Gibbs steadily built his firm, Gibbs and Cox, into the premier maritime design shop in the world. The U.S. Navy became his most important client, but he also got the chance to work on civilian projects. The most important in this period was the SS America (launched by Eleanor Roosevelt on August 31, 1939) — a fine ship, but less than one-third the size of, and much slower than, the great behemoths then dominating the North Atlantic. The Blue Riband — the accolade given each year to the ship with the swiftest transatlantic crossing — had over the prior decade been traded back and forth among six different ships, all European.
Another war kept Gibbs busier than ever and raised his profile: He made the cover of Time in 1942. An intensely patriotic man, he took great pride in his firm’s contribution to the war effort. He remained obsessed nonetheless with building his “big ship,” first dreamed up in Harvard’s Claverly Hall in 1908.
It was the war that gave him the chance. Impressed by the troop-carrying capacity of Britain’s mammoth Queens
), U.S.-government officials agreed to subsidize the construction of a front-rank American liner — the first since 1894’s St. Louis
, financed by Gibbs’s father and the inspiration for Gibbs’s own ship obsession.
The resulting SS United States is a masterpiece in every sense. The American ship was less opulent that her European competitors, but her design and technology exceeded theirs in every way. On her maiden voyage in July 1952, the “Big U” won the Blue Riband by the largest margin in history. Her top speeds have never since been equaled by a single-hulled vessel and, given the economics of shipping today, never will.
A formal and laconic man, Gibbs had a family life that was cordial but not much more. When one journalist told him, “I do believe you love the United States more than your wife,” he replied, “You are a thousand percent correct.” Every week his chauffeur took him from his Fifth Avenue apartment to the foot of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge so he could watch his “big ship” steam out or come home. And every single day the ship was at sea, he telephoned the bridge and the engine room to check up on her.
When Gibbs died in 1967, the party on the North Atlantic was already over. The great liners were sailing half full or worse: Jet aircraft outranked them as paying propositions. But Gibbs’s firm lives on and remains one of the most important in the world. Improbably, the United States also survives. Laid up in 1969 because of poor earnings and persistent labor trouble, she has since bounced from owner to owner, none of whom could find a way to make her pay. The current hope is to refurbish her as a floating museum, much like the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif. It remains to be seen whether the enormous sums required can ever be raised.
Gibbs’s is a story of immense achievement and contribution to his country. It is also one of relentless focus, persistence, and optimism. Ujifusa ably chronicles the myriad frustrations, humiliations, obstacles, and plain bad luck that Gibbs, Job-like, had to endure over 44 years before realizing his vision. Many similarly driven men are (or become) insane. Most sane men eventually give up and move on. Rare is the man who is both monomaniacal and completely rational.
A Man and His Ship is a monument that William Francis Gibbs, one of the rarest and purest expressions of the American character, richly deserves.
— Michael Anton is writer in New York City, and he served on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.