Monday, May 11, 2015

Harriett + Harriet (for Harriet or Harriett)

Harriet Quimby was born a hundred and forty years ago today, in the town of Arcadia, Michigan. Adventurous, ambitious, and well ahead of her time, Quimby had been a journalist in San Francisco and a theater critic in New York City for nearly a decade when she decided to take up flying in its somewhat scary salad days. She soon became the first woman to receive a pilot's license from the Aero Club of America, as well as the first one to cross the English Channel by air. (The latter feat was pretty much ignored by the news media, however, who were busy covering the sinking of the Titanic the day before.) Quimby was Amelia Earhart's role model; she was called "the bird girl" by her readers and the "Dresden China aviatrix" by reporters. Ever the eager self-promoter, she designed and wore a vivid lavender satin flight suit, which prompted Vin Fiz to recruit her as an ad icon for a new grape-flavored soda (reportedly, terrible stuff) following the death of the biplane's pioneering navigator Calbraith Perry Rodgers. Tragically, on July 1, 1912 (eleven months to the day after first getting her license), Quimby was also killed in a fluky flying accident. At an air show near Boston, Massachusetts, the plane she was in suddenly pitched forward, ejecting Quimby and the event's organizer William Willard into the waters below. It's believed that had they been wearing seat belts, which were not yet fully standard at the time, they probably would have survived the aircraft's soft landing. Horrific though it must have been, a 2012 article in the Atlantic rather poetically notes: "There were 5,000 spectators there to watch her fall, shimmering against the sky in her purple outfit." Along with being America's first lady of flight, Quimby also authored seven screenplays for director D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios and even had a small part in one silent film, which is sadly no longer extant. Harriet Quimby was not one of those people who sit around waiting for the right to vote, the movies to start talking, or women to sprout wings. She walked the walk, flew like a hawk, and pretty much wrote the book on female aviation. Or at least the first few chapters. There were 71 cases of today's typo in OhioLINK, and 892 in WorldCat.

(Harriet Quimby, 1875-1912, in the Moisant monoplane she learned to fly in, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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