Article from Classic Boat November 2016
How a dedicated couple brought about the unlikely rebirth of a classic New York commuter yacht with a star-studded history
Words by Sam Jefferson
“The novelist F Scott Fitzgerald once noted that ‘the rich are different to us’ and he wasn’t simply talking about the fact that they had more money; there is a certain intangible glamour attached to extreme wealth that fascinates almost all of us.
Such a concept can be hard to convey; yet step aboard the classic commuter yacht Judith R and suddenly it all makes sense. She has just received an 8-year restoration at Wootton’s Thames-side workshop and is looking immaculate. Yet beneath the varnish and snow-white decks there’s something else; an intangible aura about this magnificent yacht; a sprinkling of stardust. For the ghosts of a golden age of glamour and wealth seem to haunt her very frames and whisper of a different world.
There is good reason for this for Judith R is a yacht that spent much of her life steeped in glamour. She was commissioned by the movie impresario Barney Balaban in 1935. A year later he became head of Paramount Studios, dealing with a string of stars such as Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, many of whom he would have entertained aboard Judith R.
She was one of the last of the great commuter yachts; lavishly fitted out motorboats with absurdly powerful engines that used to roar across Long Island Sound delivering their precious cargoes of multimillionaires to their Manhattan Island offices. These fast launches were more than simply functional items fort getting from A to B. They were also status symbols that spelt out in no uncertain terms that the owner was a man of consequence who had signed up to the American dream and woken up to discover it was a glorious reality.
ART DECO GRACE
Judith R was one of the jewels of this commuter fleet – 57ft and built by Robinson Marine on Lake Michigan. Her frames were oak and she was planked with mahogany. Her primary use was as a commuter yacht, but by the time of her launch in 1935, improved transport links meant that there was also a slight nod towards use as a pleasure yacht., Nevertheless, speed was unquestionably the main objective and she was originally fitted with a pair of V8 Chrysler Crusader petrol engines that gave a very high top speed. The key design features of commuter yachts were generally a sleek hull, absurdly powerful engines and a lavishly appointed stateroom where the lucky tycoon could take a power nap in comfort while his yacht thundered towards his New York office. In addition, there is a forward cockpit just behind the bows, which must have provided a bracing viewpoint – possibly for an out of favour employee – as the yacht powered along at 30 knots.
Her design and styling area of particular interest as she was built in the post-Depression era when the glitz and glamour of Art Deco design was still influential but was tempered somewhat by a new, more understated look that was fitting for a period of crippling austerity for those outside that one present of the super-rich. Judith R’s styling therefore reflected this later development of ART Deco into what is widely recognised as Streamlined Moderne styling, which was somewhat more stripped out and less ornamental than many designs of the 1920s. Down below she was beautifully appointed with mahogany panelling, often beautifully painted. Robinson Marine used two cutting-edge materials: Plywood was used in her interior and cabin top, while underfoot, her interior was fitted out with a material that was viewed as extremely exotic in 1935: Linoleum.
Barney Balaban paid an eye-watering $60,000 for all this back in 1935. He named his new yacht after his daughter Judith Rose, then there years old. Both yacht and namesake were destined for careers embellished by more that a frisson of star quality. Judith herself is still alive and has spent her life rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty: she was one of Grace Kelly’s bridesmaids at her 1956 wedding to Price Rainier of Monaco, while she herself wad married to three different Hollywood luminaries and also stated in her biography, The Bridesmaids, that she had an affair with Marlon Brando.
In contrast to his daughter’s somewhat turbulent marital life, Balaban’s yacht enjoyed a far more settled early career. He was evidently well satisfied with her and she remained in the family until 1974. After her early years as a commuter, she was increasingly used as a cruising yacht, maintained in all her original glory, fuelled up and ready to go. Barnet Balaban dies in 1971 and the yacht was sold in 1974. She was acquired by Edward Imbroll, a New York city subway engineer, who used her as a liveaboard. Imbroll didn’t have the means to refit Judith R so she retained almost all of her original features, but this also meant she commenced an almost inevitable slide into decay and disrepair.
