The Lady Laughs Again
Nearly 10,000 miles from where she was built, a svelte, 69-year-old American beauty is turning heads on Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, her new home. Her journey here – and her restoration – is an improbable story.
Restoring a US Classic – a bit like a detective story.
Built in 1949 by the legendary Lüders Marine Corporation in Connecticut, Laughing Lady was recently relaunched at Omaha after years of neglect and a glorious restoration by the Whangateau Boat Yard. Her gleaming brightwork is offset by period fittings and fixtures – and though she boasts a few modern accessories such as a chartplotter, these are discreetly-mounted, hidden and out of sight until needed. So she looks pretty much as she did when first launched.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of her restoration is the research that went into the project. Her owners – brothers James and Michael Dreyer, together with George Emtage and Pam Cundy at the boatyard – had very little to work with by way of original plans or photos. Finding this information took sleuth work, quite a bit of intuition, and a lot of luck.
I’ll get to the restoration in a minute, but first some background.
A 33-foot sports fishing boat, Laughing Lady was built for a Mrs Winthrop Bailey – a wealthy American socialite who hob-nobbed with British royalty. The boat was associated with the glamour set from the get-go – and it’s easy to sense that her name was eminently appropriate.
She was built for speed – her double-planked cedar and mahogany hull, wrapped around oak framing, was powered by twin, straight-eight 150hp Packard engines giving her a speed of nearly 30 knots.
Mrs Bailey sold the boat to a New York stockbroker, Robert David Lion Gardiner. He owned Gardiners Island, at the eastern tip of Long Island, and he used Laughing Lady to commute from his home to Greenport, on Long Island. From there it was a quick rail trip into midtown Manhattan. He also used her to ferry guests between his island and the upmarket Hamptons – where the Who’s Who of Long Island kept their holiday mansions.
When Gardiner died in 2004 the boat was sold to a distant relative in California. But the road trip across the US was catastrophic and she arrived with a broken back and one of her engines hanging off the transom.
It fell to a San Diego boatyard – Traditional Boat Works – to tackle the forlorn and fallen lady’s mammoth rebuild. All progressed well for a few years, but the 2008 GFC put the brakes on the project. The boatyard eventually acquired the boat in lieu of unpaid bills. And there she lay, gathering dust, for many years, until she was spotted by James Dreyer – an avid Kiwi classic boat enthusiast.
all it had was a small Lüders folder with half a dozen sheets – and zilch about Laughing Lady.”
Pam, in the meantime, was doing her own bit of sleuthing – extrapolating clues for the probable layout of the boat’s (missing) interior, working from fastener holes in the frames, little bits of handrail and a few surviving fittings.
James’ investigations took him to Gardiners Island, where he was introduced to an elderly mechanic at the local marina. He unearthed a photo of Laughing Lady’s mangled props – Gardiner had run her aground. But the image also provided valuable details about the design of her rub rail.
James also knew that in the early 60s the New York Times ( NYT) had run an article – The Greatest Picnic the World has ever Seen. It covered a high-society picnic on Gardiners Island – catered for by President John Kennedy’s personal chef, Charles De Gaulle’s personal chef, as well as chefs from the top Michelin star restaurants in Paris and New York. The writer was the NYT’S food critic.
Chefs and guests had all been ferried to the island on Laughing Lady, and James wondered what had happened to the press photos. Weirdly, Fate dealt him a friendly hand.
“I’d booked an Airbnb on the island, and it