MODERN LIVING

THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE CRUISER

January 1 1970
MODERN LIVING

THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE CRUISER

January 1 1970

THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE CRUISER

There were two women for every man among the 600 people who sailed in search of romance aboard the Twin-Screw Steamship Olympia. They each paid $195 in the hope that a magic IBM 360/50 computer could pick them a compatible shipmate for six happy days at sea. Did it work? Maclean’s ALAN EDMONDS went aboard to find out

THE MORNING AFTER the night before, Jim Baldwin sat on deck, his aching head being stroked by the girl he had met over a double Zombie as the liner TSS Olympia steamed past the Statue of Liberty at 3 a.m. Six days later he was in roughly the same state and with the same girl as the ship steamed back up the East River — and Baldwin took a measure of malicious glee in that fact because it wasn’t at all the way the computer had planned things. The computer had mated all 624 of us aboard — matched us inch for inch, year for year, prejudice for prejudice. And the girl still stroking Jim Baldwin’s head was not on his match list. She didn’t compute. “It so happens that I am a computer engineer,” said Baldwin. “Some of my best friends are computers, but I wouldn’t trust one to choose me a ►

date. You can’t program a computer for chemistry.”

For perhaps one third of the passengers, the voyage of the Greek Line’s TSS (Twin - Screw Steamship) Olympia that first week of October was a triumph of sex (or at least of chemistry) over science. It was the world’s second cruise for Swinging Singles, staged by Operation Match, a Long Island introduction agency that uses an IBM 360/ 50 as its matchmaker. Feed it the answers to 110 questions from “How old are you?” through “What race are you?” and “How sexually experienced are you?” to “Who do you admire most, Einstein or Henry Ford?” — and, hey cybernetics, out comes the name of Miss or Mr. Right, whichever you prefer.

A voyage on which all the passengers are single, and presumably wish they weren’t, is the latest innovation in the booming sea-cruise business, which is keeping the skeleton fleet of old transAtlantic liners in business plying between New York and the Caribbean. Cruises are increasingly bigger business on the west coast and from Miami, but it is New York where the real action is and, in a bid to make a week aboard ship even more attractive, shipping lines have even begun to specialize. There are cruises for bridge players, golfers, tennis enthusiasts. Some cruises are designed to appeal to gourmets; some to island hoppers who want to see as many places as possible; some to those of us who simply have a passion for the artificial cocoon of life aboard ship, which is time out from the normal restraints and patterns of living. These last cruises don’t go anywhere, except out to sea and back.

The swinging-singles cruises (there’s another in May) focus on a problem, not a passion. On most cruises, there are about 50 of, say, 600 passengers who are unattached—and shut out because everyone else is married or otherwise mated. As Carolyn Girard, of Windsor, Ontario, said to explain her presence aboard the TSS Olympia, “When a single girl goes on holiday, she wants to meet a compatible male, and vice versa.” And then, the word “swingle” has become a brave synonym for the alienation of men and women left alone, and lonely, either by circumstances or the cruel laws of natural selection. In a world where togetherness has become an ideal, it is hard to admit to loneliness: to be lonely is almost a social sin.

But by taking a swingles cruise ($195 to share a modest cabin in the bowels of the ship; $510 for a sun-deck suite), everyone aboard was saying implicitly: “I want to be met.” The IBM 360/50 of Operation Match was supposed to make

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Youth could always find romance on the cruise; the older women were happy just to find a dancing or drinking partner

it that much easier by deciding who was compatible with whom. At least, that was the theory. But things started getting rather unscientific from the moment passengers began boarding the ship late Friday evening. That was when Jim Baldwin met the girl he was to date all week. In fact, it was when most of the younger and better packaged passengers did most of their mating. As one 22-year-old blond divorcée was to explain later, “There was a frantic feeling that if you didn’t meet someone the first night, you were a failure.”

Most people didn’t, of course, but since it was immediately obvious that there were about twice as many women as men aboard and that the number of truly beautiful people was somewhat limited, there was an air almost of frenzy about the noisy, portable bash that moved around the liner’s five bars until it was 3 a.m. and the Statue of Liberty, floodlit, was on the starboard bow and . . . “Look, let’s level with one another

— d’you want to, er . . .”

“Yes.”

But it wasn't all like that, far from it, and it wasn’t until next afternoon, the first day at sea, that Operation Match began to complicate the work already done by the process of natural selection. Midway between New York and Bermuda, passengers were called to the ship’s theatre to be told the rules of the game by Stephen Milgrim, 44-year-old father of two and president of Operation Match, Inc., Great Neck, Long Island. He talked about alienation and people being uptight about meeting others, and said that the computer system aboard wasn't perfect because there weren't enough passengers — and certainly not enough men — for everyone to find true compatibility. But it was, he said, a great social lubricant and all in fun and there was no bed check (a wink being as good as a leer any day) and that we should now go get our list of suitable computerized mates.

Thereafter, we could — and many did

— wear little name tags asking, “Am 1 on your list?”, and could seek out our matches in other ways, notably by sending “dategrams” on bilious-yellow paper to one another's cabins.

Carolyn Girard, the 30-year-old divorcée and mother of three from Windsor, was more diligent than most. Somehow she met all six of the men on her match list, got mildly interested in one of them

— then was introduced to Steve Rothman, a New Yorker, with whom she didn't compute and with whom she chose to spend the rest of the cruise. Whenever I saw them he would announce they were “having a ball, man, having a ball.” “Look,” said Carolyn on the last day, “I don't have any trouble meeting people, and I’m not looking for the perfect male, just a real nice fellow to be with. I’ve been divorced for six years now and I’ve had a couple of proposals that I was going to make my mind up about on this trip. Well, now I’ve met Steve and to heck with the computer and I don’t think I’m going to be making my mind up for a while.”

