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Co-founder of Broward Marine: Gertrude Denison’s Story

Denison Yachting | April 10, 2022

Ken Denison, son of Frank and Gertrude Denison, pays respect and gives recognition to his mother Shooshie, the doyenne of yacht interior design

Gertrude Winslow Denison, co-founder of Broward Marine, is often given less credit for the company’s success and notoriety than her husband, Frank. Quite frankly, those of us who worked within the company and took part in the day-to-day process of designing and building boats would balance this credit due. It was, as many have told me, a balance of two very distinctive and gifted individuals who came together in a business that neither one had much experience in. And with that, created a production run that lasted more than 50 years. It was a combination of talents that made this business the first United States yacht company to have the largest order book in the world.

Gertrude Blanche Winslow – affectionately known as Shooshie – met Frank Denison in Saugatuck, Michigan at the Big Pavilion docks in the summer of 1946. He was dockside at the time, with one of his ‘fixer uppers’ that he refitted and brought north to sell (after he sold his trucking company, Frank would buy boats to repaint and restore as a hobby.) Frank’s parents had a summer place in St. Joseph, and Gertrude and her sister Janet spent the summers in Saugatuck at their parent’s summer home. Gertrude’s father, Clarence Morton Winslow, a.k.a. G.P., was raised in Saugatuck and their cottage was a wonderful respite from their residence in Western Springs, north of Chicago, where G.P. had his accounting business. It was at the Winslow home in Saugatuck, a year after meeting, that Frank and Gertrude married during the Christmas of 1947, before driving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida for their honeymoon. And it was at Dooley’s Yacht Basin in Fort Lauderdale where Frank did much of his boat refits on the south fork of the New River. The yard had been decimated by Hurricane George; a Category 4 storm that swept through a few months prior. After the hurricane, Frank made an offer to buy the place from Dooley, closing the deal shortly after he and Shooshie arrived in 1948.

Two years later, with a massive Navy Minesweeper program underway and three young boys to raise, much of Gertrude’s time was spent on the finances. With her father as a guide for the accounting, she soon played a major part in running the offices; the financial center of a small boatyard that would become the largest employer in Broward County. When the minesweeper program ended towards the end of the 1950s, the yard began constructing large yachts, such as ALISA V. Gertrude saw an opportunity, and created another milestone in the yachting business – interior yacht design.

Traditionally, both yacht exteriors and interiors were designed by naval architects. They were functional spaces with little sense of decor. They were considered men’s toys and required only the basic treatments. It was the same throughout the U.S. and Europe. When Frank embarked on the risky venture of building a large motor yacht to sell on speculation, Gertrude was asked to step in and, as Dad unceremoniously said, “hang the rags.”

From the start, Gertrude questioned the use of space. She saw that, as the yachts grew in size, they would better attract the ladies if the interiors felt more like homes. Her sense of creating from the beginning, her sense of creating a homey feel brought the wives into yachting, causing the boats to further increase in size. Andrew Winch described this evolution as a “revolution”.

“Gertrude broke the mold,” Winch says. “No one in Europe at the time was doing this. Broward was creating boats with enormous volume. That was a revolution that created a far bigger market for yachting. She dreamed of a villa afloat…a place where you can bring the grandchildren and bake the cookies.”

Gertrude’s own home, like so many others, had a family space for meals, so why not yachts? Her design of the much-copied country kitchen had never been thought of before, as these spaces were considered for crew and not to be entered. The evolution led to master cabins that were more like hotel suites with his and hers sides, bathing tubs, dressing areas and lounges – all-new aboard a yacht. Fireplaces began showing up in her designs in the early 1960s, and the more outrageous owner requests led, at one point, to a small space on the aft deck for a couple’s poodles, with a real lawn, picket fence, and a fireplug! The use of Lucite and Lexan came in the 80s, along with carved carpeting and lighting effects.

“The buyers of these yachts changed, and they wanted a different experience,” says Mike Joyce, CEO of Hargrave Yachts. “These people were boating 5% of the time, and the other 95% they were living on the boats.”

Outside of yacht interiors, Gertrude continued to occupy a backseat to Frank’s front-of-house position as the builder of Broward Yachts. But she played a role, as a woman of that era, who was pivotal in the company’s success. While Frank’s explosive personality could shake things up a bit, she provided a steady hand that soothed and calmed things down behind the scenes of Broward Marine. She never wanted the lead role, finding comfort and satisfaction as a mother, businesswoman and, eventually, grandmother.

On Shooshie’s 80th birthday, Donald Starkey sent her a beautiful letter that reads: “I believe I owe you a great debt of gratitude. At the time that I was just starting work as a tea boy in an architect’s office, you set about creating the role of yacht interior designer. This was done by setting up a company solely dedicated to yacht interiors, which I now, many years later, am fortunate to be enjoying and earning my living from. Possibly without your lead all those years ago, this role might not have existed, and that is why I believe I have you to thank sincerely for what you have done for me.”

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