Thanks to a recent gift from author John McPhee, Class of 1953, Ferris Professor of Journalism, the Manuscripts Division has added to its holdings a 16-mm black-and-white film made during a voyage of the German airship LZ 129 Hindenburg, June 23-June 26, 1936. Professor Jean Labatut (1899-1986), School of Architecture, used his Bell & Howell Filmo-121 home-movie camera when he was a passenger aboard the Hindenburg, flying under the command of Dr. Hugo Eckener. Labatut edited the film back in Princeton and added opening screen text about the flight, which took two and a half days (Tuesday-Thursday) and was officially clocked at 61 hours, 5 minutes. The eastbound flight began at the Naval Air Station, in Lakehurst, New Jersey, located 34 miles southeast of Princeton by car, and ended in the German city of Frankfurt am Main. This was the Hindenburg’s sixth flight between the two locations. Labatut’s ultimate destination was the American School of Fine Arts, in Fontainebleau, France, where he taught each summer. Among the 56 other passengers on Labatut’s flight were the French aeronaut Charles Dollfus, who had the expertise to guide Labatut around the airship and help with difficult camera shots. Also aboard was the German boxer and heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, who had just defeated Joe Louis at New York’s Yankee Stadium and still had a black-eye from the fight (June 19, 1936). Little did anyone know that less than a year after this flight, the 804-foot, hydrogen-filled airship, which had only been in service since March 1936, would explode in flames at the Naval Air Station, with 36 fatalities (May 6, 1937). This disaster largely spelled the end of the lighter-than-air passenger travel.
Labatut gave the film to John McPhee more than forty years ago, when the author was researching his book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), about the experimental Aereon aircraft developed in New Jersey during the 1960s and ’70s. McPhee has presented the film to the Library with a digitally remastered version, which has a run time of 12 minutes, 44 seconds. Click to view. In describing Labatut’s trip (pp. 106-118), McPhee notes, “A month or so before, Labatut, on sheer impulse, had walked into the travel department of the Princeton Bank & Trust Co. and asked them to get in touch with the German Zeppelin Transport Company and seek passage for him on the Hindenburg.” His ticket (Zeppelin-Fahrschein, no. 4996) cost $400, which is the equivalent of as much as $7,000 in today’s money. In the film, we see what the Hindenburg sees as it flies along coastal New Jersey, passes over New York City and the bright lights of Park Avenue, then over the Hudson River, with a view of the RMS Queen Mary, the flagship of the Cunard Line, which had its maiden voyage on May 26, 1936. The airship flies northeast by way of Canada, over the rugged landscape of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland; then across the North Atlantic, with fleeting glimpses of Greenland and Iceland; and finally reaches Europe, where the film ends. Along the way, Labatut delights in seeing and capturing views from the Hindenburg, especially the airship’s shadow as it passes over land and open water. Labatut also offers interior views of the airship’s control gondola, elegant dining facilities, and passengers (including Max Schmeling). McPhee concludes, “That voyage, to Labatut, was the sum of the art of flying, expressed in its mild speed, its aerostatic firmness, and its proximity to the earth.” The Hindenburg film has been added to the Jean Labatut Papers (C0709), which already contained documents, notes, photographs, sketches, and printed matter relating to the flight, among which there is a complete passenger list (box 59, folder 2).
Jean Labatut was a French-born architect and educator, who played a major role in the development of School of Architecture during his 39-year Princeton teaching career. He was the founder of the Bureau of Urban Research (1941), designer of the Princeton Architectural Laboratory (1949), and the long-time Director of Graduate Studies in Architecture at Princeton University (1928-1967). Labatut’s papers measure 62.5 linear feet of archival materials, including correspondence with architects, landscape architects,designers, and urban planners, including Buckminster Fuller, Arthur C. Holden, Victor Laloux, Albert Leclerc, LeCorbusier, Auguste Perret, and Robert Venturi. Notable is Labatut’s extensive correspondence (1956-1973) with the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who taught at Princeton from 1948 to 1952 and continued living in town until 1960 The subject files contain correspondence, documents, notes, sketches, plans and blueprints, photographs, and printed matter related to Labatut’s many projects, including a monument to José Martí (Havana, Cuba). Worthy of special mention are gouache paintings, blueprints, and other materials relating to Labatut’s designs for a dazzling fireworks show at the New York World’s Fair (1939-1940).
For more information about the Jean Labatut Papers, consult the finding aid or contact RBSC Public Services.