Steamship Sunday – Île-de-France and The Last Voyage

Steamship Sunday

A tip of the hat today to “J.McC” for suggesting this post.


French Line’s Île-de-France lived two lives – Above she is seen in her original configuration. Below she is seen after her post-World War II modernization. She was in service from 1927 – 1959.


From the beginning of steam ship development in the early 19th century, the French lagged behind the British in the construction of passenger ships and the Americans were hardly in the picture at all. Given England’s rich history as a seafaring nation, this was only natural. The French “got into the game” in 1912 when the country completed their first prestige liner, France. With her very “French style,” this 23,000-ton vessel opened up new ways of creating ocean liners. France continued to be the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (French Line’s) flag ship until the mid-1920s when Île-de-France was ordered by the French Line for construction in 1924.

She took her name from the region around Paris, the political and cultural heart of France.





Île-de-France was ordered along with three other ships, but they were not sisters. The first of these appeared in 1921. She was the 35,000-tonn Paris which was followed by the smaller De Grasse. These two vessels sailed together with France, making the French Line a distinguished shipping company. The most interesting and passenger-attracting feature on board the French liners was their fabulous interiors. This would also set the pattern for the last of this quartet of ships.

Since the end of the First World War, no ship had been launched to match the pre-war giants. The British was satisfied with their German war prizes, and the Germans had to rebuild their country from scratch, and could therefore not afford to commission new liners. The U.S. seemed content not to compete for the transatlantic business with any vigor. One nation was left to do this: France. So, after a popular trio, the French Line expanded into a quartet when they launched the new Île-de-France in 1926. Île-de-France was designed with external lines following the style of the great Cunard and White Star ships of England. Île-de-France was not designed to compete for transatlantic speed (which is not to say that she was slow). She was the first liner commissioned after the war to exceed 40,000 tons. Of course, the White Star Line’s 56,000-ton Majestic entered service in 1922, but had been ordered in the early 1910s, and put on hold during the war. The interesting part about the Île-de-France was her gorgeous interiors.

The press had been snooping around the Chantiers de l’Atlantique Shipyard for months trying to find anything out about the new liner. Rumors came up, telling the public that this ship would be something extraordinary. The rumors proved to be true.


Never before had a ship shown its own style in interior design like Île-de-France. In previous years, ships had looked back in history for their interior themes. Deutschland, Olympic and Imperator had all shown an interior that could be found in any castle or château. Île-de-France was a ‘Floating Hollywood’, a floating luxury resort in itself. The vessel had been launched after the famous ‘Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes’ in 1925, and had obviously inspired the French Line. The term “Art Deco” was born.


The Cabin Class Salon, designed by Le Boucheron

Île-de-France’s maiden voyage began at Le Havre on 22 June 1927. The warm welcome the ship had received in Europe continued when she reached America. Many Americans were tired of the old style and wanted something new and they loved the new-style interiors of Île-de-France.

Île-de-France had been meant by the French to represent their country on the high seas, and that was not difficult to realize. The vessel included an entire Parisian pavement-café, a grand first class entrance hall and a dining room never dreamed of before, all very French and all Art Deco.


First Class Dining Room


In the years before the war, ships had mainly been profitable because of immigrants leaving Europe to establish new lives in the United States. Post World War I, that changed and the shipboard clientele represented the “roaring twenties” lifestyle.

Île-de-France had three classes, but the third class cabins were better appointed than those on pre-war liners aimed at moving the “Steerage Class” immigrants across the Atlantic in the most economical manner possible and were quite spartan. Aboard Île-de-France, Third Class passengers were not so much immigrants as teachers and students and the cabins were much improved over Steerage Class accommodations on other ships.

Each of the First Class staterooms on Île-de-France were decorated in different styles. The ship had the greatest number of de luxe suites on the seas.


Sitting room in one of the First Class cabins aboard Île-de-France

She was one of the first liners to be illuminated throughout by an indirect lighting system. All rooms, even those located in the interior, were lit to give the passenger a sense of natural sunlight.

Her main First Class dining room was the largest afloat. Designed by Pierre Patou, it had a capacity of 537 passengers in a single sitting. Massive in scale, the room was executed in various shades of gray marble with gold accents. It rose through three decks with a grand staircase to match at one end of the room. In the center stood a sculptural fountain of chrome and lights. Another innovative first on board was that of the private dining room. There were four such rooms set forward of the main dining room for smaller, more intimate gatherings.


Her kitchens were equally as impressive, creating a reputation for serving the best cuisine on the Atlantic. With her famous kitchens, trend setting interiors and the French Line’s successful advertising campaign, the Île averaged more First Class passengers than any other liner of the 1930s. She had a devoted following with a passenger list that read like a Who’s Who of European aristocracy, of politics, business, sports and the Hollywood set. Among its passengers of note: Lena Horne, Rita Hayworth, Cary Grant, Maurice Chevalier and Prince Rainer of Monaco.


Rita Hayworth aboard Île-de-France

Although Île-de-France could not claim to be the fastest vessel in the transatlantic service, she had the quickest mail-system between Europe and America. On board, she carried a small mail-plane that could take off 200 miles from shore, making the French liner the fastest in carrying mail between Europe and the U.S.

A few of her other amenities included a chapel, executed in a Gothic style with fourteen pillars and a seating capacity of 100; a shooting gallery, a sixty car garage, an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, childrens merry-go-round, a 350 seat film theater, as well as a state of the art gymnasium.


