In July 1956, the ocean liner SS Andrea Doria sank on the last night of its transatlantic voyage from Italy to New York City when another ocean liner, the MS Stockholm, collided with her.
It seems a watershed moment, almost as if morosely heralding the end of the leisurely elegance of ship travel (the first jet was to cross the Atlantic two years later), and the beginning of instant news as still photographers from Life magazine and others, newsreel cameramen, and reporters scrambled to the site to watch the vessel sink. Topping any newspaper “extras”, the film was developed and shown on television, a first.
Along with scores of immigrants making that journey, were the well-to-do and well-traveled, and two who made that fateful trip represented Hollywood. They were actresses Ruth Roman, (last seen here in our discussion of “Invitation” - 1951) and Betsy Drake. Their experiences on the last voyage of the Andrea Doria, along with the harrowing tales of many others, are told in Richard Goldstein’s fine book “Desperate Hours - The Epic Rescue of the Andrea Doria” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., NY, 2003), from which much of the following information is taken.
Betsy Drake, and husband Cary Grant, had traveled on the Andrea Doria before, and other stars, as captured in the documentary “Secrets of the Dead - The Sinking of the Andrea Doria” (PBS 2006), include Kim Novak, Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, and Tyrone Power.
Hollywood has given us a glimpse of the ship, inadvertently, in the final moments of “On the Waterfront” (1954) when Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint are standing atop his apartment building. The ocean liner moving down the Hudson is the Andrea Doria, two years before the tragedy.
Her last voyage was to be a nine-day journey from Genoa, Italy to New York City in this era where travel was leisurely. Ocean liners had individual designs and décor (unlike planes which were stamped out pretty much one like another). Meals were extraordinary, and passengers dressed for dinner.
There were three classes on the Andrea Doria, 1st class, cabin class, and tourist class, each with its own gym, library, bar, dancing, movies, and swimming pools. The sumptuous ship was itself like an art museum with paintings and sculptures in airy solons with modern furniture, making it a most glamorous ship.
Betsy Drake joined the voyage at Gibraltar, where she left her husband Cary Grant making a movie in Spain and pursuing Sophia Loren, much to his wife’s distress.
The trip enjoyed clear weather, and a peaceful crossing until its final night, when it entered the notoriously fog-bound waters south of Nantucket off New England. There were the usual last night farewell festivities, with champagne and streamers, and a roast beef dinner, and “Arrivederci Roma” played by Dino Massa and Orchestra.
Many cut the evening short to head back to their cabins and get some sleep before the early morning docking in New York. Betsy Drake did, never being much for socializing, and preferring to climb into her bunk in her cabin to read.
Ruth Roman and companion Janet Stewart enjoyed a last drink in the Belvedere Observation Lounge, while her son slept in the cabin a lower deck with his nanny minding him.
Some people watched the movie “Foxfire” (1955) with Jeff Chandler and Jane Russell.
A little after 11 o’clock that night, the MS Stockholm, leaving New York for Sweden, accidentally rammed the Andrea Doria. To some passengers it seemed like a dull thud, to others a great jolt, depending on where they were on ship, and then the screeching sound of ripping metal. Ultimately, 46 people on this ship, and 5 on the Stockholm, died.
Betsy Drake’s cabin on the Boat Deck shook, and she immediately put her stylish suit back on, grabbed a life vest, and headed for the upper deck. Her jewels, and a semi-autobiographic novel on which she’d been working, went down with the ship.
Ruth Roman ran from the lounge to get to her son, and ripped her form-fitting dress up the back so she could move better on the stairs that were already at a treacherous angle due to the listing of the ship on its side. She took son, and nanny, and life vests, and ditched her high heels to manage the climb to the upper deck.
Distress signals went out. First on the scene were a commercial freighter, Naval ships, and another grand ocean liner, the Ile de France.
The Ile de France had left New York City that morning and was heading to England, but turned around at the Morse Code distress call.
