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SS United States on the Page: Becoming Mrs. Lewis

Since the very beginning, America’s Flagship has been been a fixture of the popular imagination and a muse for artists of all stripes. She’s starred in movies, inspired musical compositions, and even appeared as a “character” in books.

As longtime readers of this blog might recall, the SS United States played a major role in the 2017 novel, The Torchlight Gambit. Now, the Big U is once again included in a prominent work of literature: Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.

Image courtesy of HarperCollins.

This critically acclaimed novel, penned by New York Times best-selling author Patti Callahan Henry, tells the story of the real-life romance between Lewis — the beloved children’s fantasy writer who dreamed up Narnia — and the woman who would be his wife, the celebrated American poet and novelist Joy Davidman.

The SS United States plays a key role in the novel, carrying Davidman away from her unhappy marriage in America, to England, where she lived out the rest of her days with C.S. Lewis.

“I didn’t know much at all about the ship until I started this book and became quite enchanted with her,” says author Patti Callahan Henry. “She was a beauty.”

The following is an excerpt that doesn’t appear in the final version of the novel, but which the author felt would be of interest to the ship’s supporters.

August 1952

Begin again, must I begin again

Who have begun so many loves in fire.

“Sonnet I,” Joy Davidman

There are so many ways to fall in love, and I’d begun each ash-destined affair in myriad ways. And there I was beginning again in that August of 1952.

“Ma’am,” The porter in a crisp white uniform motioned to me, startling me from my reverie. I’d been staring at the Manhattan skyline, skyscrapers like cardboard cutouts against a stormy sky. Behind me the grand ocean liner waited, a mountain of a ship I would soon board.

“I’m sorry, what’s that?” I shielded my eyes with the palm of my hand to glance at him.

“I only wondered, if you would like me to take your trunk and valise to your cabin?” His efficient English accent made him sound older than his smooth, young face revealed.

“Yes, please.” I tilted my straw bucket hat, the one I’d chosen not because I thought it made me look glamorous, but at least less dowdy. I smiled and straightened my shoulders.

“Are you traveling alone?” The porter glanced around as if I had a family he hadn’t yet seen. I almost tasted the disdain in his voice. All around me, chic women boarded the SS United States for London, and they gathered loved ones—children, husbands, and mothers.

“Yes, I’m alone.”

He placed his hands on his hips and bent to check the labels. “Helen Joy Davidman Gresham,” he said. “Correct?”

“Yes. I’m Joy Davidman.” I waited. Maybe he’d heard of me. But the young man only nodded as I reached into my purse and handed him a tip. He grabbed the straps of my trunk and dragged it toward the trolley that would usher my bags into the bowels of the great ship.

A small, third class cabin was all I could afford, but still, I’d bought passage with money I’d made from my writing. Now, as the world recovered from the illness and fever of World War II, the grand ocean liner dominating the New York Harbor was a sign of renewed elegance and hope in all things good. At almost one thousand feet long with a dark blue hull and two towering red smoke stacks, she was a sign of salvation to me. With me, nine hundred passengers would fill her belly, and she had been nicknamed—as are all things when loved—the Big U.

The crowded docks wreaked of smoke and gasoline, of old whiskey and fermenting trash. Men hollered for their wives, and children clung to their parents’ hands, awestruck by the sheer enormity of the brand new ocean liner.

If my sons, Davy and Douglas had been with me, they would have already run up the gangplank pushing and stumbling to beat the other to the top. No longer able to bear the loneliness which signs of family and love evoked in me, I lifted my gaze from the crowds, again to the ocean liner. She held firm to the docks with ropes as thick as trees, and she didn’t move in the choppy waters, although all around her the water swayed, danced, and slapped against her hull. Tall white letters along her smooth ribs declared: SS United States.

Copyright © 2018 by Patti Callahan Henry.


A special “thank you” to Conservancy supporter Colleen Crosson Smith for making us aware of the Big U’s role in this book—which is now available for purchase online, as well as at booksellers nationwide.


More than six decades after her record-breaking maiden voyage, the SS United States remains a vibrant and unforgettable cultural icon. Have you spotted this mighty vessel in a work of art, literature, or popular culture? Let us know.

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