“I did go back to boats, and I’m not scared of the water even though I still don’t know how to swim.”
George Watremez, Morro Castle survivor, smiles slightly and continues; “To tell you the truth, I don’t think about it often….”
Mike and I are sitting in the living room of the Watremez residence. It is a large room, furnished with antiques that span the history of the 216 year old house. A pair of oil paintings, dating to 1961 hang on the wall over the couch, showing Mrs. Watremez looking coolly elegant with upswept hair and delicately crossed hands, and Mr. Watremez, in a portrait tiled “The Tool Maker” looking handsome and natural in a blue work shirt with an open collar. The room is sunny and friendly, and so too are our hosts. Mrs. Watremez sits beneath her portrait and the contrast is not cruel. She has expressive features, an easy smile and a gracious manner. Mr. Watremez sits to my right in a comfortable chair. Again, the contrast between The Tool Maker from 1961, and its subject “in the flesh “ in 2006 is not cruel. He recalls names, dates, and places from 1934 with almost startling accuracy. He can relate a story in a way that keeps your attention focused throughout, without exaggerating or resorting to ‘storyteller’ tactics. Like his wife, he is immediately likeable and from the moment we were seated both Mike and myself have felt completely at home.
George Watremez was 19 in 1934, and employed by Dr. James Coll of New Jersey . Dr. and Mrs. Coll were traveling to Havana with George’s cousin, Dr. Jules Blondeau and his wife, Margie, and in an act of generosity, Dr. Coll treated his chauffeur- George- to a cabin aboard the Morro Castle on what proved to be her fatal voyage. Jules and Margie Blondeau would swim six miles to shore on the morning of the fire, while Dr. Coll would be killed in a freak accident and his wife Dorothy brought back to New York City aboard the Monarch of Bermuda. George jumped from the C Deck fantail at the height of the fire, drifted in his life jacket for 8 hours, and was rescued by the Paramount. A self-described “packrat,” Mr. Watremez still has, in his possession, the 1934 deck plan and interior brochure he received before the voyage, a carefully preserved towel from a Spring Lake hotel that he was given with which to dry himself when he was brought ashore, and the pocket watch he carried with him through the disaster, monogrammed with his initials~ G.L.W. ~and engraved: Morro Castle: September 8th, 1934. “The one thing I regret that I didn’t keep,” he says, “is my life preserver.” It was removed from him aboard the Paramount and he did not retrieve it upon disembarking. A photocopy of a clipping from the family collection shows a distant view of Morro Castle survivors walking towards shore along a dock, among them George: someone has written “George” in the sky portion of the photo, and an arrow points downward to the small, but recognizable, face in the crowd. A box holds a huge stack of New York City newspapers covering all aspects of the disaster~ I randomly reach into the stack and extract a 1935 edition of the New York Daily News with a cover photo of the burned out hulk of the vessel being towed into Gravesend Bay in Brooklyn. I want, badly, to read through the entire pile, but knowing as I do vintage newspapers’ tendency to self-destruct into a pile of loose pages and paper fragments, I resist the urge to begin digging.
Within a few minutes of commencing the conversation, Mike and I realize that, Morro Castle connections aside, Mr. and Mrs. Watremez, and their daughter Paulette who arranged this meeting, are very interesting people. Over the course of five hours, the discussion moves in directions I never imagined that it would. “The Normandie” says Mrs. Watremez, her facing lighting up, “she was the most beautiful ship. She was like a yacht.” Mr. Watremez’s family owned a popular French restaurant, La Tour Eiffel, on West 52nd street during the 1930’s and early 1940’s and members of the Normandie crew ate there. George and Jeanne Watremez visited the ship several times, and on a cold February afternoon in 1942 witnessed her burning. George recalls the frustration of the Normandie’s skeleton crew, billeted at the Hotel Chesterfield after the U.S. takeover of the liner in the latter half of 1941, at not being permitted to board the ship and aid with the efforts to save her. Later, after the war, Mr.and Mrs. Watremez and their children traveled aboard all of the major French Liners; Liberte; Ile de France; France. They sold the restaurant in 1948 ~ the new owner then resold it to Frank Sinatra and it became “Jilly’s,” the theater district restaurant run by his friend Jilly Rizzo. We have come to discuss the Morro Castle, but our hosts have proved to be an amazing source of unexaggerated and very precise anecdotes regarding classic ocean liners, World War 2, and Roosevelt-era New York City. The conversation touches upon all of my areas of interest in the field of history, and with each new tangent I grow more impressed- and wish that I was tape recording it all for posterity. The family is aware of the disasters to the Havana and Mohawk in the months following the Morro Castle , and are surprised to learn that a Mohawk survivor, Karl Osterhaut, lived out his life ‘just up the road’ from them in a neighboring town. They wonder, aloud, if he read the interview George gave to a local paper in the mid 1980s. They listen, and laugh, as Mike and I tell briefly of surviving the world’s first portable shipwreck ~ the Queen Mary 2 January 2004 Maiden Voyage.