BY LESLIE ARMSTRONG
Andrea Doria (1456 to 1560) was born in Oneglia, west of Genoa. He was orphaned at a young age and became a soldier of fortune. In 1503 he served in the Genoese navy routing the French from Corsica. He spent the rest of his long life serving whoever paid well, commanding his galleys in warfare against the Turks and Barbary pirates and protecting the supremacy and independence of the principality of Genoa. He died a rich and revered man. Many Italian and US naval vessels have been named after him, the most famous of which was the passenger ship SS Andrea Doria, launched in June of 1951, maiden voyage January 1953.
My mother asked me if I would like to go to Europe with her in August. I was in seventh grade.
Yes, and about time too.
I was sick of being left in the hands of our sadistic housekeeper during the week, my mother’s friends who would have me on weekends, and the various sleepaway camps where I had been parked for six summers so my brilliant and glamorous mother could travel to Europe and the Middle East in pursuit of her burgeoning international law practice.
I was to spend the first two-thirds of the summer of 1953 sailing, or more accurately cruising, with my father, from whom my mother was divorced. In mid-August I would go abroad with my mother. I was ecstatic.
My mother wanted my first voyage to Europe to be by ship so I would experience the vastness of the ocean that lies between our two continents. She booked us a first-class cabin on the Andrea Doria, departing New York, August 18, 1953, and arriving in Genoa nine days later. My mother constantly complained that we were short of money. However, she never travelled less than first-class, though our New York City living accommodations were closer to steerage. She was full of contradictions.
In August of 1953, the Andrea Doria was still brand new. She and her sister ship, the Cristoforo Colombo, were commissioned in the early 1950s by the Società di Navigazione Italia to show the world that Italy had recovered from World War II and was poised to take the lead in luxury transoceanic travel and in contemporary interior and industrial design. She was relatively small, 900′ long by 90′ wide, and was designed for luxury not for speed, with a very high crew-to-passenger ratio. Her interiors were by the Milanese architect Giulio Minoletti, with finishes, fabrics, lighting, and furniture hot off the press. Like the Titanic, her double hull had been designed for maximum safety.
I knew none of this in late August when we boarded in the summer heat. All I knew was that the Andrea Doria was long and sleek and contained one pool deck, lounge, bar, and restaurant, each staircase, passageway, and stateroom more stunning than the next. Hers was the most elegant and exciting interior environment that I had ever experienced, not that at age thirteen I had had much to compare it with. But I knew even then that if making something like this ship could be the work of an architect or designer, that’s what I wanted to be.
Steaming out of New York Harbor past Miss Liberty and through the Narrows to the open sea was fully as dramatic as my mother had said. The ship wasn’t full because it was the end of summer. I was freer than usual because my mother recognized one of her former law professors on the passenger list. He was travelling without his wife and was delighted to see my mother on our first night aboard. She seemed pleased by his attention and was almost coquettish about their renewed acquaintance. Thus, I was left at liberty to explore the ship’s every quarter in all three classes, both on my own and with younger first-class passengers, most of whom were Cuban—pre-Castro Cuban. Rich Cuban. I learned that they were heading en masse to the International Star Boat Racing Competition in Naples, and the easiest way to get themselves and their boats to Naples was to pack everything onto the Andrea Doria. This explained the presence of a long line of small sailboat hulls on the starboard deck in wooden cradles nestled under the overhang of the deck above.
Everything about the passage was over-the-top, not just the spectacular modernity of the design: the sun, sea air, three descending swimming pools at the stern, our particular cabin, a full-dress dinner with the captain, the ritzy Cubans, the first sight of the Azores on the horizon, and passing under the shadow of the giant rock of Gibraltar as we entered the Mediterranean.
