AUGUST   2020


Saturday, November 15, 2008


I had to do some work to locate the starting point for Bob Fowler’s second attempt at a transcontinental flight. For one thing it has been buried under concrete and asphalt for a century. For another, some histories have mis-labeled it as “Wiltshire Field”, but that seems to have been a "spell check mis-correction" of the name "Henry Gaylord Wilshire". If you are familiar with Los Angeles at all you recognize that name. In 1895 Gaylord bought 35 acres around what would one day become MacAthur Park. Gaylord then humbly allowed the city of Los Angeles to build a road right through the center of his property, on the condition that they not allow any street cars to use it and that they name it after him. Then he promptly packed up and moved back to New York. He left his name no where else in Los Angles.
Wilshire Boulevard’s beginnings were very humble indeed, bisecting mostly beet fields. In 1910 the intersection of Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax Avenue was an ideal location for an airfield, close to the budding metropolis of Los Angeles (320,000 citizens already) but open enough to allow pilots to crash regularly without killing the neighbors, because there weren’t any, except for a few deceased Dire Wolves stuck in the tar of the La Brea Tar Pits, just down the street. (BTW: "la brea" means tar in Spanish - so the "La Brea tar pits" translates as 'the tar - tar pits'.
There should be a plaque in the sidewalk or something at the corner of Fairfax and Whilshire, because not only did Bob Fowler start his second transcontinental flight from here on October 19, 1911, but it is also where Ameila Earhart took her first flight lesson, in a Curtiss Jenny, in 1921. In fact, lots of aviation history has happened at that corner of Hollywood.
Movie maker C.B. DeMille , in town to direct the first blockbuster “Squawman”, operated an airline out of there for a year or so (Mecury Aviation), until it went bankrupt. (see a young C.B. below) Then in March 1921 the air field was bought by flyer Emory Roger and his wife, and renamed “Rogers’ Field”. Emory then started up “Pacific Marine Airways”, in partnership with Sid Chaplin, brother to Charlie Chaplin. They flew to Catalina Island and sold Curtiss airplanes out of a showroom on the field - at least they did until Emory died in a plane crash in November of 1921. Then Emory’s widow ran the field until 1923, when she sold out to developers, and the airfield disappeared. That is what happens to everything historic in Los Angeles, sooner or later.
But that was all in the future in 1911. On October 19, 1911 Wilshire Field was just an open space out at the end of Wilshire Blvd.Late that afternoon Bob Fowler, at the controls of his new Wright B Flyer, renamed the "Cole Flyer", lifted off and headed east. He made only 9 miles that first day, landing in Pasadena. But the important thing was that he was back in the race. Bob’s financial backer, Reed Grundy, had always wanted him to start from Los Angeles because the mountains Bob had to cross here were so much lower that the Sierra and because the Los Angeles Board of Reality was coughing up a $10,000 bonus if he started from L.A. - okay, mostly because of the bonus. In fact, early the next morning, October 20, Grundy called Pasadena and begged Bob to fly back to Wilshire Field to collect another paycheck for an appearance down Fairfax Avenue at the L.A. motordrome with Barney Oldfield and company.
But Bob put his foot down and said he’d rather give up flying all together than start this trip three times. Grundy got the message and Bob flew on to Riverside, California, probably spitting and cursing all the way about what a jackass his manager was. I’m sure NASCAR drivers feel the same way about their sponsors, once in awhile. In two days of flying Bob Fowler covered only 69 miles. And the next day, October 21st, went even slower, because he was approaching the San Gorgonio Pass. The pass is only at 2,600 feet altitude, but it runs 22 miles long between the 9,000 foot tall Mt. San Gorgonio and the 11,000 foot tall Mt. San Jacinto, making it one of the deepest passes in the United States. For a cloth and wood airplane flying at between 2 and 4,000 feet above the ground, passing between towering mastiffs meant dangerous cross winds. The Cole Flyer struggled to make progress, but Bob kept going. Just as the 14,505 foot tall Mount Whitney stands just 76 miles west of Badwater, Death Valley, at 282 feet below sea level, Mount San Jacinto stands less than 100 miles west of the Salton Sink, at 220 feet below sea level (far upper right in photo). The line from the Gulf of California, through the Salton Sea, Death Valley (and north to Mono Lake) is the joint where California is being twisted, torn apart, bent and broken along the San Andreas Fault and a newly forming rift valley. Someday, in fourteen or fifteen million years, this is going to be the new west coast.
But having finally left this geological drama behind him, Bob Fowler was now over flatlands and flying in cool winter temperatures across the desert. And on October 25 he landed in Yuma, Arizona. Finally, after almost sixty days of starting, stopping and crashing, Bob Fowler had escaped California.Two hundred miles later, following the Southern Pacific Railroad line, Bob landed at Tuscon, Arizona. And there Bob had his brief encounter with a fellow traveler, the only other man on God’s green earth who truly understood what he was going through; Cal Rogers. They were together barely long enough to shake hands, and nobody had time to produce a camera. And then they separated without so much as a backslap or to compare notes: so much for the brotherhood of the air.
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Thursday, November 13, 2008


