Monday, August 1, 2022

Way Before Amelia Earhart Harriet Quimby Was the First Aviatrix Celebrity


Harriet Quimby in her signature plum colored flying suit in a promotional poster. 

Harriet Quimby was one of a kind—actress, journalist, screenwriter, pioneer aviatrix, barnstormer before there was a word for it, and a colorful, defiant independent woman with a dash of style.  She was Nellie Bly crossed with Amelia Earhart, and a bit of the self-promoting feminist pioneer Victoria Claffin Woodhull thrown in for good measure.

Quimby was born to a farm family in Arcadia, Michigan on May 11, 1875. Twelve years later she relocated to the San Francisco Bay area in California.  Little is known of her early life as she purposefully tried to obscure it.  She would later claim that she had been born to a wealthy family in Arroyo Grande, California on May 1, 1884—not the last time she would re-invent herself.

Quimby was a remarkably attractive woman and knew how to use her charms to her advantage.

1900 found 25 year old Quimby listed in the Census for San Francisco as an actress living alone.  No credits for any theater roles have ever been found, but in those days the term was often used for the dancers in waterfront dives many of whom doubled as prostitutes—not that there is any proof that she did that, either.  She was a remarkably attractive woman with almost black hair, expressive eyes, and evidently quite charming.  Her most apparent source of income was as a writer, contributing short pieces and reviews to Bay Area publications. 

In 1903 with clippings of those pieces in hand and boasting of her experience as an “actress” Quimby crossed the continent to New York City, waltzed into the offices of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a popular women’s magazine and charmed her way into a job.  She was put on as theater critic but was soon reviewing entertainments of all sorts, including the infant films being shown in Nickelodeons.  

                           Quimby worked as a script writer and actress at D.W. Griffith's Biograph studio in the Bronx.

As the films became more sophisticated, so did her interest. Through an old friend from San Francisco, actress Linda Advinson, Quimby got to know her husband, pioneer director D.W. Griffith.   He was impressed enough by her to hire her as a screen writer for Biograph Pictures.  She wrote seven film shorts for him, featuring early Biograph stars Florence La Badie, Wilfred Lucas, and Blanche Sweet which were filmed at the company’s Chicago studio.   She appeared in one the films that were made between 1910 and 1912 and perhaps was uncredited in others.  Most of these are lost films.

In addition to her reviews, Quimby sought out new assignments from the magazine.  She wrote articles on how women could be independentauto repairs, career tips, and tips on running a household without being a slave.  She taught herself photography, an important skill for the highly illustrated magazine and wrangled assignments to Europe, Mexico, Cuba, and Egypt.

All the while she remained an independent woman.  She never married or became dependent on a man.  At a time when it was still scandalous, she drove her own car, smoked, and traveled the world unescorted.  This is not to say that as beautiful woman she did not attract attention and welcome it if no strings were attached.  She was making a decent living and enjoying the modicum of celebrity that came with being a prolific writer.

Quimby, right, with Matilde Moisant, her friend and aviation rival.  Although Moisant began flying earlier under the instruction of her brother, Quimby passed her by to become the first American woman licensed by the International Aeuronautic Federation.

A magazine assignment in October of 1910 changed Quimby’s life.  She set out to photograph the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament on Long Island, and met John Moisant, a well-known aviator and operator of a flight school, and his sister Matilde.  She was immediately smitten with aviation and convinced Moisant to take her on as a student, joining Matilde who had already done some flying.  Since the Moisants were French, she was taught in a Blériot monoplane instead of the rickety Wright or Curtis bi-planes flown by most American pilots. The lessons continued under Moisant’s brother Alfred when John was killed in a crash. Quimby was a quick study—and perhaps a little competitive. 

Somehow word of her training “leaked” to the press—three guesses on the suspected leaker—creating a flurry of publicity.  Quimby began to write about her experiences.  On August 1, 1911 she somehow leaped over Matilde and was granted License #37 from Aero Club of America, the U.S. affiliate of the International Aeuronautic Federation which granted international pilots licenses. That made her the first American woman licensed as a pilot and the second woman in the world behind the Baroness de la Roche in France.  Matilde Moisant, who may have been a little miffed at having been run around, soon became the second female American pilot.

Quimby in a Blériot one-seat monoplane.

With the considerable publicity surrounding her training and obtaining a license, Quimby decided to launch a tourexhibiting myself” by flying across the U.S. and into Mexico.  Crowds clamored to see the beautiful and glamourous aviatrix.  And she knew how to charm them.  Quimby designed her own unique flying outfit, plum-colored wool-backed satin, with a cowl hood that was tailored enough to show off her curves.  Not for her either aping the gear of male flyers or going up, as some early women pilots had, in impractical voluminous skirts.  At each stop she made herself available to the press and could always be counted on for a clever quote.

Quimby aloft in a Blériot monoplane at an air show.

