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BESSIE STRINGFIELD (1911 – 1993) First African American Woman to Ride a Motorcycle Solo Across America

In adventure, African-American women, American History, Feminists, History, Motorcycles, U.S. Army, women on June 14, 2017 at 2:42 PM

The only place Bessie Stringfield truly felt at home was on the seat of her motorcycle. At a young age, her life was defined by where she was headed next. Her first trip was when she was five years old. Betsy Leonora Ellis and her parents, a domestic servant and her employer, left Jamaica for Boston. Shortly after arriving in America, Stringfield’s mom Bessie Stringfielddied. Her father didn’t know how to cope with the responsibilities of a child, so he abandoned her. Stringfield’s next stop was a Catholic orphanage where she stayed for a few years. There weren’t many people willing to adopt a black child, but she didn’t stop praying for a new family. Finally God answered her prayers. When the owner of the orphanage handed Stringfield off to her wealthy Irish Catholic mother, she used a racial slur to describe the little girl. But the new mom didn’t show any prejudice against her daughter’s ethnicity. In her new house, Stringfield had her own room and all the things other children had.

When she became a teenager, Stringfield tried riding the motorcycle of an upstairs neighbor, and she wanted one of her own. Her mother reminded her that nice girls don’t go around riding on motorcycles. Stringfield was persistent and asked for a motorcycle for her 16th birthday. Her mom couldn’t refuse her and gave her a 1928 Indian Scout. Never mind Stringfield had no idea how to ride it. God had answered all her prayers so far, so Stringfield, “…wrote letters to the Man Upstairs, Jesus Christ. I put the letters under my pillow and He taught me. One night in my sleep, I saw myself shifting gears and riding around the block. When I got out on the street, that’s just what I did” (qtd Ferrar 31).

BORN TO BE WILD                        Right after high school graduation, Stringfield took off on her bike to explore all around New England, coming back to Boston only for short visits. It didn’t take long for her to want more adventure. She started what she called her “penny tours.” She spread out a map and tossed a penny onto it. Wherever it landed would be her next destination. In 1930, at age 19 she took six months to ride solo across the country. This was the first of eight cross-country trips, and she eventually rode through all lower 48 states. Later that year she exchanged her Indian for a Harley Davidson, the first of 27 Harleys she owned. The only things she carried with her on the road were her leather jacket, a money belt and extra clothes that fit into the saddlebags.

Stringfield understood how unusual it was for a single, African American woman to travel alone on a motorcycle. “All along the way wherever I rode, the people were overwhelmed to see a Negro woman riding a motorcycle” (qtd Ferrar 31). She said she was never afraid on the road because the Man Upstairs was always with her. She used The Negro Motorist Green Book to find safe places to stay and eat in the Jim Crow south. When she couldn’t find black folks to stay with she slept on her motorcycle in gas stations. She rested her head on the handlebars with her jacket as a pillow and her feetBessieStringfield2 on the rear fender. She did encounter racism, but it didn’t stop her from going anywhere. One time at Stone Mountain in Georgia she was confronted by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The only way to avoid them was to jump on her bike and escape faster than they could chase her. She was afraid, but afterward she felt invincible. Her bike was like wings carrying her to safety.

FOR LOVE AND MONEY              Just because Stringfield traveled alone didn’t mean she didn’t find romance. She made the effort to do her hair and makeup every day and attracted men everywhere she went. She had six husbands who tried to tame her, and she divorced them all. All except one were about 20 years younger. She and her first husband had three children, but all of them died young. Her third husband, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, asked his wife to always keep his last name because she was going to make it famous. Stringfield obliged.

Stringfield needed a way to pay her expenses, so she turned her hobby into a moneymaker. She was hired at carnivals and fairs as a stunt rider and billed as the Negro Motorcycle Queen. Her stunts included riding side saddle, standing on one foot peg, laying down on the bike, jumping from one side of the bike to the other while riding, and the Wall of Death, where she got up enough speed to ride sideways and upside down in a round cage.

