When Frances Langford, the stunning songstress who famously crooned, "I'm in the Mood for Love," first met her husband, Ralph Evinrude, the two didn't talk Hollywood. They didn't discuss movies or big business, nor did they swap high-profile names, though given her celebrity and his position as vice chairman of the Outboard Marine Corporation, they certainly could have. Instead, the pair talked boats. Surprising, perhaps, to the many fans who remember Langford from her days on Bob Hope's USO tour, but certainly not to the many boaters who'd seen her onboard her 108-foot Burger, Chanticleer. They knew that above all else, Langford was a passionate boater.
Langford visited Georgian Bay regularly for more than 45 years.
Cruising and Fishing
Frances Newbern Langford was born in Lakeland, Florida, in 1913. According to her longtime captain, Karim Haddad (who she lovingly called "Junior"), Langford was a boater from the start. She grew up on a houseboat in the Miami River and developed a real passion for fishing at a young age. So after she wed Evinrude in 1955, Langford instantly took to life aboard his yacht, the first Chanticleer.
Capt. Haddad began working on that yacht, a 118-foot steel vessel built by Defoe, in the mid-1950's, onboard which he served as mess man. He recalls cruising to Mexico, the Bahamas, Honduras, and the Dry Tortugas in search of fish. "She'd start fishing in the morning," he says of Langford, "and be out there all day. She'd come in for lunch and an hour later, she'd be back fishing again. Then she'd bottom fish and chum all night." To accommodate Langford's passion for the sport, both this and the later Chanticleer carried a range of tenders to fish from. Ranging from 13- to 18-footers with a variety of engine arrangements, there was always a different boat onboard for every possible occasion.
In addition to fishing trips, both Chanticleers cruised between their home base in Jensen Beach, Florida, and Ontario's Georgian Bay. It was Evinrude who introduced his wife to Georgian Bay, having traveled there himself since the 1920's. As a child he'd been plagued by respiratory problems and had been brought to the town of Little Current on nearby Manitoulin Island to alleviate the effects of hay fever. Evinrude fell in love with the island's rugged beauty, and the couple eventually bought tiny twin islets in the northeast end of Baie Finn, where they built a waterfront house that they would frequently visit. Even after Evinrude passed away in 1986, Langford continued to cruise in Canadian waters. "In the end, even when her eyes weren't good," Haddad says of later trips up north, "she'd know where we were." The Internet is full of breathless accounts from Georgian Bay cruisers who had spotted Chanticleer and were eager to report that even as an octogenarian, Langford was still looking "very Hollywood."
A Glamorous Era
Langford's infectious personality ensured that both Chanticleers were constantly awash with guests. However, it was on the first Chanticleer that Langford most often hosted high-profile visitors. Haddad remembers anchoring off Santa Monica, California, and hosting huge parties in which every attendee "had a name." But Langford was also philanthropic through-and-through, so her parties were often fundraisers which she charged her guests thousands of dollars to attend. When pressed for the names of some of the guests, Haddad mentions Dick Powell and his wife June Allison, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, and even, President Richard Nixon. "I first met [Nixon] when he was the vice president. He came to the boat with all these people—secret service, you know. Now, I'm the dishwasher, and I had these checkerboard pants, and here's Nixon and he's asking me about her. He wants to know all about the boat. I was just the mess man! The next time I met him he was president and fishing in Walker's Cay."
Soon after Evinrude's death in 1986, Langford purchased the second Chanticleer, a 1973, 108-foot Burger. The boat had been owned by Ogden Phipps, a famous horsebreeder and tennis champ who named her Buckpasser after one of his most cherished thoroughbreds. The yacht was designed by the famed naval architect Jack Hargrave, who began working with Burger Boats in 1957. According to Jon Couch, who today owns Chanticleer, "[She] is one of the most well-known of the Hargrave-designed Burgers," and was a four-stateroom cruiser laid out in typical Burger fashion. In her book American Classic: The Yachts and Ships of Jack Hargrave, Marilyn Mower says, "Interestingly, the large bed in the aft stateroom was mounted on a hinged frame and could be split into twin beds."
