During my first transatlantic crossing, Celia Ryder hosted a glittering cocktail party in her stateroom. The following morning, her room was festooned with thank-you bouquets. I was astonished. Who knew you could send people flowers on a ship?
OK, so I wasn’t actually at sea with Lady Celia. She’s a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, and I’d made this journey entirely from my couch. But the sheer decadence of that crossing from Southampton to New York, in the 1930s heyday of society cruises left me infatuated.
Since then, I have taken much vicarious pleasure in watching the grandeur and sophistication of that Golden Age of steam travel onscreen. (Remember Fred Astaire chasing Ginger Rogers in Shall We Dance?) But when I learned that the historic Cunard line had spent millions refurbishing the interiors of its flagship Queen Mary 2 to their original art deco splendor, I knew that my moment had come. If I wanted to experience a life I had assumed I could only ever imagine, this was my best chance.
The weeks before the trip were spent panic shopping for all the outfits I would need for eight days onboard. Cunard’s own dress code—smart casual by day, evening dress by night, no scruffy jeans—was stringent enough, but nothing compared to the vision I had of myself as a 1930s heroine in a panoply of head scarves, capes, and silk dressing gowns. How else was I going to make the right impression in the ship’s highest social circles?
The Queen Mary 2 was due to set sail from Southampton to a fanfare of fireworks and flag waving in the late afternoon; her departure is still treated as something of an occasion at the English port. A red carpet ushered me past a string quartet playing Vivaldi, to check-in desks staffed entirely by prim ladies with grey coifs and perfect manners. A short walk across the gangway revealed a lobby with a circular sweep of stairs that seemed built for posing, while a tuxedoed pianist played in the background.
So far, so suave. I watched from the observation deck as, on shore, a military band played Sousa marches and Pharrell Williams in front of a marquee sheltering local dignitaries, their glasses of champagne poised to toast the ship as she left. Guided by the tiny tugboat invisibly linked ahead, she performed a quarter turn to port—but it seemed from on deck as if she stayed quite still, and the land rearranged itself around her.
It turns out that it doesn’t take that long to get used to ship life, or, for that matter, the idea that you’re living in a period drama. I quickly began to chirrup the pleasant “Good afternoon” with which passengers and crew alike greeted one other, and to ignore the tremble of the engine underneath me at the dinner table. I found it surprisingly easy to fill the three closets—one a walk-in—that my generously proportioned stateroom provided. (It also came with a fruit bowl that magically replenished itself, a port-facing balcony, and a steward called Lou, who asked me if I’d like some personalized stationery. I said yes, and only later wondered how one mails anything from the mid-Atlantic.)
It did not even seem strange, on day two, to sit having a French manicure as the beauty salon tipped gently from side to side. “You have dry cuticles,” the beautician told me, rubbing a milky unguent into my forearms. I made a mental note to Google what cuticles are, and how one refreshes them. I remember nothing else, because the soft application of creams and oils, combined with the swell of the boat, turned my spine to jello and made my eyes roll back in my head. A picture came to me of Cleopatra on her barge, sloshing around in a bath of ass’s milk as she headed to meet Mark Antony.
I’d have happily spent all and every day trying out the manifold spa treatments or sitting around the “hydrotherapy pool” in a waffle robe sipping lemony water, but my social schedule didn’t allow for it. The two-page events list, which appeared daily at one’s door like entertainment manna, was exactly what my high-spirited 1930s persona required. Deck games, science lectures, flower arranging, line dancing, even early morning fencing bouts—every hour onboard could be filled several times over, and offered plenty of opportunity to find one’s place on the social ladder.
That evening I had two engagements in which to make my mark. The Captain’s Cocktail Party, before dinner, offered only a brief handshake with the captain and, oddly, no cocktails. So when I saw a convivial group holding martini glasses and noted it was comprised entirely of handsome men, I sidled up with big eyes and a coquettish line about needing a “real” drink. They told me they had smuggled theirs in from the bar where they had just had their LGBT meeting.
"It turns out that it doesn’t take that long to get used to ship life, or, for that matter, the idea that you’re living in a period drama."
But there was still the Black and White Ball, where the band played quicksteps and tangos and the dance floor murmured with monochrome movement. I, with only the most basic of waltz steps in my repertoire, watched achingly from the sidelines, determining then and there that I must learn to ballroom dance. A voice behind me sighed, intentionally overloud. “I just wish there was single woman around here to dance with. . . .” I turned. The voice was attached to a charming grin, which introduced the grinner as Sam.
