SEPTEMBER 2017

SEPTEMBER  2017
ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO - STANDARD OIL. Still dominating strangling the nation, a century later.

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Saturday, January 07, 2017

AIR HEADS Part Seven

I am impressed with the level of cupidity among the participants in this amazing air race. (It means they were avaricious.) Certainly the pilots, Bob Fowler and Cal Rodgers, were risking their lives day after day and deserved some reward for that risk. And now that the prize which had inspired it all had been withdrawn, they had to work for it. At Dallas, where Cal stopped on the night of  17 October, and at Fort Worth, where Cal put in two days of flights before 75,000 at the state fair, he sold photo’s and autographs, as Bob Fowler did at his stops - just as musicians do today at personal appearances. And there were always the “Vin Fiz” coupons Cal was still dropping over unsuspecting soda drinkers in cities where he did not land. The Waco Texas Young Men’s Business League offered Cal an impressive fee, so on 20 October,  he took a long detour south and did several loops (below) around the cities’ sky single sky scrapper.
Even Mable Rodgers had gotten into the act. Dear, sweet, shy, retiring and innocent Mable Rodgers had tried to convince the United States Post Office that the historical nature of the race warranted creating her a special “Post Mistress”, so that she could stamp “Postmarked Vin Fiz Special” on cards and letters bought from her while en route -  for a small fee, of course.
But when that money making idea failed to inspire Congress to act, and after W.R. Hearst had abandoned the race (and her husband) in Missouri, Mable sent Cal’s brother Robert out ahead to Kansas City to order unofficial over sized “Vin Fiz Flyer” and “Rodgers Aerial Post” stamps, to be sold at a quarter apiece once the Flyer had crossed into Texas.
Buyers would still have to affix official U.S. postage stamps to have anything delivered, and the stamps had been ordered with no glue backing, but Mable was at least trying squeeze every penny out of the insanity she was caught up in. It’s difficult to know if enough stamps were actually sold to cover the cost of printing them, but we do know that only thirteen “Vin Fiz” stamps still survive, eight on postcards, one on a letter and four “off cover”, meaning individually. One of the “off cover” stamps sold in 2006, when the world was still drunk, for $70,000. That amount could have financed the entire flight back in 1911. I guess Mable had the right idea, just bad timing. And I’m certain that Cal's mother, Maria (ne Rodgers) Sweitzer, was certain to reminded poor Mable of her financial gaff, at every opportunity.
Tension was also building in the hothouse of the 66 foot long by 8 ½ foot wide pressure cooker of the “Vin Fiz Special” Pullman sleeping car, with wife and mother-in-law cooped up for endless days together on the endless stretches of track between the way stations of civilization across the American West. The air must have been thick with slights (real and imagined), invective (real and imagined), criticism and denunciations (real and perceived). The two ladies endured each other for Cal’s sake from New York to Chicago. Then mother Maria found an excuse to leave the train for a few days. But at Kansas City she rejoined the caravan, only to disembark yet again at San Antonio.  The lady was up to something.
Perhaps the expense of printing up the stamps that would not stick came up once too often in the conversations. But whatever the cause, when Maria rejoined the train outside of El Paso, Texas she brought reinforcements – 22 year old Lucy Belvedere, a reputed heiress, and at least in Maria’s mind, an improvement over Mable.  I'll bet that dear Lucy could swim. It would appear that Cal was somewhat distracted by the drama building in the Pullman car. In what can only be seen as an sign of that increasing drama , as he approached El Paso, Cal had a near-miss in mid-air with an eagle, or maybe it was a vulture. In any case, on the 24th of October, at Spofford, Texas, Cal’s attention slipped enough to allow his right propeller to strike the ground, sending him into a ground loop that broke the wing and “splintered” both props (above). Through yet another Herculean effort Chief mechanic Charlie Taylor and his first assistant, Charlie “Wiggie” Wiggin, were able to get Cal back into the air the next morning.
Then, just before noon on Friday, October 29th, the object of this maternal verses matrimonial completion, landed at the corner of Duval and 45th street in Austin, Texas (above). Three thousand came out to cheer the hero. And Mable was quoted by a local reporter as saying, “Sometimes I suspect that Calbraith thinks showing affection to a woman would be unfaithful to his machine.” Yes, that was Mable’s concern right then, trapped aboard the sleeping car with her mother-in-law and a woman her mother-in-law clearly saw as her replacement.  I wonder if Mable noted ironically to herself that one of the things still holding Cal in the air was her corset, strapped into an upper wing as a repair.
In Deming, New Mexico (above), on Halloween, Cal’s ignition system went on the fritz. Can it be any wonder? Still he persevered.  He refueled at Wilcox, Arizona on November 1st, and took the short hop from there to Tucson, where he paused just long enough to travel the six blocks by car to the ball park where Bob Fowler’s "Cole Flyer" had landed. They shook hands, but Cal was so rushed the photographers had no time to snap a picture. Being in the air, seated directly in front of a pounding engine hour after hour, must have been the only peace the boy had. But help was at hand. This time Mable would finally showed a nerve equal to her Cal’s. This time she wasn’t waiting to be rescued.
After the refueling stop at Wilcox, Arizona, Lucy Belvedere discovered that her entire trousseau was missing from her compartment. As Mother Maria and Lucy digested this horrifying disaster, and pondered who could have absconded with her frillies and lace, shy little Mable quietly informed them that the luggage was not really missing. It was perfectly safe, she said, aboard the baggage car of the east bound train they had just passed back in Wilcox. The trousseau had been placed there by "Wiggie" on shy little Mables' instructions. It was a display of verve and determination that mother Maria had not expected out of her husband's shy little wife.  And while Cal struggled for fame and fortune above the unforgiving desert of Arizona, Lucy Belvedere gathered her few remaining belongings and retreated from the “Vin Fiz Special” via the next east bound passenger train, chasing her corsets and her frillies back into Texas, and out of the pages of history.  It seems that at some point in this desert crossing, little Mable had taught herself how to swim.
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Friday, January 06, 2017