Owners Liz Dooner and Jon Couch.
After the singer purchased Chanticleer, the yacht underwent an 11-month refit to accommodate modifications Langford had specified. These included adding a cockpit and extending three portholes that lit the passage to the dining room. Says Julien Elfenbein, the broker who sold Chanticleer after Landford's death, "Those vertical, oval windows...changed the look somewhat, though she did a nice job with them." Langford decorated the yacht almost entirely in pink (rugs, drapes, upholstered walls, etc.), prompting Haddad to tell Langford that the decor was reminiscent of a "Moroccan whorehouse."
Interior decor aside, when you ask people who have enjoyed a close relationship with a vessel that is as memorable as Chanticleer what they like best about her, you're bound to get a lot of different answers. When I put the question to Haddad, he explained that he was thrilled with the boat's welded aluminum hull. "If you have a steel boat, you're forever cleaning and painting it. But with aluminum, there's a lot less worry. You can go onto that boat and open up a bilge and it looks like the day it was built." In addition, he praised Chanticleer's twin Caterpillar D-343 TA diesels. Her current owners agree, assuring me that the engines are still in excellent condition. Haddad also pointed to the boat's beautiful teak rails. "Other companies, when they put on a rail, they don't put the amount of wood that Burger does," he said, "Once you see what the others are, there's a big difference." Elfenbein said he most appreciates her "typically wonderful Burger displacement hull...which makes it much more comfortable when getting out to sea," though he was quick to add that Chanticleer's profile is also stunning and elicits admiration from other boaters. Larry Hastings, the captain who ran the boat when she was still Buckpasser, said he likes the fact that she was the first helicopter-capable Burger. Of course, if Langford were still alive, she'd likely have some favorite features of her own to throw into the mix. After all, Haddad put it best when he said, "She really knew her boat."
A Bright Future
In 2006, a year after Langford passed away, Couch, an experienced boater and a self-described "Hargrave nut," and Liz Dooner spotted a brokerage ad for Chanticleer and recognized a special opportunity. They were not even in the market for a yacht at the time, but they felt they could not pass up the chance to own a Hargrave-designed Burger. Couch adds that they were drawn to the yacht's storied past, adding that "part of what makes a restoration project important is the idea that you are ‘custodian of history' in some way. Chanticleer elicits an emotional response for design alone, but it also carries the memories of another era characterized by the Phipps family and later, Langford and Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason, and so many of the other guests that graced her decks."
Couch and Dooner have refit Chanticleer, which hadn't had major work done since the 1980's. They replaced many of her systems, including plumbing, heating, cooling, and wiring. They also redid her interior and exterior finishes using thousands of board-feet of teak, mahogany, sapele, and lyptus in rails, fiddles, archways, panels, cabinets, and other custom furniture and fixtures. The couple converted the top deck to a lounge/dining area. In the end, Couch says, "Chanticleer was restored in the more traditional style of even older motoryachts and classic sailing vessels."
After the refit, Couch and Dooner feel they now have a thoroughly modern yacht that still maintains a connection to her storied past.
Both Hastings and Haddad have seen Chanticleer since her refit and have become good friends with her new owners. The captains' ongoing allegiance to Chanticleer is a testament to the kind of loyalty she inspires, while their friendship with Dooner and Couch speaks volumes about the new owners' deep respect for their boat's esteemed past. They'll be taking the "new" yacht to Florida and the Northern Caribbean this winter, which is sure to thrill boaters who'll appreciate seeing a true legend on the water. As Couch says, "In our travels, we've been approached in most every port by folks who have known the boat—most everyone has a story to tell. It's been a wonderful part of our travels." Those stories are a fitting tribute to Langford and her beautiful Chanticleer, who she loved so dearly and knew so well.
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This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.