John Borden’s Yacht Restored
By Megan McKinney
Larry Larkin, current owner of NORMANDIE.
For a few years in the 1920’s Chicago’s John Borden owned the Lake Geneva Yacht NORMANDIE. Borden, a prominent member of the Classic Chicago Dynasty we followed for seven weeks earlier this year, possessed a number of well-known vessels, including the famous 133-foot schooner ADVENTURESS.
NORMANDIE and ADVENTURESS, both built in 1913, have now each existed longer than any of those who had the privilege of boarding them.
ADVENTURESS is in Seattle today; however, the entirely restored NORMANDIE remains at Lake Geneva, with its fifth owner and savior, Larry Larkin. There is some evidence, according to Larkin, that Borden, the vessel’s second owner and a well-known “professional explorer and adventurer”, served as a role model for both Indiana Jones and the Gregory Peck figure in The World in his Arms. However, unlike Larry Larkin, he never restored a Lake Geneva yacht.
Gregory Peck and Ann Blyth.
Borden purchased NORMANDIE in 1920 from the estate of the man for whom she was built, Chicago banker Norman Wait Harris. Three years later, possibly in preparation for his 1924 divorce from the former Ellen Waller, John Borden sold his Lake Geneva estate, Snug Harbor, as well as NORMANDIE, which went to Lewis Myers.
Norman Wait Harris circa 1910.
According to his biography, the original owner Norman Harris was so fond of this boat that on July 15, 1916, when he was ailing, he asked for his bed to be put aboard and that he be taken for a cruise with his son Albert. After dropping Albert off in Williams Bay, he waved to him and said “Good bye, son.” Norman died that evening, presumably a contented man with a pleasant memory.
NORMANDIE in 2000, in the clearing where she would have been moored 80 years earlier. The handsome former Norman Harris house in the background is now owned by Richard Driehaus.
Current owner Larry Larkin came into the scenario as a boy in the Midcentury. “I have had a fascination for these old launches from the time I was quite young,” he says. “I still recall my first ride aboard (a Lake Geneva boat) in 1946–the anticipation of getting underway, commands being passed back and forth, starting the engine, casting off lines, and the sense of motion and freedom as the boat left the dock–I still have those same feelings today when we cast off and depart.”
He recalls that when he received a driver’s license, he drove around the lake and “located every one of these old lake boats that still survived. I wrote to each owner and offered to buy their boat. No responses. Then, months later, I had a phone call from Nathan Hunt who owned NORMANDIE at that time. He said he didn’t want to sell but asked if I would be interested in being his captain. I thanked him but told him I really wanted to buy a boat.”
It took time and negotiation, but eventually the teenager became the happy owner of NORMANDIE.
NORMANDIE during the recent restoration process.
Restoration of the boat didn’t occur for more than a half century and it was arduous. Very. Why did he do it? It is a question he is often asked.
“I think NORMANDIE has historic value…. Not only because it is one of the few remaining vessels from 100 years ago… but also because of the role this boat and others like it played in the early development of Lake Geneva.”
The beautiful interior paneling.
“It is also a very pretty boat,” he continues. “It has nice lines, good proportions, altogether an elegant craft. And it has sentimental value… it was my first boat, I bought it in 1955, and I met my wife, Sue, when she stepped aboard one romantic evening in June of 1958. I tell my kids- without this boat they wouldn’t be here today.”
The process continues.
“It also gives me a great deal of artistic satisfaction to take metal and wood and fashion these basic raw materials into something of beauty and utility.”
Getting close to a completed job.
“I want to think that my effort has helped preserve something of our heritage, something unique that we can pass on that will show people 100 years from now something worthwhile from our era. I hope NORMANDIE will last another 100 years. We have used the best materials and the best workmanship and we have incorporated as much of the original boat as possible to preserve its essence. I hope it will bring as much pleasure to a future family as we have enjoyed these past 58 years. This is my gift to posterity. May God Speed her voyage.”
This is just the beginning. Classic Chicago will return next week with more of the story of Lake Geneva’s Launch of NORMANDIE. And What a Show It Was!
Robert F. Carl