On a Saturday morning in November in 1969, a series of bizarre and inexplicable events occurred aboard the fifty-five-thousand-ton luxury liner S.S. Bretagne as it was preparing to sail from the Port of New York to Le Havre.
Claude Dessard, chief purser of the Bretagne, a capa-able and meticulous man, ran, as he was fond of saying, a “tight ship.” In the fifteen years Dessard had served aboard the Bretagne, he had never encountered a situation he had not been able to deal with efficiently and discreetly. Considering that the S.S. Bretagne was a French ship, this was high tribute, indeed. However, on this particular day it was as though a thousand devils were conspiring against him. It was of small consolation to his sensitive Gallic pride that the intensive investigations conducted afterward by the American and French branches of Interpol and the steamship line’s own security forces failed to turn up a single plausible explanation for the extraordinary happenings of that day.
Because of the fame of the persons involved, the story was told in headlines all over the world, but the mystery remained unsolved.
As for Claude Dessard, he retired from the Cie. Trans-atlantique and opened a bistro in Nice, where he never tired of reliving with his patrons that strange, unforgettable November day.
It had begun, Dessard recalled, with the delivery of flowers from the President of the United States.
One hour before sailing time, an official black limousine bearing government license plates had driven up to Pier 92 on the lower Hudson River. A man wearing a charcoal-gray suit had disembarked from the car, carrying a bouquet of thirty-six Sterling Silver roses. He had made his way to the foot of the gangplank and exchanged a few words with Alain Safford, the Bretagne’s officer on duty. The flowers were ceremoniously transferred to Janin, a junior deck officer, who delivered them and then sought out Claude Dessard.
“I thought you might wish to know,” Janin reported. “Roses from the President to Mme. Temple.”
Jill Temple. In the last year, her photograph had appeared on the front pages of daily newspapers and on magazine covers from New York to Bangkok and Paris to Leningrad. Claude Dessard recalled reading that she had been number one in a recent poll of the world’s most admired women, and that a large number of newborn girls were being christened Jill. The United States of America had always had its heroines. Now, Jill Temple had become one. Her courage and the fantastic battle she had won and then so ironically lost had captured the imagination of the world. It was a great love story, but it was much more than that: it contained all the elements of classic Greek drama and tragedy.
Claude Dessard was not fond of Americans, but in this case he was delighted to make an exception. He had tremendous admiration for Mme. Temple. She was—and this was the highest accolade Dessard could tender—galante. He resolved to see to it that her voyage on his ship would be a memorable one.
The chief purser turned his thoughts away from Jill Temple and concentrated on a final check of the passenger list. There was the usual collection of what the Americans referred to as V.I.P.’s, an acronym Dessard detested, particularly since Americans had such barbaric ideas about what made a person important. He noted that the wife of a wealthy industrialist was traveling alone. Dessard smiled knowingly and scanned the passenger list for the name of Matt Ellis, a black football star. When he found it, he nodded to himself, satisfied. Dessard was also interested to note that in adjoining cabins were a prominent senator and Carlina Rocca, a South American stripper, whose names had been linked in recent news stories. His eye moved down the list.
David Kenyon. Money. An enormous amount of it. He had sailed on the Bretagne before. Dessard remembered David Kenyon as a good-looking, deeply tanned man with a lean, athletic body. A quiet, impressive man. Dessard put a C.T., for captain’s table, after David Kenyon’s name.
Clifton Lawrence. A last-minute booking. A small frown appeared on the chief purser’s face. Ah, here was a delicate problem. What did one do with Monsieur Lawrence? At one time the question would not even have been raised, for he would automatically have been seated at the captain’s table, where he would have regaled everyone with amusing anecdotes. Clifton Lawrence was a theatrical agent who in his day had represented many of the major stars in the entertainment business. But, alas, M. Lawrence’s day was over. Where once the agent had always insisted on the luxurious Princess Suite, on this voyage he had booked a single room on a lower deck. First class, of course, but still…Claude Dessard decided he would reserve his decision until he had gone through the other names.
There was minor royalty aboard, a famous opera singer and a Nobel Prize-declining Russian novelist.
A knock at the door interrupted Dessard’s concentration. Antoine, one of the porters, entered.
“Yes—what?” Claude Dessard asked.
Antoine regarded him with rheumy eyes. “Did you order the theater locked?”
Dessard frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“I assumed it was you. Who else would do it? A few minutes ago I checked to see that everything was in order. The doors were locked. It sounded like someone was inside the theater, running a movie.”
“We never run films in port,” Dessard said firmly. “And at no time are those doors locked. I’ll look into it.”
Ordinarily, Claude Dessard would have investigated the report immediately, but now he was harassed by dozens of urgent last-minute details that had to be attended to before the twelve o’clock sailing. His supply of American dollars did not tally, one of the best suites had been booked twice by mistake, and the wedding gift ordered by Captain Montaigne had been delivered to the wrong ship. The captain was going to be furious. Dessard stopped to listen to the familiar sound of the ship’s four powerful turbines starting. He felt the movement of the S.S. Bretagne as she slipped away from the pier and began backing her way into the channel. Then Dessard once again became engrossed in his problems.