by Greg King and Penny Wilson
In 1956, a stunned world watched as the famous Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria sank after being struck by a Swedish vessel off the coast of Nantucket. The following is an excerpt from The Last Voyage of the Andrea Doria, where Greg King and Penny Wilson offer a fresh look at this legendary liner and her tragic fate.
In the summer of 1956, readers were captivated by Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, which chronicled the sinking of the magnificent Titanic on her maiden voyage to New York in April 1912. As the story of the impossibly splendid, doomed Titanic took the world by storm, another liner prepared to set sail from its berth in the bustling port of Genoa. Andrea Doria was so famous for her beauty and luxurious onboard life that many people diverted travel plans from other vessels and even airplanes to book passage on this wonderful and happy ship.
The proud flagship of the Italian Line, Andrea Doria represented not only the nation’s postwar recovery but also its glamorous, creative, and artistic march toward modernity. “A living testament to the importance of beauty in the everyday world” was how the Italian Line described the Doria on her maiden voyage in 1953. Her seven-hundred-foot-long sleek hull, shimmering black and topped by a cascade of white decks, was somehow traditional while still looking to the future. Previous liners had sported elaborately paneled rooms crowned with stained glass domes and crowded with opulent, overstuffed furniture modeled on British country house interiors. The Doria was starkly different: her modern rooms—all concealed lighting, wooden veneers, aluminum strips, and boldly colored, angular furniture—caused a sensation. The cutting-edge décor and oceangoing Italian hospitality drew a diverse contingent of passengers to this voyage, representing a true microcosm of the twentieth century: aristocrats and heiresses; actors and ballet stars; celebrity politicians and media moguls; a burgeoning rock-and-roll musician and American tourists hoping to indulge in la dolce vita; and immigrants reluctantly leaving their villages to seek new lives in the United States.
It was ironic that so many of the passengers on this trip, the Doria’s 101st Atlantic crossing, carried copies of A Night to Remember to their cabins, setting them on bedside tables or tucking them beneath pillows in anticipation of cracking open the spine and enjoying the story of Titanic. Not one seems to have worried that reading about a maritime disaster while at sea might result in an inadvertent but ominous sense of déjà vu. That first night, and all the days and nights that followed, the Doria’s passengers, snug in their berths or reposing on sun-drenched deck chairs, knew that they were quite safe from Titanic’s fate. It was summer; the Doria traveled an iceberg-free southern route; and radar and modern technologies seemingly ensured safety at sea.
And then, on the morning of July 26, people turned on their television sets to stunning news. The previous night, the Swedish liner Stockholm had rammed the Doria just off Nantucket. The images were shocking, stark, unbelievable: the great liner on her side in the Atlantic, abandoned as the ocean slowly but surely took possession. It was the first time that a maritime tragedy had played out before millions of eyes. Over the next few days, viewers saw heartrending scenes of survivors arriving in New York as they pushed past cameras and microphones for emotional reunions with desperate relatives. There were tales of heroism and allegations of cowardice, of joy and of loss, and, above all, a sense of disbelief that a tragedy like that which had befallen Titanic could occur in the modern age. But icebergs, as Doria’s passengers had discovered, could take many shapes.
In 1956 there would be no Titanic-like casualty figures. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the Andrea Doria’s captain and crew, as well as heroic actions by a handful of ships like the French liner Ile de France that had raced to the scene of the collision, only fifty-one lives were lost. Ten were children aboard Andrea Doria, their lives tragically cut short; speaking to their surviving siblings today, the pain remains sharp, the loss incalculable, their memories undimmed by the passage of time.
Arrogance played a part in the Titanic disaster, but Andrea Doria had done nothing to tempt fate. From the gracious and paternal captain to his competent officers to the smiling and helpful employees of the ship’s “hotel,” the passengers had discovered a world of peace and quiet, recreation and reflection, art, entertainment, and new friends—a place to spend an enjoyable week away from the pressures of everyday life until, contented and recharged, they were delivered safely to their destination port. The fact that this expected happy ending to the voyage was torn away from those on the Doria less than twelve hours before they were due to dock in New York made the tragedy all the more poignant.
After a century of books, films, and musicals, Titanic remains maritime history’s best-known disaster. Yet Andrea Doria’s story is more immediate. Many vividly recall watching footage of the sinking and the emotional reunions as survivors arrived in New York. The Doria is closer in time to us than Titanic, and many of her survivors are still alive today. From girls in sundresses sliding down rough ropes into lifeboats, to a young boy venturing into the lower decks of the ship to retrieve his sleeping little sister from their cabin, survivors of the Andrea Doria confronted danger with great bravery and fortitude. Their stories are inspiring, dramatic, and occasionally tragic and deserve to be better known.The Andrea Doria disaster did not deliver a death blow to the liner industry: it was the increase in commercial air flights that did that. But looking back, it is impossible not to read her tragic death as the foreshadowing of a future already being written in vapor trails against the sky even as her hull disappeared beneath the waves.
Copyright © 2020 by Greg King and Penny Wilson
Greg King is the author of more than fifteen internationally published works of history, including Twilight of Empire. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Majesty Magazine, Royalty Magazine and Royalty Digest. He lives in the Seattle area.
Penny Wilson is the author of Lusitania with Greg King and several internationally published works of history on late Imperial Russia. Her historical work has appeared in Majesty Magazine, Atlantis Magazine, and Royalty Digest. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three Huskies.
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