For the daring Harriet Quimby, the sky was the limit.
She even conquered even that.
The turn-of-the-century adventurer was an actress in San Francisco, a pioneering journalist in New York, and a record-breaking aviator. She was famous, rich and celebrated.
Then everything fell apart horribly, and she is barely remembered today.
Don Dahler’s “Fearless: Harriet Quimby, a Life Without Limits” restores some of that fame by introducing readers to a woman who dared.
His beginnings are humble. Born in 1875 to William and Ursula Quimby, farmers living near Arcadia, Michigan, Harriet is remembered as “a tomboy full of verve and courage who was willing to try anything”. But the farm was a disaster, although Ursula made extra money selling her patent medicine. Yet in 1884 they were broke.
The Quimbys abandoned their farm. They will move four more times before settling in San Francisco. Then the women took over. Ursula put William to work, sending him on the road to peddle her elixir. And twenty-year-old Harriet, now a “slender, beautiful brunette with green eyes,” began posing for painters, appearing on stage, and befriending the writers and radicals of the Bohemian Club of the town.
Finally, in 1901, with his theatrical career cooling, Quimby decided to approach Will Irwin, editor of the San Francisco Call, about becoming a journalist.
“Will Irwin must have felt like his office door had been blown away by El Niño winds as the tall woman, a dervish of overhanging skirts and bonnet, entered and stood before him,” writes Dahler. “She spoke softly, with ‘a low voice and a bright smile.’ But Harriet Quimby had come to learn that few people could deny her an audience; fewer still could manage to say no to her request, whatever it was.
Within two years, Quimby had established herself as a well-paid and popular freelancer. But she needed a wider, richer world to conquer than San Francisco. So she got on a train and headed for New York.
“The freelancer of this particular story, fresh from the West, one day landed bag and luggage at the foot of Twenty-Third Street,” she wrote in an article about her early years. “There was no one in the whole town that she had seen before. She had in stock a few years of experience in a hustling Western newspaper, a good batch of letters of introduction (still unused), good health, a well-developed sense of humor and a little money, but not too much. .
She also had a fearless determination.
Quimby eventually found regular coverage in the popular national publication, Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. After sending for her parents – she would support them for the rest of her life – she started her career in earnest. Always ready for adventure, Quimby jumped from beat to beat, dropping news, reviews and features. She also took photos for her stories.
She gave talks, writing a story about Manhattan’s prostitution problem. “The dens of infamy masked under the guise of nail salons, employment offices, massage parlours, barbershops, French restaurants, Greek taprooms and cafes, and even fruit shops, candies and cigars are plentiful, and they are to be found on what are supposed to be the respectable streets of the city,” she wrote.
She has traveled and reported on three continents. Quimby wrote of the idle wealthy of the south of France, where “apparently every woman and girl in Nice buys, begs or borrows some sort of dog for the sole purpose of putting a big noose around his neck and showing him on the ride She wrote about people-watching on St. Thomas and praised the island’s nearly naked sponge divers, “anatomically splendid specimens.”
Quimby still wanted more, though. She even wrote screenplays for a young director, DW Griffith. Then, attending the Belmont Park Aviation Meet in 1911, she saw the simple flying machines of the day for the first time. Quimby fell in love with them and the daring pilots who took them to the skies. “I think I could do that,” she told a friend. “And I will.”
Soon, “Leslie’s” aired a very different first-person story by its star reporter: “How a Woman Learns to Fly.” Outfitted in goggles and a custom satin flight suit, Quimby took pre-dawn lessons in Hempstead Plains, LI. The budding aviator explained that she always liked to go fast and was bored with cars.
“I couldn’t resist trying the air lanes, where there are no speed regulations, no traffic cops, and where you don’t have to go all the way around from Central Park to get to Times Square,” she said. “Why don’t we have good female American pilots? »
And on August 2, 1911, Harriet Quimby earned her aviation license – only the 37th ever awarded in the United States. It made headlines, but Quimby claimed it was no way to get attention.
“I didn’t want to be the first American to fly just to get noticed,” she insisted. “It gets me into all the contests – and I plan to do quite a bit.”
True to her word, Quimby quickly became a regular at air shows, performing stunts and trying new records. A national celebrity, she posed for commercials and earned thousands for just one appearance. She crossed the English Channel solo on April 16, 1914 – the first woman to do so. (Although the sinking of the Titanic the day before understandably replaced most of its headlines.)
Knowing aviation was a dangerous business, Quimby, 37, said she would be competing a little longer. She had already provided a comfortable life for her parents. Once her own future was secured, she revealed, she would retire to France and write novels. However, she still had several commitments booked, including an air show in Massachusetts, where she hoped to break the world speed record.
Airplanes were still finicky machines, so Quimby first made a test flight over Boston Harbor. She also picked up a passenger, Bill Willard. Organizer of the event, he had worried about worse than expected ticket sales. He had never flown before, and the trip would be an exciting first.
No one knows exactly what happened next.
Perhaps Willard, a stocky, edgy man, suddenly shifted in his seat, upsetting the delicate balance of the plane. There may have been a mechanical failure. But, “five thousand pairs of eyes watched the monoplane suddenly back up, its nose veering hard toward the ground, its tail tugging upward.”
Willard was ejected from the plane and plunged into the water. Then, even as Quimby struggled to right the craft, she too was thrown off. Both died instantly. The aircraft, however, slid to port, undamaged.
Her fans mourned her, but her sexist critics couldn’t resist another dig. While lamenting the “tragic passing” of Quimby, the New York Sun still insists that “sport is not one for which women are physically qualified.” They lack the strength, presence of mind and courage to excel as airmen. It is basically a sport and a man’s hobby.
They were half right – Quimby’s death was tragic.
But his strength, his presence of mind and his courage opened the sky to everyone.