Others had difficulty mating with their mates. One doctor from Minneapolis said that going around looking over the women on his list made him feel like a cattle buyer. Insurance broker AÍ Happy, from Windsor, Ont., a Falstaffian widower, said there was no way he could meet all of the 17 women on his list and so he had stopped at the fifth, who was a good dancer. One man had a match list of 13 names — of other men. And a girl with a heavy Boston accent abused cruise organizer Milgrim because, she complained, the computer had matched her with her ex-husband, who was also aboard.

With a limited choice of “mates” for any of us, Operation Match programmer Barry Christian, a 25-year-old bachelor, was obliged to ignore some vital areas of compatibility. One Latin American girl rejected her entire list because none were Catholics. A comfortably plump divorcée in her mid-30s who shared my breakfast table found the first man on her list was black, and the fourth was a spartan who led her, puffing heroically, on a hike across Bermuda, “which means there’s something wrong because the most energetic thing I do is run for the bus once in a while.” Then there was Magda Kellner, a strikingly attractive Hungarian girl of 35 from Toronto who upset the scheme of things by refusing to even collect her match list on the grounds that she was already engaged; didn’t want to meet anyone, and was simply keeping her elderly mother company.

The Olympia reached Bermuda on Sunday afternoon, about 36 hours out of New York. Such twosomes as had already happened took off to explore an island which, because of its location and beauty, is one of the more improbable paradises of the northern hemisphere. Elsewhere, the mating — and re-mating — went on aboard ship or on bus and boat tours of the island.

By then Judy Evans, 19, of Burlington, Ont., had what seems to have been a not untypical experience. “I had 10 names on my list, but we didn’t seem to get a conversation that kept going. I started out being shy, and they were shy, too, I guess.” On Bermuda, Judy and her two roommates — both strangers until the cruise began — did better. All three were dated by boys they met on the island. Bank teller Judy, youngest of the swinging singles aboard the Olympia (average age was reportedly 33.4 years), later said in wonderment, “I am very surprised at myself for even coming. At home I am really very shy.”

The real Cinderellas were the older women, who heavily outnumbered men in their age range. For them, the cruise was often a failure. One evening in one of the ship’s two nightclubs, I got kidnapped by a table of five energetic ladies in their 50s and used as a captive dancing partner — one lady passing me on to another as she finished her turn. On the last day, a lady who runs a chain of hamburger stands in Montreal said in disgust, “Look, ladies my age aren’t husband hunting. We want to have a dance and a drink and a ball. On other cruises, functions are organized so you meet couples and the odd single man and do things as a group. Here — well, they don’t do that. I’ve got the same list of men as three other ladies. And one man I met is a Roman Catholic priest from Montreal, who came along to keep an eye on a friend who is very upset because he’s just lost his wife.”

As AÍ Happy said, “The idea of the cruise is just beautiful, but the organizers have to find a way of having people meet one another without going through the indignity of sending notes, or walking up and asking, ‘Are you on my list?’ ” Operation Matchman Barry Christian, after a tiring week trying single-handedly to compensate for the lack of men aboard, said he thought that in future they’d have to find some way of introducing older people to one another more gracefully.

“When you see the way the younger people swing, it’s hard to remember that these people are all super-squares,” he said. “Most of them would never admit it, but they’re all here because they need to meet people, and our job is to make sure there are no barriers to that.” In that, Christian was unnecessarily patronizing — as was the Greek Line PR man who warned that I would need compassion in writing of my fellow passengers. In fact, at least a third of them — a very visible and, at 3 a.m., audible third — needed no sympathy and no help from the computer.

The others . . . well, the others included a crew-cut accountant from Chicago whose wife had died and who now, at 40, sat alone at the sun-deck bar and explained that he didn’t know how to meet girls. So we led him to two women and said wasn’t the weather just great, ►

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and four days later he was still talking to them. And there was the mailman from Philadelphia, fortyish, brown suit, yellow tie, who said that it wasn't difficult to meet people. “You’ve got to study some on the subject,” he said. “You’ve got to have a bit of a philosophy. What? Well, just walk across to the ladies and ask them how they are and what sort of a day they've had and you’d be surprised how they like it. Learn to smile at yourself a little.” But mostly the mailman got drunk. Alone.

If you didn't look too hard, the TSS Olympia was a jolly ship, that cruise. The girls glittered and the men enjoyed their rarity and where the man shortage got too bad the crew — unofficially, of course — lent a hand. But underneath it was a Ship of Woes. If the talk ever got beyond the match list and the wild old time everyone had last night, which it didn’t often, you found a trail of divorces and separations and jilted lovers and bereavement. And, if it wasn’t one of these, then it was a loneliness that was almost tangible and only briefly dissipated.

Chicago Today newspaper sent a young, handsome reporter on the cruise. He spent the week observing, maintaining commendable detachment. As the trip ended and the Instant Society created aboard cruise ships began to fray at the edges, he explained he was eligible for the assignment because he was single. He was single, he said, because his fiancée had run off with someone else three weeks earlier, though after a week aboard the Olympia he felt a lot better, thank you very much.

Me. I'm married. I plead the Canada Evidence Act, Section 4, subsection 5. □

MACLEAN’S