I believe it was with apprehension that Cal Rogers set his “Vin Fiz” down in Cicero airfield on the afternoon of October 8th, 1911, rather than with a sense of accomplishment. Cal was now officially 21 days out of New York City. He had flown just 1/3 of the distance to California. He had crashed (using a most generous definition of the term) six times, or about once every 166 miles. At this rate he had to assume he would crash another six times before he reached the foot of the Rockies at Denver, Colorado. And he would either be spending Christmas somewhere in Utah, or dead. The Pony Express was proving faster than the" Vin Fiz Flyer". Upon landing Cal immediately telegraphed William Randolph Hearst to request an extension of the time limit for the $50,000 prize offered by his newspapers. But Cal could not have known that W.R., as Mr. Hearst liked to be called, had no intention of letting anybody actually win the prize money.

Like most self described “self made” millionaires (such as Donald Trump), William Randolph Hearst was the son of a millionaire. When W.R. was kicked out of Harvard, where the boy had struggled to survive on a $500 a month allowance (the equivalence of $11,000 a month today), it seemed he was destined for failure – well, as failed as the pampered only son of a millionaire could be, because the only thing bigger than the fortune which W.R. would eventually gain control of, was his ego.

In 1887 W.R. took over the “San Francisco Examiner”, which Daddy had won in a gambling bet. W.R. then sank part of daddies’ fortune into making it the “Monarch of the Dailies”. He hired the best writers and editors that daddies’ money could buy, (such as Mark Twain and later Harriet Quimby) and built a publishing edifice based on the formula of sex+ rumor + jingoism + comic strips. The first of the Sunday comics printed in color was “The Yellow Kid”; thus the origin of the description of W.R.'s style of newspaper as “yellow journalism”. And what was yellow journalism? A. J. Pegler, a Hearst writer, described it this way: “A Hearst newspaper is like a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Think, Fox News.When daddy George Hearst died in 1891, W.R. convinced his dotting mother to sell off the mining properties on which the family fortune had been built to finance his acquisition of the “New York Morning Journal”, where W.R. repeated his recipe of success - which he had learned, by the way, during a summer internship under Joseph Pulitzer. And then W.R. began to buy newspapers and magazines, (eventually 42 newspapers with 30 million + readers) where he could syndicate his well paid writers and increase his advertising revenues, which he used to promote and publicize his runs for congressman (two terms) and as governor and mayor of N.Y.C. (three tries and no wins). Everything W.R. did was ultimately to promote and publicize W.R., including the Hearst Prize. W.R.’s interest in flying was typically mercenary. When his editors had approached him with the idea of offering a $50,000 prize for the first transcontinental flight experts like Glenn Curtiss and Wilbur Wright, warned W.R. that aviation was too young to achieve such a lofty goal. In 1910, when the prize was offered, no plane could stay airborne longer than two hours at a time, and none could travel faster than fifty miles an hour. Airplanes were still made out of wood and wire, for crying out loud. But W.R. was not particularly interested in promoting flying. He was interested in promoting himself. And offering the prize would fill his newspapers day after day, with articles about how it could it be done, who could do it, who didn’t think it could be done, and how many would die trying to do it. And speaking of publicity, W.R. was awarded a medal from the Aeronautical Society of America for even offering the prize. And W.R. loved to get medals. And that’s what offering the prize got for W.R. Whereas, actually awarding the prize would sell papers for one day only. And that was why the Hearst Prize had contained a time limit in the first place. The prize was set to expire on October 17, 1911. And when Cal Rogers’ telegram arrived begging for an extension, W.R. was in no rush to respond. Cal waited in Chicago for two days for the telegram from Hearst, and he began to suspect he had been had. Then, on October 10th he flew across the flatlands to Springfield, Illinois, then on to Marshall, Missouri. As he arrived in Marshall, far away from any Hearst newspapers, Cal found a telegram from Hearst waiting for him, letting him know there would be no extension. Cal had now flown 1,398 miles since leaving New York, which gave him the record for longest continuous flight. But there would be no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, just a bottle of Vin Fiz - yuck.A mercenary element now entered Cal’s romantic soul. When the city of St. Louis withdrew its offer of a thousand dollars for landing there, Cal bypassed the town, and its Hearst newspaper. Instead he flew on to Kansas City, landing in Swope Park.

Experience was teaching Cal how to handle his plane. His decision to turn south, to avoid the barrier of the Rocky Mountains, and the fact that there were far fewer trees to run into on the Great Plains, reduced certain dramatic elements in Cal’s journey, and it also increased his average speed. There were fewer crashes, fewer late night repairs; everbody was happy. About 9 A.M. on October 19, 1911 the “Vin Fiz Flyer” crossed the Red River into Texas.

And on that same day, the race that was no longer a race, became a two man race once again.


