The spectacular, true story of a scrappy teenager from New York’s Lower East Side who stowed away on the most remarkable feat of science and daring of the Jazz Age, The Stowaway is “a thrilling adventure that captures not only the making of a man but of a nation” (David Grann, bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon).
It was 1928: a time of illicit booze, of Gatsby and Babe Ruth, of freewheeling fun. The Great War was over and American optimism was higher than the stock market. What better moment to launch an expedition to Antarctica, the planet’s final frontier?
Everyone wanted in on the adventure. Rockefellers and Vanderbilts begged to be taken along as mess boys, and newspapers across the globe covered the planning’s every stage. And then, the night before the expedition’s flagship set off, Billy Gawronski—a mischievous, first-generation New York City high schooler, desperate to escape a dreary future in the family upholstery business—jumped into the Hudson River and snuck aboard.
Could he get away with it?
From the soda shops of New York’s Lower East Side to the dance halls of sultry Francophone Tahiti, all the way to Antarctica’s blinding white and deadly freeze, author Laurie Gwen Shapiro “narrates this period piece with gusto” (Los Angeles Times), taking readers on the “novelistic” (The New Yorker) and unforgettable voyage of a plucky young stowaway who became a Roaring Twenties celebrity, a mascot for an up-by-your bootstraps era.
With his back against the sunset, a seventeen-year-old boy lingered on the docks along the Hudson River. By his calculations, it was a ten-minute swim from where he stood to the ship.
The new high school graduate waited, his soft grey eyes fixed on the City of New York, moored and heavily guarded on the Hoboken piers. The sun went down at six forty-five this day—August 24, 1928—but still he fought back his adrenaline. He wanted true darkness before carrying out his plan. At noon the next day, the ship would leave New York Harbor and sail nine thousand miles to the frozen continent of Antarctica, the last frontier on Earth left to explore. He intended to be aboard.
That summer, baby-faced Billy Gawronski was three inches short of his eventual height of five foot eleven, and his voice still squeaked. “You are a late bloomer,” his doting immigrant mother told him in thickly accented English. Yet the ambitious dreamer, born and raised in the gritty tenement streets of the Lower East Side, was as familiar with Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd’s flagship as any reporter assigned to cover its launch. The Antarctica-bound barquentine was an old-fashioned multi-masted ship that suggested the previous century, with enchanting square sails arranged against an almost impenetrable maze of ropes. The 161-foot wooden vessel spanned half a city block, her 27-foot beam taller than a three-story building. Sail- and steam-powered and weighing 200 tons, with sturdy wooden sides 34 inches thick, she had seen duty as an Arctic icebreaker for Norwegian seal hunters starting in 1885. On one run in icy waters in 1912, her captain had been the last to see the Titanic; just ten miles away, he’d been afraid to help the sinking ship, as he was hunting illegally in territorial waters. Like so many immigrants, the ship once known as Samson found her name changed when she arrived in America in 1928, becoming the City of New York. She was the most romantic of the four boats in Byrd’s cobbled-together flotilla, and the one leaving first—with the greatest fanfare—early the next afternoon.
Several times in his mind that evening, Billy dove into the Hudson and started swimming, only to find his feet firmly on land. But he had been on board the SS New York before. Nine days earlier, he and two thousand other New Yorkers had taken the Fourteenth Street Ferry to Hoboken, New Jersey, and gaped at the City of New York, moored next to the grand Dutch ocean liner the SS Veendam. The crowd was wowed with anticipation. Just past noon, the ship’s captain, Frederick Melville—second cousin of the nineteenth-century author Herman Melville—gave the okay, waving the first sweaty guests up the gangway, their dollar admission supporting the Byrd Antarctica expedition’s fund-raising drive. Several members of Melville’s crew, including the chief engineer, Thomas “Mac” Mulroy, and sixty-year-old veteran sailmaker John Jacobson, joined him in greeting the adoring public. No, he told them, Byrd was not aboard. Everyone still wanted to gawk.
