JUNE 2017

JUNE  2017
J.P. Morgan as a young man in his own words - "The Public Be Damned."

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

AIR HEADS Part Six

I suppose you thought she was just a model – I did - or an image without a reality. But she was a real person, 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 must always 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 that at the age of 36. And if that were her only claim to fame, then hers’ would be a mundane tale indeed. But she was so much more than just a girl on a poster. She was  Harriet Quimby (above); 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, John  insisted on secrecy. Whenever they took off she wore a hooded leather suit to hide her femininity.
Of course it did no such thing. There was no way to hide her sex. 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 (above, center), had supplemented their income by selling “Quimby’s Liver Invigorator” by mail, complete with imaginary testimonials. In the 1880’s the family farm went bust and the family moved to the central coast of California, and then in the 1890’s they moved again to San Francisco. There her father, William (above, left), dispensed herbs and twenty-something Harriet (above, right) re-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 where Harriet had received her education. Ursula always said Harriet had been college educated "back east". But no college had a record of her ever 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 San Fransisco earthquake and fire of 1906.
But by then Harriet (above) had reinvented her self again; writing articles for the “San Francisco Bulletin”, and, in 1903, moving east to New York City to become a theater 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”, and wrote on the habits of Chinatown, the life of acrobats and comics and the evils of childhood labor. Over a decade she wrote more than 250 stories, many under nom de plumes. She even wrote screenplay melodramas  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 in New York, 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”.  And she did, License Number 37.
It was, she said, “Easier than voting”, which was quite a joke since women did not yet have the right to  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.”
Harriet plotted carefully to be the first woman to fly the English 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 the passenger stood up and leaned forward in his seat (seat belts being frowned upon as too restrictive). The plane hit an air pocket and the passenger was pitched out of the plane.
Harriet was unaware of this, as he had been sitting behind her. But suddenly she found the planes’ center of gravity had been drastically altered. She fought for control, and for a few seconds she almost succeeded. And then the plane pitched forward and she too was thrown out. 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, face down in the mud of Dorchester Bay. But the girl, the slender, tiny girl...
A man ran into the water, pulled her broken body from the mud flats, and ran ashore (above). But it was too late. Harriet had died on impact; 1 July, 1912.  The Vin Fiz girl was dead, five months after the plane that had  immortalized her image 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.
- 30 -

