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Friday, January 06, 2017


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.
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