Frank O. Braynard


Over the years, Saltaire has been home to many people prominent in their fields, but only to a few who can truly claim renown beyond the confines of their lives and livelihoods.

One of those gifted and fortunate few was our dear friend, Frank Braynard, who, among his other accomplishments, was a cherished neighbor to so many of us in Saltaire. 

Frank died on Monday, December 10, 2007, at the age of 91, after a remarkable, and remarkably full, life that saw Frank become, among other things, the world’s leading chronicler of a facet of history, of which, sadly, so little now remains.

To the public, Frank Braynard will forever be most closely associated with his leading role in originating, and pushing through to glorious realization, “Op Sail”, the parade of tall ships that graced New York Harbor on the Fourth of July, 1976, in celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial.   In an editorial marking the occasion, Newsday wrote that, “Almost single-handedly, he saved the Bicentennial from banal commercialism and gave America the most meaningful observance of its independence by far.”   Frank traveled the globe to enlist the participation of ships from all over the world, as a reminder that ours is a nation of immigrants.  In an era of national uncertainty and in defiance of the unexceptional tenor of so many of the events held that summer, Frank Braynard created a thing of majesty, of charm and beauty: a testament, not only to a notable occasion, indeed, not only to his skills, but to his truly-felt patriotism, his good taste and civility, his optimism, and his love of and respect for history.  In one grand and sweeping vision, Frank paid more eloquent tribute to his country than all the words and all the spectacles that paled into insignificance beside his great work.  It was a moment of sublime triumph that is vouchsafed to few men in their lifetimes, and it was Frank’s to savor.

And yet, this self-effacing gentleman, while eschewing any false modesty, nonetheless, and typically, played down his own crucial role in bringing this venture into reality.  An oft-repeated phrase is actually true in Frank’s case: without him, there would never have been an “Op-Sail”, no parade of tall ships, and an important anniversary in our history would have long since faded from significance.  That the Bicentennial is still recalled, for this single event, is a monument to Frank Braynard’s talent and perseverance, one that will remain etched in the nation’s consciousness always.

Frank seems to have been born with a love for the sea, as from childhood he was enthralled with the oceans and the ships men built to sail upon them.  Frank Osborn Braynard was born on August 21, 1916, in Sea Cliff, Long Island, the community that Frank would all his life call home (very well, not forgetting Saltaire).  Enchanted by the souvenirs of their world travels given him by his aunts and uncles, Frank not only began collecting memorabilia relating to the great vessels on which such fabulous journeys took place, but steered a course toward making it his life’s work; and how fortunate is anyone to fashion his avocation into a vocation, let alone one that would see him rise to become the world’s acknowledged authority in it?  

It was a career that would lead Frank into several venues – writer of shipping news for the New York Herald Tribune, public relations director for his beloved American Merchant Marine Institute (and later for the Moran Tugboat Company) – all the while propelling himself into the premier position in the field of maritime history (in which Frank received his master’s degree from Columbia in 1940), a genuine “expert” called upon by historians, news media, and organizations touching his many fields of interest, for his knowledge and insight.  It was this background and experience that led to Frank’s becoming a founder of one of New York’s greatest sources of pride, the South Street Seaport Museum, which he served for many years and which remained close to his heart.  And it was this recognition, this prominence, this ability to understand and clarify a situation that made him a required and in-demand source of information, and afforded him the position to transform his dream of the tall ships into a magnificent truth, beginning with a smaller but equally opulent display in New York Harbor to mark the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair, a “dry run” for his dazzling Op-Sail twelve years later.

Frank’s specialty was, of course, those fabulous giants of the twentieth century, the grand and graceful passenger liners that reached their glorious apex in the six decades after 1900; design and engineering marvels, tributes to art and artistry, the summit of a mode of transport, of a breathtaking sunset that for so long seemed a new dawn.  And Frank Braynard saw almost all of them, some in the last years of their fading but still noble glory, others in their prime, still others when they were nothing more than plans on a draftsman’s board.  He loved to travel on them, and his background and dedication to them made him a welcome presence on any liner anywhere in the world, afforded access few were given, thereby garnering an even deeper appreciation of those beautiful creations.  But it was Frank’s passion to share his love of these vessels with the world, with people who would never set foot on or even see such great ships; and as luck would have it, Frank possessed not one, but an array, of talents to bring the look and feel and story of the great liners to the world.

For Frank Braynard was, among other things, a first-class writer and, to boot, an illustrator.  He penned more than forty books on maritime subjects, works overflowing with an inexhaustible supply of detail, insights, even gossip, with which he brought the vessels to life.  His signal work was an amazing six-volume set on his favorite liner of al, the Leviathan (formerly the Vaterland: I learned well from Frank!); when it was completed after many years of research and labor, even Frank expressed astonishment that he could have found so much to write on just one ship!  An excellent sketch artist, Frank supplemented his written word with skilled renderings of his beloved subjects, helping impart a better sense of the size and exquisite look of the hundreds of ships which for so many years were the primary means of moving people across the surface of the planet.

And Frank Braynard had the gift of presence; he could hold an audience, of three or three hundred, by the power of his spoken words, his clarity of expression, the easy and logical flow of his discourse.  Frank was not a physically imposing man, but when he spoke, no one ever lost interest or looked away; Frank had that special something that drew people to him, made them want to learn more from him, to listen to someone who so evidently loved his work and wished to share it with others.  And fascinating, even compelling, he always was. 

