SS UNITED STATES
A once-proud vessel awaits its next moment in history.
O n the eve of July 4 in 1952, a sleek, 990-foot ship with towering red, white and blue funnels steamed out of New York on its maiden voyage. When it returned, it had broken the eastbound and westbound crossing records. The SS United States had claimed a prize that hadn’t been won by an American vessel in more than a century, says historian John Maxtone-Graham, whose latest book, SS United States: Red, White
& Blue Riband, Forever (W.W. Norton& Co.), is about the ship. It was, he says, “an astounding feat.”
With its picture on magazine covers and the front pages of newspapers, the “Big U” became a national celebrity, just like many of its passengers. Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and a 22-year-old Bill Clinton would all sail on the ship, as well as Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Salvador Dali, John Wayne, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe.
By 1969, the ship was laid up at a pier in Virginia ready for the scrap yard. But the United States was a survivor. Today it’s docked in Philadelphia, property of the SS United States Conservancy, a nonprofit that bought the ship in 2011 and aims to turn it into a “museum and development complex in an urban waterfront setting,” according to Susan Gibbs, the group’s executive director and a granddaughter of the ship’s architect. “While the red, white and blue paint on her giant funnels has faded to pink and gray,” Gibbs says, “she remains structurally sound and ready for her next chapter.” The group is in talks to make that happen.