Zip Code: QE2

For Widow, Cruise Ship is Home

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2001; Page E01

This is the hard part. The crossing is over. The gangplank is down. Passengers, cloistered for a week aboard the last great transatlantic liner, now face the first unwieldy facts of real life: too much luggage and New York traffic.

On Two Deck, a woman in a cunning shore-going hat hugs a woman in oversize sunglasses. "You must come to London," she says. There are bluff handshakes, the discreet pass of folded bills from passenger to steward. "Thank you very much indeed, sir. It has been my pleasure." A young girl carrying a Harrods shopping bag steps ashore with tears in her eyes.

It hurts to leave the Queen Elizabeth 2.

And so Beatrice Muller never does.

From the empty Chart Room lounge, Muller watches the latest ebb of passengers off the QE2. In four hours, she'll watch a new tide flow back on. Almost regally above the normal passenger cycle, she sits in a moment of rare serenity on a ship that sails with 1,700 passengers. Muller, an 82-year-old widow from Middlesex, N.J., is the queen of the Queen. She's been aboard since Jan. 5, 2000, the sole permanent paying resident of the world's most famous ship.

During countless crossings between Southhampton, England, and Manhattan, she has occupied Cabin 4068. During endless runs through the Atlantic and Pacific, through the Mediterranean, Tasman and South China seas, through canals (Panama and Suez) and recently the fiords of Norway, she has maintained a stately dowager's routine of cards, tea, dressing for dinner and dancing. And she has no plans to disembark any time soon.

"I plan to be on this ship until I get either bored or dead." Muller says. "And I don't think either is going to happen soon. This is home."

It's not yet noon, but Muller is smartly turned out in a blue print dress and jacket with a twisted rope of pearls around her neck. It's a formal ship, and Muller's meager closet space is so full of sequined and beaded evening wear that not even the roughest seas will set her wardrobe swaying. Soon she'll go up to the Caronia Restaurant for lunch with two New York friends who come aboard whenever the ship pulls into Pier 90. But first she has time to take a visitor on a tour of her seagoing retirement.

"We'll go up one flight." She quickly corrects herself: "I mean deck."

Muller may still stumble over nautical terms and the occasional bulkhead, but she has a burning pride in the vessel she routinely refers to not just as a ship but "my ship." She will explain emphatically that the QE2 is not a cruise ship but an ocean liner, built for speed. It boasts the biggest dance floor, the best library, the finest crew.

"We go backward faster than most ships go forward," she says as she enter the Queens Room, the plush ballroom where she dances most evenings until nearly midnight. "Those shoeboxes with 3,000 passengers on board that they call ships now are totally different. This is more like a country home."

And just how did Muller come to be the unofficial Lady of this diesel-powered manor? "Believe me, I didn't think this up," she says. "Everything just sort of came together."

Everything came together, in fact, just after everything fell apart. Muller's husband, Robert, a successful chemical engineer, died of emphysema in March 1999. They were pulling out of Bombay, aboard the QE2. "Oh, he loved this ship so," she says.

They had completed five extended trips together on the QE2 when they started another, despite Robert's failing health. With two attentive doctors on staff, steady visits by the captain, an Anglican priest and "all the pretty girls who loved to dance with him," Muller says she can't imagine a better end for husband. Eventullay, his ashes were scattered over the side of this same ship.

"I've never known love like that; everybody held me up," she says. With a hand on the teak rail, she's looking down at the aft pool, cheery and still in the sun, surrounded by rings of empty lounge chairs. "It becomes family here very quickly."

It was one of her two sons who suggested she carry through with plans she and Robert had made to spend all of 2000 on the QE2. She did, and when that year ended she just kept booking, selling two of her three houses and most of her worldly goods to pay her way. Before too long, she had become as much a fixture as the ship's bell. "I'm grandmother to everyone on the ship."

Financially, Muller reckons she doesn't spend much more at sea than she would in one of the retirement villages that a wealthy woman might choose. She doesn't get any special deal from Cunard (although she would like one). But she looks for discounted fares, doesn't drink alcohol or gamble (two sure ways to run up a big shipboard tab) and has almost eliminated shoreside expenses. In all, Muller says she lives her charmed retirement for about $70,000 a year.

"I think this is incredible value for the money," she says.

For its part, Cunard is happy enough to be treated like a Shady Acres Senior Village. "I think it's great," says Cunard President Pamela Conover. "She is a very charming lady and she definitely views the crew as her extended family."

As Muller makes her way through the art deco corridors below -- past the upscale shops, the spa and the Yacht Club bar -- she ticks off the QE2's retirement advantages: endless travel, no cooking or cleaning, a health clinic two decks away and, most important, society galore. "I need people," she says. "And I must meet 16,000 people year here."

There are disadvantages, too. She misses her garden. The time zone never sits still. She confesses that she wouldn't be here if she had grandchildren. And even on one of the world's most elegant machines, things break down, and being a permanent passenger hasn't made Muller any less a demanding one. (When an elevator balks, she delivers it a swift kick. "This stupid thing has been doing this for days," she says.) Still, when she took a 10-day break ashore in May, she says she was homesick for the ship by day four.

She's arrived at her cabin on Four Deck, a windowless inside accommodation, about 10 feet square with a single berth, a phone-booth bathroom, a tiny TV and a small boombox radio. Pictures of her sons and husband line the mirror, along with two small portraits of Meher Baba. Muller is a long-time disciple of the spiritual avatar from India. In spite of the cell-like dimensions, Muller covets the cabin and says Cunard has promised it to her for the next two years.

"I come back from breakfast and everything has been cleaned; all the towels are fresh," she says. "I come back from dinner and there's a chocolate on my pillow. I just love that."

Muller heads up to the wood-paneled meadow of white tablecloths that is the Caronia Restaurant. She and her friends sit with their backs to the blazing view of the Hudson, lunching over fruit soup and gossiping about QE2 regulars. There was the woman who needed a spare cabin for her hats, and there's Disco Dorothy, an elderly fiend of the dance floor. "You get every kind of person in the world on this ship," Muller says.

Walking the boat deck after lunch, Muller describes her own priorities as "dancing, playing bridge and trying not to eat," although she has breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner each day and hits the midnight buffet most nights. Still, that's what you do when you live on the QE2.

The ship is now filling with the next load of passengers, lost and awed in the endless carpeted passages. There will be cabins to sort out, lifeboat drills, a whole new set of names to learn at table.

Muller is at the same time above the giddy chaos of her ship's reawakening, and delighted by it. Soon, she'll be underway again.

And where now?

She has to think. "Quebec," she answers finally. "But you know, I don't really care where it's going."

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