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Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I suppose you might think she was just a model – I did - an image without a reality. But she was a self made woman, and her own invention - a latter day Maria Sharapova, in high button shoes; intelligent, talented, ambitious, an author, a dare devil, an adrenaline junkie and a hustler par excellence. You have to remember that she was a hustler to understand how she came to be the personification for a grape flavored syrup that, mixed with soda water, processed “a certain laxative effect”, and had a taste “You have to sneak up on, to get it down,”, She was the official “Vin Fiz” girl, and at the age of 36. And if that were her only claim to fame, hers’ would be a mundane tale indeed, because she was so much more than just a girl on a poster. She was Harriet Quimby, theatre critic, photojournalist, screenwriter, film actor, first licensed female pilot in America, the first woman to fly across the English Channel, and yes, she was even sexier in person than the girl on the poster. But who was she really? The sexy leather outfit was born out of necessity. The Wright Brothers were Midwestern stick-in-the-muds who did not approve of teaching women to fly and who strongly disapproved of anybody who did. And there were darn few people in the flying business in 1911 who did not pay attention to what the Wright brothers disapproved of. So when Harriet Quimby convinced John Moisant to give her flight lessons, he insisted on secrecy. Whenever they took off she wore a hooded leather suit to hide her femininity.
It didn’t, of course. There was no way to hide that. But when the secret was out, instead of discarding the suit, the usually penurious Harriet turned it into a custom-made icon; “…thick wool-backed satin, without lining. It is all of one piece, including the hood”, as she described it. Or as a friend noted, “She had the most beautiful blue eyes, and when she wore that long cape over her satin, plum-colored flying suit, she was a real head-turner.” Plumb colored, then; but who was Harriet Quimby, really?Her family had owned a rock farm in upper Michigan in the 1870’s, and her mother, Ursula, had supplemented their income by selling “Quimby’s Liver Invigorator” by mail, complete with imaginary testimonials. In the 1880’s the farm went bust and the family moved to the central coast of California, and then in the 1890’s they had moved again to San Francisco. There her father, William, dispensed herbs and twenty-something Harriet invented herself as an “actress”, in the nineteenth century definition of that term, as a beautiful bobble on the arm of men who could afford her. People asked. Her mother said she had been college educated "back east". But no college ever had a record of her attending. Still people wanted to know because she was famous. Her nude portrait even hung in the sophisticated “Bohemian Club”, until it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1906. But by then Harriet had reinvented her self again; writing articles for the “San Francisco Bulletin”, and, in 1903, moving east to New York City to become the theatre critic, feature writer and photojournalist for “Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly”. But who was Harriet Quimby, really?She wrote the odd and off-beat stories; “A Woman’s Moose Hunt” and “Hints to Stage Struck