Harriet Quimby, like Nellie Bly, aspired to be a journalist. She was born May 11, 1875. Nellie Bly was born May 5, 1864. Theirs was a time when few women worked as reporters. Even fewer had front-page bylines. Also like Bly, once she became an accomplished journalist, she established new goals for herself. In her 37 years, she set many records. Among the most notable, she was the first American woman to become a licensed pilot and to fly solo over the English Channel.
Flamboyant, original, daring and beautiful, both Harriet Quimby and Nellie Bly lived their lives boldly. Both achieved world-class “firsts.” They set examples that dare us to this day to fulfill our life’s potential.
She disregarded convention, pursuing career instead of marriage and children. Following are just a few of her professional and personal achievements.
-Early 1900s. She began her career as an actress according to the 1900 San Francisco census. She soon developed a more lucrative career writing for local publications, no small feat for a woman in 1900.
-1903. Like Nellie Bly more than a decade before her, Quimby became restless and craved the challenge of New York City. She moved there alone with no job or place to live. She found a job as a drama critic for the respected Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.
-1903-1912. Quimby became a full time reporter for Leslie’s, writing more than 250 articles in nine years. Her topics ranged from household tips to caring for an automobile engine to profiles including circus performers, socialites and daredevils. She wrote advice pieces for women on living successfully on a modest income to finding safe housing and employment.
She wrote for several other publications under her own name and pen names. She also developed a reputation as a photojournalist, traveling widely to countries including Mexico, Egypt, Iceland, Europe and Cuba.
Quimby became a true-life example of the New Woman, supporting herself and and her parents while living a glamorous single life out of her home in the chic Victoria Hotel.
Oct. 4, 1906. Her article, “A Woman’s Exciting Ride In A Racing Motor-Car,” was published. She rode with the famed driver, Herb Lytle, just two days before the Vanderbilt Cup Race. It was this experience that made Quimby understand her need for speed and passion for the freedom automobiles offered. After this notable ride, she became one of the first women to own her own car.
“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. You are so busy with the register, your hat, and the corner that you did not hear the lever click into fourth speed, but you feel the car -zip! – for the fraction of a minute you are going a trifle over a hundred miles an hour.
You think, if indeed you think at all, that if it goes much faster you will topple right over, but soon you begin to slow down, seventy, sixty, fifty. 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?”
Quimby’s complete article can be read Howard Kroplick’s VanderbiltCupRaces.com.
October 30, 1910. She covered the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament at the Belmont Race Track on Long Island. There she met John Moisant who operated a flight school at Mineola with his brother Alfred. She also met their sister, Matilde Moisant who became her close friend. John Moisant had raced a Bleriot monoplane around the Statue of Liberty for prize money. Quimby reportedly said: “Flying looks easy. I believe I could do it myself and I will.”
May 1911. Quimby convinced her editor at Leslie’s to pay for her flight lessons. In exchange, she would write first-person accounts of her experiences. Again, she set new goals for herself. She dreamed of being on the leading edge of aviation, setting records in front of crowds.
-August 2, 1911. She was the first American woman to be awarded her pilot’s license #37 from Aero Club of America, part of the International Aeronautic Federation which granted international pilot’s licenses. She earned it after 33 lessons over four months. A short time later her friend, Matilde Moisant, earned her license.
She became Leslie’s Aviation Editor. Her articles on aviation and her first-person experiences were sell-outs with titles including “How a Woman Learns to Fly” and “How I Won My Aviator’s License.”
-August 1911. Quimby became part of an exhibition team, the Moisant International Aviators. She was said to earn $1,500 when she flew her Moisant monoplane over spectators in the first recorded night flight by a woman over a crowd of some 20,000 spectators on Staten Island.
Like Nellie Bly, she had a great sense of self-promotion. Both understood the value of a recognizable costume. Bly’s was her famous traveling coat she wore around the world, carrying her one satchel. Quimby’s was a unique purple satin flight costume. While women rarely wore trousers in her time, she did and she tucked them into her high-laced boots to accent her figure. She wore a purple satin blouse with a hood and antique jewelry. She was dubbed by the press, “Dresden China Aviatrix” and the “China Doll.’
Quimby drew crowds wherever she flew. She competed in races across the United States and even in Mexico City in 1911 for President Francisco Madero.
-1911. She wrote several scripts for short silent films produced by the Biograph Company. D.W. Griffith, a friend from her days in San Francisco Theater directed them.
-1912. The Vin Fiz Company, a division of Armour Meat Packing Plant of Chicago, recruited Harriet Quimby as their spokesperson for a new grape soda, The Vin Fiz ads featured Quimby’s distinctive purple aviatrix costume.
-April 16, 1912. Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly solo over the English Channel. She flew through a dense fog bank from Dover to Calais in 59 minutes, using a borrowed compass. Sadly, the Titanic sank two days earlier. Quimby’s achievement was buried in the devastation of that horrific tragedy.
-July 1, 1912. She plummeted to her death from her two-seater Bleriot monoplane at around 1,500 feet. She was scheduled to fly the next day in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum, near Quincy, Massachusetts. Her agent, Leo Stevens, had negotiated an amazing sum for the time for her appearance.
The event organizer, William Willard, flipped a coin with his son Charles to determine who would take a spin with Quimby in her plane. William won. There are many stories and theories about the crash. Some say that William, a large man, stood up and upset the balance of the small craft.
According to The New York Times 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.”
Women have progressed in flight since Quimby’s time. Still, they represent only 5.15% of pilots holding a for-hire pilot certificate. According to Mireille Goyer, Founder of Women Of Aviation Worldwide Week and President of iWOAW “the U.S. Department of Labor reports that only 4.3% of the population that reports making a living as a pilot or flight engineer is female.”
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