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.
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Thursday, January 05, 2017

AIR HEADS Part Five

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 MacArthur Park. Gaylord then humbly allowed the city of Los Angeles (above) to build a road right through the center of his property, on the twin conditions that they not lay down any street car tracks, 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 that made the intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue an ideal location for an airfield, close to the budding metropolis of Los Angeles (above) - 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 nearby La Brea Tar Pits (below), 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 re-start his transcontinental flight from here on 19 October, 1911, but it is also where, in 1921, Amelia Earhart took her first flight lesson, in a Curtiss Jenny. In fact, lots of aviation history  happened at that corner.
Movie maker C.B. DeMille (below) , in town to direct the first blockbuster “Squaw Man”, operated an airline out of there for a year or so (Mercury Aviation- above), until his airline went bankrupt. 
Then in March 1921 the air field was bought by pilot Emory Roger and his wife, and was renamed “Rogers’ Field”. Emory then started up “Pacific Marine Airways”, in partnership with Sid Chaplin, brother to Charlie Chaplin. They flew Hollywood vacationers to and from 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 19 October, 1911 Wilshire Field was just an open space out at the end of Wilshire.
Late on that October 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 the race from Los Angeles because the mountains Bob had to cross here were so much lower that the Sierra east of San Francisco, and because the Los Angeles Board of Reality was coughing up a $10,000 bonus if Bob Fowler started from L.A. - okay, Grundy mostly liked L.A. because of the bonus.
In fact, early the next morning, on 20 October, as Fowler was preparing to take off from Pasadena, he was called to the phone. It was Grundy. He  had just been offered another paycheck if Bob made an appearance down Fairfax Avenue from Whilsire Field at the L.A. Motordrome with Barney Oldfield and other big name racer car drivers. But Bob put his foot down and said he’d rather give up flying all together than start this trip a third time. 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 had covered only 69 miles. And the next day, 21 October,  1911, went even slower, because he was approaching the San Gorgonio Pass (above). 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 400 feet above the ground, passing between the towering mastiffs meant dangerous cross winds. The Cole Flyer struggled to make progress, and Bob gritted his teeth and 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 the above photo). The line from the Gulf of California, through the Salton Sea, Death Valley (and north to Mono Lake) is the hing along which California is being twisted, torn apart, bent and ripped  between the San Andreas Fault and a newly forming rift valley which, eventually, will fill as a new arm of the Pacific Ocean. 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 flat lands and flying in cool winter temperatures across the Arizona desert. On 25 October he landed in Yuma, Arizona (above). Finally, after almost sixty days of starting and stopping and starting and crashing, Bob Fowler had escaped California.
Two hundred miles later, following the Southern Pacific Railroad line, Bob landed at Tuscon, Arizona. And there had a 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 back slap or a pause to compare notes: so much for the brotherhood of the air. After all, there was a race on.
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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