Despite her success Quimby knew that to achieve real respect as a pilot and be more than simply a novelty, she had to establish some sort of flying record.  She set her sights on being the first woman to fly across the English Channel.  When Miss Trehawke-Davis flew across as a passenger, she knew it was only a matter of time before some European female flyer would attempt to pilot the crossing.

With unaccustomed secrecy, lest word of her coming spur others to make the trip first, Quimby sailed to England.  Once there she talked Louis Blériot, who was the first person to fly across the Channel in 1909, to loan her one of famous monoplanes.

On April 16, 1912 Quimby took off from Dover, flying roughly the same route as Blériot but in reverse she set out for Calais.  There was a heavy overcast over the Channel that day and she had to navigate solely by compass.  It took her 59 minutes to make the crossing in her 50 horsepower plane.  She came safely to earth 25 miles south of Calais on a beach at Hardelot-Plage with hardly a drop of fuel left.  She had won her treasured record.


If the sinking of the Titanic initially kept her achievement off the front pages, the Salt Lake Tribune took notice a month and a half later.  Two guesses who provided the pictures for this and other American publicity.

She did not attract quite all of the hoopla that ordinarily surrounded such early aviation feats because of a sad accident of the calendar.  Her flight took place the day after the Titanic sank when papers on both sides of the Atlantic were dedicated almost exclusively to the tragedy and would remain so for days.  All Quimby’s accomplishment could muster were articles buried deep in most newspaper pages.

Still, by spring of 1912 Quimby was one of the most famous women in America.  When pilot Calbraith Perry Rodgers was killed in an April crash of his plane, the Vin Fiz J. Ogden Armour of the meatpacking family hired Quimby and her fortuitously purple suit to endorse his brand of grape soda.  She was featured in color posters in drug store soda fountains and in a magazine advertising campaign.

Quimby as featured in a store promotion for Vin Fiz.  I turned out being the aviation  face of J. Ogden Armour's soda was a jinx.

Upon arrival back in the states and with the sponsorship of Vin Fiz Quimby launched herself in a new and lucrative tour of the now popular air meets, rallies, and exhibitions popping up all around the country.

On July 1, 1912 Quimby flew in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum, Massachusetts, an event unsanctioned by the Aero Club of America which could technically have cost her license.  But the appearance fee was handsome and Quimby was glad to lend a hand in promoting the event.  Early in the day she took off with show manager William Willard as a passenger in her new two-seat Bleriot monoplane for the benefit of the press.  Rising to an altitude of about 3,000 feet she flew out to Boston Light in Boston Harbor then returned and circled the airfield where a good size crowd was now in attendance.

Then suddenly as the plane descended to about 1,500 feet it, shuddered, and pitched forward tumbling Willard out of his seat and to his death.  Seconds later Quimby fell after him.  The plane itself recovered from whatever had happened and continued to fly, gliding down to what would have been a survivable landing.  Her career as a pilot ended with her death only 9 months after it had begun.

Quimby's body was recovered in shallow water after falling from her plane.

The cause of the sudden lurch remains one of aviation’s great mysteries.  Some conjecture that a cable supporting the wing may have snapped and fouled the engine.  Others think that Willard, a rather large man, may have suddenly shifted his weight in his seat unbalancing the aircraft.  Almost all agree that if the pilot and passenger had been strapped into their seats, they would not have fallen out and most likely have walked away from a hard landing.

She was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, and then was moved to Kenisco Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

But fame is fleeting and hers faded from memory.  She was most celebrated back in her home state of Michigan—the place she felt she had escaped from and actually denied.  A historic marker stands in front of the abandoned family home in Arcadia and another in the southern Michigan town of Coldwater.  Her grave in Valhalla is graced with a bronze plaque with a reproduction of her monoplane and a description of her life and achievement.  Perhaps her greatest memorial was the inspiration to other female pilots—especially Amelia Earhart who idolized her as a girl.

Quimby as memorialized by the Postal Service in 1991. 

Interest Quimby has lately revived.  In 1991 she was pictured in what is surely the only glamor shot on an airmail stamp honoring pioneer aviators by the by the United State Postal Service.  In 2012 she was inducted into the Long Island Air and Space Hall of Fame.  She was the subject of a biography by Giacinta Bradley Koontz which also included numerous photographs, press clippings, and memorabilia recently discovered. A descendant company of Biograph Pictures, the company she worked for with D. W. Griffith, was said to be in development of a bio pic with Donnamarie Recco in the title role in 2014 but it never panned out.

Claims were made the wreckage of the plane the Quimby died piloting was found, discovered in a New Hampshire barn during the 1960’s.  The aircraft has been meticulously restored to flying condition and is on display at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, an aviation museum in Red Hook, New York.  The plane is the second oldest in existence still airworthy.  But the plane is one-seater Blériot XI, which bears the Blériot factory’s serial number 56, showing that it was manufactured in 1909. Since Quimby’s plane, in 1912, was a brand new two-seater, it could not have been Quimby’s.


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