Stranger than fiction: Novelist, historian cross paths on a 'Millionaires Cruise'

Mountain View author Donald McPhail garnered modest acclaim for his first novel, but the most unexpected response came from a local historian living in Campbell who was researching the same 1929 story on which McPhail’s fictional tale is based.

It turns out that McPhail’s “The Millionaires Cruise: Sailing Toward Black Tuesday”– self-published in 2014 – coincides with historian Rick Helin’s film-restoration work on a round-the-Pacific sailing called “The Millionaires Cruise.”

Their paths crossed when Helin searched the Internet for information on his project: restoring vintage footage recorded during “The Millionaires Cruise,” deemed as such because all 325 passengers were millionaires. A San Jose auto dealer, Louis Normandin, shot the films while he and his wife were passengers aboard a 90-day cruise on the SS Malolo, the most luxurious ocean liner of its time. Grandson Lon Normandin, who still runs the auto dealership, provided the films.

The cruise was of further interest because of the date. The wealthy passengers sailed from San Francisco Sept. 22, 1929, when the stock market was booming. Just over a month into the journey, “Black Tuesday” hit Oct. 29, the largest stock market crash in history. Approximately half of the passengers went broke over the course of the cruise.

So why did McPhail write about the cruise, and why now?

“First of all, I was stunned when Rick called,” McPhail said. “My book started out about six years ago as a personal story, a family history. For four years I had sought information on a 1931 Malolo sailing, where my father was the American Express cruise director and my mother was a ship’s nurse. They met on that cruise, and I wanted to preserve the story for our family. But little existed about the 1931 Malolo cruise. … So I wrote the (1929) story.”

Four months after its 2014 release, Helin spotted McPhail’s “The Millionaire’s Cruise” on Amazon.

The surprises didn’t end there. Helin then located the Malolo’s passenger list and private diaries from the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Leo Stanley. The passenger list identified McPhail’s father, William R. McPhail, as a Malolo cruise director in 1929 – something McPhail himself did not know. The cruise director’s mother, identified as “Mary McPhail from South Africa,” the author’s grandmother, was also a passenger, along with the Normandins, who were shooting the movies.

“We both were stunned with the connections,” Helin said.

“I’m still amazed, and very grateful to Rick for uncovering all of these facts,” McPhail said. “I didn’t know my dad when I grew up, because I was only 4 when he died. Stories that my mom told sounded like legends or myths. So when I created this story, it was a way to make him more real.”

Helin is providing final edited DVDs to the Normandin family, and digging deeper into the passenger list for surviving family members. McPhail is working with major bookstores to promote his novel and share the coincidences from Helin’s revelations. McPhail’s next reading is scheduled July 18 at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

For more information on Helin and the Normandin films, call (408) 859-4873 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For more information on McPhail and his book, call 965-4056 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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