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TRAVELING in style : Character Witnesses : Although you're not likely to run across the Rev. Davidson or Sadie Thompson at sea, you might well encounter certain colorful people, perhaps because a cruise ship--one of the few places remaining where a traveler is regarded as an individual of consequence-- encourages eccentricity.

March 18, 1990|SHIRLEY SLATER | Slater is a Los Angeles writer.

I've always suspected that British novelist Somerset Maugham made so many cruises throughout his lifetime because he found most of the raw material for his stories aboard ship. Certainly, his most famous short story, "Rain," was developed from a shipboard encounter he observed between a repressed Scottish missionary and an American prostitute on a voyage between Hawaii and Samoa.

Although you're not likely to run across the Rev. Davidson or Sadie Thompson on a cruise ship these days, you occasionally encounter some equally colorful characters leaning against the rail, perhaps because a cruise ship--one of the few places remaining where a traveler is regarded as an individual of consequence--encourages eccentricity.

Novelist John Jakes, a frequent cruise passenger, once told me about a character he had met aboard a Queen Elizabeth 2 world cruise (a person whom Jakes had not yet used in his Civil War novels)--an eccentric Midwestern man, in a tuxedo so ancient it had a green patina, who delighted in stopping elderly ladies, asking, "Have you seen this?" and then pulling a balloon from his pocket and inflating it into a graphically obscene animal.

The world cruise is by its very nature a hothouse for human foibles. More than any other form of shipboard existence, such a cruise reinforces a comment by writer Geoffrey Bocca: "Travel by sea nearly approximates the bliss of babyhood. They feed you, rock you gently to sleep and, when you wake up, they take care of you and feed you again."

During a world cruise aboard Holland America's gracious liner Rotterdam, which made its last long voyage in 1987 before settling down into a life of shorter sailings, I first realized that money can buy happiness as I watched the longtime regulars create their own utopia within the confines of the ship. They'd return each year to the reassuring rituals of a sheltered world they knew and loved, with familiar and faithful stewards and staff ready to serve them. There, with their calling cards and printed invitations to private cocktail parties and luncheons they gave for each other, their afternoon concerts and black-tie dinners, the seven-course meals they only nibbled at and the white-gloved waiters who called them by name, they could escape a world grown loud and fast-moving and ugly.

They had no need to go ashore in Singapore or Abidjan; they'd seen it all before. But they did demand a consistency of form, a ritual of excellence, year after year. I remember watching one grande dame summon the hotel manager to her table one morning at breakfast. "Mr. Zellers," she said firmly, "come look here; the bananas aren't as yellow as they used to be."

It's easier to meet interesting people in the egalitarian atmosphere aboard cruise ships than anywhere else you can visualize: film stars such as Richard Dreyfuss, who went ashore in search of an acupuncturist (and found one) when the Rotterdam dock- ed in Istanbul; Eva Marie Saint on a Stella Solaris shore excursion in Santorini, hurrying to board the cable car on a bet that she would beat her husband, Jeffrey Hayden, who was walking down the 587 steps, back to the ship (she lost); Barbara Bel Geddes hopping out of a Golden Odyssey tour bus in Shanghai and doing a Chaplin-esque turn with a street sweeper's broom to the applause of passengers and the mystification of the Chinese workers; Barbara Rush performing a spontaneous eye-makeup demonstration aboard the World Discoverer, after which the ship's shop sold out of eye shadow; Stewart Granger wandering around the Royal Princess, sharing a pitcher of Bloody Marys made to his own recipe with delighted tipplers on deck.

But there are also the people that I call The-Man-Who, because that's the way passengers identify them to each other: John Marion, North American chairman of Sotheby's, the man who auctioned off the Duchess of Windsor's jewelry collection; and Stephen Dachi, the U.S. consul in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the man who helped identify the skeletal remains of Joseph Mengele through dental detective work, both lecturing aboard the Royal Viking Sea about their accomplishments; Julius Gold, a Connecticut delicatessen owner traveling on the Illiria, the man who was in litigation with Paul Newman about a salad dressing's profits; George McGovern, the man who once ran for President, and Charlie Barnett, the man who used to lead a band, both sailing aboard the Rotterdam.

Salt air is usually blamed for shrinking garments, since after a few days at sea most people find their clothes suddenly too tight, but it also seems to loosen tongues and inhibitions as people unwind. Novelist Dominick Dunne used this quick intimacy to good effect in the beginning of "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," in which a noted recluse talks about a murder case she was involved with years before to a seemingly sympathetic shipboard companion.

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