Upon arrival in Genoa we travelled by taxi to Rapallo, where we were met by a thin, wiry Italian lawyer, dispatched to take us to lunch and show us around by an Italian friend of my mother’s in New York. The lunch conversation was tedious, at least for me: two lawyers being deeply courteous to one another in a stilted mix of English and French (my mother had no Italian), comparing differences between their respective modes of practice. A plus was that I had my first taste of pesto alla Genovese served on thin sheets of lasagna—indescribably delicate and delicious! After lunch, my mother and I piled into another taxi with our luggage and headed for Santa Margherita Ligure, just down the coast from Rapallo. She apologized for having failed to get us into a hotel in Portofino at the end of the point, which had been her destination of choice. Santa Margherita apparently was slightly tackier than Portofino, but I loved tacky and I loved Santa Margherita: the hotel, the cafés (even Coca Cola without ice and just a slice of lemon), the little shops with beaded curtains at the entrance, the espadrilles, the wooden clogs with Cuban heels and leather straps, the scruffy pebbled beach across the road. Even the deafening noise of the Vespas and Lambrettas weaving through the traffic and careening around the corners day and night was a joy. I loved the sound and sense of Italian and took pride in learning new words every day. And I loved Mike Burgess, a tall, skinny towheaded Australian boy, a year older than me, who was staying with his family at the same hotel. This Italian thing: I wanted to make it mine—Mike Burgess too.
The summer between eighth and ninth grades was another mix of travel in Europe with my mother and her lawyer friends and sailing with my father. In mid-June, I flew alone to meet my mother in Rome. Transatlantic flying back then was no fun. The planes were turbo props, and the rides often very rough. They had to stop twice to refuel, once in Newfoundland, on our side, and once in Iceland or Shannon, Ireland, on the far side. An engine often conked out on one or another leg, and the plane had to turn back to be repaired. Passengers had to wait for hours on end in overcrowded terminals or in unventilated planes for parts to arrive and repairs to be made. My flight to Rome took twenty-eight hours.
After a few magical days in Rome my mother and I flew to Paris (less magical: not Italy and too many lawyers). From there we went to Biarritz and drove with more lawyer friends to San Sebastian and chased the bulls in Pamplona. It sounds more fun than it was. I was generally stuck in the back seat of a car or at the end of a table in a restaurant on my own. At the end of July, my mother and I went back to New York on the Iles de France. She was very grand but had none of the allure of the Andrea Doria. No glamorous Cubans for me, no older admirer for my mother, no exploring the various classes. I don’t even remember if there was a swimming pool. I recognized Linda Star, a girl from the class below me at school, among the passengers. Thanks to our acquaintance, Linda’s father and my mother occasionally dined together and Linda and I became friends—good enough friends that I felt comfortable showing her the portfolio of photos of nude women that I had bought in Paris, in exchange for which she not only showed me but gave me for safekeeping her contraband copy of Fanny Hill, which either she or her father had procured in Paris, but which was outlawed in the USA in the still-puritanical 1950s. (For all my curiosity, because the book was new and forbidden stuff, I was afraid to cut the pages, and so never read it!)
Over the next winter, my mother fell in love with a wonderful man whom she first knew when she was pregnant with me but hadn’t seen since. He had been a student of my father’s back then. Jan was mired in a tricky divorce in California, and he and my mother had to be patient while his situation was sorted out. Jan urged my mother to stop taking long trips to the far reaches of Europe and the Middle East as he felt it wasn’t safe. Against his wishes, my mother pressed on with her plans. After all, he was technically no freer than he had been in the winter, so why not? Again, she took me with her for the first part of her trip. We crossed on the Andrea Doria’s sister ship, the Cristoforo Colombo. It wasn’t so much fun. No retired law professor to amuse my mother and no crazy Cubans for me, just a bunch of young people too grown up to want me in their company.
We disembarked in Naples this time and took a smaller boat straight to Capri. Capri was almost as wonderful as Santa Margherita had been two years before: The main square, situated in the saddle between the two mini volcanic mountains that rise from the sea to comprise Capri, was lined with boutiques full of sparkling gold jewelry, stunningly simple beach clothes, and an array of minimally elegant leather sandals. Cafés full of bronzed tourists of all nationalities spilled into the center of the piazza. Gracie Fields’s resort hotel by the cerulean blue water, on the far side of the island from where the ferry landed, was noisy and full of life. The shimmering rocks just below the clear water’s surface punctuated by clusters of pitch-black sea urchins were constantly beckoning.
