Even larger than the Titanic and just as elegant, the R.M.S. Queen Mary was once considered the finest ocean liner traversing the Atlantic Ocean. The Queen Mary made exactly 1001 transatlantic crossings in the mid-20th century before it was converted into a hotel in Long Beach, California. Read on for more facts about this famed luxury liner.
1. IT WAS BUILT BY THE SAME FIRM AS THE R.M.S. LUSITANIA.
The Queen Mary was built during an age when countries such as Britain, France, and Germany were all racing to be the top provider of luxury transatlantic travel. Two rival British companies, the Cunard and White Star lines, sought to outdo each other’s ships in terms of size, speed, and amenities. A British shipbuilder called John Brown & Company, commissioned by Cunard, began construction of the Queen Mary—initially known only as Hull Number 534—in December 1930 at a Clydebank, Scotland, shipyard. The company was already well known for having built the R.M.S. Lusitania, which was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in 1915.
2. THE GOVERNMENT KEPT HER CONSTRUCTION AFLOAT—BUT WITH STRINGS ATTACHED.
With the onset of the worldwide Great Depression, construction on the Queen Mary came to an abrupt halt. Eager to spur on the sluggish economy, the British government agreed to give a loan that would allow construction on ship #534 to continue, but only if Cunard and White Star would merge. (Like Cunard, White Star—famous as the owner of the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic—had fallen on hard times.) In 1934, the new Cunard-White Star Line was born, and construction on the ship immediately resumed. As part of the merger, the government stipulated that a sister ship to the Queen Mary also be built—which was to become the Queen Elizabeth—so the two ships could together dominate transatlantic travel. The Queen Mary’s $30 million price tag would be the equivalent of more than $560 million today.
3. THE SHIP'S NAME WAS SHROUDED IN MYSTERY.
While it was under construction, the ship’s name was a closely guarded secret. On September 26, 1934, Britain’s King George V and his wife, Queen Mary of Teck, were on hand in Southampton, England, to christen #534 after the royal consort herself. "As a sailor I have deep pleasure in coming here today to watch the launching by the queen of this great and beautiful ship,” the king said to the thousands of cheering onlookers gathered on the docks:
“We come to the happy task of sending on her way the stateliest ship now in being. It has been the nation’s will that she should be completed, and today we can send her forth no longer a number on the books, but a ship with a name in the world alive with beauty, energy and strength.”
The queen then cut a ribbon and broke a bottle of wine to christen the ship. The R.M.S. Queen Mary began its maiden ocean crossing two years later, on May 27, 1936, from Southampton to New York. (R.M.S. stands for "royal mail ship"—all vessels with this designation had a government contract to carry British mail.)
4. SHE WAS ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL SHIPS EVER BUILT.
At 1018 feet long and more than 81,000 tons, the Queen Mary was one of the largest ships ever built at the time, second only to the French liner Normandie. (Titanic, by comparison, was only 883 feet long and about 46,000 tons.) Queen Mary’s rudder, at 150 tons, was then the largest ever built. Its amidship dining room, located between two of the ship’s three funnels, was the largest room ever constructed inside a ship at the time—at 143 feet long and spanning the vessel's entire width, it could seat 800 first-class passengers at once. Two dozen boilers and four sets of turbines generating 160,000 horsepower fueled four propellers, which turned at a rate of 200 revolutions per minute. Because of its technological innovation, a 1932 Popular Mechanics article called the Queen Mary “the Sovereign Ship of the Seas.”
5. THE QUEEN MARY'S LUXURIOUS AMENITIES ATTRACTED ELITE PASSENGERS.
Inside, the ship boasted five dining areas, two swimming pools, beauty salons, and a grand ballroom, which attracted wealthy passengers and celebrities to the ship’s first-class accommodations. A first-class breakfast menu included eggs and pastries as well as onion soup gratinée and broiled kippered herrings. An Art Deco mural in the main dining room used a crystal model of the ship to track its progress between England and New York. Royalty, Hollywood stars, notable business magnates, and well-known politicians all traveled on the Queen Mary, including the likes of Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill—and even comedy duo Laurel & Hardy and Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame. In addition to first-class, the ship also had “tourist class” (a.k.a. second-class) and third-class accommodations, with the most cramped quarters reserved for the crew, who sometimes bunked 10 to a room.
