Monday, October 26, 2009
The RMS Berengaria and the Crash
We’re continuing our Halloween fright fest with something truly scary: the economy. This week marks the 80th anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash whose repercussions changed this country and a good part of the world. The above famous headline in Variety, devoted to stage and film, put the matter succinctly and with typical panache. Other papers were grappling with 72-point type headlines that attempted to dramatize numbers of shares sold, points in decline, value lost. Variety summed up the whole nightmare in show-biz terms.
What makes this anniversary special is the similarities people, and pundits, may choose to draw between our current economic challenges and those of eight decades ago. It makes the anniversary more dramatic, to be sure, but perhaps it will give us something more than entertaining intrigue. Possibly, it might give us more understanding about the whole grisly matter, and more empathy for a generation that lost everything.
On Thursday we’ll mark the finale of the fiasco, the so-called “Black Tuesday” event (There was, you’ll remember, Black Thursday, Black Friday, Black Monday, and Black Tuesday) with a look at “The Roaring Twenties” (1939), a fascinating and well-made film that attempts to look back on the event with an objective if nostalgic eye. We may have even better perspective now.
Today, let’s have a brief look at one episode of the 1929 stock market crash that says something about the quirkiness of the Roaring Twenties, and maybe the inevitability of paying the piper, or judgment day, or just the party being over.
In the musical “Funny Girl” (1967), Barbra Streisand, playing the popular comedienne Fanny Brice, goes along with her lover, played by Omar Sharif, on a ship to Europe. He is a professional gambler and intends to ply his trade among the well-to-do on the ship. The ship they travel on is the grand Cunard ocean liner, the RMS Berengaria.
“You are going to Europe so you can play cards on the boat?!” Miss Streisand asks incredulously. A little card playing was the least of a life of excess at sea.
The Berengaria began its life a product of Imperial Germany as the Imperator, but was turned over to Great Britain after World War I for reparations, where it was renamed and reborn as a favorite among wealthy travelers taking the trans-Atlantic route between Britain and the U.S.
F. Scott Fitzgerald noted in the final pages of his 1922 novel “The Beautiful and the Damned”, where his dissipated Lost Generation poster children, Anthony and Gloria Patch, newly wealthy but their souls destroyed, wander the decks of the Berengaria, “That exquisite heavenly irony which has tabulated the demise of so many generations of sparrows doubtless records verbal inflections of the passengers of such ships as The Berengaria.”
Other passengers, like Vanderbilt, DuPont, Astor, and J. P. Morgan may not have wandered the decks in dissipation, but certainly had a reason for choosing the Berengaria over other ships. In August of 1929, a couple of months before the Crash, the Berengaria instituted a new service. A salon on the promenade deck would become a stock brokerage linked by wireless to Wall Street. No more would bored millionaires struggle to amuse themselves with shuffleboard on the crossing. Now, they could continue to trade stocks during the voyage.
I suppose it was a 1920s version of people who just cannot put down the cell phone or BlackBerry.
During the week of the Crash, the Berengaria had left Europe and was heading to New York. When news of the stocks falling spread across the ship, the brokerage room was barraged by the passengers, all trying to get more information, all trying to sell. Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetics manufacturer, sat in a front row leather armchair to watch the prices continuously chalked on the board, and continuously falling. She lost a million dollars in a couple of hours.
Other millionaires on board that trip docked in New York penniless. A kind of voyage of the damned. They were no less helpless than the people who sweated it out in the nervous crowds gathering in front of the New York Stock Exchange, but they had a better view; if they bothered to leave the brokerage salon and take a stroll on the promenade deck.
It makes a dramatic allegory to the Crash of 1929, including the aftermath. The Berengaria’s fortunes faltered during the Great Depression, was referred to as “Bargain Area” and used for cheap cruises to the Caribbean and Bermuda, but failed to turn a profit. By the end of the 1930s, she was retired and eventually scrapped in the mid-1940s.
A poem parodying the outlandish idea of having a brokerage a ship was published in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, and later the Literary Digest August 31, 1929. It is eerily prescient:
We were crowded in the cabin
Watching figures on the Board;
It was midnight on the ocean
And a tempest loudly roared.
We were watching the quotations
With a certain sad appeal:
Some were short in General Motors,
Some were long on U.S. Steel.
And, timidly a tourist
Took a chance on twenty shares --
"We are lost!" the Captain shouted,
As he staggered down the stairs.
"I've got a tip," he faltered,
"Straight by wireless from the aunt
Of a fellow who's related
To a cousin of Durant."
At these awful words we shuddered,
And the stoutest bull grew sick
While the brokers cried, "More margin!"
And the ticker ceased to tick.
But the captain's little daughter
Said, "I do not understand --
Isn't Morgan on the ocean
Just the same as on the land?"
Even the film industry, which ironically did very well during the Depression and proved to be one of the few recession-proof industries (dimes stores was another), suffered a foreboding incident that frightening autumn.
In September 1929 “His Glorious Night” with John Gilbert was released to not only criticism, but howls. The silent-screen lover lost his macho mystique when the audience heard his high, thin voice for the first time. It was indeed an era of new beginnings, new technological marvels, and disastrous endings.
But Mr. Gilbert’s misfortune was Gene Kelly’s gain when the seed was planted for “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952).
By the time that parody was released, the stock market had mostly recovered. It took a couple of decades for those who lost money on their stocks but held onto them to break even. The stock market finally regained its pre-1929 Crash highest level in November 1954 amid a booming economy fueled by consumerism, where the 1929 Crash was starting to fade in memory and fear of it was replaced by either scornful amusement, or total ignorance, for another couple of generations.
“What’s past is prologue” Shakespeare said in “The Tempest.” Come back Thursday for “The Roaring Twenties”. Until then, have a look below at a montage of The Berengaria and the Crash.