First Class: A Travel Memoir – Part One
Editor’s Note: It is with great pleasure that we are able to bring the voice of Peter Foges to our pages. Peter is a film and television producer, but that only begins to scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg. He worked for the BBC in London for fifteen years as a correspondent, anchor, producer, and director, before moving to the U.S. to serve as BBC-TV’s Bureau Chief. He later became Director of News and Public Affairs Programming for WNET/Thirteen in New York City, where he has created, written, produced, or executive produced series and specials such as Good Night and Good Luck and Heretic, and co-wrote The Ten Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table, which was awarded the 1987 Oscar for Best Feature Length Documentary. Peter also sits on the editorial board of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Peter is opening his travel memoirs to us for the first time, which he only promised to do so after several glasses of exquisite wine. We begin with his fond memories of the golden age of international air travel aboard the B.O.A.C. Stratoliner:
We flew back first class. My father wouldn’t have it any other way.
It was the spring of 1954 and I was ten. We had arrived in high style by sea on the old Cunarder, The RMS Queen Elizabeth. And now, after two magical weeks in New York – a suite on the sixteenth floor of the Stanhope Hotel (higher than I had ever been in a city) in an era when the traffic on Fifth Avenue still ran both ways, expeditions to Best and Co to stock up on kids clothes for me and to Bonwit Teller for my mother, an afternoon at the three ringed circus (two more rings than at home) and lunch with American friends of my parents at Le Voisin, (miraculously large, healthy, tanned adults who always seemed to smile, something no one seemed to manage much in post-war Britain) – we were going home. For me it was back to boring school in gloomy old London where the good things of life like candy were in short supply and it always seemed to rain.
But there was one more treat. I was about to take my first flight. And what a flight it was. My father had booked us on the all First Class B.O.A.C. Monarch Service from Idlewild to Northolt in that luxurious ocean liner of the air – a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.
Those were the days when you dressed up to fly. Dad wore his new seersucker suit – a racy fabric then entirely unknown in England – and my glamorous mother a new Balenciaga blouse. She actually boarded the massive aircraft trailing a cloud of freshly sprayed Joy de Patou – “the world’s most expensive perfume”.
Configured for mere mortals, a Stratocruiser, the first pressurized passenger plane, could seat over a hundred. But outfitted for the height of 1950s luxury by BOAC, it had seating for only 28, and an equal number of bunk beds. There were large spacious washrooms where one could actually undress before retiring for the long night flight. And the double bubble fuselage meant there was room for an interior staircase that led to a downstairs bar where the very proper British captain joined at one point, as he did his rounds, and agreed to let me sit for a few minutes later that night in his cockpit.
Sixteen hours, and three refueling stops later to slake the four mighty thirsty Pratt and Whitney engines, (foggy Newfoundland, the Icelandic NATO airbase at Keflavik, and Shannon, Ireland, in the pouring rain) we were home. En route we had gorged like royals – Iranian caviar, noisettes of lamb, poached turbot, Aylesbury duck, bombes glace aux marons, and crepes with berries – and slept like babies. Pure bliss. The pilots had a less lovely time apparently. This strange plane was a bitch to fly they say. Sometimes they limped home on two engines, though in ten years of Monarch service they never lost a millionaire’s life.
As with my dad, so with Hollywood in the good old days, nothing but the best would do. I found myself employed by a studio in the late 80s that flew me first class. It was a perk. One fine day my British Airways flight from JFK to Heathrow was cancelled. Why, I do not know. “So sorry sir, for the inconvenience” I heard the lady at the check in counter say, “But would you mind terribly if we switched you to the Concorde? It leaves in an hour”.
I did not mind.