6. THE QUEEN MARY HELD THE BLUE RIBAND FOR MORE THAN 15 YEARS.
In August 1936, clocking in at just over 30 knots, the Queen Mary nabbed the Blue Riband, an unofficial accolade for the ship crossing the Atlantic with the highest average speed, making the crossing in just four days. (Riband is an archaic word for “ribbon.”) Her rival the Normandie briefly captured the title in 1937, but Queen Mary earned it back the following year, and held onto the speed record until 1952, when it was eclipsed for good by the S.S. United States, an American passenger liner whose record of over 35 knots is still unmatched by any ship of its class. (It’s probably no coincidence that Blue Riband candy, a chocolate-covered wafer now owned by Nestle, emerged in the UK in the late 1930s.)
7. THE SHIP GOT A NEW LOOK FOR WORLD WAR II.
In September 1939, the Queen Mary had just crossed to New York when the British government ordered that it remain in port there until further notice. Eventually, Allied forces determined that the Queen Mary, along with the Normandie and Queen Elizabeth, also docked in New York, would become troopships to carry soldiers to various battlefronts. The ship’s hull and funnels were painted battleship gray, earning the ship the nickname the “Grey Ghost.” It was also outfitted with a degaussing coil, which altered the ship’s magnetic field and helped to protect against the enemy’s use of magnetic mines. These highly valuable troopships were capable of moving as many as 15,000 soldiers at a time.
8. THE SHIP WAS INVOLVED IN A TRAGIC ACCIDENT.
British forces assigned the H.M.S. Curacoa, built during the First World War, to serve as an escort ship for the Queen Mary during World War II. On October 2, 1942, the two ships were scheduled to rendezvous off the coast of Ireland. As was typical during wartime, the Queen Mary was on a zig-zag course meant to throw off pursuit by enemy U-boats. Historians believe the cruiser Curacoa was on a straight course—and the two were headed right for each other. Before the ships’ crews could take evasive action, the Queen Mary collided with the Curacoa, cutting it in two and sending it to the ocean floor. Although more than 100 sailors were rescued, 337 men were killed. A British sailor on the Queen Mary named Alfred Johnson later recalled, “I said to my mate … ‘I'm sure we're going to hit her.’ And sure enough, the Queen Mary sliced the cruiser in two like a piece of butter, straight through the six-inch armored plating.”
9. AFTER THE WAR, SHE RECEIVED A MODERN UPGRADE.
Once the war ended, the Queen Mary required 10 months of work to be retrofitted so that she could go back into commercial passenger service. The Cunard-White Star Line added more berths in all three classes, as well as air conditioning. She returned to the seas in July 1947, along with her sister ship the Queen Elizabeth, and remained a popular oceangoing vessel for the next two decades.
10. SHE HAD A CAMEO IN A FRANK SINATRA MOVIE.
A 1966 action-adventure film written by Twilight Zone writer Rod Serling and starring Frank Sinatra, Assault on a Queen, takes place in part on the Queen Mary. Sinatra plays a bandit who gets involved in an elaborate heist to rob the liner during an ocean crossing. The film’s score is by legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington. Despite the promising setting, reviews of the performances were tepid. "Sinatra swashbuckles like a pirate is supposed to. He's quick with the bitter or sarcastic remark and he evokes some pity. Miss Lisi [Virna Lisi, Sinatra's bombshell co-star] is lovely to look at, even though she's not called on for too much acting," The Miami Herald wrote.
11. THE QUEEN MARY IS NOW A FLOATING HOTEL.
By the late 1960s, the popularity and ease of air travel had effectively signaled the end of the great transatlantic passenger liners. Cunard (which had reverted to its pre-merger name) decided to sell the Queen Mary, which departed on its final cruise on October 31, 1967. After navigating nearly 3.8 million nautical miles, the ship docked in Long Beach, California, on December 9 of that year, where it has been ever since. The iconic ship is now a floating luxury hotel, museum, and tourist attraction, complete with three restaurants, shopping, and dining. The Queen Mary Heritage Foundation is now developing a museum and educational facility to preserve and enhance the ship’s remarkable story.