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The Gaudy Era of Millionaires and Superyachts
Frank Kilburn Coffee
September 18, 1961
In the spendthrift 1920s wealthy sportsmen competed in a dizzy contest to build the most glittering pleasure craft on the seas
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September 18, 1961

The Gaudy Era Of Millionaires And Superyachts

In the spendthrift 1920s wealthy sportsmen competed in a dizzy contest to build the most glittering pleasure craft on the seas

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With most of the country off its feet, Edward F. Hutton, investment broker and husband of Marjorie Post, General Foods heiress, urged big-yacht owners to rally to the nation's financial plight by keeping their vessels in commission. Hutton reasoned that while the big yachts might offend during the "business depression," their operation would give employment and income to many who might otherwise be destitute. He pointed out that keeping a 200-foot yacht in commission for five months of the year meant the spending of at least $100,000 in the form of wages, purchases of supplies and general upkeep.

Hutton was being more than just generous with other people's money. He was smoothing the waters for the launching of his own yacht, the 316-foot, full-rigged auxiliary bark Hussar—the largest privately owned sailing yacht ever built.

The German-built Hussar, a modernized ideal of a four-masted bark, was truly a picture yacht. With her towering masts, square-sail yards, clipper bow and long bowsprit, she brought to mind the days of the old clipper ships. Though her full suit of 30 sails comprised 36,000 square feet of canvas and took most of her 70-man crew a full hour to raise, for true sail men there was more than one discordant note. Between her foremast and main, rising above her black hull, was a buff funnel, serving the power plant which drove her when her owner wanted to travel hurriedly rather than loaf along under canvas. There was also a bridge for navigation under power.

A few years after the launching of the Hussar, Mrs. Hutton parted from Mr. Hutton and gained custody of the yacht, which she rechristened Sea Cloud. She changed her own name, too, wedding Joseph E. Davies, the corporation and international lawyer soon to be appointed Ambassador to Russia.

Popular legend, encouraged by the Sunday supplements, insisted that all yachts were the scene of perpetual bacchanals, especially on lengthy cruises. In reality, life on most of the big ones was downright dull, and owners found it difficult to fill more than two or three staterooms with desirable guests able to afford the time for a long cruise. Mostly, they depended on their immediate families for company. Indeed, many yachts would cruise along with owners and their guests aboard only for a month or two at a time—perhaps from Marseilles to Colombo, or from Honolulu to Hong Kong—on a round-the-world voyage.

W. K. Vanderbilt's round-the-world voyage aboard the Alva, however, was long planned and done with purpose. Besides the taking of specimens for the Vanderbilt Marine Museum, this was to be the first circumnavigation of the globe under the yacht ensign of the United States Naval Reserve in which Vanderbilt was a lieutenant commander.

Setting out in July 1931, under Captain Vanderbilt (whose command included three mates, two wireless operators, a boatswain, a starboard and a port launchman, three quartermasters, six sailors, a chief engineer, three assistant engineers, an electrician, seven oilers, two stewards, a chef, two cooks, a bedroom steward, a waiter, a captain's man, a pantryman, three messmen, a messman-bugler and a laundryman, plus an artist, a taxidermist, a photographer, assistant photographer, a valet and a ship's surgeon), the Alva, carrying 520 tons of fuel oil. 360 tons of water and five guests, including Vanderbilt's wife Rose, was to travel 29,000 uneventful nautical miles, visit 57 big and little ports and return home seven months later with her tanks filled with a great variety of queer fish.

On reaching Spain, nearing the end of the east-to-west voyage, Vanderbilt looked over the latest reports from the New York Stock Exchange. "Central has hit 25," he recorded in his diary. "It is time to go home." The family stock, which had soared to above 250 at the peak of the market, was soon to sell for less than $10 a share.

By late 1932, keeping a big yacht in commission had become an unsupportable financial burden for all but a rare Croesus, and there was a wave of selling and decommissioning. The low ebb was reached when Utility Tycoon Harrison Williams' million-dollar Warrior was sold for less than the value of her launches.

Even J. P. Morgan took his yacht out of commission, retaining only a lay-up maintenance crew of seven or eight men. For a man who didn't net enough to pay an income tax for the years 1931 and 1932, decommissioning the big yacht (which cost as much as $500,000 a year to operate, a trip to England costing a minimum of $50,000) was not just politic.

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