter or what we call on board ship a “dining room steward”.
The sign of a good waiter (or steward as they’re called, at sea) is someone who “is there but not there”. Standing discreetly back from the table, yet aware of any needs and acting swiftly accordingly, being pre-informed about the day’s menu - - these are all characteristics of a good waiter.
Our First-Class dining room featured French service. This means everything that possibly could be done is done at the table by the steward, such as making Caesar Salad, filleting fish (Sole Meuniere), carving the meat (Chateaubriand), preparing Steak Tartar, etc.
For fruit salads, we peeled the grapes with a tiny knife and ‘oyster’ fork before placing these in the salad. And, we always wore white gloves. Some of the other dishes we’d prepare included Peche Flambee, served in a small copper pot, and Crepes Suzette. At each table there`d be a “rechauffe” or re-warmer set, to keep any portions left over warm. 

All the beer, wine, liqueurs and cognacs were supervised and handled by the Sommelier, who was easily recognizable with his burgundy jacket and a silver taste cup hanging on a chain around his neck. All the glasses were fine crystal. Everything served hot was always covered with a lid; vegetables and potatoes were served in silver bowls, sauces in silver sauce bowls. Mustard and ketchup (for the Americans!) were kept in small glass jars in a silver container with a lid. The choices available on any menu, whether breakfast, luncheon or supper were plentiful, as expected. Pampering is not sufficient a word to use here! There were no windows or portholes in the dining room. The ship was designed for Transatlantic crossings, which can be spooky at times.
To make up for the lack of daylight, the interior design had a light, airy and colourful Art Deco style. We’d have special Captain or Farewell nights, where the ladies, mostly aristocrats or movie stars, wore their diadems laden with precious gems. (Nowadays passengers are given paper hats.)
We could quickly spot the shady passengers, or the ‘boors’ who’d extinguish their cigars into a cognac glass. And trying to ‘educate’ those passengers was a waste of time and effort.
Often the Americans would push all the cutlery aside and eat everything with a fork (except soup). It was also the Americans who insisted on their morning orange juice, plus a big glass of cold water with every meal. Such a contrast from my only-too-recent experiences in the Lowlands during the War is almost unthinkable. I didn’t see an orange or any exotic fruit for 5 years. Coming up next: my encounters with movie stars. Signing off, Henri


Part 2: Holland America Line years 1948-51: Coney Island, Radio City Music Hall

We continue on from Part One where I described the ‘transformation’ from working on dry land as a waiter in 5-star restaurants in Amsterdam, to becoming a dining-room steward in the first-class restaurant o/b “Nieuw Amsterdam”.Attending to the needs of a patron whether on land or at sea are similar yet very different. Being on solid ground is one thing, working on a “moving platform” is another. It takes awhile to get your ‘sea legs’. Some new crew members never did and went back home, only too glad to be back on solid ground.
In those days (1948, soon after WWII), most of our passengers either U.S. Army officers on leave, some with families; or “old-money”; bankers, etc (like the head of the Scottish family of eleven that I mentioned earlier who left us with such a meagre gratuity. Also some “dubious”characters, unmannered boors who extinguished their cigars into a cognac glass, as just one example of the “no-no’s” they practised.

Then, there were the Hollywood stars. Some were accompanied by their agents, others as couples, and some - - incognito. On my very first return Transatlantic crossing from New York back to Holland, yours truly had the honour and privilege of attending Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor for the full 11-day crossing. They were en route to a holiday in Europe.
Not to get too far ahead of myself, though, let us go back to New York and what it was like in 1948. We’d dock for two days and crew would get time off to go ashore (not like the brief, 5-hour turnarounds of today), before the next round of passengers embarked.
If we had previously collected “minus-points” (Holland America was very disciplined with crew and closely monitored our performance), you’d not be allowed to go ashore.
Punishment was to polish the silver. Everything, from rechauds to small mustard containers, spoons, forks, tea and coffee pots . .. you get the idea. Luckily such a ‘sentence’ never befell yours truly.
My salary was $20 US per month. Half of this was sent to my parents in the Netherlands, so I managed on $10/month, plus gratuities.

On my shore leave in NY, I’d visit Coney Island (the greatest amusement park of its kind), while Radio City Music Hall was a ‘must’ -- where the famous Rockettes performed. There I heard “live” the great soloists and the big bands of that era. All for 25 cents. Movies were also shown before the shows.
Over the three years I sailed with Holland America, I heard live Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, the Andrew Sisters, the Ink Spots, Louis Armstrong, and Glenn Miller’s band conducted by Tex Beneke. The big band era was coming to a close, nevertheless they were amazing and I was enthralled with it all.

