RMS Queen Mary arriving 1936 in Southampton, England.  Painting from the British Maritime Museum.

Journalist Kyle Kreiger uses his stay at the Queen Mary Hotel in Long Beach to show the comparison between experiencing trans-Atlantic passenger travel from the 1930s to 1960s and contemporary cruising.   The former Cunard Line RMS Queen Mary is a destination in itself but a great place to stay before leaving form Long Beach or San Pedro on a cruise out of the Los Angeles area.

But some corrections are in order.

Kreiger comments that passengers were divided into First, Second and Third Classes.  This needs clarifying.   As built, the ship was divided into Cabin (First), Tourist (Second) and Third (Third) class.   All the lines had adopted more acceptable terms for what could have been called upper, middle and lower classes.   After the war the classes were called: First, Cabin and Tourist.  A detailed background on the Queen Mary can be found on Maritime Matters.

Ironically, the new Queen Mary has a definite “caste system” when it comes to services and dining.  There are different dining rooms and the only ones close to true first class are the Queen’s Grill and the Princess Grill.  That is the only place you will see Beluga Caviar.  This expensive delicacy was common place to all first class passengers on Cunard and most major steamship companies in the past until the 1960s.


Famous film star CLARK GABLE seen aboard the RMS QUEEN MARY in the 1950s. 

As for buying a cruise — the class system is the rule.  And I’m not talking about choice of accommodations.    Its the lines.  Carnival Corporation owns Seaborne and Carnival Cruises. Which could be facetiously called running the gamete from First (upper class) to Tourist (lower class).  But food on even the mass market companies is far better then a trans-Atlantic liner tourist class menu (up until the 1960s) which was very limited in choice.  The best “tourist class” food would have been found on the French Line.

As for Tea on Cunard Lines, it was served in all classes and was not limited to First Class.  The pastries might have been more elaborate in First Class but full tea (with pastries and sandwiches) was served in Cabin and Tourist Class.  This was true on most steamship lines until the 1960s.

All class barriers were down when the RMS QUEEN MARY sailed from New York to Long Beach on its final cruise.  There was only “First Class” and mainly the First and Cabin Class accommodations were used.  But press were flown in for the final leg from Acapulco to Long Beach and accommodated in former Tourist Class accommodations.

Also, the ship’s pools were drained continuously on ships.  No matter what class was using the pools.  They used sea water in the pools and not fresh water.  Passengers could arrange to have salt water baths.



RMS QUEEN MARY (HOTEL) in Long Beach with Cunard Line’s new QUEEN MARY seen arriving last year in harbor.

By Kyle Kreiger, St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
Published Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Long Beach, Calif. – Worn down after a cross-country flight and a 90-minute battle through rush hour in Los Angeles, we trudged into the concrete elevator building alongside the Queen Mary Hotel. When the doors opened and we strolled onto A deck we were in another era, one defined by royalty, wealth and fame.

We had booked a hotel, but we found history.

“I thought I was walking onto a movie set from the Roaring ’20s,” Jerry Hoehn of Lake of the Woods, Va., said. “I tried to imagine the people who had crossed that threshold before us.”


Actor BURT LANCASTER seen in the first class smoking room of the QUEEN MARY. 

The 74-year-old Queen Mary hasn’t sailed since 1967. But the still-posh ocean liner continues to pamper passengers as a hotel in Long Beach.

Spending one night aboard the Queen Mary before leaving on a cruise from the Port of Los Angeles started as a joke: stay on a cruise ship before taking a cruise.

But the Queen Mary is no ordinary hotel.

There are no rock-climbing walls, ice skating rinks, surfing simulators or bowling alleys on the Queen Mary. This ship served as transportation, not a destination — a high-class way to get from England to the United States.

Compared with the megaliners sailing the seas today, the rooms are spacious — almost suite-sized — with polished wood-paneled walls. Guests can chose comfortable king-, queen- or twin-sized beds, with plush comforters, light blankets and plenty of pillows.

Three restaurants offer classic dining daily for guests. The breakfast at Promenade Cafe, which was part of our room package, included a cooked-to-order menu or a well-stocked buffet that could meet any taste.

Add the Queen’s history and it is easy to feel like royalty aboard this beauty.

Lavish construction

Construction of the Queen Mary, which began in 1930, stalled for a time during the Great Depression. But despite the tough economic times the Cunard Line spared no expense. Nothing on this ship can be called cheap, a fact that is evident as soon as you board.

“Boy, there sure is a lot of wood,” Hoehn’s wife, Barb, said.

