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-setting aviator. She was famous, rich and celebrated.
Then it all came crashing down hideously, and she’s barely remembered today.
Don Dahler’s “Fearless: Harriet Quimby, a Life Without Limits” restores some of that fame as he introduces readers to a woman who dared.
Her beginnings were humble. Born in 1875 to William and Ursula Quimby, farmers eking out an existence near Arcadia, Mich., Harriet was remembered as “a tomboy full of verve and spunk who was prepared to try anything.” But the farm was a disaster, although Ursula picked up extra money selling her patent medicine. Still, by 1884, they were broke.
The Quimbys abandoned their farm. They would move four more times before settling in San Francisco. Then, the women took charge. Ursula put William to work, sending him on the road to peddle her elixir. And the twentyish Harriet, now a “willowy and beautiful brunette with green eyes,” started posing for painters, appearing on stage, and befriending the writers and radicals at the city’s Bohemian Club.
Finally, in 1901, her theatrical career cooling, Quimby decided to approach Will Irwin, editor of the San Francisco Call, about becoming a reporter.
“Will Irwin must have felt like his office door was blown open by El Niño winds as the tall woman, a dervish of skirts and overhung bonnet, swept in and stood before him,” Dahler writes. “She spoke quietly, with ‘a low voice and a brilliant smile.’ But Harriet Quimby had come to learn few could deny her an audience; fewer still could manage to say to no to whatever her request might be.”
Within two years, Quimby had established herself as a well-paid and popular freelancer. But she needed a broader and richer world to conquer than San Francisco. So she got on a train and headed to New York.
“The free-lance of this particular narrative, fresh from the West, landed bag and baggage one day at the foot of Twenty-Third Street,” she wrote in an article about her early years. “There was no one in the entire city she had seen before. She had in stock a couple of years experience on a hustling Western paper, a goodly batch of letters of introduction (still unused), good health, a well-developed sense of humor, and some, but not too much, money.”
She also had a fearless determination.
Quimby eventually found a regular berth at the popular national publication, Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. After sending for her parents – she would support them for the rest of her life – she began her career in earnest. Always ready for an adventure, Quimby jumped from beat to beat, filing news, reviews and features. She also snapped the photographs for her stories.
She did exposés, writing a story on Manhattan’s prostitution problem. “Dens of infamy masked under the guise of manicure parlors, employment bureaus, massage parlors, hair-dressing establishments, French restaurants, Greek refreshment rooms, and coffee parlors, and even fruit, candy, and cigar stores are numerous, and they are to be found in what are supposed to be the respectable streets of the city,” she wrote.
She did travel pieces, reporting from three continents. Quimby wrote about the idle rich of the South of France, where “apparently every woman and girl in Nice either buys, begs or borrows a dog of some kind for no other purpose than to put a big bow on his neck and show him off on the promenade.” She wrote about people-watching in St. Thomas and praised the island’s near-naked sponge divers, “unusually splendid specimens anatomically.”
Quimby still wanted more, though. She even wrote some scripts for a young director, DW Griffith. Then, attending the Belmont Park Aviation Meet in 1911, for the first time she saw the era’s simple flying machines. Quimby fell in love with them and the daring pilots who took them soaring into the sky. “I believe I could do that,” she told a friend. “And I will.”
Soon, “Leslie’s” carried 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 predawn lessons in Hempstead Plains, LI The budding aviator explained that she had always loved going fast and had grown bored with cars.
“I couldn’t resist the desire to try the air lanes, where there are neither speed laws nor traffic policemen, and where one needn’t go all the way around Central Park to get to Times Square,” she declared. “Why shouldn’t we have some good American women air pilots?”
And on Aug. 2, 1911, Harriet Quimby earned her aviation license – only the 37th ever awarded in the United States. It made headlines, but Quimby asserted it wasn’t some grab for attention.
“I didn’t want to be the first American woman to fly just to make myself conspicuous,” she insisted. “It makes it possible for me to compete in all contests — and I’m planning to do quite a bit.”
True to her word, Quimby was soon a regular at airshows, performing stunts and trying for new records. A national celebrity, she posed for ads and earned thousands for a single appearance. She flew solo across the English Channel on April 16, 1914 – the first woman to do so. (Although the sinking of the Titanic the day before naturally overrode most of her headlines.)
Knowing aviation was a dangerous business, Quimby, 37, announced it would compete just a bit longer. She had already provided a comfortable life for her parents. Once her own future was secure, she revealed, she would retire to France and write novels. However, she still had several engagements booked, including an air show in Massachusetts, where she hoped to break the world speed record.
Airplanes were still temperamental machines, so Quimby first took a test flight over Boston Harbor. She also took on a passenger, Bill Willard. The organizer of the event, he had been 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 and excitable man, shifted suddenly in his seat, throwing off the plane’s delicate balance. Maybe there was a mechanical failure. But, “five thousand pairs of eyes watched as the monoplane bucked suddenly, its nose veering hard towards the earth, its tail shooting straight up.”
Willard was thrown clear of the plane and plunged toward the water. Then, even as Quimby struggled to right the craft, she, too was ejected. Both died on impact. The plane, however, glided down to the harbor, undamaged.
Her fans mourned her, yet her sexist critics couldn’t resist yet another dig. While lamenting Quimby’s “tragic demise,” the New York Sun still insisted that “the sport not one for which women are physically qualified. They lack strength, presence of mind, and the courage to excel as aviators. It is essentially a man’s sport and pastime.”
They were half right — Quimby’s death was tragic.
But her strength, presence of mind, and courage opened the skies to everyone.