Sunday, April 26, 2015

HIT THE ROAD JACK

I should point out that when Martin Van Buren (above) was humiliatingly dumped into an Indiana hog wallow, ruining a very expensive pair of pearl gray trousers and coating his elegant frock coat with everything a happy swine leaves behind in a porcine sauna, he deserved it. Of course “The Red Fox of Kinderhook” was far too crafty a politician to admit he had been humiliated. That would just draw more  humiliation. As the venomous Virginia politician John Randolph observed, Martin Van Buren always “rowed with muffled oars.” But everybody knew this traffic accident had been staged as payback for Van Buren having insulted Hoosiers. What goes around comes around. And it was useless to point out that the insult had mostly come from Van Buren's predecessor, the still popular Andrew Jackson.
Even the frail shadow of federal authority which existed in 1828 was too much for incoming President Andrew Jackson (above). Over his two terms, Jackson did his very best to attack "big government",  in all its endeavors except the ones of which he approved. Jackson vetoed a new charter for the National Bank - precursor of the Federal Reserve - which left the entire banking system unregulated. He streamlined the sale of public lands, which energized land speculators and overcharged yeoman farmers. He cut entire programs out of the Federal budget, and insisted the states take over many others. And at the same time he backed the Seminole Indian nation into a war.
But it was not until three months after his successor Van Buren's inauguration in March of 1837 that these pigeons came home to roost. The massive real estate bubble suddenly popped. Over half of the nation's unregulated banks suddenly failed. And by January of 1838 half a million Americans were unemployed. Or to put it more simply, suddenly it was prom night and Martin Van Buren was dating Carrie. And like Carrie's date, Van Buren then made things worse by slashing out at everything in sight. Oh, he continued the unending expensive Seminole war. But he insisted on killing Federal funding for the National Road, which had reduced mail time between Washington and Indianapolis from several months to less than a week. Van Buren was so doctrinaire he even sold off the construction workers' picks and shovels. And for frontier farmers trying to get their produce to market, that made any economic recovery that much harder.
See, once across the Ohio border, the $7,000 a mile construction costs for the National Road was supposed to be supplied by land sales. But when the real estate bubble popped in 1837, that funding evaporated. Maintenance for the 600 mile road was paid for by the tolls of four to twelve cents per ten mile section (the equivalent of $2.50 today), paid by the 200 wagons, horseback riders, farmers and herds of livestock that used each section of the road every day. But after 1837 that $36,000 a year (almost a million dollars today) had to do double duty, finishing the road and providing maintenance for the road already completed  And it was not enough.
Particularly in Indiana, there were long sections beyond the two urban centers, ((Indianapolis and Richmond) where farmers using the road to drive their livestock to market faced forests of 14 inch high tree stumps. These provided clearance for the farmers' and emigrants' high riding Conestoga wagons, but between the stumps, the road bed was in such bad shape that constant repairs to their equipment bankrupted many of the 200 stagecoach lines trying to survive in Indiana. And every frontier farmer and businessman knew exactly who was to blame for all of this –“President Martin Van Ruin”.  As a result, in the election of 1840, in Hendricks County, (just southwest of Indianapolis), and along the National Road, Van Buren received 651 votes, while Whig candidate William Henry Harrison received 1,189 votes. Nationwide, Van Buren carried just 7 of the 26 states.
Normally this Hoosier hostility would not have lasted long, but just six months after taking office, the new President Harrison died of a pneumonia, and all previous assumptions had to be rethought . The Whigs had picked John Tyler as Vice President, mostly to get rid of him. Now, disastrously, he was the head of their party. The overjoyed Democrats began referring to Tyler as “His Accidency.” The adroit and dapper Martin Van Buren began thinking he could avenge his defeat and take the road back to the White House in 1844. All he needed was a cunning plan, which he just happened to have. 
In February of 1842, Van Buren (above) journeyed to Nashville, Tennessee, for an extended visit with his mentor Andrew Jackson, hoping some of Old Hickory’s popularity would rub off on him. It did not. Heading north, Van Buren then set off for a tour of the frontier states. He was well received in Kentucky, and the pro-slavery areas around Cincinnati, Ohio, but the closer he got to Indiana the more reserved the crowds became.
In early June he was met at the Indiana border by 200 loyal Democrats, and gave them a speech at Sloan's Brick Stage House on Main Street (the National Road) in Richmond, Indiana. But the vast majority of the local Quakers remained skeptical. And while Van Buren was speaking, noted the Richmond Palladium newspaper, “...a mysterious chap partially sawed the underside of the double tree crossbar of the stage...so that it would snap on the first hard pull…”
The next morning the stagecoach and its distinguished passenger headed for Indianapolis, the “Capital in the Woods”. But just two miles outside of Richmond, while bouncing over ruts and stumps, the carriage splashed into a great deep mud hole. And when the horses were whipped to yank the carriage out, the weakened cross brace snapped. Dressed in his silk finery, Martin Van Burn was forced to disembark into the foul waters and wade to shore.
There was no indication of any further sabotage on Van Buren's 74 mile ride across the mostly open prairie, which took the better part of three days. The ex-President and future candidate made it to the Hoosier capital in time to keep his appointments and make his speeches over the weekend of June 9-10. He took two more days to make political contacts, shaking hands and trading confidences, before, on Wednesday, June 13, he boarded yet another mail coach for the 75 mile journey to Illinois. But just six miles down the road, Van Buren had to pass through the Quaker bastion of Plainfield, Indiana.
The town earned its name from the “plain folk” who had laid out the town ten years earlier on the east bank of White Lick Creek. This Henricks county town was straddled by the National Road, which provided Plainfield's livelihood. Less than a quarter mile up Main Street from the  ford over the "crick", amidst a stand of Elms, the Quakers had built a camp ground and built a meeting house. And here, that Wednesday morning, were gathered several hundred Wigs and Quakers, in their “Sunday, go to meeting clothes”, to see the once and maybe future President ride past. The crowd may have even been increased because the driver of this particular leg of the President's journey was a local boy, twenty-something Mason Wright. Soon, the crowd heard the blast of the horn from Mason's lips, warning of the VIP's bouncing approach down the gentle half mile slope toward White Lick Creek.
The disaster occurred abruptly. The coach rushed into view, with Van Buren's arm waving out of the coach's open window, while Teamster Wright whipped the horses to move faster. Faster? Shouldn't he be slowing down to let people get a view of the President?  And then, just as carriage came abreast of the center of the campground, the coach was forced to veer to the right to avoid a large "hog waller" mud hole in the very center of the dilapidated National Road. And as if  it had been planned, the right front wheel bounced over the hard knuckle of an exposed bare Elm root. The carriage teetered for an instant until the rear wheel bounced over the same root. The teetering coach then careened past the point of no return.  Mason Wright leaped free while the coach crashed heavily onto its side into the very center of the smelly, sticky, hot black hog waller. Martin Van Buren had been dumped again.
A Springfield Illinois newspaper would note a few days later, “He was always opposed to that road, but we were not aware that the road held a grudge against him!” Wrote a more bitter Wig newspaper, “the only free soil of which Van Buren had knowledge (of) was the dirt he scraped from his person at Plainfield.”  The driver and witnesses blamed the Elm (above), which could not defend itself. Van Buren was uninjured, but once again had to extricate himself from his injured coach. After pouring the mud and other unidentified muck from his boots, Van Buren made his way on foot further west along the National Road to Fisher’s Tavern, at what is now 106 E. Main Street, Plainfiield. There, Mrs. Fisher helped the President clean up his pants and coat, and wash the mud from his wide brimmed hat.
Back at the campground. the honest Quakers helped to right the stage, re-attach the horses, and carefully and respectfully deliver the coach to Fishers to collect the President. But it is hard to believe that, as Mr. Van Buren splashed across White Lick "crick" many of those Quakers were not smiling with the sly satisfaction of a job well done. 
A few days later Teamster Mason Wright was awarded a $5 silk hat, although it was never explicitly stated it was for his skill in staging a stage crash - call it political slapstick. But the tree who's root had provided the fulcrum for the prank would forever more be known as the Van Buren Elm.  In 1916 (above) the Daughters of the American Revolution even gave the tree a wooden plaque of its own.
But the hard winter of 1926 brought the Van Buren Elm down, and a local doctor lamented, “The many friends of the old historic tree are loath to have it removed from their midst.”
Van Buren (above) made it safely to Illinois without further accidents. He was  met a few miles outside of Springfield by a small delegation of legislators, including the young Abraham Lincoln. But Mr. Van Buren was never elected to public office again. The judgement of Hoosiers stood firm.
The Quakers' Meeting House still stands among the Elms at 256 East Main Street (corner of Vine) in Plainfield.  After the original Buchan Elm fell, a replacement was planted, and it received a bronze plaque (above).  This inspired a local grade school to be named for the dapper Democrat who stumbled in their town, and a street was named after him as well. But in Plainfield the National Road (now U.S. Route 40), is still called Main Street. That is true of many Midwestern towns bisected by the National Road. It truly was America's Main Street. And Martin Van Buren had been wrong about that.
 - 30 -

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