Stringfield ended up in Opa-locka, Florida, a suburb of Miami, and started spending more time there. The local police captain, Robert Jackson, didn’t know what to make of her. He challenged Stringfield to get her bike up to speed, slip off the back and run to catch it and get back on. She did it easily and earned his respect and the right to call him Captain Jack.

On a hot day during World War II, Stringfield went into a movie theatre to cool down. She watched a newsreel showing women helping the war effort. Stringfield was inspired to find a way to serve her country with her talent. As a civilian she joined a black motorcycle dispatch unit of the army as the only woman. She had to pass a grueling training which included riding up a sandy, ninety degree hill and then making a hairpin turn on the crest, and learning how to weave a bridge with tree limbs in order to cross over a swamp, a skill she never actually needed to use. Her trainer was Captain Jack. From 1941 to 1945 Stringfield delivered classified documents to military bases across the country. Even with a military crest on the front of her motorcycle, she still encountered racism. One time a man in a pickup truck ran her off the road and knocked her off her bike. She took these incidents in stride as part of the ups and downs of the experience.

SETTLING DOWN              After the war Stringfield spent time in Europe riding around the allied countries before heading back to Florida. In the late 1950s, she finally settled down, buying a house and working. Her first job was as a private cook, but then she went to school to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Having steady employment did not keep her from riding. She founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club and used her house a place for riders to hang out together. The local press dubbed her the Motorcycle BessieStringfield4Queen of Miami, and she was often seen leading parades with one of her poodles riding on each knee. On Sundays she rode her motorcycle to mass at the Catholic church.

In the late 1980s Stringfield’s favorite bike, a Harley 1978 FLH, was vandalized in an attempted robbery. She didn’t have enough money to repair it, and she considered selling her house to buy a new one. She said, “It’s got to be blue and it’s got to be new. I never bought anything used – except husbands” (qtd Ferrar 32). Instead, she borrowed or rented a Harley when she wanted to ride.

During her lifetime and posthumously, Stringfield received the recognition she deserved for her accomplishments and bravery as a motorcyclist. The Motorcycle Heritage Museum in Ohio opened in 1990 and featured Stringfield in their inaugural exhibit. In 2000 the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) named an award after her, given to women who distinguish themselves as leaders in motorcycling. She was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2002.

Stringfield was 81 years old when she died from complications of an enlarged heart in 1993. She was adamant about not having a service, but people from the community congregated to honor her anyway. There were other bikers in attendance, and one man came all the way from Texas to pay his respects. In reflecting on her untraditional life Springfield said, “I spent most of my life alone, lookin’ for a family. I found my family in motorcycling” (qtd Ferrar 32).

QUESTION: What is the most adventurous thing you can imagine doing? What is keeping you from doing it?

© 2017 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Ferrar, Ann, Hear Me Roar, Women Motorcycles, and the Rapture of the Road. New Hampshire: Whitehorse Press, 2000.

Gill, Joel Christian, Bessie Stringfield: Tales of the Talented Tenth. Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2016.

http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame

http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/bessie-stringfield-motorcycle-queen

https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=165444982&ref=acom

Camacho, Maria A. “Bessie Stringfield.” Miami Herald 20 February, 1993: B4. nl.newsbank.com

 

 

 

MAY SUTTON BUNDY (1887 – 1975) First American to Win Wimbledon

In Female Athletes, Feminists, People from England, Sports, women on October 14, 2013 at 10:42 AM

When May Sutton was born in Plymouth, England she was already above average, weighing in at fifteen pounds. Her father,

May Sutton Bundy

May Sutton Bundy

Adolphus DeGrouchy Sutton, was a retired British navy captain, and he named his daughter, the youngest of seven, May, after his own yacht.

When Bundy was six, the Suttons transplanted themselves to Pasadena, California where they had a ten-acre orange grove. Bundy and her siblings, with the help of their neighbors, built their own tennis court by hauling clay from a local canyon. The court had a little slope, which required running uphill to make some shots.

It wasn’t common at that time to take tennis lessons, so the Sutton children learned to play on their own in England. Bundy used her older sister’s warped wood racquet for tennis, cricket and croquet. The Sutton sisters dressed in typical tennis attire, which included a pair of bloomers, two petticoats, a long undershirt, a white shirt, long white silk stockings, and a floppy hat.

