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Never mind Mark Fisher Fitness and Mercedes Club. This was at one time the most glamorous gym Hell’s Kitchen had ever seen, and it lay deep in the middle of the S.S. Normandy, docked at Pier 88 (at the end of W48th St).
The gym wasn’t the only special feature of the liner. The swimming pool boasted a lavish bar, and there was a dog kennel and a 100-car garage. Built in France, Normandie was the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat.
She set sail on her maiden voyage on May 29, 1935, from Le Havre, reaching New York in four days, three hours, and 14 minutes. The time earned her a Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing, and an estimated 100,000 spectators lined the harbor for her arrival.
The French Line commissioned artists to create posters for the liner, which became icons of the age. One of the most famous was by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre. The ship’s passengers were even more celebrated: the author Ernest Hemingway; songwriters Noël Coward and Irving Berlin; and Hollywood celebrities such as Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Walt Disney, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr; and James Stewart all sailed on the Normandie.
Sadly, after just seven years, the ship ended her life in Hell’s Kitchen. The war in Europe had compelled her to seek haven in New York, where the US government interned her on September 3, 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland. The vessel was renamed USS Lafayette.
Three years later, she caught fire while being converted to a troopship, capsized on to her port side, and came to rest on the mud of the Hudson River at Pier 88, the site of the current New York Passenger Ship Terminal. Enemy sabotage was widely suspected – and newspapers were filled with theories for months after the fire. Members of organized crime also claimed they had sabotaged the ship, to help secure the release from prison of Charles “Lucky” Luciano. But a congressional investigation concluded the fire was completely accidental.
This article originally appeared in W42ST magazine issue 13 – January 2016