Article by By Peter Mandel - Photograph by Catherine Karnow
John Maxtone-Graham's socks are the precise orange-red of the Cunard Line's classic smokestacks - an apt sartorial choice for the self-described gadfly of the cruise industry. This distinguished-looking gent with a mild British accent has spent the past quarter-century fueling a renaissance of interest in ocean liners and cruise ships, old and new.
In an age defined by the ease and economy of jet travel, many vacationers are taking a step back and opting for the deliberate pleasures of travel by sea. A revitalized cruise industry has captured the imagination (and the vacation dollars) of a new generation. Meanwhile, homebodies tune into televised attempts to raise the Titanic and to explore the sunken wreck of its sister ship, the Britannic.
Every trend has its chronicler, but Maxtone-Graham is less scribe than missionary. His books, articles, and lectures resonate with the drama and adventure of shipboard life. "Crossings always have a kind of magic that's better than anything waiting for you on the other side," Maxtone-Graham says. Especially for children. "I grew up in London where, of course, you have to watch yourself crossing streets. I remember the liberating feeling of being able to run all about the ship. I used to bolt up and down the stairs in a race with the ship's elevator."
Maxtone-Graham was born in New Jersey, the son of a Scottish father and an American mother. After the 1929 stock-market collapse, the family moved to London, providing six-month-old John with his first ocean crossing, on the Minnewaska. He attended schools on both sides of the Atlantic. Upon graduating from Brown, he embarked on a career as a stage manager, eventually working with such stars as Helen Hayes, Sir John Gielgud, Orson Welles, and Tallulah Bankhead. "Perhaps my most pyrotechnical moment," he remembers with a wry smile, "was managing Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana with Bette Davis and Margaret Leighton."
Throughout his Broadway career, Maxtone-Graham made dozens of sea voyages. When, in 1968, an editor at Macmillan asked him to write a history of the North Atlantic liners, Maxtone-Graham, a former Brown Daily Herald columnist, dove into "three-and-a-half years of indescribable toil," researching facts and anecdotes about the largest moving objects ever built. Published in 1972, The Only Way to Cross quickly became a bible for ocean-liner afišionados. "That book struck a chord," says Maxtone-Graham, who receives guests in his Manhattan sitting room packed with mementos from such famous passenger ships as the Normandie, the United States, and the Queen Mary. "I thought of it as a nostalgic farewell, since the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary were just going out of service. But the new cruise explosion is very exciting for a marine historian."
Maxtone-Graham's next two books, Liners to the Sun (1985) and Crossing and Cruising (1992), tapped into a growing penchant for leisurely meanders through warm waters to the rhythm of calypso music. "Americans have created their own image of shipboard life, perhaps based on `Love Boat'," says Maxtone-Graham. "It's very different from the European conception, which is based in history."
Even so, he believes today's cruise passengers ... aren't so different from the immigrants, sightseers, and celebrities who braved the North Atlantic years ago. "The way passengers behave today is exactly the same as they did a hundred years ago," he says. "Only the clothes and conversation are different. The gossip, the preoccupation with food, the wish to cozy up to the captain - these haven't changed, although the ships are filled with plastic and aluminum rather than brass and teak."
When he's not writing articles for Travel & Leisure, Town & Country, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Maxtone-Graham edits The Ocean Liner Gazette, the newsletter of the New York-based Ocean Liner Museum, of which he is a trustee. Though the museum has hosted three major New York exhibitions of ship artifacts in its fifteen-year existence, it's still searching for a permanent home in Manhattan.
With his wife, Mary, Maxtone-Graham spends about one-quarter of each year on cruise ships, giving lectures and performing nostalgic skits about life on the old ocean liners. "Advancing age has given me near-immunity to seasickness," he notes happily. Clearly Maxtone-Graham has found a comfortable berth, one where something old continually crosses sea lanes with something new.
Other books by John Maxtone-Graham