AIR HEADS Part Four

I believe it was with apprehension that Cal Rogers set his “Vin Fiz Flyer" down on the Cicero airfield on the Sunday afternoon of 8 October, 1911. 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 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 in Chicago,  Cal immediately telegraphed William Randolph Hearst to request an extension of the time limit for the $50,000 prize offered by the mogul's newspapers. But Cal could not have known that W.R., as Mr. Hearst liked to be called, never had any 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 equivalent of $11,000 a month, today), it seemed he was destined for failure – well, as much as the  pampered only son of a millionaire could fail - 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 his father George Hearst  had won in a gambling debt.  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 plus comic strips equals sales. The first of the Sunday comics printed in color was Hearst's “The Yellow Kid” (above). 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 with ink.
When daddy George Hearst, died in 1891, W.R. convinced his mother to sell off the mining properties on which the family fortune had been built. He used the cash influx to finance his acquisition of the “New York Morning Journal”, where W.R. repeated his "Examiner's" recipe of success - which he had learned, by the way, during a summer internship under Joseph Pulitzer. It makes journalism's "Pulitzer Prize" seem like a mea culpa, doesn't it?  And then W.R. began to buy newspapers, eventually 42 of them, with 30 million plus readers. Now he could syndicate his well paid writers and increase his advertising revenues, which he used to promote and publicize his runs for congress, and as governor and mayor of N.Y.C.  He failed to win any of those elections. But everything W.R. did (like Donald Trump) was ultimately to promote and publicize himself, including the Hearst Prize for the coast to coast air race.
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  that aviation was too young to achieve such a lofty goal.  In 1910 no plane could stay aloft 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, on the plus side, offering the prize would fill W.R.'s 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.
W.R. was awarded a medal from the Aeronautical Society of America for just offering the prize. And W.R. loved to get medals. But paying out the prize money would sell W.R.'s newspapers for one day only. And that was why the Hearst Prize had contained a time limit. It was set to expire on 17 October, 1911, before Hearst figured anybody could make it.  So, 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. So with just a week left before the deadline, he decided to force W.R's hand.  On Tuesday, 10 October, Cal flew across the flat lands to Springfield, Illinois, then on to Marshall, Missouri. As he arrived in Marshall,  far away from any cities fed by Hearst newspapers, Cal found a telegram from Hearst waiting for him. There would be no extension in the time limit.  Cal had now flown 1,398 miles since leaving New York, which gave him the record for longest flight. But there would be no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, just a bottle of Vin Fiz - yuck.
A more mercenary element now influenced Cal’s romantic quest. When the city of St. Louis and its popular Hearst newspaper, withdrew its offer of a thousand dollars for landing there, Cal simply bypassed the town. Instead he flew on to Kansas City, landing in Swope Park.
Experience was forcing Cal to learn how to handle the money side of the race, as well  as how to handle his plane. His decided to turn south, to avoid taking the Rocky Mountains head on,  and to also avoid Denver and its Hearst newspaper. There were far fewer trees to run into on the Great Plains, which reduced certain dramatic elements in Cal’s landings and take offs. He was also making better time. There were fewer crashes and fewer late night repairs. Everybody on the crew was getting more sleep. And at about 9 a.m., on Thursday 19 October, 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 again.
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