Steamships Inspired Screenwriter, Heroines, and Hedy Lamarr


In 1908, Violet Jessop, 21, began her new job as a flight attendant aboard a steamboat, helping passengers aboard the Orinoco, bound for the West Indies from the England.

Women workers were still a novelty at sea, and most shipping companies preferred to hire older widows who would not stir the desires of the libidinous men on board. But Jessop – who had a widowed and sick mother and five dependent siblings – has vowed to be “most wary and cautious.”

The dark-haired, gray-eyed beauty immediately attracted attention: sailors pounced on them to help her; the lustful passengers ogled her slender figure. Later, a captain fired her after she snubbed his romantic overtures, accusing him of “flirting with the officers.”

“I didn’t know at the time that youth, female youth, is almost a fetish for seafarers and has tremendous power over them,” Jessop recalled later. “The adulation that I had accepted as chivalry was largely a display of sexual attraction.”

Still a novelty at sea, women had a lot to gain from working on luxury boats, including independence.
Corbis via Getty Images

Yet Jessop sailed, embarking on more than 200 ocean voyages during his 42-year seafaring career, first as a flight attendant and later, during World War I, as a ‘nurse. Her talent for escaping death on some of the most dangerous voyages in history has earned her the nickname “Unsinkable Flight Attendant”. On board the Titanic, when she was just 24, she showed panicked passengers how to board a lifeboat, saving herself and several others in the process.

Despite the danger, seasickness, grueling hours, and vigorous lotharios that prowled the decks, Jessop relished life at sea, according to “Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them” (St. Martin’s Press), out now.

Transatlantic travel has given the fairer sex an unprecedented independence, writes the author of the book Siân Evans. Between the two world wars, when ocean travel reached its peak, women of all walks of life and of all classes took to the seas to start afresh.

Some – like Jessop – sought employment on ships at a time when jobs for women were hard to come by. Others have taken to the seas to find new life on another continent, such as dancer Josephine Baker, who fled racism in the United States for a sensational career in Paris, or promiscuous novelist Elinor Glyn, who has fled racism in the United States for a sensational career in Paris, or promiscuous novelist Elinor Glyn, who escaped scandal in London and reinvented herself. as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, ultimately writing Clara Bow’s flip flop “It”.

Still others have become sharp cards or “sea vampires”, seducing and swindling wealthy men on a whirlwind trip – the kind of ladies immortalized in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “The Lady Eve”. Evans mentions a former chorister who in the 1920s made 16 trips back and forth across the Atlantic, making about $ 1,000 per trip by seducing and then blackmailing unfaithful married men.

Violet Jessop took care of the passengers as a flight attendant and rescued them when the Titanic sank.
Violet Jessop took care of the passengers as a flight attendant and rescued them when the Titanic sank.
Crown; Bettmann Archives

These “pioneering and intrepid women,” whether passengers or sailors, “have seen their lives transformed by their experiences, mostly for the better,” writes Evans. “Their motivations were as diverse as their personalities, but for each of them, embarking on a sea voyage was a step into the unknown.”

Prior to the 1800s, sailors largely prohibited women from accessing their boats, with the exception of the voluptuous mermaids carved into the bow. However, at the beginning of the 19th century, captains began to bring their wives aboard warships, whalers and small merchant ships. Some boats even hired women – usually those close to the boss – to help with catering, nursing, and bookkeeping. Yet, as emigration to the New World increased in the 1880s, passenger ships from Europe increasingly carried women and children as well as men, and these ships had to employ personnel. female crew so that “decorum can be observed”.

These female crew members acted as chaperones, caring for seasick passengers and “addressing any personal hygiene issues that may arise during a sea voyage lasting several weeks.”

Olympian Hilda James escaped an abusive home and made her living as a swimming instructor on Cunard's ships.
Olympian Hilda James escaped an abusive home and made her living as a swimming instructor on Cunard’s ships.
Apic / Getty Images

In 1875 England passed a law requiring passenger ships carrying women to employ a matron “who would look after the interests of migrant women and children” in third class. On the upper decks, flight attendants (like Jessop) acted as “maids, maids and sometimes nurses” to the ladies, serving their meals, helping them dress and cater to their whims and needs. their ailments.