The decline stretched over the next 30 years yet despite her peeling varnish and grey, water-0stained teak she retained an irresistible faded glamour; as star quality that still marked her out as something special despite the ravages of time. She came to the attention of Susanne and David Williams in 2004. The pair had previously owned and run the Thames steamship Alaska and were on the lookout for a new project when they stumbled upon Judith R gently decaying and barely afloat at her berth in Chesapeake Bay. Both were impressed by the wealth of original fittings and her evident pedigree. They took the plunge and purchased this collection of decaying timbers. An epic project had begun that would be managed by Susanne and driven by David’s single-minded desire to restore this yacht to her original state.
The couple moved her to the UK to be repaired at Woottens Boatyard at Cookham on the Thames. Bearing in mind that the boat was acquired in 2004 and I was viewing her in pristine, newly restored state in summer 2016, you get some idea of the epic that lay ahead for Susanne and David. Susanne says: We chose Woottens because we already knew the yard and just how good they were. Their reputation for woodworking is exceptional. But we were aware of how hard it was going to be getting the boat there in one piece.
“By the time we bought her she was very frail and barely afloat. It was quite an achievement to get her from a mooring to somewhere she could be lifted out, We then had to build a =cradle for her and move her by road to Baltimore from where she could be shipped to the UK.”
Just a couple of casual sentences that cover a whole world of logistics, effort and expense. It’s clear that the project has been far from straightforward. “When the boat arrived in Liverpool, we then had her shipped down to Harleyford Marina near Marlow, where she was floated on her own purpose-built raft up to Woottens, where work could commence. It was a bit of an epic,” Susanne adds, with understatement.
A temporary shed was constructed around Judith R and with her stern sticking out into the river, she has become something of a landmark on this stretch of the Thames for passers-by ever since. The restoration was, if anything, even more extensive than expected, as yard owner Guy Wootton explains. “As is often the case, when you get started on these things, you uncover more and more problems.” He gestures with a wry smile at a few strakes and planks that survived the rebuild.
I ask him is he ever doubted that the project would be completed and he grins: “No, I always felt that we’d get it done, it was just a matter of time – and money of course.”
IN SEARCH OF PERFECTION
“Some of the fittings are really rather special,” Susanne says. “The teardrop nav lights are particularly iconic and her original compass has come up beautifully, while many of the internal fittings have been painstakingly re-chromed and restored.”
In instances where fittings had gone missing, many hours of research were devoted to sourcing exactly the right make and model to replace the original. This has been a refit where absolutely no expense has been spared and to give some inkling of the cost involved, replacing the windshield alone cost £18,000.
Naturally, there have been minor concessions to modernity in the gallery, but the overall effect is one of stepping back in time. It is only when you get to the mechanics and engineering that you step away from 1935 and are transported into the present day. The electrics are naturally completely state of the art, whole her original highly flammable pair of Chrysler V8s were removed very early in Judith R’s career and she is now on her fourth set of engines, with a pair of Caterpillar C12 engines providing 715hp each or 1,430 between them.
I was fortunate enough to take her for a putter up the river near Marlow, where her engines burbled restlessly as we hit the 6kts speed limit. It was clear that this well-mannered boat really deserved to be let off the leash. She hit 35 mph during her sea trial on the tidal Thames and the staff at Woottens spoke in slightly awed tones about these exhilarating tests of speed.
“She’s quite a wet boat when going flat out.“ Wooten commented. “she’s a lot more comfortable if you ease her back to the mid-20s, but she was a joy to handle at any speed.” One look at her shapely hull and you can see why. Her design seems to owe something to the Rivas of her time, with her heavily flared bow and lack of shear giving her both grace and purpose. Her beam is modest and her gentle tumblehome aft and her sympathetically designed coach roof and deckhouse rising up in a graceful sweep, to give her real style on the water.
Inside, she is far less ornate than many of her predecessors of the 1920s and the styling is crisp and deceptively simple. The piece de resistance comes when you enter the main saloon, where a beautiful ma of the great lakes has been intricately painted into the mahogany bulkhead. Forward is the galley, crew quarters and heads plus an extra double aft. Naturally, the owner’s stateroom is beautifully appointed with fine original fittings such as door handles.
The long-term plan is to take this beautiful vessel to the Cote d’Azur where she will be available to charter. Even in that corner of the world, there’s no question that Judith R’s star quality will illuminate any anchorage or port she arrives in.