Anchors Aweigh: True Tales Of Skaters On The High Seas

"Skaters' Island" by Louis Lozowick. Photo courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Karl Schäfer, Maribel Vinson Owen, Sonja Henie, Belita Jepson-Turner, Theresa Weld Blanchard, Andrée and Pierre Brunet, Megan Taylor, Cecilia Colledge... The one thing all of these fabulous names of yesteryear had in common was certainly their talent on the ice.  Another commonality they all shared was the fact they made trans-Atlantic voyages via steamship. Long before figure skaters began travelling abroad on commercial flights in the fifties, long sea voyages and connections with trains meant days and sometimes weeks of missed training time. Skaters often arrived at competitions exhausted and suffering from queasiness and sea legs. Today on the blog we'll explore several tales of the adventures of figure skaters on the high seas!


Clayton Joseph Cornell and Grace Emmerson

Clayton Joseph Cornell, a professional figure skater from Buffalo, New York found work on the Tivoli Circuit in Australia in the late thirties and had designs of being a skating rink proprietor. He met actress Grace Emmerson in the summer of 1937 and after only a few weeks, they tied the knot on September 11 of that year. They lived together for a few months, but when she went to go visit her mother in Melbourne, he boarded a ship and sailed to Montreal without so much of a goodbye. He sent her a couple of letters from aboard the ship full of hasty explanations and apologies and begged her for a divorce. In one, he wrote, "I have not been any good to you, so why wait any longer if you can get yourself free from me? Please get yourself free. If you don't, I will. I am being a man about this and I hope you don't hate me about this for having to write like this... I am sorry, your husband of yesterday - Clayton Cornell." To top it off, he followed up his letters to the wife he abandoned with two to her parents, begging for money. Under Australian law, Grace had to wait three years to charge desertion. In 1942, she went before a judge and was granted a divorce... and went straight to the papers to tell her story.


Hazel Franklin. Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale du Québec.

In the summer of 1939, the media had a field day when two of professional skating's hottest stars walked off separate gangways of the Queen Mary at Southampton. Though twenty six year old Sonja Henie was by far the bigger star, fourteen year old Hazel Franklin of Bournemouth was at the time one of the youngest professional skaters in the world, lauded by one American critic as the "Pocket Miracle Of The Ice".

Sonja Henie aboard The Queen Mary. Photo courtesy National Archives Of Poland.

The July 7, 1939 issue of "Tweed Daily" reported, "Sonja is Hazel's heroine. But they did not meet in the boat or at Southampton. Hazel was in the ship's tourist section. But she known that Sonja was on board. She was met at Waterloo - on the second section of the boat train - by stocky, American-born Mr. Howard Nicholson, ice professional at Earl's Court, who has trained both Sonja and herself. Her first words to him were, 'Sonja was in the boat' and her eyes gleamed. 'I think she's marvellous.'...  Sonja was smiling and vivacious and talking of more film triumphs to come at Claridge's Hotel. Asked about her young rival, she said: 'I didn't even know she was in the same boat... We have never met before, but I should certainly like to see Hazel. Sure, if I'd known she was on board I should have gone along and said 'Hullo.'"


Lovett and Joy MacKinnon, a Canadian sister act

(Edna Alexis) Lovett MacKinnon, a twenty one year old Canadian figure skater and Presbyterian minister's daughter, met her Prince Charming on a ship sailing from South Africa to Australia. After touring Australia and New Zealand for several months alongside Megan and Phil Taylor in the "Switzerland" ice revue, her groom-to-be paid five hundred pounds to have her released from her contract so that they could marry. She returned to South Africa to get married in the autumn of 1939. Although she didn't know it when they met on the high seas, her husband wasn't just anyone... he was Arthur Percy de Villiers, a real life Baron who worked as a lawyer in New Zealand.


Dick Button with his parents on the R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth

After winning three back-to-back gold medals at the 1948 European Championships in Prague, the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz and the 1948 World Championships, Dick Button made his rounds throughout Europe, giving exhibitions in Vienna, Budapest, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Prague, Paris and London. After his final exhibition, he boarded the R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth in England with his parents to return to North America, where he was to defend his U.S. title. In his book "Dick Button On Skates", Uncle Dick recalled, "Nothing in the future could occupy my thoughts after the 'Queen' had steamed out into the dark midnight. The only energy I could muster was used to record, in the accounts I kept of all the travels, that 'We sailed this morning. I slept.' However, excitement reached out for me even on the high seas via the ship-to-shore telephone. I received a call from Mayor M. Leslie Denning of Engelwood, and learned that I was to welcomed home in the traditional 'local boy makes good' fashion. That wasn't all. When the 'Queen' had been cleared at Quarantine, in lower New York Harbor, a veritable swarm of photographers, newsmen and officials crowded the area reserved for interviews... Four months abroad had all passed so rapidly and the final excitement of such a gala return relegated to oblivion the fact that six years of preparation were already consigned to the past." It wasn't the first time Button had travelled on the "Queen Elizabeth". The year prior, he and Barbara Ann Scott returned to North America aboard the same ship. Their fellow passengers included the Honourable David Bowes-Lyon, brother of the Queen Mother, the U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Count René Aldebert Pineton de Chambrun and Maurice Chevalier. That time, it was Barbara Ann's turn to be summoned to the ship-to-shore telephone. She was chatting with Maurice Chevalier when she was called to speak with Jack Karr, a reporter for the "Toronto Daily Star" who couldn't wait until she got off the boat in New York to do an interview.