When it had been Billy’s turn to board, he’d wandered the wooden decks, still cargo free to accommodate guests. The poop aft (rear deck) was elevated, housing Commander Byrd’s cabin, an elegant wood-paneled chart room, and a state-of-the-art radio room with technology that would let the explorers be heard no matter how far they sailed. Under the poop deck were spaces for the machine room and the radio generator. One level down were seven cabins—the cramped quarters where the men would sleep—as well as several storerooms, and lockers for holding mops and paint. He stood in the machine room with other tourists—men and women content to admire all the nifty gadgets. Also aft were the ship’s engine and oppressively hot boiler room.
None of these places had been right for a hiding spot. Forward proved more promising, with its large fo’c’sle (forecastle, a front deck), and a second, smaller fo’c’sle in the peak: a narrow hollow under the bowsprit (a thick pole projecting from the upper end of a sailing vessel) of the boat’s prow (the part of the bow above the water). Here, under this second hidden fo’c’sle, Billy had spied a good-sized space in a shelf. The exposed top fo’c’sle would be visible to anyone on the ship during the departure ceremonies, but the second fo’c’sle would remain dark. Satisfied with his investigation, the lad grabbed one of the commemorative paper cups set aside as a souvenir before heading for the ramp.
Afterward, still on a high, Billy had walked the New Jersey shoreline until he’d scouted the lookout site he was in now, a long distance from the ship but not out of reach for a superior swimmer like himself. Another ocean liner had taken the Veendam’s place next to the expedition ship in Hoboken’s busy Pier 1: the SS Leviathan, headed overseas the next day, too. The Leviathan dwarfed its famous ice-bound companion vessel in dock.
With the twilight not yet dissipated, Billy still had an excellent view of the many ships going up and down the brackish southern-flowing Hudson. Could a ship hit him as he swam? He ate what little food he’d brought: an apple and an egg salad sandwich. As for what he would eat after that? He hadn’t bothered to think about it.
Even under the dimming sky, Billy could make out the shadowed bodies of stationed watchmen, but he was unsure if they were Byrd’s crew or borrowed Coast Guards keeping vigil. There would be no sneaking up the gangway, the narrow metal plank for boarding. He would have to swim out to the unprotected side of the ship, the side facing the water. Who would think to guard the edges of the ship away from the pier? Once aboard, he did not have a sure grasp on how he would reveal himself to Commander Byrd or justify his presence on the expedition, but he trusted he could wing it.
In Byrd, Americans like Billy now had a superexplorer of their own—someone who could stand proudly beside England’s legendary Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott, not to mention Norway’s Roald Amundsen, the crafty strategist who in 1911 had been the first to reach the South Pole, just five weeks ahead of Scott’s team. The thirty-nine-year-old blueblood Virginian “Dick” Byrd was a slight but strong man with a chiseled, smooth-shaven face. He looked the part of a hero and acted like one, too, admired already for the responsible, safety-first ethics he had demonstrated exploring the North Pole by ship and plane in 1926. Now he had set his eye on the South.
Byrd’s team would be the first American expedition to Antarctica since Lieutenant Charles Wilkes and his exploring party poked around the coast eighty-eight years before, in February 1840. And Wilkes had not even set foot on the continent itself.
When the commander’s four ships reached Antarctica, the coldest, windiest outpost imaginable, he would unload a specially designed Ford trimotor three-propeller transport plane with a seventy-foot wingspan—the first commercial aircraft sturdy enough to weather a 120-mile-per-hour flight over the South Pole; only 199 of the planes were manufactured. The wings and fuselage were constructed from corrugated duralumin, a light, strong alloy of aluminum, copper, manganese, and magnesium, while the landing gear and bracing were all steel. Byrd’s underlings would assemble it on the ice barrier that guarded the continent of Antarctica, and, with the aid of a pilot, he would fly over the polar plateau, proudly dropping the Stars and Stripes from the sky. Two more monoplanes (a plane with only one set of wings) were sailing on other ships farther southbound to 90 degrees south: a small Fokker and an even smaller Fairchild. With the introduction of airplanes to Antarctica, Byrd and his pilots would have the first bird’s-eye views of its great mysterious interior, and no doubt add to the fragmentary maps of the south polar region, a landmass Byrd believed to be greater than that of the United States and Mexico combined—at least five million miles. But as Billy told his family and friends, no one was sure.