Despite the physical demands and cramped housing, women applied en masse for these jobs. As Evans writes, “the idea of ​​going out to sea and making a living independently was appealing.”

Take Hilda James, an Olympic medalist who taught swimming aboard Cunard’s luxury ships. Born in 1904 to a poor Liverpool family, James rose to fame at age 16 when she won silver at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. Two years later, Cunard invited the so-called ‘British comet’ to a free transatlantic journey. The astonished 18-year-old sat at the captain’s table in the lavish Louis XVI-style dining room, attended galas in glamorous dresses, and even experienced her first kiss (from her fellow swimmer and future actor of “Tarzan” Johnny Weissmuller).

Hedy Lamarr approached the large Louis B. Mayer studio on a ship - and won a contract.
Hedy Lamarr approached the large Louis B. Mayer studio on a ship – and won a contract.
Getty Images

Yet when she returned home, James was beaten by her father and received lashes from her mother, who prevented her from attending the Paris Olympics in 1924.

So James called Cunard, and when she was 21, ran away from home, snuck aboard the company’s brand new Carinthia and started her new life as a swim instructor and ” cruise hostess “. She traveled the world, organized treasure hunts and water polo games for passengers, handed out cards in the officers’ mess, danced the Charleston until late, and bought herself a motorbike before settling in and out. ‘marry another crew member.

The people who use these ships are not pirates, they are not dancing hornpipes; most of them are American ladies suffering from seasickness.

Architect Cunard on their steamship passengers

By the time James made his first voyage in the 1920s, ships had grown from utility vessels to gigantic “floating hotels,” designed specifically to appeal to female tastes.

As one of Cunard’s architects explained: “The people who use these ships are not pirates, they are not dancing hornpipes; Most Americans are seasick, and the only thing they want to forget when they are on the ship is that they are on a ship.

Once women got their feet wet, they expected more than comfy sets: they wanted glamorous backdrops. Soon, the architects installed spectacular staircases and mirrored walls “where beautifully dressed passengers,” like a fur-covered Marlene Dietrich or couture-clad Adele Astaire, “could pose in their finery.”

Such lavish settings certainly helped stage actress Hedy Lamarr, who had just escaped her Nazi-sympathetic husband with nothing but a bunch of dresses and jewelry. She sort of got a third-class ticket on the same ship to the United States as Hollywood studio boss Louis B. Mayer, and she was determined to get him noticed. Every evening, she put on a new dress, put on her jewelry and walked down the mirrored staircase to the dining room “accompanied by a succession of rich and ardent young men.”

Stars like Marlene Dietrich and Fred and Adele Astair enjoyed the luxurious life on the ocean liners.
Stars like Marlene Dietrich and Fred and Adele Astair enjoyed the luxurious life on the ocean liners.
Getty Images; Library of Congress

She had a studio contract before she even reached shore.

During World War II, most large liners were converted into warships, but women continued to work on board as nurses, cooks and flight attendants as well as engineers.

Once the war was over, “a new generation of female seafarers” emerged to help distant families, GI wives and their husbands, and refugees reunite via steam liners.

Inaugural trips

But the boom in sea travel proved to be short-lived, thanks to commercial air travel, which made crossing the ocean much faster and cheaper. By mid-1959, Evans writes, two-thirds of passengers between Britain and America traveled by jet. In the early 1960s, 95% of transatlantic travel was by air.

“This effectively marked the end of ocean liners as a form of mass transportation,” notes Evans.

Yet a generation of women who had taken off because of the ocean liners continued to make waves, shaping postwar America and Europe through culture, science, humanitarian efforts and more.

For these brave travelers, writes Evans, “the great ship” offered “hope, opportunity, romance.”

And the trip they took was going to “change their lives forever.”


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