Sam couldn’t dance either, but he was happy to shuffle around inconsequentially in an undangerous corner of the dance floor, and then to accompany me back to his table to meet his elder brother, Freddie, and Freddie’s girlfriend, Dom. The brothers, both in their mid-20s, were traveling with their parents, a pair of inveterate cruiseaholics, and they had already scoped out all the bars on board with a practiced eye.
Without them, I would certainly not have discovered the curious nightclub hidden behind the ballroom, where an aging but energetic clientele in tuxedos were Uptown Funking like protagonists in their own body swap movie. And as I threw my own jerky, angry shapes, I thought back to the ball and the elegant sweep of gowns across the floor. That, I knew, was where I belonged.
The next morning, a sea fog had rolled up almost to the edge of the balconies. Every couple of minutes, a long, deep horn blast projected our position into the white miasma around us. The captain’s midday address on the PA added to the otherworldliness. His announcements, intended to tell us our coordinates and set the ship’s time, tended to meander. This particular one became an earnest treatise about sea cucumbers, which, he said warningly, were feeding on ever-increasing quantities of phytoplankton and “now growing to enormous lengths.” He gave the sense they might, at any moment, loom out of the fog, looking to feast.
Dance lessons took place just after these briefings and were comparatively easy to follow. The instructors were briskly efficient, the steps weren’t half as hard as they had looked from the side of the dance floor—and being single and female offered a huge advantage. Most of the women were hampered by the uncertain lead of their husbands. Those without partners, however, were scooped up by the half-dozen “gentlemen hosts,” a roving band of ballroom enthusiasts paying their passage to the United States with their silken-footed skills. Stuart, an immensely tall and narrow Scot, patiently led me through my first dance, maintaining a constant murmured “cha-cha-cha!” to keep me in time. Peter, from the gruff north of England, taught me to fox-trot. He was in his 60s and nearly a head shorter than me, so that I often felt I’d been coupled with an uncle at a family wedding.
It was the following day, learning to samba, that I met Anna and Elise. Thirty years younger than most of the room, they giggled irrepressibly at their own attempts to shimmy and wiggle simultaneously. Anna was a game dancer, Elise a good one. She had beautiful teeth, the blonde hair of a Busby Berkeley babe, and a charisma that enthralled me even as I envied everything about her. They suggested we make our ballroom debut together at the tea dance that afternoon. I felt like I’d been asked to a sleepover by the head cheerleader.
If there is nothing more depressing than a ballroom three-quarters empty, there are few things more charming than a full one meeting its purpose. Come 3 p.m., the place buzzed like high season at the Savoy, the only difference being that the Savoy doesn’t station waiters at the door to squirt antibacterial sanitizer on your hands as you enter. White-coated stewards swarmed the tables with silver teapots and platters of sponge cakes, and to the background clinking of a couple of hundred china cups, I found Elise and Anna, their table already hemmed with male admirers, including a Manhattan lawyer named Ted who wore his tuxedo with an ease that suggested he spent half his life in one.
Elise explained that they were on their way home to the States from the Middle East, where they had spent their first five years out of college teaching Palestinian children. The cruise was their treat to themselves. I was in love with them by the end of my second scone; I don’t think I was the only one.
From that moment, my life onboard began to assume a pattern. In the afternoon, Elise, Anna, and I took our ballroom class; after dinner we monopolized the dance floor, sharing between us the few single men who weren’t busy with LGBT meetings. Ted turned out to be the kind of charming wealthy gallant who always turns up in 1930s fiction, and emitted little nods and courtesies as he led us round the room, his smile hung on invisible hooks behind his ears.
When the band packed up, we hurled ourselves through the doors of the nightclub with Sam, my Uptown Funk partner. Each morning, we would meet again at Bridge for Beginners. I am no use to anyone at a card table—except as dummy—but the muffled, studious air suited my regular hangover and provided an excuse to wear two outfits a day. It even offered me the opportunity, having overslept and dressed in a hurry, to finally enter a room with the words: “So sorry I’m late for bridge; I couldn’t find my pearls.”
Ship life became an art in itself. If it was too windy to promenade the deck, Elise and Anna would make for the ship’s gallery, where the art lectures were accompanied by free champagne, or head to its 500-seat planetarium, where they could learn about the night sky that was currently being obscured by North Atlantic cloud. I, meanwhile, retired to the mahogany-paneled library or sat at the bar, choosing cocktails that would complement my lipstick.
