We wave the Marys ‘good-bye’

We wave the Marys ‘good-bye’



We gave a special dinner party in the Verandah Grill on the last night of the penultimate Atlantic crossing of RMS Queen Mary from Southampton to New York. 

My creative director, Harmer Brown, and I had been encouraged by our Chairman to make the sea journey ‘to give us some rest and relaxation’ before a demanding United States tour in which we would present the Agency’s work and credentials.  S.H.Benson, the advertising agency we worked for, had recently signed a partnership with Needham, Harper & Steers, an up and coming Chicago agency. They wanted the chance to show off as much as we did.

My three earlier stories about this adventure lifted the veil on a return to the age of the Roaring Twenties, the Flapper and the Black Bottom. The 1967 versions were supposed to be more sedate, I imagine. Harmer and I made sure that they weren’t. The Queen Mary’s Captain, Commodore John Treasure Jones, was delighted at this eleventh hour revival of the era of the ship-for-travel before the start of the era of the ship-for-holiday. 

The journey had a useful purpose. Everything else was a bonus. As life should be.

Mary and her two sisters, with whom I had established a coincidental connection with a relative on the first evening’s sailing, became firm friends for the crossing. All good dancers, all lively 40-year-olds, they were determined to make up for the sad fact that their parents had missed the boat due to their father’s passport not being renewed in time. 

Harmer and I decided to gather the ten most interesting people we had encountered on the crossing and have a last night party ‘to crown all parties’ the old ship had seen.

The Verandah Grill staff were more than willing to join in and the Grill Dance Band had been primed with enough champagne to make them ‘champagnions’ of the evening. Harmer brought out his best stories. One of them, about crocodile shoes and a crocodile hat, was not wholly appropriate. Harmer had poor eyesight, couldn’t see the floor and didn’t realise that the very rich business man we had invited was wearing crocodile shoes. Our guest laughed as heartily as anyone. The lady who had won the hat competition also attended our party. She donated her brilliant creation to the Verandah Grill for the next, final, crossing.

After the two starter courses, the head waiter told me that he had delayed our main course. The ship, he explained, was on a rare millpond sea, without a ripple. He recommended that I take our guests round the deck to watch the sun go down in this unique setting. The liner was still, of course, charging the sea at 30 knots. The contrast between the sea’s calm and the ship’s roar was as impressive a sight as I have seen. The setting sun evoked quiet thoughts.

The meal was a feast to remember. The smoked salmon was cured to perfection, the Cornish guinea fowl tender and tasty, the New Zealand spring lamb succulent and juicy, the strawberry cake melted in your mouth and the handmade chocolates, ravishingly ripe. There were other dishes, too many to remember. They were a child’s delight to finish our childhoods. The dance band played from the old days, bringing in a few, more modern, war songs. A boy and girl with angel voices kept us spellbound. The lights dimmed slightly as the night wore on.

The head waiter came to me to say that we needed to return to our cabins, shower and pack in order to ensure the safe delivery of our luggage on arrival. He added that if, when we had done so, we cared to come up on deck, he would reserve the spot just below the Captain’s bridge for us as we sailed into New York Bay. When we arrived on deck we found him equipped with Dom Perignon vintage champagne for us.

The ladies wore their dark glasses even though it was still night black. The ship was now inching slowly under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, her funnels only feet from the suspension. The quietened hum of the engines was left at the stern where the screws turned softly to mark our stately progress to harbour. The faithful Verandah Grill band had moved to the bow of the ship, playing old favourites quietly as befits a homecoming Queen.

The distant New York skyline peered, dimly at first, out of the hazy horizon gloom. An eerie silence fell over the passengers on the foredeck, each with his or her own thoughts and remembrances. As New York became slightly more visible an older passenger, a widower coming home to his empty house for the last time, started to sing. The band picked up his song, giving him a simple, gentle backing.

I didn’t have a means of capturing the music on me but I found an old recording that is nostalgically like what we heard. It was the old song “After the Ball”.

I swear there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere.

Not even on the Captain’s bridge.

John Bittleston


4 May 2023