But Frank’s powers lay not simply in his description of the ships themselves; he went beyond mere engineering or even artistic details and evoked the lives of the men and women who sailed in them, the people who commanded them, who made them run, who served the passengers – and the passengers themselves.  You see, to Frank, the great steamships were not simply objects; they were in their way living beings, carrying the hopes and dreams of so many thousands within them – stories within stories within one great story.  It would have been impossible for Frank to have divorced himself from this part of the tales of the giant liners, for it was people – those involved in designing, building, operating, and traveling upon them – who gave them their life and imbued them with grandeur.  As much as he loved ships, his true concern, his true love, was people; and it was this very human quality that afforded his work a feeling and an insight that few other writers in his field have been able to match.

Frank could be very funny in the stories of maritime history he related: about one of the first-class staterooms aboard the exquisite and doomed Andrea Doria, that had fish painted onto the porcelain fixtures – both of them! -- in the bathroom; not simply noting this odd fact, but describing it in such a humorous and affectionate way that the viewer felt as Frank had when he first saw it for real.  It was Frank who after research verified the seemingly apocryphal tale of how a particularly famous liner got its name; Cunard had intended it to be called the Victoria, but when the company’s chairman relayed the news to King George V that the ship would be named after “England’s greatest queen”, His Majesty replied, “Oh, thank you, my wife will be very pleased,” and no one had the temerity to set HM straight: and so Queen Mary it became.  Frank could even manage a good-humored exasperation with the foolish court decision some years ago that ruled that the U.S. Maritime Academy Museum at King’s Point, of which Frank was curator from 1980-2000, and which was the repository of the prized Blue Riband – the golden cup which for decades was awarded to the passenger vessel that made the fastest transatlantic crossing – forfeit custody of the cup and hand it over to a English yachtsman who had made a crossing in technically record time – in a catamaran.  “Can you imagine that!?” Frank would exclaim.  “A catamaran!” he would repeat, as he expounded on the fact that the cup had been intended to honor ocean liners, not sailboats.  Still, Frank enjoyed relating such tales, and there was an abundance of them to discover and share, and Frank loved nothing better than to do just that – perhaps even more than sailing on his ships themselves.  Well, it was probably a tie.  Whatever the ship – the Rex, Oceanic, Conte di Savoia, Mauretania, Olympic, Ile de France, Normandie, United States, Liberte – Frank Braynard knew his subjects: the ships, and the people. 

Which brings us to Frank Braynard, our friend.  Whenever you’d run into Frank on the walks around Saltaire, say hello and ask him how he was, Frank’s response would invariably be a cheerful (and resounding!) “Never better!”  And you felt he meant it, even in his later years, when infirmity would sometimes dictate that Frank get about town in a wheelchair or on the village’s courtesy cart.  He always had that wonderful smile – always – and a literal twinkle in his eyes; or perhaps it was a reflection of the sea?  It was always intriguing when you’d watch a program on a liner, say, and suddenly there was Frank, in that clear yet calm voice, explaining some point or other, and damned if that twinkle and that smile didn’t burst out all over the television screen.  He was a good friend who constantly encouraged others in their interests and pursuits, always ready with a kind and complimentary word.  Besides sharing his love of the great boats, Frank contributed lots of sketches of Saltaire scenes – houses, the bayfront, and, of course, the small craft in our basin – to illustrate several Saltaire directories, and to be displayed at art shows in the Village Hall.  He even lectured on the liners, something he normally did only aboard ships themselves, and he would if asked make a sketch of your house, a personally prized possession of a few.  There was also a little game you might be challenged to if you went over to the Braynards’ home at 100 Surf Walk for a visit – gaze at the superb collection of painted, glazed tiles illustrating the kitchen ceiling, and see if you could pick out the six sets of duplicate tiles among the couple of hundred there.  Better luck finding a lifeboat aboard the Titanic!

His love of people was of course notable first and foremost with his own close family, who remained foremost in Frank’s love.  With all his work and the travel it entailed, Frank never neglected those who were most important in his life.  He was married for 58 years to his lovely and devoted Doris, who shared his interests and enthusiasms, a union that produced two wonderful children, Noelle and David, all of whom, including Frank’s and Doris’s granddaughters Isabelle and Marguerite, survive him.  Frank is also survived by his sister, our own Nancy Wait, and her husband Harold.  Frank’s brother Edwin, and sister Margaret, predeceased him, Margaret this past September 24.

Yes, Frank Braynard may not have been a big man physically; he was simply big of heart, of mind, of talent, and of spirit.  He was world-renowned, and yet for all that, as unassuming and down-to-earth as could be.  He was a loving husband, father, grandfather and brother; a man of great and varied gifts; a loyal friend and kindly neighbor; a wonderful and utterly decent human being.  We are extraordinarily lucky that Frank enjoyed such a long and productive life, and that he chose not only to share his knowledge with us, but to bestow the even greater blessing of his friendship, graciousness and pure joy of living upon us.  Rare indeed are people such as Frank Braynard; our community is the poorer without him.  But our lives have been enriched because of him, and the example he set of a life well lived; and it is this that is perhaps the truest measure of one’s immortality.  A gentleman, and gentle man.  Rest well, kind and noble friend.

A final note….

At the memorial service for Frank on January 12, 2008, it was revealed that the new Cunard passenger liner, Victoria, then in the midst of its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, had at precisely noon that day stopped in mid-ocean, where its crew tossed a wreath into the sea in honor and memory of Frank O. Braynard.