The RMS Berengaria

Photo: The New York Times

August 23, 1924

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

In the 1980’s, my future husband, then unknown, and I lived in the same state, separated only by the Everglades. Like Wallis Simpson and David Windsor, we never met until years later when the timing was right. Years later, watching a movie, the same snippet of dialogue would seep into a conversation over canapés. “. . . Always the same mindless chatter.” 

It was a snippet of dialogue from a movie that made, on the surface, no sense. For the most part, I was surrounded by truly lovely people: well-read, well-traveled, and well-spoken. They were polite and successful. In truth, we had no common ground and nothing to say to each other. A deeper conversation about cinematography or bass lines would never be forthcoming. I was interested in what they had to offer regarding business and the historical architecture of a house, but they never shared. In retrospect, I now wonder if they were, much like me, hanging by a thread. 

I was a writer, but that didn’t matter. Without an agent, a book deal, or a national bestseller, I didn’t matter. I didn’t count. Yet no suggestions or inroads were ever offered. It was as though I was expected to figure that out on my own. I should have acquired that college degree. I should have pursued a different path. One with a guarantee but without a support system. Figure it out. 

Years later, I would do that by jumping off that metaphorical cliff. Divorce was an abdication of sorts. “How could she throw it all away? It’s not as though he was abusing her.” 

Stuck between two worlds, I was too polished by conditioning to fit back into music and too wise to jump on the bandwagons raging about. I was in a creative struggle and still am — writing novels a lone pursuit. But the struggle doesn’t count. What mattered then, what matters now, is a reputation — slow to build — and a name.

“She’s nobility,” the lovely ladies had whispered over lunches. But my pedigree did not align. My ancestors didn’t sign the Declaration, sail on the Mayflower, or survive the Cherry Hill Massacre. Towns, companies, and gardens didn’t bear my ancestral name. My ancestors fled the Bolsheviks; our fortress burned, money sewn into garments before setting sail on the last ships out. 

Windsor. A castle. A fortress. My interest in Edward, Prince of Wales, thus deepened. Did he give it all up? Was he brokering secret deals in the midst of the Holocaust? It was best to leave the finer points of the past to honest historians. I was fascinated by the story. History was more relevant than ever. 

I had stood on a form of sacred ground, imagining the waves lapping against the RMS Berengaria, a ship christened May 23, 1912, as the SS Imperator. Her maiden voyage took place on June 11, 1913, when she sailed from Cuxhaven to New York via Southhampton. Seized in May of 1919 by the US Navy and used for troop transport during the First World War, she was ceded to the Cunard Line as a war prize due to the loss of RMS Lusitania.

She was the ship Edward, Prince of Wales, was set to sail on in late summer. The finishing touches for his journey to America were in place on the night of August 22, from the flowers to plants, and first-class decorations, including a special dance orchestra for entertaining the Prince in the ballroom. Nothing would be omitted, and no detail was too small, ensuring the Prince’s voyage would be a pleasant one. 

For the week before departure, a team of plumbers, carpenters, painters, and upholsterers redecorated the imperial suite, the one the Prince would occupy, a suite once reserved for the Kaiser, which could be isolated from other passengers’ accommodations. The imperial suite consisted of two bedrooms, a salon, and a breakfast room, the furniture resplendent with chairs covered in gray chintz and drapes to match. There was new furniture, new fixtures, and a new bathroom — tiled. 

The entire ship had been cleaned and polished from top to bottom, inside and out. The entire staff was fitted in new uniforms. 

The ship waited at Southhampton the night of August 22, 1924, holiday flags flying, bunting waving, ready to sail to America at 2:30 the following afternoon.

August 22, 1924

The morning of August 22, 1924, was uncommonly busy. That is how The New York Times described the Prince’s day when reporting from London. Queen Mary had left for Goldsborough Hall in Yorkshire to visit her daughter, Princess Mary, eight days earlier. On August 22, the Princess gave birth to her second son. 

Her brother, whom she adored, was setting sail for his second visit to America within hours. He spent his morning packing, receiving last-minute visitors calling to wish him “bon voyage.”

His traveling wardrobe was limited to three trunks and some small luggage as there were no uniforms to bring along. As the tour was of a semi-official nature, “This,” newspaper men penned, “would be sufficient to spread new styles for men throughout the country.” 

But by 10 o’clock that morning, the Prince, packing last-minute personal belongings, was unconvinced. In need of additional essentials, especially suitcases, he hopped into his two-seater motorcar and, driving on his own, sped to Piccadilly. There, he rushed into what one journalist described as a “sedate little leather store.”

“I’m in a terrible hurry,” the Prince announced. “I want some more cases to pack my things in.” 

The clerks stood stunned to see the heir to the British throne drive up, rush in, and shop for himself. The manager was called forth and assisted the Prince, showing him numerous cases before the Prince selected two and paid for them.

“May I have these delivered to the palace for you?” the shopkeeper asked.

The Prince declined, taking both cases, one in each hand, and leaving. Tossing them into the car, he sped back to St. James Palace, continued packing, and began changing his plans. 

A change of plans was not what women, debutantes, and marriageable daughters anticipated when they changed their own. They’d cut their European visits short — by weeks in some cases — so they could return home aboard the RMS Berengaria alongside the heir to the British throne. It was expected that the Prince “would participate in the customary life of the liner and will take meals in the dining room.” 

When news spread within social circles, women, debutantes, and marriageable young ladies rushed to purchase the 700 available salon tickets to hurry home on one ship in particular. Booked to capacity five weeks in advance, a long list of hopefuls waited for possible last-minute cancellations. 

The Prince was dubbed “The Late Riser” by Parisian journalists who assumed David Windsor had slept in late whenever he failed to appear when he last visited France. In truth, the Prince was a clever sort, escaping through back doors when the fame-hungry were focused elsewhere. And such began the Prince’s journey to America that late afternoon. 

Taking three trunks and new suitcases along, he sped out of London by motorcar and crossed the channel to the Isle of Wight — twenty miles from Southhampton, where he was expected. Along with his cousins, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, the entourage boarded the RMS Berengaria around four o’clock in the morning on the day of their departure — seven hours before he was expected at Waterloo Station. 

Thank you all for reading. Thank you all for your support.