The Glamorous, Adrenaline-Fueled Life of Harriet Quimby

The vivacious Edwardian beauty wrote Hollywood screenplays, modeled for soft drink companies, and flew her own airplane over the English Channel. 

Harriet Quimby in her Blériot monoplane / Library of Congress

A hundred years ago this month, American aviatrix Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel, from Dover to Calais in 59 minutes. It was a time of rapid revolution in air travel. Automobiles were still a novelty, and flying was something attempted by only a handful of inventors and daredevils. Only eight months before her Channel crossing on April 16, 1912, Quimby had been the first American woman ever granted a pilot's license.

Before she took up aviation, Quimby worked as a drama critic and columnist for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, a popular New York magazine. She lived at the fashionable Hotel Victoria (which stood between Broadway, 27th St and 5th Ave, taking up a whole block) and played up an image of "gal about town" in her journalism. In 1906, she sat in the passenger's seat as race car driver Herbert Lytle completed a few laps of the Vanderbilt course on Long Island. She wrote about the experience for her readers, many of whom had never traveled in a car, let alone at high speeds:

You are now going at about seventy miles an hour, and you feel the swift currents of air produced by the mad flight of the machine. ... A curve and a sharp angle there are thirteen curves on the course- you slow down to about fifty, and the car careens virtually on one wheel, and the whole machine seems lifted up in the air and comes down to earth again with a jump.

Why you seem to actually crawl along at fifty an hour, and although every nerve in your body is quivering and you have just enough strength to hang on to the strap, you manage to shout an answer to Lytle, who asks with exquisite sarcasm, at the top of his voice, "Was that fast enough?" and you enjoy the satisfaction of seeing him nearly fall over with surprise as you fire back "Twasn't very fast; can't you make one hundred and twenty?"

When she took up flying, Quimby also wrote about it for Leslie's and had her employer's support in this attention-grabbing endeavor. But she didn't put her writing on the back burner: the same year she gained her pilot's license, she scripted seven short films directed by D. W. Griffith. She also had a small role in one of these films (sadly now lost).

Quimby was very pretty, and as such, a promoter's dream. At a time when the Gibson Girl look was in fashion and a woman wearing trousers was almost unheard-of, she chose a purple, hooded flying suit with a belted waist and loose pants, and wore it with, buckled boots. Her distinctive outfit landed her a position as celebrity spokesperson for Vin Fiz, a grape soda. The Vin Fiz brand had already sponsored a plane, the Vin Fiz Flyer, designed by the Wright Brothers and piloted by Calbraith Perry Rodgers on his cross-country flight in 1911. Alas, such innovative marketing efforts couldn't compensate for the fact that the drink tasted awful, and the beverage was never a success. (A New Hampshire soda company has recently revived the brand, with a new recipe and labels bearing Harriet's image.

Tragically, 11 months to the day after she achieved her flying license, Quimby was killed at an air show near Boston. She was bringing her white monoplane in for a landing and had descended to around 1000 feet when she hit a sudden pocket of turbulence that threw her and her passenger, A. P. Willard, from their seats. (Seatbelts or straps were not yet standard.) She was 37.

The New York Times described the accident this way on July 2, 1912:

There was an upward flash of the tail and the machine was seen to stand almost on end in air. For an instant it poised there and then began a swift plunge downward.

Sharply outlined against the setting sun Willard's body was thrown clear of the chassis, followed almost immediately by Miss Quimby's body in her dark aviation suit. Hurtling over and over the two bodies shot downward, striking the water 200 feet from the shore.

There were 5,000 spectators there to watch her fall, shimmering against the sky in her purple outfit.

In those prewar days of Quimby's death, aviation was a worldwide pursuit, and  Popular Mechanics kept track of how many people died doing it. In January 1913, under the heading "Aviation Now As Safe As Football," the magazine recorded 112 fatal accidents from January 1 to November 22, 1912. The roll of the dead included Grahame Gilmour, killed at Brooklands, England; Albo Kaiwow, who died along with his mechanician in Sebastopol, Russia; and Fung Guey, who died in Canton, China. The same day Quimby fell, Captain Bayo in Madrid and Benno Koenig in Langengeld, Germany, also lost their lives. Harriet Quimby was not the only woman on the list, either: Julia Clark of Sprinfield, Illinois, had died in June when she flew into a tree.

Even so, Harriet Quimby was unusual for her generation: an independent woman who supported her parents through her earnings as a journalist and leapt at the chance to climb into the cockpit of an airplane. Having proven she was good enough to be granted a license by the Aero Club, she set herself ever-greater challenges and helped pave the way for the next generation of female flyers.