Breathless articles in prominent publications such as Scientific American and Popular Mechanics heralded the dawn of the mechanical age of exploration and asked readers with the sketchiest knowledge of Antarctica to imagine a pilot seeing the United States from the air for the first time, spotting a Grand Canyon here, a buffalo herd there. Was Antarctica home to animals that had never been seen? Indigenous people? Lost dinosaurs?
Even Billy’s Polish grandmother, with her rudimentary English, agreed that it was marvelous to be living in an age when man could do such things as fly over a frozen continent. So why did everyone except his babcia scoff whenever Billy said he wanted to have a life as adventurous as Byrd’s?
In the rags-to-riches decade of the 1920s, everyone in the papers seemed to be living big, meaningful lives, from slugger Babe Ruth, to fashionable Coco Chanel, to comic genius Charlie Chaplin. Jews and blacks had broken through: the Marx Brothers achieved overnight fame after their Broadway debut, and provocative entertainer Josephine Baker packed them in at Paris’s Folies Bergère. New York City in 1928 was the rolling-in-the-dough town immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose smash 1920 debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was assigned to English classes at Billy’s alma mater, Manhattan’s progressive Textile High School. Adults, or at least city dwellers, were having a grand old time; only the most sober investors knew that the stock market was not on a permanent high.
Even once-penniless immigrants were doing better for themselves. Billy knew he would inherit the one-man interior decorating business his father had established after arriving in New York as a destitute young man. Now that his boy would graduate in four short years from Cooper Union, a prestigious, free college in Greenwich Village, Rudy Gawronski was ready to add “and Son” to his sign. Billy’s application to Cooper Union had been decent; he supposed he had a knack for art as well as history and languages, but who wanted to study history when you could make history? The thought of a humdrum future stuffing furniture mortified him.
• • •
By nearly nine o’clock on that August night, darkness draped the sky, and lights began to sparkle on in the new downtown skyscrapers—young, electric edifices from a decade of big money. From where he crouched, Billy could see the pyramid atop the Bankers Trust Company Building on Wall Street; the wedding-cake-shaped thirty-story Standard Oil Building on lower Broadway; the forty-story Ritz Tower on Park Avenue; and the first of the city’s Art Deco towers, such as the New York Telephone Building on West Street, completed just months before. Great buildings that proved great things were possible.
Billy stayed awake hours into the night, guessing and second-guessing the right moment to jump off the pier. Glory was not for the skittish, he told himself. Still, he was scared about low visibility under blackened skies; afraid that he might lose his way and drown, although he’d easily managed dozens of river swims with his athletic father and with his downtown friends. But was anyone more determined than Billy to hitch a ride on the most famous rig in America? It was the bold, he was certain, who won the right to adventure.
A few minutes past four in the morning, he’d had enough waiting. The young man took a breath and plunged.
This reading group guide for The Stowawayincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The spectacular, true story of a scrappy teenager from New York’s Lower East Side who stowed away on the Roaring Twenties’ most remarkable feat of science and daring: an expedition to Antarctica.
It was 1928: a time of illicit booze, of Gatsby and Babe Ruth, of freewheeling fun. The Great War was over and American optimism was higher than the stock market. What better moment to launch an expedition to Antarctica, the planet’s final frontier? There wouldn’t be another encounter with an unknown this magnificent until Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.
Everyone wanted in on the adventure. Rockefellers and Vanderbilts begged to be taken along as mess boys, and newspapers across the globe covered the planning’s every stage. And then, the night before the expedition’s flagship set off, Billy Gawronski—a mischievous, first-generation New York City high schooler desperate to escape a dreary future in the family upholstery business—jumped into the Hudson River and snuck aboard.
Could he get away with it?
