"A suspenseful, highly satisfying read." Kirkus Reviews
When the Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wakeby Brian Hicks
It was the summer of 1934. Two sailors joined the Morro
During the dark days of the Great Depression, thousands of weary souls escaped their bleak lives for a week of paradise aboard the Ward Line's glamorous cruise ship, the Morro Castle. It was the most famous passenger liner of its day, lightning fast, elegantly appointed. It was also a ticking time bomb.
It was the summer of 1934. Two sailors joined the Morro Castle crew, one a teenager on his first job away from home, the other a dangerous psychopath. Within two months, they would witness the end of the party in a single night of death, killer storms, and catastrophic fire. And that was only the beginning of a twenty-year-long story.
In When the Dancing Stopped, we too walk up the gangplank to that art-deco liner and, at first, enjoy the glamour and the sultry Havana nights. With mounting suspense, we also witness the launch of a mystery that mesmerized the nation and then, in the midst of troubled times, faded away. Award-winning author Brian Hicks, using newly declassified FBI files, thousands of pages of investigation notes, testimony, and new interviews, takes the reader on a mid-century cruise through history, revealing a cold-case file that had been, until now, left unsolved for history. And, as he relates in this work of masterful storytelling, it all began with the last cruise of the Morro Castle.
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When the Dancing StoppedThe Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake
By Brian Hicks
Free PressCopyright © 2006 Brian Hicks
All right reserved.
September 24, 1954
After all these years, he could still pack a house.
They loitered on the courthouse lawn, a sea of dark suits, narrow ties and gray fedoras that ebbed and flowed as he was led up to the building. The ones who had given up on a seat inside stood on the sidewalk, leaning against pastel-colored cars and smoking Chesterfields as the golden sky faded to a deep autumnal blue. From there, they could at least get the verdict before moving on to their Friday nights.
The crowd grew thicker as he approached the imposing stone building. So many people fought for a position on the steps, straining for a closer look, it was nearly impossible for his huge frame to squeeze through. Jersey City was buzzing and he felt, once again, like a celebrity.
Inside, the Hudson County Courthouse was chaotic, standing room only. They filled the narrow courtroom benches and spilled out into the second-floor lobby, a mass of gawkers silhouetted against the giant murals of angels decorating the rotunda. The roar oftheir conversations bounced off the marble floors and dark, wood-paneled walls, filling his head like so much radio static. The noise stopped only when the gold elevator doors closed behind him.
George White Rogers knew almost every person he passed in this voyeuristic crowd. Most of them had come up from Bayonne just to hear the verdict. They were bank tellers, businessmen, a large contingent of police officers -- many of them witnesses who had testified against him in the past week. They had no reason to be there but couldn't stay away, lured by the sensational tales in the Bayonne Times. It seemed the newspaper could barely fill its pages without him. The Times reporter had been there every day, gavel-to-gavel, desperately scribbling down every detail and publishing it on the paper's front page -- titillating headlines alluding to stolen money, messages from the grave and, worst of all, the "Death Hammer."
How they had turned on him. These were his neighbors, people he had known for years, who had come into his shop seeking help, given him medals, held parades in his honor. Not a trace of that former courtesy remained. Now they wouldn't greet him when he walked into court, handcuffed to a police officer, a cigarette dangling from his lip. Most of them, in fact, made a point of looking away when he caught their gaze. Only one, the man with the mangled hand, returned his stare.
The significance of the date amused him, although it seemed no one else had noticed. Twenty years earlier -- to the day -- Rogers had played the Rialto theater on Times Square. On September 24, 1934, the marquee had screamed his name, followed by the most coveted words on Broadway: Sold Out. The audience loved him, lavished him with standing ovations, angled for autographs. Reporters supplied generous reviews. He had enjoyed the attention, and ticket sales did little to dampen his ego. At $1,000 a week during the Depression, a certain cockiness was unavoidable. For a very brief time, it was safe to say, he had been one of the most famous people in the world.
Twenty years. So much had changed in that time. To anyone who had not seen him since his run on Broadway, Rogers would have been barely recognizable. What was left of his hair had turned gray. Time, or perhaps circumstances, had diminished his paunch ever so slightly. Normally joking at all times, even when it was inappropriate, he was now wooden, stolid. As witnesses made horrible accusations, describing terrible things they believed he had done, Rogers had no reaction. It was as if he didn't care what people said or thought anymore, which wasn't entirely true; appearances mattered to him intermittently. He dressed nicely, at least in the courtroom, and still lied about his age.
Rogers had drifted back to better days often during the trial. It was hard not to conjure images of the past as many of the witnesses themselves brought it up. He thought back to the Rialto, how the show had ended after just a couple of weeks. Leave them wanting more -- isn't that what they said? So what if he was playing before an Andy Devine movie; he still got more than his share of attention. His name appeared in the papers almost weekly -- there was always something else to be said, a reporter with another question. In those days, people would cross the street to speak, come into his radio shop just to gossip. Preachers heralded him in their sermons. It was all so flattering. Once, his hometown newspaper even declared him a historical figure.
They called him a hero.
In 1934, twenty years before he stood trial for double murder, George Rogers won international fame for saving hundreds of lives in one of the deadliest maritime disasters in American history. Off the coast of New Jersey, a luxury liner returning from a Labor Day cruise to Havana caught fire during a tropical storm, just hours after its captain was found dead in his cabin. The ship was incinerated, the passengers tossed into an angry sea. In the chaos of that night, 134 people died.
The tragedy shocked a nation suffering through one of the worst years of the Great Depression, and the entire world quickly took notice. Headlines and hearings followed. J. Edgar Hoover involved his Bureau of Investigation. The drama of the public inquiry, broadcast around the nation, was as popular as a serial -- listeners picked their favorite heroes and villains and then inundated them with fan letters, hate mail and an unending stream of advice. As more details emerged, the accident grew even more controversial. Many things had gone wrong before and after the fire, and it appeared there was plenty of blame to go around.
Only Rogers had emerged from the smoldering wreckage unscathed. While nearly every other officer on the ship was tainted by scandal, Rogers was hailed for his bravery in the face of crisis, for keeping his calm when his superiors did not. The country was so desperate for a hero in 1934 that people paid to hear George Rogers recount his last voyage on the most opulent, famous -- and tragic -- American cruise ship of its time, the turbo electric liner Morro Castle.
Copyright © 2006 by Brian Hicks
Excerpted from When the Dancing Stopped by Brian Hicks Copyright © 2006 by Brian Hicks. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Brian Hicks is the author of Ghost Ship and Raising the Hunley. A senior writer with The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, he has won more than a dozen journalism awards, including the South Carolina Press Association's award for Journalist of the Year. He lives in Charleston with his wife and two sons.
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After reading this book, I ordered "Ghost Ship" and "Raising the Hunley", hope there just as good.