On Board the RMS Berengaria

Foster Place

August 23, 1924

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, Foster Place.
Part Eight
(Part One may be found here.)

We take vacations, rushing to get to our destinations. We board planes, expecting to drop into foreign lands within hours without interruptions and without surprises. Such is the new and improved way of speeding through life. A bit of lyric by The Police always comes to my mind.

“Packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes.”

Propelled through the heavens in tin cans, I say. I’ll take a magic carpet ride. 

Before airline travel was commonplace, one boarded a plane with cash on hand, a pack of cigarettes, dressed for an impromptu dinner at a swanky place. One ordered a martini when seated or, perhaps, a bottle of champagne. One danced into the wee hours of the morning with someone “airtight.’ That was flapper language back in the day.

In 1924, one did not take a vacation but a voyage. Ah. The romance of an unforgettable journey. For many, a voyage is a dream or a once-in-a-lifetime chance. For Edward, Prince of Wales, the voyage to America would be his second in three years. 

The awaiting crowd had no idea that the Prince, whom they’d come to bid farewell, was fast asleep on board the vessel. The townspeople of Southhampton lined the quays, waving with enthusiasm as the RMS Berengaria, shining on the water, her swag furling in the breeze, new paint glistening, set sail with Captain Irvine at the helm. The heir to the British throne outwitted the well-wishers by boarding at 4 o’clock that morning — hours early. Those gathered, expecting a glimpse of the Prince, waving back from the deck of the imperial suite, were disappointed. 

The Prince expressed himself “as pleased” when viewing the former Kaiser’s suite — refitted — and went immediately to bed, the Lord and Lady Mountbatten in the adjoining suite.

Taking the rooms bordering the royal quarters were a host of equerries and attendees: Brig. Gen. Gerald Frederic Trotter, serving as Extra Equerry; Equerry Maj. Edward “Fruity” Dudley Metcalfe of the British Army; Assistant Private Secretary Capt. Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, brother-in-law to David Windsor’s sister, Princess Mary; and Sir Walter Peacock, Inspector Burt of Scotland Yard, London. 

Staying behind was Sir Godfrey Thomas, 10th Baronet and Private Secretary to the Prince since 1919. His wedding to Diana Mary Katherine Hoskyns was slated for September 11, when the Prince would be at his ranch in Canada.

As the RMS Berengaria left the Southhampton port, she passed the RMS Mauretania, traveling eastward. 

“Please convey to His Royal Highness the respectful wishes for a pleasant voyage of all on board,” the fellow Cunard vessel’s message read. 

After a rest, the Prince emerged from his suite donning a dark slate-gray suit with a white stripe, a gray fold-over collar, and a Grenadier Guards regimental tie. 

“Cut your ‘Royal Highness’ and don’t make a fuss about me,” he said, appearing freely in public, a situation understood. 

Fellow passengers were curious but, respecting his privacy, kept within bounds. Still, reporters, there to convey every detail of the Prince’s journey no matter how trite, were aghast at the comfortable shoes the Prince and his equerries wore: rough brown suede the American press deemed “aesthetically displeasing.”

When Captain Irvine announced that the Prince would attend church in the lounge at 10:45, the ship’s orchestra played. The stewards brought in more chairs to accommodate the fellow worshippers. The Anglican service was packed to no one’s surprise.

The Prince took a three-mile walk around the deck at a four-mile-per-hour pace, exercised in the gym, and swam laps in the pool. He took luncheon followed by tea on deck that afternoon. One steward was alarmed by the Prince’s small appetite, the heir to the British throne taking a small portion of lobster and a wing of grouse, flown in fresh from the Scottish moors the previous afternoon. A selection of seven different melons was on hand to cleanse the Prince’s palate between courses. 

The head chef was busy putting the finishing touches on a cold dinner buffet centerpiece: a wax carving of Neptune raising his trident. A private dining table, plated for nine, was situated in the upper dining salon — secluded. Joining the Prince for dinner that evening would be Lord and Lady Mountbatten; H.G. Chilton, Councillor of the Embassy in Washington; Major Alfred Duff-Cooper and his wife, Lady Diana Duff-Cooper; General Trotter, Captain Lascelles, and two friends.

The party arrived at 8:30 that evening in their street clothes. Other passengers were, according to one Chicago Tribune reporter, “resplendent with fine raiment and sparkling jewels.” The Prince paused before the beautifully decorated table, but it did not meet his approval. He ran his fingers through his hair, leading his guests away. 

Onlookers were amused, but not the stewards. 

After dinner, the Prince puffed nervously on a cigarette and suddenly stood. The party headed into the main ballroom, where passengers had nervously danced since the ship left Cherbourg at 10 o’clock. Anxious dowagers and nervous socialites wondered who the Prince would dance with, if anyone. 

Tired, the party retired at 11:30 their first night. The ballroom cleared as though a schoolmarm sounded “dismissed!”

August 28, 1924

When the clocks struck noon throughout the ship, the RMS Berengaria was 587 miles from New York City. The Statue of Liberty was not yet visible, but those making the voyage for the first time could picture her torch burning bright across the water, lighting the way home or to freedom. The vessel traveled across the Atlantic Ocean at a steady 23 knots, a voyage from England to America that would take five and half days. The following afternoon, passengers would arrive in quarantine, as was the protocol. Until then, the only contact with land was morse code. 

David Windsor held Captain Irvine’s sextant, the Prince’s Naval experience and knowledge vast, which was a surprise. The Prince of Wales had spent time inspecting the ship, including the ship’s surgeon, even though no operations had taken place on board for months. 

“Well, let’s hope it will be a long time before there is another,” he said, tapping the doorframe with his fingers to avert bad luck. 

The heir to the British throne made his way down to 3rd class, reserved for students unable to afford high fares.

“That is a splendid idea,” the Prince said, admiring their accommodations. “They can make the trip without spending much more than it would cost to keep them at home. I think it excellent to give young people a chance to see all there is to be seen in this world and other countries outside their own.”

He would play tug of war with the young men from Harvard and Yale, young men making their voyage back home to America in time for the fall semester. The Prince, weighing a trim 150 pounds, would be ousted from the potato sack race for, according to one reporter, “placing the spud in the wrong spot.” 

There were pillow fights and time spent in the gymnasium boxing with the coach. There were three-mile walks on deck, taking luncheons and tea. Besides the dashing young college men, dowagers, and debutants, there was Miss Leonora Cahill, a dark-haired cutie with a broad grin. She was the luckiest girl on board, dancing with the Prince one glorious evening, the only girl with that memory, which would last a lifetime.

On this, the final night of the Prince’s voyage, he would carry a portable phonograph up to C deck after dinner. He and four friends relaxed in deck chairs, singing along to American jazz records, the Prince’s repertoire inexhaustible. Songs were followed by conversations in lowered voices before retiring at midnight. 

From the ship, Edward would write. “These New York pressmen are bastards. One does resent their damned spying, so they get so tight!”

The New York pressmen would omit from their coverage one important guest: Louis F. Swift, an oversight or a slight, a slight, the pressmen too obsessed with heir to care.