My mother bought me my first bikini and two pairs of gorgeous sandals. Yet, I was irritable and ungrateful. I was fifteen and sick of being treated like a child, although that was what I was. I was sick of my mother’s friends and their boring conversation. I was sick of her telling me my every move and gesture was provocative. And I was sick of her.
One morning at Gracie Fields’ I donned my wee bikini, dove into the water off Gracie Fields’ concrete sundeck, and swam way out to where the big yachts were anchored offshore. Most of the boats were stunning and far grander than my father’s 37-foot-long, rusty steel yawl. Many had hulls of glistening mahogany; most had big sun awnings over the cockpit and afterdeck with paid crew members swabbing the decks or serving cappuccinos and biscotti to barely clad passengers stretched out in the sun. An older man (probably no more than forty), semi-trim, semi-balding, in a semi-suitable swimsuit called down to me in the water from a particularly striking ketch:
“Buon giorno, signorina. You have swum a long way out from the shore.” I guess he knew I was either English or American because neither French nor Italian girls seemed to spend much time actually swimming.
“I love sailboats and there are so many beautiful boats in the harbor,” I called back. “Yours is bellissima!”
“Would you like to come aboard and see her for yourself, signorina?”
“Oh yes, I’d love to,” I said, treading water as gracefully as I could.
A swimming ladder was lowered over the side, and I climbed up and was offered a towel. As I dried my hair and shoulders, I continued carrying on about the teak decks, the perfect bright work (mahogany trim), the sparkling chrome winches, the unusual self-furling hardware on the Genoa jib (this was new then) and otherwise flaunting my appreciation of things nautical. So my genial and welcoming host asked me if I’d like to see the interior of the cabins below decks.
“Of course, that would be lovely, thank you so much!” I replied.
I scrambled down the companionway after my host, all eager, and smack into his open arms. He wheeled me around ninety degrees, and pinned me against the side of the cabin, pressing his body against me, and went for my mouth with his tongue.
I had to think fast. Fortunately, his grip was loose because he was so focused on where his tongue was going. Because I was still slightly wet, I was able to feint left to avoid the tongue and with a downward twist of my almost naked torso, to slither out of his arms. He seemed momentarily stunned by the rejection, which gave me time to utter something idiotic like, “I have to go now,” and race up the ship’s ladder, over the cockpit combing, onto the deck, and into the sea.
I swam so far and so fast that I soon felt ill with exhaustion and disgust. I had gone way too far in every sense. Yachts back then flushed their toilets directly into the harbor and a large kielbasa-sized turd floated by me to remind me in just what dangerous waters I had been. Time with my mother might not be so bad after all.
I had been invited to spend July and part of August visiting my best friend, Lucinda Childs, and her family on Martha’s Vineyard. Edgartown was where my father’s family had spent summers when he was a boy and where he learned to sail, where I spent two summers as a baby, and where we often moored when we cruised the southern New England coast. A summer with the Childses would be the best: my best friend and favorite family in a summer resort where I, too, had roots and where we would body surf on South Beach, play tennis, go to yacht-club dances, and otherwise do what the young were supposed to do. Cindy’s father required us to race her International 110 twice weekly, but otherwise we were free to roam the island, to smoke and begin to drink, and to anguish about boys.
On July 25, 1956 the spell was broken—Newsflash from Channel 11 TV:
On the last night of an Atlantic voyage, only hours from safe harbor in New York, the Andrea Doria, the 29,000-ton luxury liner and pride of the Italian fleet, was broadsided by the eastbound 13,000-ton Stockholm of the Swedish American Line, in an accident that killed forty-six and imperiled more than seventeen hundred passengers and crew.
The efficiency of the crew and the rapid response of other ships averted a disaster similar in scale to that of the Titanic in 1912. One thousand six hundred and sixty passengers and crew were rescued and survived, while forty-six people died with the ship as a consequence of the collision.
Because of the sophisticated design of her double hull, the Andrea Doria was able to stay afloat for eleven hours after the ramming. With the world watching in horror during one of the first televised tragedies, the Andrea Doria sank, sparking a ferocious debate over fault that has never been resolved and ending the era of luxury cruise liners.
No, no, no. This cannot be true.
My Andrea Doria, my ship, my dream design, my inspiration.
I grieved for the loss of a close friend who had become my muse.