Postcard of the R.M.S. Montcalm, the ship which Cecil Smith and Melville Rogers travelled on as Canada's first figure skaters to compete in the Winter Olympic Games in 1924


Photo courtesy Digital Maryland

At the start of World War II, British impresario Claude Langdon received a cable from Arthur M. Wirtz, who wanted to import a touring ice pantomine similar to "Marina". Wirtz asked Langdon to create the company and 'export' the first ice show from Great Britain to America. A large cast was assembled at Earl's Court and Denis Mitchell, the general manager of Empress Hall, offered to escort the large cast of skaters to America. The trouble was in securing a safe Transatlantic passage. In his book "Earl's Court", Langdon recalled, "Owing to the war scare all liner space was booked by Americans in Europe rushing to return to the United States, so we had to pack the girls aboard a cargo-boat, the historic American Freighter. Instead of the three or four days of the crack Transatlantic liners, the freighter took 27 days to cross, and Mitchell was on tenterhooks that they would not arrive in time to open the show on contract date. Wirtz was delighted with 'European Ice Revue', and the show was safely launched on a magnificent U.S. tour... and then came the war. Denis Mitchell managed to get back, but most of the top-flight acts in the show were under contract booking and could not leave. Several of them, anyway, were not British nationals, and had no urgent need to return to the European theatre of war. This disruption broke up the ice revue so far as I was concerned, and we lost a sizable part of half a million dollars. That hurt. But I am comforted by the knowledge that my stars of the European Ice Revue fathered that sort of entertainment in America, where it had never been seen before. Today nearly every top-grade ice act in the United States owes its origin or inspiration to the Earl's Court stars I sent over."


Megan Taylor on the S.S. Anchises

On February 27, 1941, the S.S. Anchises, a passenger liner from the Blue Funnel Line, was bombed by a German aircraft in the Aran Islands. One hundred and thirty four passengers abandoned the ship on lifeboats, while thirty three crew members stayed on board to try to sail the ship to Liverpool. Attacked again the next day, the ship sank with a combined loss between the two attacks of fifteen lives. Less than two years prior, two time and then reigning World Champion Megan Taylor and her father and trainer Phil sailed aboard the Anchises to Melbourne, Australia via South Africa. At the time, Megan was considered one of the leading contenders for the gold medal at the 1940 Winter Olympic Games. Her father had been engaged to star in an ice revue in Australia and New Zealand, and she originally intended to train for the Games down under. When the War cancelled those Games, she joined the "Switzerland" revue. On the 'long boat to Australia', Megan missed weeks of valuable training time and resorted to skipping rope and walking laps around the ship to stay in shape.


In the mid to late thirties, Vienna's Maria Schweinburg was considered an up-and-coming skater with a bright future. She defeated Daphne Walker and Belita Jepson-Turner to win the junior international competition for women at the 1935 European Championships in St. Moritz and won numerous cups, prizes and honours at competitions held in Vienna and Prague. On November 30, 1938, she left Vienna and headed to London, where she remained for over a year. On December 15, 1939, she departed from Liverpool aboard the R.M.S. Samaria bound for America, where she'd secured a job teaching skating at the Knox School. The January 19, 1940 issue of "The Otsego Farmer" recalled, "Suddenly the ship shuddered from the effect of a great blow. The emergency bell rang and all passengers were ordered on deck and to take life belts. Everyone feared that the ship had been torpedoed and many made for the life boats. Ten minutes later, however, the word went around that there had been a collision with the Aquetania, carrying the first Canadian contingent of soldiers to England. With all her life boats damaged and the bridge half torn away, the Samaria had no choice but to return to Liverpool. There Miss Schweinburg waited another week until she could secure passage on the Georgie and this time made a safe passage to America. Although no untoward events occurred this time, the experience of navigating the Atlantic under war conditions is one that Miss Schweinburg will always remember. The complete blackout at night is terrifying in its effect, she says, and the constant zig-zagging of the boat as it changes its course every four minutes is not so pleasant. Rough water was encountered the last day of the voyage, but the ship docked safely at Halifax, and then came down the coast to New York after a short delay because of rumours of the sighting of German U-boats on that lane of travel."

Maria Schweinburg wasn't the only figure skater to survive a U-boat attack. On September 1, 1939, the S.S. Athenia left Glasgow, Scotland, bound for Montreal with over one thousand passengers aboard... though it was clear that war could erupt any day. A day into its voyage, it was torpedoed by a German u-boat off of Ireland. One hundred and seventeen people, mostly passengers, died in the sinking.

Clipping from "The New York Times"

One of the survivors was Ramona Allen, a young skater from Oakland, California. She went on to win the 1940 U.S. junior women's title and medals in both senior singles and dance at the U.S. Championships during the War.

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