When the Depression arrived in 1929, many ships went to the scrappers because they were not wanted by those who could still afford to cross the Atlantic. Île-de-France was one of the favored ships and did not suffer notably in the hard years. She continued to serve into the thirties with a steady group of passengers returning to her for her voyages. On one crossing in 1936, Île-de-France encountered the brand new Queen Mary on the Atlanic. The French ship sent the following message to the Queen: ‘You are a very lovely lady’. Queen Mary responded with: ‘And you will always be a queen’.

Another world-wide war broke out in 1939 and almost every ship was taken over by their countries’ navy. Île-de-France was laid up at Pier 88 in New York harbour, adjacent to the French Line’s then-new flag ship; the 80,000-ton Normandie. However, Île-de-France was not to be used by the French during the hostilities. She was turned over to the British as a troop-transporter in 1941 and made several runs for them until 1945, when she was decommissioned and handed back to the French Line in 1947.

After the war, Île-de-France was once again the prime ship of the French Line, since the Normandie’s tragic end in New York harbor in 1942. French Line immediately sent their ship to the Penhoët ship yard for conversion back to a passenger vessel. Many were the changes that occurred. Inside, the numbers of staterooms was reduced the remaining ones were enlarged.

She had a passenger capacity of 1,395 – 541 First Class, 577 Cabin Class and 277 Tourist class after her post World War II refitting. She was neither the largest (the sixth largest) nor the fastest but was and still is considered one of the most beautifully decorated ocean liners built by the French Line.



First Class Salon-de-Conversation

The most apparent change was that of the exterior. The three funnels were removed and replaced by a more stylish duo. The straight black hull had been turned up to meet her upper fore peak, to resemblance with the French Line’s new look as on the Normandie. These changes resulted in an increased gross tonnage. Île-de-France could now boast of displacing 44,356 tons. Île-de-France went back into service in 1949, and proved to be just as popular as before the war. She was still the ship for the rich and famed. In 1950 she was given a sister; the Liberté. That ship had been the former German Blue Riband-holder Europa, so the French now operated a very distinguished group of ships. Île-de-France very profitably continued to sail the North Atlantic into the mid-fifties.


A post war French Line ad for Île-de-France, showing the center of Paris, the Seine River , Notre-Dame, Île-Saint-Louis and Île-de-la-Cité.

At about 11.00 p.m. on 25 July 1956, 25, Île-de-France was on one of her voyages from New York to Le Havre. At that time the Swedish liner Stockholm collided with the Italian liner Andrea Doria. The French liner received a distress call from the stricken vessel, turned her bow and speeded towards the given position. Andrea Doria was listing heavily to starboard, and the Stockholm – which remained afloat – had a totally crushed bow. Since the Stockholm did not seem to be a very safe place to be, the latter ship’s lifeboats shipped the remaining Andrea Doria passengers to Île-de-France. At 06.15 a.m., the French ship prepared to sail back to New York and land her new passengers, 753 survivors of Andrea Doria. Île-de-France made a wide circle around Andrea Doria and blasted her whistle while hoisting the French flag three times in honor of the doomed liner.

Andrea Doria_Île-de-France

The sinking Andrea Doria seen from Île-de-France

By the end of the fifties, airlines had taken many of the ocean liners’ passengers. In the sixties, jetliners made the transatlantic steamship service vanish at an even more rapid pace. Île-de-France had become old, and there was no reason why she should not go to the scrappers especially as French Line was about to launch their new flagship, France. A Japanese scrapper offered a good price for Île-de-France and on 16 February 1959, Île-de-France, renamed Furans Maru for this sole voyage, left Le Havre for her last time, en route to meet her fate in the scrap yard.

But fate would not come just yet. During her period in Japanese hands, she was hired by an American Hollywood film team, who partially sank the ship, and used her in a disaster film called ‘The Last Voyage’ (very appropriate for the Île-de-France).

The ship was towed to shallow waters, where jets of water shot onto the ship from fireboats flooded forward compartments and made it appear she was sinking by the bow. Her forward funnel was sent crashing into the deckhouse and her Art Deco interiors were destroyed by explosives and/or flooded. Because there were too many poisonous jellyfish in the Sea of Japan, the final lifeboat scene was filmed in Santa Monica, California.

After having finished the film, the Americans left and the Japanese scrappers raised the vessel and towed her to the scrap yard.

Even though Île-de-France received this undignified end, she is remembered as one of the most beloved and trend-setting ocean liners in history. Île-de-France left her mark as the first vessel with her own style.

Île de France
Length: 791 feet (241.6 m)
Beam: 91 feet (27.8 m)
Tonnage: 43,153 gross tons
Engines: Steam turbines powering four propellers.
Service speed: 24 knots

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One Comment

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  1. Amazing the facilities aboard these great liners i.e. the ‘First Class Salon-de-Conversation’ with super high overheads. As I see there greats I am appreciative of the Cruise lines now that allow the average ‘joe’ to take a cruise. I know they are nothing like the pomp and ceremony of the past, but it is the same oceans and seas that we the lesser wealthy can enjoy the salt air and sea breeze.

    Of course I do prefer the USS Independence, LOL No beauty like this SHIP but bigger hahahah.

    Love the entry my friend. Thanks. (I thought the act and ceremony at the Sinking of the Andrea Dora was a sweet maritime act.)


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