Who in the Heck is Harriet Quimby?

Posed photo Harriet Quimby
Photo at william-m-drew.webs.com

Harriet Quimby was the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license, the first woman to fly at night, and the first woman to fly across the English Channel. She was a pioneering journalist, who wrote for San Francisco newspapers and ultimately as a staff writer for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a widely-read New York paper. Quimby also wrote several movie screenplays for D. W. Griffith. Known as the “Dresden China Aviatrix” because of her stature and fair skin, she cultivated a daredevil persona that led to commercial endorsements and earned six-figure fees for appearing at Air Meets. Her career kept her too busy for marriage. She died at age 37 in a tragic accident at an air show.

Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.

Amelia Earhart, citing Quimby’s legacy as a role model

I was playing a game where you have to generate names of things starting with specific letters. Ready? Think of Auto Models, Occupations, Ice Cream Flavors, Scientists, and Countries of the Eastern Hemisphere starting with ….Q. (Quest, Quartermaster, Quince–yes, there is quince flavored ice cream, ugh pass on scientist, Qatar). I was really stumped on Q-named Scientists. Internet lists only mention three: statistician Adolphe Quetelet, astronomer Thabit ibn Qurra (who was known as Thabit, so really doesn’t count), and Harriet Quimby. Ah, the entrance to a cyberspace rabbit hole.


Since this week is the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, it is a perfect time to dig into legacies of aviation, and Harriet Quimby is a shining example. As often happens when I dive into the burrows of yesterday, I hear a cacophony of historical voices, and I have to sort them out. I now know way too much about Harriet Quimby, too much to fit in a reasonable length blog. Much is inspiring; some is sad; some is still mysterious. I know that Rachael Peakham, a professor at Marshall University, wrote her dissertation about Quimby and wrote her own excellent mini-biographical and autobiographical account here in Navigating with Harriet Quimby.

Quimby was born to farmers eking out a miserable existence in the backwoods of Michigan. They moved to the southern California coast, where her mother changed her daughters’ ages and created stories about family wealth, probably to enhance their social opportunities. Quimby herself settled in northern California, and ran with the new persona embarking on a career on journalism when careers for women were not a Thing.

Quimby publicized for flying
from the Iowa Times-Republican, June 1911

In 1910, seven years had passed since the Wright brothers had successfully launched the first flight. Air Shows were one of the great new attractions. During a New York show in October, Quimby watched pilot John Moisant win a race flying around the Statue of Liberty. She asked him to teach her, and he agreed to help. She convinced her employer at the time, Leslie’s, to finance the lessons so that she could write about it for readers.

The hard part was the flying school. The Wright brothers’ school in Ohio wouldn’t take women. Eventually, Moisant’s school let her attend; Moisant himself had been killed in a plane accident in the intervening months. She initially attempted to avoid publicity, taking lessons at sunrise, “disguised” as a man. But news spread, and her attempts to learn became widely chronicled,. The Aero Club of America, which issued pilots’ licenses, first resisted letting her take the pilot’s exam. Women at the time were considered too weak and helpless to operate the controls, not to mention imprudent for putting themselves in danger. But the public was fascinated, and finally, on August 1, 1911, Quimby passed the test, setting an accuracy record for her landing. She became the first American woman and the second woman in the world to earn a license (Frenchwoman Elie-Raymond Deroche was first.)

Quimby depicted as birdwoman
from the San Francisco Call, July 1911

Not a Feminist By Any Means

When you know about her early upbringings, how three siblings died young, and how her mother wanted her to have financial independence, it’s no surprise that Quimby was willing to defy social conventions and critics. Journalism paid well; flying paid really well. Pilots were making thousands for appearances. Quimby had taught herself to type, to take her own photographs, and to drive a car–occasionally describing the experience of driving 100 miles an hour. Once she saw a plane, it seemed a natural next step.

It really looks quite easy. I believe I could do it myself, and I will.

Harriet Quimby, quoted in Encyclopedia.com

However, the floor-length skirts of the current fashion were completely impractical for a pilot. Yet she didn’t necessarily want to don men’s clothes. So she designed her own flying suit, made of purple satin, a single piece with a hood, knickers, and high-laced boots, sometimes augmented with jewelry in publicity poses. Some articles even described, at length, her interest in Indian or Chinese jewelry. While she was called the “Dresden China Aviatrix” because of her doll-like features, other writers ran with the idea and described her features as “oriential”–code for exotic. Quimby didn’t shy away from such characterizations. She took the spotlight and turned it into opportunities.

Quimby advertisement for Vin Fiz

Yet Quimby steered clear of the political feminists of the time, the suffragettes. She thought that women ought to be allowed to vote but had no interest in some of what she saw as inflammatory tactics. For example, when reporters suggested she name her plane after Pankhurst or Catt, she instead chose Genevieve, the patron saint of French pilots.

She was not a feminist by any means; she opposed confrontation. She viewed her ability to fly as demonstrating through example that woman can do almost anything men can do.