A WINNING FORMULA         Bundy won her first tournament when she was twelve, beating her older sister Ethel. A year later she won the Pacific Southwest title for the first time against a 22 year old, and then went on to win it eight more times.

Because of Bundy’s size, what she lacked in speed and power she more than made up for with her strong forehand, accuracy and relentlessness.  As her sister Florence described her, “May’s strength as a tennis player lies principally in her unrelenting persistency. She never lets anybody beat her and discourages her opponent by always getting the ball back, no matter where you put it.”1

In 1904, at 17 years old, Bundy proved that her previous wins were more than just luck. She won the United States women’s title as the youngest women’s champion to date. The prize was a gold watch with a chain covered in topaz stones. Bundy held that record as long as she was alive, until Tracy Austin beat it in 1979 at 16 years and nine months old. The subsequent years add many more titles to her resume.

BEATING THE BRITISH        The year after her record-setting win in America, Bundy crossed the pond to play in Wimbledon, the first American to compete in the historic tournament.  She wore the requisite white skirt with stockings and hard-soled shoes topped by a long-sleeved white blouse. For the occasion she had a large bow in her hair. She was not a dainty lady, weighing a muscular 160 pounds.

May Sutton playing at Wimbledon

May Sutton playing at Wimbledon

If the British had any resentment over an American participating in the      tournament, she did nothing but make matters worse. First, her skirt was short enough to expose her ankles. Second, she shocked all in attendance by rolling up her sleeves to her elbows during play. Third, she had the unmitigated gall to win the women’s championship, beating England’s beloved Dorothea Chambers. One newspaper reported that Bundy’s win was so upsetting that the future King George V cried in the royal box. The following year Bundy lost to Chambers, but in 1907, Bundy regained the championship title.

In 1908, Bundy was recognized for her talent and appreciated for her victories in England in a singular way. She was selected to be the Queen of the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, and she was the first sports celebrity to receive that honor. She carried a pink parasol as she rode along the parade route, accompanied by her sister Florence as one of the princesses.

A LOVE MATCH        Bundy often said she would not marry a man who could not beat her in tennis. Thomas Clark Bundy, a multiple national doubles and singles champion, proved to be suitable, and Bundy was 25 when they married. Mr. Bundy’s focus had shifted from sports to real estate, and he was responsible for developing 2000 acres in the San Fernando Valley and La Brea – Wilshire area. Bundy Drive is named after him.

The Bundys had four children, but being a wife and mother didn’t distract Bundy from tennis. A few months after the birth of her second child, she won a Long Beach charity event after being down one set against a much younger opponent who was the national champion. Later that year, Bundy won the Southern California title for the eighth time.

In 1920, Thomas Bundy paid $1,000 for five and a half acres to develop the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Bundy taught lessons at the club and often played against celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable. The Bundys also had a private tennis court at their home in Santa Monica, California, the first court ever to be painted green.

Bundy turned pro in 1930 at age 42. Eight years later she was named one of America’s most influential feminists along with actress Norma Shearer and pilot Amelia Earhart. While her professional life was thriving, there was chaos in her private life. After a long separation, the Bundys divorced in 1940.

AGE IS JUST A NUMBER        Bundy never stopped playing tennis. In 1968 she played doubles with her daughter, Dorothy Cheney, who was the first American woman to win the Australian Championships. Bundy was 80 years old, and her daughter was 51. Both ladies wore stylish white, floppy hats on the court.

In what was dubbed as the “Age vs. Youth” tournament in 1973, Bundy faced opponents who were about half her age, and she dominated them to be called the “most durable athlete of the century.” Two years later, at age 88, Bundy played, and won, her last match, a few months before her death.

In describing her own success, she said, “Of course I play to win. That is the only way one can improve and draw the other party out to their best game. … I think that one half of ability to play tennis is confidence bordering on recklessness, and the other half is accuracy. Speed has far less to do with the game than accuracy in placing, for it is in the latter that the higher-class game is won or lost. A few good strokes will meet all emergencies of the game and make one just as hard to beat as if he had fancy pick-ups and foxy cuts.”1   Bundy was given the ultimate recognition for her achievement by being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association Hall of Fame.