The Doria was taking on water and ominously threatening to roll over. There were plenty of lifeboats on the Andrea Doria, a lesson well-learned from the Titanic disaster, but an unexpected problem arose. Because of the lurch of the ship onto its side, half the lifeboats could not be launched, and were useless.
Fortunately the Stockholm, though it had sustained severe damage to its bow, was in no danger of sinking. Several of its lifeboats were sent to fetch passengers from the Andrea Doria.
Ruth Roman found a deflated balloon left over from the party. She blew it up and amused her little boy with it, plunking him in a barricade of life vests and blankets on the deck, telling him they were having a picnic. Around them, scenes of chaos, courtesy, panic, selfishness, and selflessness.
The ship creaked, and slipped some more. About 2 a.m., Miss Roman and her gang slid down from the higher end of the deck to the lower side where they hoped to catch a rope to a lifeboat below. A young cadet sailor from the Andrea Doria took her son and strapped himself to Dickie, and climbed down a rope ladder to a waiting lifeboat.
The boat pulled away before Ruth Roman could climb in. The boy disappeared in the fog with a group of strangers. She, and nanny, and companion, waited for another opportunity to escape.
By 2 a.m., three hours after the collision, there were still around 1,000 people left on board the Andrea Doria awaiting rescue, the two Hollywood stars among them. No more division into classes; it was egalitarianism at its most miserable. Betsy Drake clung to the high side of the ship, took off her shoes for traction, and waited.
About that time the Ile de France approached. With sensitivity mixed with perhaps a certain Gallic élan, the captain ordered all the festive lights on the ship turned on so that the Doria survivors would see that help was coming. Among its strings of lights, there was the name lit up between its two funnels in great block letters: ILE DE FRANCE suddenly piercing the black gloom. More than reassuring, it seemed like something miraculous, a finale scene out of a movie.
Ruth Roman was taken in a lifeboat to the Ile de France. Her little boy was not here, and she could not find out to which ship among the seven rescue ships he had been taken.
Betsy Drake was also taken to the Ile de France. She had previously sailed on this ship under happier circumstances. (She had met Cary Grant when they sailed together on the RMS Queen Mary.) So many survivors were trying to send cables from the ship to loved ones, that she was unable to send one to Cary Grant.
Many of the passengers on the Ile de France donated clothing to the Doria survivors. A tennis professional named Eddie Hand gave Ruth Roman a pair of trousers, a white polo shirt, and woolen socks. A Life photographer who happened to be traveling with his family, brought her to rest in his cabin.
The Ile de France managed to scoop up 753 of the Andrea Doria’s passengers. When she entered New York Harbor, other boats blew whistles in tribute, and cheers rose up from the crowds gathering at the piers. Just after 5 p.m. on the 26th, she docked at Pier 88 off West 48th Street.
Betsy Drake, met at the pier by a friend, was still wearing her suit but also a pair of white sweat socks a sailor had given her. Many of the survivors had no shoes. Many of the immigrants had nothing left but the donated clothes on their backs.
Ruth Roman finally learned that her son had been taken to the MS Stockholm, which initially had trouble leaving the scene of the collision because its anchor chains had become tangled. It was still at sea when she arrived at the pier with the other Ile de France passengers.
Late the next morning, on the 27th, Miss Roman finally reunited with her son, as the Stockholm entered the Harbor. Now that the media had come of age, or at least catching on to its exploitive possibilities in the reporting of instant news, the moment she picked her child up and hustled through a mob of reporters and cameramen was captured with all its excitement and cruel lack of privacy.
Article from "The New York Times", July 26, 1956, p. 1
For both Hollywood stars, their connection to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria would become a footnote of trivia, though Betsy Drake was reportedly traumatized by the incident for months. She ultimately left acting, and her husband, for a career in psychotherapy, particularly in the treatment of children and adolescents.
The most remarkable aspect of the sinking of the Andrea Doria is that so many were saved due to an impromptu, but terrifically successful rescue operation. For more on the event, stop by at my New England Travels blog tomorrow.
For Mr. Goldstein’s excellent book, including an excerpt describing the arrival on scene of the Ile de France, have a look here at his website.