Quimby Internet bio

Of course, this disdain of feminism strikes a familiar chord. “She was no feminist.” She merely wore pants–but not men’s, smoked, drove, broke the rules, encouraged other women, and believed that women shouldn’t be restricted from doing things. You know, not feminist.

After becoming the first woman to fly at night, on September 4, 1911, she looked to bigger challenges. Louis Bleriot, who went on to his own fame as inventory and aircraft manufacturer, had been the first man to fly across the English Channel three years earlier. Quimby herself took off in fog on April 16, 1912, and landed in France, overshooting her Calais target due to the inclement weather. Unfortunately, her achievement was dwarfed by headlines of the big event from 1912, two days prior: the sinking of the Titanic.

Still, the flight over the Channel helped boost her celebrity status. When she agreed to participate in the July 1912 Boston Air Meet, she commanded a $100,000 fee. But the organizers agreed to it, and the stands were full when she took to the cockpit for a sunset flight over the waters of Boston Harbor.

Salt Lake Tribune Quimby obituary
“Obituary” from the Salt Lake Tribune, July 1912

The Fickle Finger of Fate

When I first read that Quimby died at the Boston Air show in a plane crash, it felt like a gut punch. For a short time, I tried to conjure up variations of what might have happened. She had a passenger–organizer William Willard, who had “won” a coin toss with his son for the privilege of going up with her. What if he was a corrupt airplane manufacturer trying to convince her his plane was safe? What if had been trying to sexually harass her or even blackmail her, was trying to accost her during the flight? Maybe Willard was a Nazi spy? Hmm, too early for Nazis–maybe he was a spy for Kaiser Wilhelm? I tried to think of something, even if ridiculous, to explain anyway what happened.

Some newspapers claimed that she was too weak to operate the controls. The Salt Lake Tribune concoted a lengthy claim that she feared a giant supernatural agency wiggled its fingers among the clouds. I haven’t dug into historical documents. I don’t know if anything quoted by the Tribune is accurate.

What is known is the following. She was a careful pilot and had written about the importance of wearing safety harnesses and performing safety checks. The plane, a Beriot 70-hp, was a new model and had been known for instability in other accidents. Willard at 200 pounds, may have been too heavy for the plane. That particular model had no seat belts because it provided easier access to an engine which “often caught on fire.”

Quimby and Willard flew out over the crowd and around the harbor, returning as a silhouette against the setting sun. Willard, for unknown reasons, stood up. Quimby, in front, would have been unable to see him. He fell out of the plane. The lightened tail tipped upwards, and the plane took a nosedive. Some reported that the dive occurred prior to Willard’s fall, but it’s unlikely he would have stood during a dive.

Wreckage from Quimby flight in 1912
Photo from San Diego Tribune archives

The plane bucked as Quimby tried to adjust the controls, but the tail flipped up again, and Quimby herself was bucked out. She and Willard were thrown into shallow muddy waters of the harbor and did not survive. The plane, without the bothersome weight of passengers, glided to a stop and landed back on the field.


Daredevil John Moisant died in a plane crash. Sophie Blanchard was the first woman to pilot her own balloon and died in a balloon crash. Thomas Selfridge was listed as one of the first Americans to die in a crash, in a plane operated by Orville Wright. Many early pilots died in crashes; the danger was part of what allowed pilots to demand such high fees.

Some of the articles about Quimby simply say, “Fell from not wearing seatbelt” rather than “Passenger error” or “Plane unbalanced.” It took three or four articles before the “Comments=she should have worn seat belts” were replaced with “…blamed the monoplane [design]…” Quimby had tested the Beriot with sandbags in the back for ballast and knew the plane had a tendency to dip and stall. She had discussed the issues with her mechanic, but they couldn’t find a specific way to adjust the plane. Aircraft magazine published an article a month after her death arguing that the monoplane design would be vulnerable to stability, citing a dozen European pilots who had died in similar circumstances.

Astronauts from Apollo One died on the launch pad, in a fire during a test run. There had been no way for them to escape. It seems an eerie parallel of Quimby’s experience, where a history of careful testing and lengthy flying experience seems overshadowed by an ending that seems almost foolish to later generations. Yet Quimby’s legacy, like those of all the early pilot pioneers, is one to inspire rather than to critique or pity.

Celebrated at the International Women’s Air & Space Museum, Quimby also was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame. Then she was afforded one of the ultimate honors and well deserved.

She made it to a postage stamp.

Quimby postage stamp

The Real Macbeth

When the hurly-burly’s done,
when the battle’s lost and won…

–Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I: Sc 1: Line 3

Macbeth was a real guy. King of Scotland. Lived in a Castle near Inverness. Defeated Duncan and succeeded by Malcolm. Many things that Shakespeare used in his play were factually accurate. However, most of the characterizations of king Macbeth were historical gaffes.

Those of us who had to read Macbeth in high school, who had to diagram Shakespeare’s five act opening-climax-denouement cycle and to write papers about how Macbeth’s tragic flaw, his obsession with ambition, led to his downfall, were given the wrong impression. Macbeth the real King of Scotland (1040-1057), was not a murdering madman, but a far more complex, elusive, and interesting person whose true ambition may have been to unite Scotland.