QUESTION: What are your best qualities that help you succeed?

© 2013 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

 SOURCES:

1 http://www.cemeteryguide.com/gotw-sutton.html

http://articles.latimes.com/1999/mar/28/local/me-21844

http://www.tennisforum.com/showthread.php?t=123825

http://www.tennisforum.com/showthread.php?t=430341

http://www.tennisfame.com/hall-of-famers/may-sutton-bundy

 http://www.wimbledon.com/en_GB/scores/draws/archive/players/c6e623f7-9edf-4070-bc6f-9ed41d355a74/index.html

http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=l91QAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SF8DAAAAIBAJ&dq=may%20sutton%20tennis&pg=7261%2C5660408

 

Photo credits:

http://www.cemeteryguide.com/gotw-sutton.html

 

 

PANCHO BARNES (1901 – 1975) Pilot, Proprietor, Partier

In American History, Ballooning, California History, Feminists, Hollywood, Pilots, women on March 16, 2011 at 9:17 AM

Pancho Barnes

Pancho Barnes was a force of nature, and she didn’t do anything in a predictable way.  She was born into wealth, but couldn’t stand the obligations living in high society demanded.  Her first marriage was arranged, but subsequent ones were based on passion.  Her friends, mostly men, included movie stars, test pilots and anyone who could keep up with her adventuresome spirit.  There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do except for one: conform to what other people expected of her.

Barnes’ grandfather, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, was an inventor and pioneer balloonist.  He was the first person to take photographs from a balloon and helped the Union Army with reconnaissance during the Civil War.  When he moved his family from Pennsylvania to Pasadena, California in 1888 they settled in a 24,000 square foot mansion on Millionaire’s Row.  Among other business ventures, he created the Mount Lowe Railway in the local San Gabriel Mountains which ended up costing him his entire fortune, and he died poor.

Barnes’ father was Thad Junior, the seventh child of ten.  He worked in his father’s businesses, but he preferred to spend his time outdoors and was an excellent horseman.  He married Florence Mae Dobbins, a staunch Episcopalian from another moneyed family who also had moved west from Pennsylvania.  The bride’s parents gave the couple a house in neighboring San Marino and eight years later upgraded it to a 35 room estate with servants, a pool, tennis courts and stables.  Barnes’ older brother, William Emmert, was constantly sick and died when Barnes was 12 years old.  While her mother cared for her brother, the rambunctious tomboy was spoiled by her father.

Barnes inherited her passions from her grandfather and father, and they treated her like the boy they wanted.  When she was three, her father gave her a pony.  For her fifth birthday, she got a Thoroughbred, and she won her first equestrian trophy that year.  When she was nine, her grandfather took her to the first American aviation exhibition near Long Beach.  From her mother, she inherited her name and, unfortunately, her masculine looks.

GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN       After a few years of home schooling, Barnes was enrolled in the Pasadena Elementary School, the only girl in a class of 23 boys.  She could run faster, spit, curse and fight better than most of her classmates.  Her behavior became an issue, but her parents didn’t know what to do about it, so they moved her to a prestigious prep school, Westridge School for Girls.  Barnes proved that she just wanted to have fun and didn’t care much about rules, so her parents moved her to a nearby Catholic boarding school, Ramona Convent.  During her second year there she ran away on horseback to Tijuana.  Now her parents were desperate, but the only option they could think of was to move their daughter away to the Bishop School in La Jolla, an Episcopalian boarding school.  Somehow Barnes managed to survive the two years until graduation.

After she graduated, Barnes announced that she wanted to be a veterinarian.  That was such an appalling idea to her mother that she promptly enrolled the teenager in Stickney School of Art for a more ladylike course of study.  This did not offer any real long term prospects, however, so Barnes’ maternal grandmother arranged for her to marry the rector of the local Episcopal church.  It seemed like a win-win situation, if not a perfect match.  The groom would be appeasing a major contributor to the church and get a new bell tower.  The bride would be able to stop living with her parents and have a shot at independence.