From the soda shops of New York’s Lower East Side to the dance halls of sultry Francophone Tahiti, all the way to Antarctica’s blinding white and deadly freeze, Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Stowaway takes you on the unforgettable voyage of a plucky young stowaway who became a Jazz Age celebrity, a mascot for an up-by-your bootstraps era.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Shapiro paints a bustling portrait of New York’s Lower East Side at a time of great progress and innovation across the country. Discuss the theme of the American spirit as it is portrayed in this book. How do you think the term applies to the characters of Billy Gawronski, Rudy Gawronski, and Richard Byrd?
2. Billy’s father, Rudy Gawronski, created a successful business for his family that he intended to pass down to his son. What do you think of Billy’s taking to the sea instead of carrying on his father’s legacy? Did his decision seem ungrateful and selfish, or was it simply the necessary fulfillment of a youthful dream?
3. Billy idolized Richard Byrd so much that he followed him to the Antarctic. Who were your idols when you were Billy’s age? Did you ever seek them out or do something outrageous to get their attention?
4. Billy becomes an unexpected celebrity after his attempt to stow away on the City of New York. What role do you think fame and glory played in his decision to board the ship? What role do you think it played in his idolization of Byrd?
5. Billy’s mother and father were reluctant to let their son go to sea, but became proud when he was featured in the newspapers. Think of your own years growing up. Was there anything that your parents put their feet down about? Were you able to persuade them later that you were right?
6. The Polish heritage of the Gawronski family plays a big role in The Stowaway. Discuss the challenges that faced immigrants in the 1920s. How do you think they compare to the struggles of immigrant families today?
7. On page 83, Shapiro writes “that was what had first put Byrd’s name on the map: his tenacity.” Discuss the similarities between Billy and Richard’s shared unwillingness to take no for an answer. Do you think this sort of gumption is a necessary trait in all explorers?
8. When Billy arrives in Antarctica, the continent is windy and excruciatingly cold. Do you think Billy was disappointed by what he found at the other side of his journey? Discuss his experience on the Eleanor Bolling versus his experience in Antarctica. Did you get the impression that the journey was worth all that he risked?
9. Does adventure make a man? Is it a rite of passage into adulthood for Billy to fulfill his dream of taking part in Byrd’s expedition? What kinds of rites of passage do you think young people go through today?
10. Billy’s mother is referred to as meddling. Shapiro asserts that Byrd’s decision to not include Billy on any further expeditions to Antarctica was out of respect for Francesca Gawronski after a letter she wrote to him. Discuss the motives behind her actions. Do you think she was being fair to Billy when she wrote the letter to Byrd?
11. Before this book, not much had been recorded about Billy Gawronski outside of newspaper clippings from the 1920s. Discuss your experience reading about a virtually unknown adventurer. Were you pleased to learn more about someone who had been lost to history? Who are some other unsung heroes you have read about?
12. Billy craves adventure his entire life, enough that he risks his family and future to stow away on the City of New York. However, in the epilogue Shapiro writes “there, amidst the poppies, purple veronica, mountain pinks, Siberian irises, and thyme, Billy the stowaway rediscovered each day the joys of being home” (pg. 197). Discuss what changed in Billy. What role do you think age plays in the yearning for adventure?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Take a virtual tour of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Visit https://www.oldnyc.org/ to see Billy’s neighborhood in the 1920s. If you are in the area or are planning a trip to New York, consider checking out the Tenement Museum of New York for more photos and archives: http://www.tenement.org/
2. The City of New York is its own character in the book. Visit your local maritime museum to get a feel for these massive ships and ship life. If you are far from a museum visit https://southstreetseaportmuseum.org/
“Shapiro has rescued from oblivion a wondrous tale of exploration. The Stowaway is a thrilling adventure that captures not only the making of a man but of a nation.” — David Grann, bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon
“A high-concept true story for the ages.... Shapiro narrates this period piece with gusto.” — Los Angeles Times