Cawdor Castle
Cawdor Castle, formerly home to Macbeth, currently home to the Campbell’s.
Photo by kajmeister.
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J.S. Bach: Sewing Machine or New Age Streamer?

Salomo, stop playing that [Bach]! You sound like a sewing machine!

CCH Pounder in the movie Bagdad Cafe

Does Bach sound like a sewing machine? Does The Art of the Fugue sound like it was dictated by a blind man? Was Bach so good at counterpoint because he heard arguments in his head all the time, given that he was apparently always arguing with somebody? Does the emotional content reflected in St. Matthew’s Passion or the Prelude from the Cello Suite in D Minor denote the kappelmeister’s relationship to his faith or the fact that half his children died before reaching adulthood?

Argumentative, industrious, myopic Herr Bach, photo at BachonBach.com

Sunday was Bach’s 334th birthday. In 1685, when he was born, Louis the Fourteenth was dominating Europe, William & Mary were wresting the crown away from the Stuarts in England, and Protestants were fleeing to the colonies to exchange war and religious persecution for malaria. Music at the time was focused primarily on the rise of the new public art form known as opera. Bach had no interest in opera. Luckily for us.

The Industriousness of Bach

Perhaps he would be surprised to know that all these years later his influence has lasted so long and extended to so many different styles. He wrote over 1000 musical compositions. While many argue that Mozart’s 600 works are more impressive because Mozart only lived to age 32, the precocious Amadeus also started composing ate age five. Bach didn’t really get going until he was in his mid-30s, plus he had a few other things going on, between being court musician here and choir-master there. And then there were all the children.

Continue reading “J.S. Bach: Sewing Machine or New Age Streamer?”

Beautician, Roller Derby Queen, Olympic Medalist: A Tribute to Earlene Brown

Earlene Brown 1956 Olympics
Earlene Brown at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, photo from Australian archives

When they make a movie about Earlene Brown, and surely someone must, the opening scene would be in a bowling alley, July 1964. Two immense women, one dark-skinned and the other pale-skinned, stand at the head of a lane, each gesturing at the ball and the pins. Both are laughing helplessly with wide, gap-toothed smiles; neither speaks the other’s language. Another older woman, small but wiry, comes up, speaking rapid Russian to her compatriot. She turns frequently to the other, asking in thick, broken English, “Here? Fingers in here?”

They all hold bowling balls as if they were oranges, tossing them abstractedly from palm to palm, seemingly weightless. The black woman explains and points. “Yeauh, yo thumb and these two heeah…” Her accent is a little Texas, a little southern Californian. She winds back and whizzes the ball down the lane; it slices through the ten pins, sweeping them up like dust off a broom.

The other tall one, Tamara Press of the U.S.S.R., awkwardly holds the twelve-pound ball downward, letting it hang from her fingers. Her wind-up looks the same, but when she lets the ball fly, it spins hard off the lane into the gutter, then into the wall, leaving a dent.

Of course, no record exists of this scene, when Olympic medalist Earlene Brown escorted her Soviet competitors from Tokyo through the Bowlarama in Compton. Yet a quartet of the world’s best shot putters at a bowling alley is fun to visualize, particularly if three are Soviet and the tour guide is African-American and speaks no Russian. Can’t you see the bowling alley owner, a grizzled little fella chomping a cigar, come out to protest the ding in his wall, only to run into the Soviet handlers–*coff KGB*? After all, Wikipedia notes out that Earlene’s tour of her Russian friends was “unsanctioned.”

Photo from Getty

Continue reading “Beautician, Roller Derby Queen, Olympic Medalist: A Tribute to Earlene Brown”

Betty Reid Soskin: Social Justice Ninja Warrior

In honor of MLK day this past Monday, I’ve been thinking for a few weeks about dedicating this entry to Betty Reid Soskin. I have to admit, though, it’s been difficult to get going, and as I began pulling quotes and details to share, I finally realized why it’s been hard. She is damn intimidating!

Soskin, Glamour magazine.
Soskin, magazine cover of Glamour.

A five foot three, soft-spoken 97-year-old might not seem particularly overwhelming. For those lucky enough to have heard her speak, you know also that she is extremely approachable and willing to share both her thoughts and listen to yours. But what she has accomplished in her life makes clear that this woman is a force of nature. What she lacks in height, she has made up for with a lifetime of copious activism and the promotion of American ideals of liberty and equal opportunity.

Chock Full O’ History

Here are just a few portions of her remarkable life story. She comes from Cajun, Creole, Spanish, and African ancestors, with a great-grandmother born into slavery and an ancestry that stretches from the time of witches to Dred Scott through the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. She came to California from New Orleans and served in a segregated Jim Crow union hall in Richmond California during World War II. Opening a gospel-themed record store in Berkeley with her husband, she raised a family, experiencing redlining in Berkeley and both subtle and overt racism in the suburbs of Walnut Creek. Continue reading “Betty Reid Soskin: Social Justice Ninja Warrior”