Girls”, “Household Hints”, the habits of Chinatown, the life of acrobats and comics and the evils of childhood labor. In a decade she wrote more than 250 stories, many under nom de plumes. She even wrote screenplay melodrama shorts for D.W. Griffith’s “Biograph Studios” in New Jersey; “Sunshine Through the Dark” (a blind princess has her sight restored by a poet’s kiss), “His Mother’s Scarf” (Two brothers battle over a girl), “The Broken Cross” (boy finds girl, tramp tricks boy, boy goes back to girl) and “Fisher Folks” (a crippled girl marries a fisherman, and heartache ensues.) None of these were cinema masterpieces, or would make film history. But they paid the bills. And they gave Harriet a taste of the movie business. She even acted in one film for D.W. But who was Harriet Quimby, really? She was vivacious, ambitious, alive and enchanting. Bonnie Ginger, a friend and fan wrote, “Miss Quimby has…a low voice and a brilliant smile and she runs strongly to overhung bonnets and antique ornaments…She probably wears this sort of thing because she can do it so well”. Harriet lived in a suite at the Victoria Hotel, and kept a suite for her parents there as well. She bought a powerful yellow sports car (her one ostentatious purchase) and sped around town in it. When she completed her flight training, Harriet wrote that she “…walked over to one of the officials, looked him in the eye, and said ‘Well, I guess I get my license”. She did, Number 37. It was, she said, “Easier than voting”, which was quite a joke since women did not yet have the vote. “Was it worth the effort?”, she would write for Leslies, “Absolutely. I didn’t want to make myself conspicuous, I just wanted to be first, that’s all, and I am honestly and frankly delighted.” Was this who Harriet Quimby really was? As for the romance of flight, Harriet was brutally honest in describing the experience to her Lesilie’s readers… “Not only the chassis of the machine, but all the fixtures are slippery with lubricating oil, and when the engine is speeded a shower of this oil is thrown back directly into the driver’s face.” She plotted carefully to be the first woman to fly the channel, but on the morning after her flight word of the Titanic sinking drove her adventure out of the headlines. So she came home to participate in an air show in Boston, and it was there she took a passenger for a ride in her new French built two seat monoplane.
Near the end if their flight for some reason he stood up and leaned forward in his seat (seat belts being frowned upon as too restrictive). The plane hit an air pocket and he was pitched out of the plane. Harriet, unaware of this as he was sitting behind her, suddenly found the planes’ center of gravity had been drastically altered. She fought for control for a few seconds before she too was pitched out of the plane. The horrified crowd watched as the two bodies tumbled into the mudflats of Dorchester Bay, one in a plum colored flying suit. The passenger died of drowning. Harriet died on impact; July 1, 1912. The Vin Fiz girl was dead, five months after the plane ended its endeavor. But who had she been, really?
We will probably never know. She and her mother had concocted so many stories over so many years that they left the real Harriet in their shadow. And that seems to have been the way that the real Harriet Quimby wanted it.

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