Harlem: I also ventured into Harlem, and went to the Cotton Club where Cab Calloway was king; plus “the Duke” was there too, and Ella Fitzgerald. Now those were performers. Jazz and blues lovers, would you not agree? And all there, live and in person, the real thing.
There were hot dog stands, cafe’s with “nickelodeon” machines, drugstores serving banana splits, etc.
All this, while back home in Holland, food was still rationed.
I also went to The Bowery, took the NY subway, Central Park, visited Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, rode an elevator to the top of the Empire State building, and walked the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and of course, Times Square and 42nd Street. (“Swing and Sweet, Forty-Second Street”.) It was “the land of plenty”. The “biggest and the best”.
Just imagine: there I was, 18 years old, wandering around NY in immaculate shipboard attire, white in summer, navy blue in winter. In summer, I looked like a plantation owner. All this, on $10 a month (plus tips)! Stay tuned, Henri


Part 1 "From Shore to Sea" 1946-48, and serving the artist and renowned forger, Han van Meegeren

With all the recent goings-on, election, economy, environment and personal activities, some still find time not only to read these posts, but also to email questions. This latest one stirred up another grey cell or two in the hinterland of my memory chamber:
Is it possible for you to paint us a picture in words about how after WWII you became a dining-room steward on board ships?” Yes, it all began when Europe had to be rebuilt. “Benelux” was born, NATO came into existence, and then there was the Marshall Plan.
We had a choice (as young men): either join the military for a couple of years, or do something like enlist with the merchant marine. The last thing I wanted to do was join the military. But the merchant marine? Now that was music to my adventurous ears. This would be a splendid way to see the world and visit far-away places.
In 1946 the venerable Holland America Line had resumed its Transatlantic crossings from Rotterdam to New York (Hoboken, New Jersey, to be exact), plus cruises to Bermuda and the Caribbean.
WWII had broken out when I was just 10 years old, so I had no formal school education. Thus, officer training was out. Another option would be a deckhand, but lots of cleaning and scrubbing didn’t interest me. Then, how about a dining-room steward?
However, I had no experience and knew Holland America Line was very selective in hiring crew. So, I had to obtain experience as a waiter in one of the five-star hotels in Amsterdam which had re-surfaced after the War. My first job in this new environment was at luxurious “Hotel Pays Bas”.
We had to sign a contract agreeing to a minimum of one year. This hotel was so “posh”, just to give you an example, the Maitre d’ and all the waiters had custom-made outfits. Even though this was my very first job as a server (and didn’t know anything about it), I too got decked out in “black-tie” outfit, formal swallow-tail jacket included. The staff all looked as if we were at a permanent New Year’s Eve gala, the only item missing – a top hat.

It was at the Hotel Pays Bas that I met the infamous art forger, Han van Meegeren. (It was van Meegeren who fooled Goering into buying a “Vermeer”.) van Meegeren was fun, and often insisted that I serve him. He more or less lived in the Hotel and was always surrounded by ‘belles of the ball”. His favourite dish: caviar washed down with champagne. You can imagine the impression all this made on me, a young man who had just come out of five years of deprivation and hardship during the War. It seemed like a dream, except my feet told me otherwise!
Art of the Great Masters from the Lowlands, Spanish and Italian schools were always nearby, be it in Amsterdam or Antwerpen. However, meeting van Meegeren was my first encounter with a living artist.
Later, van Meegeren was sentenced to jail for 1 year by the Netherlands justice system. Sadly, he died of a heart attack while awaiting an appeal, age 58. Sadly because sure, he was a forger (and a very good one, who specialized in the Old Masters), but it came about because no one was interested in his own paintings. This set him on the path of forgery, where he wanted to fool the experts. And to fool the experts with a “Vermeer”, you really need to be skillful, and know something about the art of painting! Here is a link from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_van_Meegeren
After a year at Hotel Pays-Bas, I looked for other restaurant positions. Over the next 1 ½ years, worked at three different 5-star restaurants in Amsterdam, a few of which, after 60 years, are still there.
Finally, with these experiences, I was ready to approach Holland America Line. HAL’s “Nieuw Amsterdam” was the only ship in the fleet with air conditioning in the first-class dining room. My goal was to sail with this ship. And so another chapter in my life began. After a rigorous selection and interview process, in May 1948 I set sail from Rotterdam to Hoboken, New Jersey, aboard the “Nieuw Amsterdam” as first-class dining room steward. Next installment, coming up soon!