THAT’S NOT A LADY, IT’S MY WIFE          Barnes and Reverend C. Rankin Barnes were married in January 1921.  The first time the couple kissed was at the wedding, and the only time they were intimate was on the honeymoon.  Nine months later a baby boy, William Emmert Barnes (“Billy”), was born.

As was to be expected, Barnes was totally bored being a poor pastor’s wife, but she tried to fill the role for a while.  She taught Sunday school and bribed the kids in catechism class with jackknives to entice them to behave.  She had no maternal instinct, and nurturing a baby was asking too much of her.

Relief came from the burgeoning film industry in Hollywood.  Barnes started riding her horses in movies and was so adept she could carry a camera on her shoulder while riding.  She was earning at least $100 a day, and as soon as she could she hired a cook, housekeeper and full time nanny.  She was so successful Aimee Semple McPherson hired Barnes as her stunt double in shows.

When Barnes was 22 years old, her mother died.  Her father’s way of coping with the loss was to marry a woman only three years older than his daughter and move to Lake Arrowhead.  Barnes coped by running away, traveling across the country by herself for several months.  When she returned she took up with a college student and discovered how much fun physical intimacy could be.  Their affair lasted several months, and it was followed by another.  Barnes’ occasional attempts to act like a pastor’s wife didn’t overshadow her indiscretions, and she became an embarrassment to her upstanding family.  She left again, under pressure, on a cruise to South America.

A LONG WALK HOME          When she returned, she moved into her parents’ house, but she didn’t stay put for long.  When some friends got the idea to get hired on as crew on a banana boat bound for South America, Barnes, the only woman, didn’t hesitate to join them.  She dressed as a man and signed on as “Jacob Crane.”  As soon as the boat left the dock, the adventurers discovered they were running guns and ammunition to revolutionaries in Mexico.  When they arrived in San Blas, the ship was boarded by armed guards who used the vehicle to shelter the town’s money from the rebels.  The crew was held hostage for six weeks.  Barnes and the helmsman, Roger Chute, were the only two courageous enough to escape.

The pair stole a horse and burro and set out through the Mexican countryside.  Barnes quipped that her partner looked like Don Quixote, and he said that made her “Pancho.”  She corrected his reference, saying the character’s name was “Sancho Panza,” but Chute liked “Pancho” better.  Barnes liked the sound of Pancho Barnes, and the name stuck.

The journey continued on foot, and Barnes and Chute walked over 250 miles from Mexico City to Vera Cruz where they became stowaways on a boat.  With help from a connection at the American Embassy, they eventually got on another boat to New Orleans.  From there they walked, hoboed and hitchhiked to California.  For all of the challenges of the trip, Barnes saw it as a total adventure, and finally she knew who she was and what she was capable of.

TAKING FLIGHT         It didn’t take Barnes long to need another adventure, and she turned her attention skyward.  In spring of 1928 she started taking pilot’s lessons.  Her instructor was a World War I pilot, and the airplane had one instrument in it: an oil gauge.  A key chain hung from the control board to determine if they were flying straight, and they looked over the side to judge altitude.  To know how much gas they had, they dipped a string in the tank and estimated how far they could go.  Barnes was immediately hooked, and she bought herself a Travel Air biplane for $5,500.  She was more captivated by the thrill of the early days of flying than deterred by the dangers.  In 1928 on a trip to San Francisco her engine quit, and she had to make eight emergency landings.

The enterprising woman found various ways to earn income as a pilot: test pilot for airplane manufacturers, making promotional flights for Union Oil, and stunt pilot and technical director for the movies.  Barnes helped Howard Hughes capture authentic audio of planes for Hell’s Angels by flying past tethered balloons with sound equipment attached to them.

Her interests took a political bent when she founded the Association of Motion Picture Pilots (AMPP) in 1932 so the pilots could get fair wages for their often death defying work.  That year she also tried to parlay her popularity into a bid for Supervisor for the Third District in Los Angeles.  Even with an endorsement from fellow pilot Amelia Earhart, Barnes wasn’t able to convert her generosity and clout into political office.