There is no escaping the wood. It’s in the hallways, the cabins, the public rooms, the decks, the ceilings, the stairs, the elevators, the front desk. It’s everywhere — 56 types of highly polished veneers, one for each of the British protectorates at the time the ship was built, according to Dustin Officer, a tour guide on the ship. Six of the 56 types are now extinct.

The wood is responsible for one of the Queen Mary’s few concessions to modern commercialism: The ship has an official wood treatment, Old English Furniture Polish, according to a small, tasteful plaque on the Promenade Deck.

No detail was too small for the ship’s designers. In the first-class main lounge, each light was carved from the same piece of onyx to ensure a consistent glow. The room, like many of the public spaces onboard, has stunning fireplaces. But they were for show, not warmth. The only coal-burning fireplace on the Queen Mary was in the first-class smoking lounge, where the rising heat from the fire helped pull cigar and cigarette smoke from the room.

Art also plays a prominent role onboard, with elaborate murals, paintings, sculptures and wood carvings. Some of the most famous works are murals by Doris Zinkeisen in the Veranda Room, which Officer called “the most exclusive restaurant on the high seas.” At night it became the Starlight Room, where passengers “could dance until 6 in the morning and the band never questioned it,” Officer said.

The largest of Zinkeisen’s murals was damaged during World War II when gunnery officers tacked charts to poster board that covered the work. After the war, a miffed Zinkeisen restored the mural, Officer said, but added a dig at Cunard, which prided itself on operating the cleanest ships afloat — no rodents sailed on these great ships.

“She got her revenge,” Officer said. “She painted a mouse in the mural so there would always be a mouse on the Queen Mary.”

War and peace

Despite the lush adornments, the Queen Mary’s real beauty resides in its rich history, which seems to ooze from every porthole.

In 1938 the ship set the speed record for crossing the Atlantic, a distinction it held until 1953.

Comedian Bob Hope played his first wartime show onboard in 1939, volunteering to perform for nervous passengers who had learned while crossing the Atlantic that England and Germany were at war.

The ship did yeoman’s work during World War II, ferrying 765,429 members of the military back and forth between the United States and Europe. For one trip, in July 1943, 16,683 people squeezed aboard, a record that still stands.

“She played a major role in every Allied campaign,” Officer said. “People don’t understand how much of a role she played in the war.”

That role didn’t end with Germany’s surrender. The ship made 13 round trips from England as part of Operation Diaper, Officer said, ferrying servicemen’s war brides and children to the United States. About one-quarter of the dependants of U.S. servicemen traveled to their new lives in the United States aboard the Queen Mary.

The ship has also been a hit on the big screen, where the Queen Mary has had roles in The Godfather II, The Natural and The Aviator. It also had a part in Poseidon Adventure, a tale inspired by a piece of its past, according to Officer. A massive wave hit the ship in 1942, tipping it 44 degrees.

“Three more degrees and she would have gone over,” Officer said.

It has sailed into pop culture, serving as the stage for the Jonas Brothers’ video version of S.O.S.

And not long ago Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon had his wedding reception on board.

Though always exuding class, the ship also embraced a rigid class system. The accommodations were divided into first-, second and third-class, and the groups didn’t mingle.  (Called First, Cabin and Tourist Class).

Cunard went to great lengths for its first-class passengers. Each day from 4 to 6 p.m., tea time for the elite, the third-class passengers could use the main pool deep inside the ship. But at 6 the pool was closed, drained, cleaned and refilled, Officer said, before the first-class folks returned at 7 p.m.

“We really enjoyed walking around the ship, stopping along the way to read the displays which pointed out the history and its famous passengers,” said Bryan Lehman of Lancaster, Pa., who spent two days onboard with his wife, Suzanne. “After a day or two onboard the Queen, you get a sense of the social class structure that was prevalent when the Queen sailed.”

There was one event that was shared by the classes.

“Sunday was the one day when everyone got religion,” Officer said. The Anglican, Catholic and non-denominational services gave the “lower” passengers a chance to rub elbows with the rich and royalty. The Queen Mary was also the first ship to offer Jewish services.

Not everyone was enthralled by the caste system. Twice while sailing on the Queen Mary, the musician Liberace offered to perform for free, with one stipulation — only third-class passengers could attend.

Women also took a backseat onboard. After dinner, the men would gather to smoke, drink and mull over the important topics of the day. The women, meanwhile, withdrew to the drawing room to knit, read or discuss more genteel topics.

Despite Cunard’s efforts, there was one aspect of sailing aboard the Queen Mary that was always exempt from the class system and sexism.

“She carried some of the richest, most famous people. She carried royalty,” Officer said. “But when people got seasick, they were all at the same level.”

Kyle Kreiger can be reached at

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