We moved steadily south. By the time we passed the resting place of the Titanic, some 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, the skies were endless blue, and the aft decks—where pools, Jacuzzis, and sundecks were layered like wedding cake—took on the ambience of the Riviera. I lay on my lounger and listened to the Noël Coward playlist I had compiled. With my eyes closed, I could imagine a gramophone nearby and a valet on hand to change the records. Occasionally I stood up, not to stretch so much as to pose.
One afternoon the captain announced that a couple of whales had been spotted on the port side. It was the fastest I saw anyone move in eight days. But it wasn’t only the whales that became objects of fascination. One of the curious phenomenona to emerge in the closed society of a ship is that people you have never heard of before become celebrities. The a cappella group who provided our evening entertainment left a wake of appreciative sighs wherever they went. Women vied to share a hot tub with a TV journalist who had delivered an onboard lecture about interviewing George Clooney.
“So sorry I’m late for bridge; I couldn’t find my pearls.”
My new friends and I, meanwhile, spent much of our time discussing the gentlemen hosts. We had our favorites, now, for the various dances. We knew that Steve would give you a sexy rumba, and that you didn’t quickstep with Richard, who put in an extra step that threw you off. We knew that Stuart considered the Viennese waltz so “dangerous” for the novice that an invitation to dance one with him was a sign you had earned his respect. We all wanted to tango with Jai, who was not only the best dancer but also a wonderfully funny companion, and who joined us and Sam in the club every night, a ladies’ fan on hand to cool him down.
The dancing hadn’t so much affected me as infected me. I woke up every morning with strange new aches in my arms and my legs. When I heard background music, my brain started parsing it into steps—slow, quick-quick, slow, slow. The weight of a door, as I pulled on its handle, felt like an invitation to chassé. One night, at the ship’s fine dining restaurant, I bolted down the five-course menu because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on the early dances, when the floor was emptier and your partner could spin you more freely.
On our penultimate morning onboard, my room steward, Lou, offered to deliver my invitations for me. I asked him to filch me a cocktail shaker, too, and gave him a $20 tip, which made him look decidedly nervous. Then I headed down to the buffet to secure my canapés. I stood around the deli counter until no one was looking, stashed plates of cold cuts, cheese, and olives in my bag, and bolted for the elevator.
It is a mark of what a transatlantic crossing does for one’s manners that my guests, a few hundred miles from the nearest 7-Eleven, still arrived with gifts. The girls pinned an orchid from the ship’s flower-arranging class to my dress; Ted brought vintage champagne. We headed to the balcony and looked down on the early evening deck walkers, clad in windbreakers, with a faint condescension.
The imminent end of our voyage, combined with the strength of the French 75s, fostered a confidential atmosphere. Jai told us about his parents, a Hindu couple from the Punjab who valued machismo and from whom he had hidden his love of dance most of his life.
It was only on his 40th birthday, Jai said, when he impressed his father with the way his fancy footwork attracted the ladies, that he had finally revealed his secret. Sam raised an eyebrow and asked him if there were other benefits of being a dance host on a cruise ship. “Oh no,” said Jai, an untied dicky bow hanging louchely from his collar. “That’s definitely not allowed.”
Unmoored from the real world—on a floating island with six piano lounges—I had come within kissing distance of my 1930s pipe dream. That final night in the ballroom, smooth seas gave way to swell, and we clung to our dance partners, pitching and rolling across the floor. I watched and wondered as this group of strangers, protected from embarrassment by convention, cast inhibition aside and moved intimately together across the floor. Was anything, I wondered, as great a fantasy as this?
When the music ended—when even the DJ had run out tunes, and the rest of the ship had gone to bed—we climbed to the top deck for a final tango, playing tinny Argentine music out of someone’s iPhone. It was nearly 5 a.m. as we sailed into New York, too early for fireworks or a triumphalist military band. We passed, in the predawn glow and last night’s clothes, beneath the Christmas tree lights of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and heard the sound of heavy doors opening and shutting, lining the ship’s rails with hundreds of sleepy passengers who didn’t want to miss the view.
A red ball of sun glinted through the cracks of a familiar skyline. When it finally broke free, Manhattan seemed to have burst upon us: long awaited and magical, but also a signal of impending loss. The Queen Mary passed the Statue of Liberty and began her final pirouette into Brooklyn. I watched the monarch and the goddess perform their majestic pas de deux, and bade a silent farewell to the Golden Age.
Contributing writer Emma John is the author of Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket.
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