Barnes worked constantly, but she was better at spending money than saving it.  Her home was party central, constantly full of flying and movie industry friends.  She had an open door, open bar policy, and she never expected her guests to help foot the bill.  In addition to spending lavishly, she used her house and other properties as collateral to buy more real estate investments without any regard as to how she would make payments.

STARTING OVER  By 1935 Barnes was broke.  Conceding that she would never become famous because she didn’t have the requisite good looks or personal backers, she decided it was time to reinvent herself.  She rented out the San Marino estate until she was ready to sell it, and she traded an apartment building in Los Angeles for a four-room house and hay barn on an 80-acre alfalfa ranch in the Antelope Valley near Muroc Dry Lake.  She moved her horses and airplane to the middle of nowhere.  The nearest town was 20 miles away from her Rancho Oro Verde, but there was an encampment for an Army Air Corps squadron to conduct exercises and bombing practice.

Barnes was by no means isolated in this desert wasteland.  She created an air strip out of the hard earth and built guest quarters so her friends could fly in for a visit.  By 1941 she had 360 acres with a farmhouse, stables and swimming pool.  She knew nothing about alfalfa farming, so she expanded her venture with dairy cows and pigs.  Billy had been living with his dad, but the teenager joined his mom to help out and enjoy new freedom, and Barnes tried to act more like a mother to him.  Barnes opened her home and heart to the local fly boys, and even Colonel Clarence Shoop, the commanding officer of the Flight Test Center, used Barnes’ facilities to host parties for visiting dignitaries.

In 1939 the Civilian Pilot Training Program was established to train pilots, and Barnes got a government contract to supply planes and instructors for the local school.  One of the students distinguished himself from the others.  Barnes had had many lovers, but she met Robert Hudson Nichols, Jr. (“Nicky”), about the time her husband asked for a divorce, freeing her and Nicky to get married.  The pilot training program lasted two years.  The marriage lasted two weeks.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government discontinued the civilian training program and the Muroc Army Air Base became Edwards Air Force Base.  With the influx of Air Force test pilots, there were even more guys who joined Barnes’ Hollywood friends to hang out, get a good meal and be entertained.  She could match them with flying stories, jokes, drinking, smoking and swearing, and they loved her.  Barnes was totally unaware of how much it cost her to host her friends.  She often ran out of money to feed the horses or pay bills, and she accrued several liens on her property.  But, if all you need is love, Barnes was happy.  In 1944 she met Don Shalita, a very handsome show dancer six years her junior.  His career was winding down so he moved to the ranch, and a year later they were married.  This time Barnes broke a longevity record for actually living with a husband: four months.

HAPPY BOTTOM RIDING CLUB            Barnes received an inheritance from her uncle, and after World War II she used it to improve her property, calling it Pancho’s Fly-Inn.  On 300 acres she opened her own airfield with two runways.  Anyone could tie down their plane for free, but they had to buy gas and oil from Barnes.  There was a hanger, repair shop and flight school.  She added rooms with air conditioning and private baths to her guest house.  Barnes built a racetrack, and there was even a fishpond in the shape of the Air Force emblem.  She advertised in the Los Angeles newspapers for families to enjoy her “modern flying dude ranch” for $49 a week, per person, meals included.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the likes of General Al Boyd, Commander of Edwards AFB, and Chuck Yeager were regulars at Barnes’ place, but it had become so popular that she felt she was missing the spirit of the old days.  She converted the bar and grill into a private club for her Edwards AFB and Hollywood friends and called it the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

One of the newer Happy Bottom guests was pilot Eugene McKendry (“Mac”), who ended up at the ranch after returning from a tour of duty overseas.  His wife was divorcing him and giving him custody of their son, and Mac needed some encouragement and a place to live.  He found both with Barnes, and he was there for her when she needed support.

When Barnes was 45 years old, she suffered from hypertension and had a retinal hemorrhage.  She ignored the symptoms until she collapsed and a ranch hand called the doctor.  Barnes consented to experimental surgery called sympathectomy which destroys nerves in the sympathetic nervous system to increase blood flow.  It required two operations with 18-inch incisions on both sides of the spine and partial removal of four ribs.  Mac was by her side during her lengthy recovery from the operation and a bout of pneumonia.