I was a grown-up at last. I had finished my first year at Columbia School of Architecture and had spent the previous two summers working in set design at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto. I had made many close friends. I spoke some Italian and Italy was becoming mine. I had been visiting a friend in Milan and decided to drive to Santa Margherita Ligure, where I had first fallen in love with Italy, before heading back to New York and to graduate school. Santa Margherita wasn’t quite as sweet as I remembered it. It really was tacky, so I drove on to Portofino, which had not changed perceptibly. I checked into a modest pensione, got to my room, and checked my wallet to see how much cash I had remaining for this little junket. I found I could only afford the hotel, maybe a drink, but definitely no dinner. There were no credit cards then, only travelers’ cheques. I had left my stash back at my friend’s house in Milan. If I was going to eat, I was going to have to get picked up by someone who would buy me dinner but not require any additional services. I’d never done anything like this before.
I wandered around the little town, looking for a not overly upscale café, where I could sit nursing the one drink I could afford in hopes of being joined by some respectable type who would eventually stake me to a meal. Well before I’d finished my decoy drink, a nicely dressed man in a raw silk shirt and pleated linen trousers, maybe ten years older than I, medium height, medium build, thinning brown hair, nothing special (which was good) asked if he could join me. You bet! We talked. I did my bit about being an American, having worked in Spoleto, now studying architecture in New York and in Italy on holiday. Eventually, he asked if I were free for dinner.
Over dinner my companion asked how I had first come to Italy and I told him about my crossing on the Andrea Doria, how much I admired the design of the ship, and how I wept when she went down. He visibly opened up. He was from Genoa himself and was a family friend of Piero Calamai, the Andrea Doria’s captain both on her maiden voyage in 1953, and again when, in July 1956, she was rammed by the Stockholm and went down in Nantucket Sound. He said that Calamai, who had been fifty-eight at the time of the sinking, admitted to having made errors in judgment that fateful and foggy night. For one, he hadn’t cut speed in the dense fog as some thought he should have. Once the Andrea Doria was hit, Calamai knew immediately that she was going down. However, Calamai also knew not to pull the abandon-ship alarm as he was legally obliged to do, because she was listing so far to starboard that half her lifeboats were submerged and inaccessible. To avoid panic, Calamai chose to wait, in hopes that other ships would arrive at the scene to help with the evacuation. They did. Calamai’s commitment to the safety of his passengers and crew during the evacuation was cited as exemplary. He made certain that every passenger and crew member was off the ship before he himself would leave. My friend told me that Calamai’s shame was so great that he had wanted to stay onboard and go down with the ship, but his officers would not let him.
Calamai was praised for his leadership, but he never went to sea again. He lived holed up in an apartment overlooking the harbor of Genoa, sustained by periodic visits from friends like my generous dinner companion until his death in 1972.
I married a writer. On the wall of his cabin in the Catskills, he had, and still has, a small dessert plate retrieved by one of his students in the 1980s during the diving craze to explore the Andrea Doria as she lay on her starboard side, 250 feet under the sea. She was known as the Mount Everest of diving because she was so deep, the currents around her so fierce, the water so cold, and the visibility so poor, much like the blizzards close to Everest’s summit. Since then the wreck has slowly collapsed and diving has ceased. But she is still there, 250 feet under the sea, forty-five miles south of Nantucket—my muse, my inspiration.
Leslie/Lale Armstrong has lived, worked, and raised three children in New York City. She has always been both an architect and a writer. She began practicing in the mid-seventies focusing on repurposing buildings for the performing arts and on residential and commercial architecture and interiors. During this period, she wrote The Little House, published in 1979 by Collier Macmillan, and Space for Dance: An Architectural Design Guide, published in 1984 by the NY Center for Cultural Resources. Later in life she considered writing a memoir. In the early aughts, she met and married John Bowers, a writer, who encouraged her to proceed. In 2008, while continuing as an architect, she began writing Girl Intrepid – A New York Story of Privilege and Perseverance. Lale graduated from Brown University and Columbia University School of Architecture and audited the Writing Program at Wilkes University. Multiple personal essays based on material from Girl Intrepid have been published by on-line literary journals. Girl Intrepid will come out in August 2020.