The SS Ile de France was built in for the French shipping company, Compagnie Generale Transatlantique (known commercially as The French Line) at a cost of $10,000,000. Her construction began in1925 at the Penhoet shipyards in Saint-Nazaire, France. She was the first major liner built after World War I. She was launched on March 14,1926.
Seven hundred ninety-one feet in length, 91 feet wide, powered by steam turbines geared to quadruple screws, she had a service speed of 23.5 knots. After a period of 14 months for fitting out her interiors the Ile de France weighed in at 44,356 tons and left the shipyards on May 29th for her sea trials.
Her maiden voyage was on June 22, 1927 from Le Havre to New York where she received a gala welcome from New York City. had a passenger capacity of 1,395 — 541 First Class, 577 Cabin Class and 277 Tourist class after her refitting after World War II. She was neither the largest (the sixth largest) or the fastest but was and still is considered one of the most beautifully decorated ocean liners built by the French Line.
One of her most distinctive characteristics were the sumptuous, unique interiors which at the time represented a departure, something new in interior design. It would be the first time a passenger ship’s accommodations would not be designed on a theme of the past but more of what was taking place in the present time. In “The Only Way to Cross, Jon Maxtone-Graham calls the Ile “the divide from which point ocean liner decorators reached forward rather than back.”
Her fitting-out period followed the opening of the Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925, which in turn gave birth to the term “Art Deco” and greatly inspired the Ile de France’s décor. Jean Dunand, Rodier, Jules, Leleu, Le Bucheron, Dupin, Janniot and Pierre Patou were just a few of an army of French artisans who were commissioned to decorate her magnificent interiors.
All of the First Class cabins were unique, each decorated in its own style, each different from the other. One of the “apartments” — the Fontainebleau Suite (with bedroom and a sitting area) — was priced from $1,800 per person (approximately $54,000 in today’s currency) for the weeklong crossing.
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 since of natural sunlight.
Her main First Class dining room was considered to be 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 the opposite 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 Ile averaged more First Class passengers than any other liner of the 1930s. She had a devoted following with a passenger list 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.
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.
While in New York in September of 1939 war broke out and the Ile de France was laid up in Staten Island. The following September 1940 she was put on loan to the British Admiralty, stripped of her beautiful interiors and refitted with 9,706 berths, she ready for wartime duty as a troop carrier. She was loaded with 12,000 tons of water materials, submarine oil, tanks, shells and several uncrated bombers which were stowed on the open aft decks. In May 1941, veiled in gray and black, she departed for Europe, serving under Cunard’s management for the balance of the war. From Europe she sailed to Singapore where, following the Fall of France, she was officially seized by the British.
Five years later in 1945, War over, the Ile de France reverted to French control, but now under Cunard management. She served another year as a troop and repatriation ship before being returned to the French Line in February 1946.
After the war, she was sent back to Saint Nazire for a two-year overhaul, begun in 1947. The most noticeable change was in her exterior appearance. Her Three original funnels were replaced by two new streamlined versions. Her cabin configuration was also designed and modernized though out. The Ile de France was practically a new ship. In 1949, she resumed her original service from Le Havre-New York, proving to be just as popular as before the war. In 1956, one of the most exciting highlights of her career came seven years later with her participation of the rescue of 753 passengers from the ill fated Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria in a six-hour rescue operation.
By the fall of 1958 jet travel, old age and economics finally caught up with the Ile de France. She had served on the Atlantic run for thirty-one years. The French Line quietly sold her to a Japanese scrapping company on February 16,1959. Several months later in 1960, before she was sent to the breakers she was rented out for $4,000 a day as a floating movie prop for the disaster film “The Last Voyage” as the SS Claridon. Along with being partially sunk in the process, her interiors were destroyed with explosives and her forward funnel pulled over to crash down on her bridge. All in the name of “special effects.” After the filming was finished, she was re-floated and sent to the breakers in Osaka. It was a very sad, undignified ending to such a proud, beautiful ocean liner.