“The Stowaway proves that fact is stranger and funnier and more amazing than fiction. Laurie Gwen Shapiro artfully draws the reader into the tale of Billy Gawronski, a dreamer and adventurer. Through the wild story of his travels to Antarctica, we see history come vividly to life.” — Susan Orlean, bestselling author of Rin Tin Tin
“Laurie Gwen Shapiro wrote The Stowaway like a Jack London novel: with a sense of adventure, wonderful detail, a lineup of intriguing characters, and above all a great story. This is the best of nonfiction.” — Mark Kurlansky, bestselling author of Paper
“A fascinating window into... the exuberant 1920s and the crushing Depression that followed.... A must-read.” — USA Today
“Inspired by [an] engrossing yet little-known case of derring-do, [The Stowaway] evokes the magic of early 20th-century New York.” —The New York Times
“What has the world come to when sled dogs and short wave radio mix, when wooden sailing barks compete with aeroplanes, when ‘Eskimos’ figuratively dance with flappers, and all of this is captured and disseminated by the first public relations hucksters? Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Stowaway is magnificent.” — Bob Drury & Tom Clavin, bestselling authors of The Heart of Everything That Is
“The Stowaway tells one of the most engaging, but forgotten, stories from the Age of Exploration. A fascinating and charming book—I highly recommend it!” — Douglas Preston, bestselling author of The Lost City of the Monkey God
“Isn’t this how history sometimes is best told, when a passing curiosity melds with diligent work? The Stowaway is a charming book, a glimpse of history that, by definition, fascinates and delights.” — Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Laurie Gwen Shapiro's The Stowaway is full of twists, turns, and moments of pure wonder—both joy to read and a surprisingly insightful tale of scientific exploration at its generous and courageous best.” — Deborah Blum, bestselling author of The Poisoner’s Handbook
“A gripping, gritty, mischievous tale from an age of exploration and wonder. The Stowaway makes real history read like a boy’s adventure novel.” — Kevin Baker, bestselling author of Paradise Alley
“An engaging story, engagingly told, that makes the reader root for Billy... [and] prompts one to ponder the effects of social class on fate, and the special qualities that make some people push themselves to the limit.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Every now and then, history presents us with a life that seems almost impossible to believe. Such is the case with Billy Gavronski.... Shapiro offers a detailed look at... perhaps the last time an earthbound explorer was able to so dominate the public’s interest.” — Barnes & Noble (A Best History Book of January 2018)
“A true life adventure that reads like something out of a novel.” — Amazon (A Best History Book of January 2018)
“I read nonfiction almost exclusively... and I’ll be blunt: this has been a depressing year, filled with political works and stories of America’s decline and social disintegration. But Laurie Gwen Shapiro's fascinating book saved my reading year, offering an incredible story, and a reminder that American Exceptionalism once had real meaning.” — Publishers Weekly
“Entertaining as hell. There's no question that this is an adventure story for the ages.” — The Maine Edge
“So much more enjoyable than watching the evening news.” — The Bismark Tribune
“If sheer gumption is a human trait as honorable as actual accomplishment, then we should build a statue to this bold immigrant son of an interior designer. In Shapiro’s splendid recount of Gawronski’s most famous feat, we’re taken upon a magnificent journey from the vantage of the ultimate outsider.” — The Bowery Boys
“An inspiring, not-to-be missed story. The Stowaway is not only Gawronski’s tale; it also highlights a time in our nation’s history when people thrilled to the excitement of exploration, and daring men and women... rose to unprecedented challenges.” — The Missourian
“Shapiro has revived the history of a once-celebrated stowaway to Antarctica in this well-wrought true tale of a young man who captured the hearts of millions and found adventure at sea.” — Booklist
“How [Shapiro] conjures the atmosphere and hardships of seafaring life impresses... [and] Billy is a fascinating central character.” — New York Journal of Books
“The narrative reads like a yarn from that era... [and] ultimately reveals as much about a country’s changing values as it does about one boy’s pluck.” — Kirkus Reviews
“An absorbing tale.” — Book Reporter
“This fascinating and exciting story contrasts the optimism and sense of progress of the 1920s with the devastation of the 1930s. Readers... will find much to delight in here.” — Library Journal