Life at the Club continued to be one big party, and liquor was flown in illegally from Mexico.  Barnes sponsored air shows, rodeos and aerial treasure hunts with other airports.  She hired hostesses to wait tables and dance with the men.  Barnes denied that she was running a brothel, but the wives of the pilots resented that they spent their free time there, regardless of what they were doing.

In addition to the usual carousing, in June 1952 Barnes was involved in planning another bash, her fourth wedding, to Mac.  The bride was 51 years old, and the groom was 32.  Commander Al Boyd gave the bride away, and Chuck Yeager stood up as her attendant.  The 58 second ceremony was presided over by Judge J. G. Sherrill and witnessed by 650 guests.  Then the couple exchanged vows again in a Native American ceremony officiated by Chief Lucky and Little Snow White of the Blackfoot tribe.  The wedding banquet included four whole roasted pigs, 80 pounds of potato salad, 16 gallons of Jell-O and a 50 pound wedding cake.  One of the entertainers at the reception was Lassie.

DEALING WITH CHANGE    That same year the leadership of Edwards changed, and Brigadier General J. Stanley Holtoner took command.  He was all business and didn’t enjoy Barnes’ hospitality as his predecessors had.  In addition, the government was buying up all the property adjoining the air base.  This seriously jeopardized what took Barnes almost 20 years to build.  The FBI investigated Barnes for possible illegal activity, but the worst they could accuse her of was bad credit.  There were enough law suits and counter suits to keep both sides busy for a long time, and Barnes always acted as her own attorney.  The government finally got legal title to Barnes’ land and gave her $185,000.

A few months later, Barnes was driving home from shopping when she saw smoke coming from her property.  She lost everything in the house, barn and dance hall to the fire.  Conspiracy theories circulating around implicated the government, Barnes and even a drifter who was hanging around.

The disastrous fire was the beginning of the end for Barnes.  She tried to start over a few miles north in the Mojave Desert and took out mortgages on over 1,000 acres with a little café and gas station.  She treated herself to horses, a Stinson airplane and catamaran, but she lived in an abandoned rock building with a dirt floor and broken windows.  She had big plans for Gypsy Springs, but she still hadn’t learned to manage her money, and Edwards Air Force Base had grown into a self sufficient community and no longer needed her hospitality.

To compound her problems, Barnes had health issues and relationship issues.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy.  Mac moved to Gypsy Springs and was there for her during the two surgeries, but their relationship was rapidly deteriorating beyond reconciliation.  In 1962, Barnes sued her husband for divorce.

In her late 60s, Barnes found herself alone.  An old friend offered to let her live rent free in a 20 by 25 square foot house.  She started breeding Yorkshire terriers, but they just contributed to the increased squalor that she lived in.  Her best asset was storytelling, and she was invited to speak at local clubs and banquets, regaling audiences with the spellbinding tales of her life.  In the summer of 1971 some of her old friends at Edwards, including Buzz Aldrin, threw a party for her 70th birthday on the base.

Barnes could not create a future for herself, and she ended up living off memories and dreams.  In the spring of 1975, she never showed up for a speaking engagement and was found dead in her home surrounded by putrid filth.  Two friends got permission to fly over the old Rancho Oro Verde and scatter her remains.  As the ashes started to drift toward the ground, a crosswind came up and redirected them back into the cockpit of the Cessna.  Even in death Barnes still loved a good joy ride.

QUESTION:  How are you different than what you think other people expect you to be?

© 2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Kessler, Lauren, The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes.  New York: Random House, 2000.

Tate, Grover Ted, The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus.  Maverick Publications, 1984.

Schultz, Barbara Hunter, Pancho, The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes.  Lancaster, California: Little Buttes Publishing Co., 1996.

http://www.panchobarnes.com/index.html

http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Explorers_Record_Setters_and_Daredevils/Barnes/EX17.htm

http://happybottomridingclub.com/#/home/

http://www.surgeryencyclopedia.com/St-Wr/Sympathectomy.html