• SS Beguine gets her name

SS Beguine gets her name

It was the year that Amelia Earhart became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific ocean; Italy invaded Ethiopia; Babe Ruth hit the 714th and final home run of his career. And Cole Porter set out upon a world cruise. Although he never set out to give a name to a tramp steamship from Saigon. It was just one of those things to Begin the Beguine.

It was March 1, 1935 in Apia, Samoa. In the snug harbor lay the Cunard-White Star line’s cruise ship RMS Franconia, all white and shining. On the C deck, in a lavish stateroom equipped with a spinet piano, 27 pieces of luggage and three cases of Chambertin Grand Cru '87, were Cole Porter and his wife Linda. The world’s most famous, and richest, song writer was traveling with stage and screen character actor Monty Wooley, and Broadway director and playwright Moss Hart. The trio plus Linda were on the Franconia’s four month cruise to get away from the distractions of fame and financiers to write a new Broadway production to be called Jubilee. The cerebral Hart was to write the script, Porter the songs, and the fluffy-bearded and aptly named Wooley was to direct.

Christian Bardinet stood on the pier as a light equatorial breeze ruffled his trousers and brought him the scent of the day’s lazy rain soon to fall. Captain Bardinet was a newly licensed ship’s master, though he had nothing to do with ships so grand as the Franconia. He was hitching rides from San Francisco westward to his home town and home port of Saigon, French Indochina. Franconia’s first officer was a former shipmate of Bardinet’s. He’d come this far from California on tramps. But here was an opportunity for refined travel, at least as far as Singapore. The Franconia would continue across the Indian Ocean on her annual round the world cruise. Bardinet would find it easy to get passage from there the 600 nautical miles north to Saigon.

Bardinet was quietly ensconced in the First Officer’s cabin, with the Master’s approval, occupying a corner of the First’s wardrobe and the folding settee. Bardinet had no duties to perform and nowhere to go, so he fell in with the fun loving Porter party. Actually, he fell in mostly with the elegant and vivacious Linda. All very proper and in public view, of course. They danced most nights after dinner. Foxtrot and Waltz mostly, though Linda helped him perfect his Tango. “But no dip. I hate the dip. It hurts my back.” So said she.

“No dip,” said he.

The three boys were too busy for dancing. Busy with work and drink and deeply private conversations of a deeply private sort. When two of them closed the door, the door stayed closed.

But Bardinet insinuated himself into their creative processes as much as he could while being as discreet as he could. Half way to Singapore, on or about March 15, as the ship was bound for the island of Pulau Alor (port of Kalabahi, just north of Portuguese Timor) in the Dutch East Indies, Cole Porter wrote Begin the Beguine.

Artie Shaw would make it a staple of the Swing repertoire in 1938. And almost all later performers of the piece would make of it a jazzy tune or an operatic bit of musical thunder. But Bardinet was in the room when Porter had finally solved the complex puzzle of its 108 bars. And both the lyrics and Porter’s plaintive voice made it plain that it was a deeply sad, even painful, and yet sweet song. The up-beat tempo, which Shaw and virtually all others would focus on, was Porter’s way of keeping the song from being maudlin. It was about a profound and abiding love that had been irretrievably lost; could only be tasted again, for mere moments, in the wine of that one flood of music: The Beguine.

To live it again is past all endeavor.
Except when that tune clutches my heart.
And there we are, swearing to love forever,
And promising never, never to part.

“What do you think, Bardinet? Does it work for you?” Christian Bardinet was a man of liberal education and catholic tastes. Music was integral to his studies. This song resonated inside him, clambered in his brain, and quivered in his belly. It shivered his timbers. He couldn’t sit still. He had been jotting down the notes on one of Porter’s blank music sheets. He handed it to Porter. He perused it quickly. “Well done, old chap. Not one note out of order.” Porter autographed it for him.

“You’ve done something astonishing here,” Bardinet gushed. “You’ve written a sad song about a happy dance. In three movements. First a warm reverie. Then recoiling away from the pain of memory. And at the end, the narrator is saying ‘It hurts. But go ahead and hurt me. It’s worth it. It’s the best I’ve got.’ This is going to haunt me, Porter.”

“It should, mon ami. It must. It will. I’ll get ‘Hutch’ to record it. He’s the only one for it.”

“Yes! Hutchinson! Only he could sing this kind of pain.”

Hands shaking, Bardinet rushed out to find the director of the ship’s orchestra. That night after dinner in March of 1935, 12 degrees and 27 minutes south of the equator, west-bound in the Coral Sea, Captain Christian Bardinet and Mrs. Cole Porter were the first couple ever to dance to an orchestra playing Begin the Beguine.

Upon his return to Saigon, Captain Bardinet took his first full command. He also took legal possession of the ship. All the lawyerly business surrounding his late parents’ demise had finished and he inherited the family business. Messageries Côtière Indochine was a small shipping company operating from Saigon in and around the South China Sea. In his parents’ time the company claimed half a dozen coasters, barges and tenders, a small dockside warehouse full of lesser contraband, plus the 380 foot steamer SS Corsica. Debts required the sale of all but the Corsica. When Christian took possession of her he immediately rechristened her SS Beguine. He broke a bottle of Grand Chambertin ’87 across her prow. Cole Porter had given it to him as a parting gift. Christian sent him a photograph of the event, which was waiting for him when the Franconia returned to New York. Wooley scowled in the way only gray-bearded fat men can, and muttered something about alcohol abuse. Linda laughed delightedly. “Don’t be such an old poo,” she teased. Hart scratched his thought-filled head. Cole was very quiet for a moment, and far away.
O yes, let them begin the Beguine, make them play
Till the stars that were there before return above you
Till you whisper to me once more: “Darling, I love you!”
And we suddenly know what heaven we’re in
When they begin the Beguine

Thus began the seven years voyages of the SS Beguine.