I was twice footnote to the history of aviation. On July 7, 1929, still on the sunny side of four years old, I flew in the first commercially scheduled airliner (a Ford trimotor) across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles in forty-eight hours. Aviation was now so safe that even a little child could fly in comfort. I remember only two things about the flight: the lurid flames from the exhaust through the window; then a sudden loss of altitude over Los Angeles, during which my eardrums burst. Always the trouper, I was later posed, smiling, for the rotogravure sections of the newspapers, blood trickling from tiny lobes. Among my supporting cast that day were my father, the assistant general manager of the company (Transcontinental Air Transport), his great and good friend, as the never great, never good Time magazine would say, Amelia Earhart, as well as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose husband Charles was my pilot. 1 Both Lindbergh and Amelia had been hired by the line’s promoter, one C.M. Keys (not even a footnote now but then known as the czar of aviation), to publicize TAT, popularly known as “The Lindbergh Line.”
My second moment of footnotehood occurred in the spring of 1936, when I was—significantly—on the sunny side of eleven. I was picked up at St. Albans School in Washington, DC, by my father, Eugene L. Vidal, director of the Bureau of Air Commerce (an appointee of one Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself mere tinkling prelude to Reagan’s heavenly choir). FDR wanted to have a ministry of aviation like the European powers; and so the Bureau of Air Commerce was created.
On hot spring mornings Washington’s streets smelled of melting asphalt; and everything was a dull tropical green. The city was more like a Virginia country seat than a world capital. The men wore straw hats in summer; white suits. There was no air conditioning. People used palmetto fans. As we got into my implausibly handsome father’s plausible Plymouth, he was mysterious, while I was delighted to be liberated from school. I wore short trousers and polo shirt, the standard costume of those obliged to pretend that they were children a half-century ago. What was up? I asked. My father said, You’ll see. Since we were now on the familiar road to Bolling Field, I knew that whatever was up, it was probably going to be us. Ever since my father—known to all as Gene—had become director in 1933, we used to fly together nearly every weekend in the director’s Stinson monoplane. Occasionally he’d let me take the controls. Otherwise, I was navigator. With a filling-station road map on my bony knees, I would look out the window for familiar landmarks. When in doubt, you followed a railroad line or a main highway. Period joke: a dumb pilot was told to follow the Super Chief no matter what; when the train entered a tunnel, so did the pilot. End of joke.
At Bolling Field, I recognized the so-called Hammond flivver plane. Gene had recently told the press that a plane had been developed so safe that anyone could fly it and so practical that anyone who could afford a flivver car could buy it—in mass production, that is. At present, there was only the prototype. But it was my father’s dream to put everyone in the air, just as Henry Ford had put everyone on the road. Since 1933, miles of newsprint and celluloid had been devoted to Gene Vidal’s dream—or was it folly?
We had been up in the Hammond plane before; and I suppose it really was almost “foolproof,” as my father claimed. I forget the plane’s range and speed but the speed was probably less than a hundred miles an hour. (One pleasure of flying then: sliding the window open and sticking out your hand, and feeling the wind smash against it.) As a boy, the actual flying of a plane was a lot simpler for me than building one of those model planes that the other lads were so adept at making and I all thumbs in the presence of balsa wood, paper, and glue—the Dionysiac properties of glue were hardly known then. But those were Depression years, and we Americans a serious people. That is how we beat Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo.
Next to the Hammond, there was a Pathé newsreel crew, presided over by the familiar figure of Floyd Gibbons, a dark patch covering the vacancy in his florid face where once there had been an eye that he had lost—it was rumored—as a correspondent in the war to make the world safe for democracy, and now for a flivver aircraft in every garage. Since my father appeared regularly in newsreels and Marches of Time, a newsreel crew was no novelty. At age seven, when asked what my father did, I said, He’s in the newsreels. But now, since I had been taken so mysteriously out of class, could it be…? I felt a premonitory chill.
As we drove onto the runway (no nonsense in those days when the director came calling), Gene said, “Well, you want to be a movie actor. So here’s your chance.” He was, if nothing else, a superb salesman. Jaded when it came to flying, I was overwhelmed by the movies. Ever since Mickey Rooney played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I had wanted to be a star, too. What could Rooney do that I couldn’t? Why was I at St. Albans, starting Latin, when I might be darting about the world, unconfined by either gravity of the director’s Stinson? “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes!” Rooney had croaked. Now I was about to do the same.
As we parked, Gene explained that I was to take off, circle the field once, and land. After I got out of the plane, I would have to do some acting. Floyd Gibbons would ask me what it was like to fly the flivver plane, and I was to say it was just like driving a flivver car. The fact that I had never even tried to drive a car seemed to my father and me irrelevant as we prepared for my screen debut. As it turned out, I didn’t learn to drive until I was twenty-five years old.
My earlier footnotehood was clear-cut. I was indeed the first child to cross the country by air. But now I was a challenger. In 1927, one Jack Chapman, aged eleven, had soloed. Since there had been so much public complaint (suppose he had gone and killed a cow?), my father’s predecessor had made it the law that no one under sixteen years of age could solo. Now here I was a few months younger than Chapman had been in 1927, ready to break the prepubescent record. But the law said that I could not fly unattended. Ordinarily, my father—true pioneer—would have ignored this sort of law. But the director of the Air Commerce could not—at least in front of Pathé News—break a law that he was sworn to uphold.
As I stood by the door to the plane, staring glassy-eyed at the cobra-camera, a long discussion took place. How was I to solo (thus proving that the Hammond flivver was if not foolproof boyproof) and yet not break the 1927 law? Floyd Gibbons proposed that my father sit behind me. But Gene said, no. He was already so familiar a figure in the Transluxes of the Republic that the audience would think that he had done the flying. Finally, Fred Geisse, an official of the bureau (and, like me, a nonpilot), got in first and crouched behind the pilot’s seat. The cameras started to turn. With a slight but lovable Rooneyesque swagger, I climbed aboard.
Recently, I saw some footage from the newsreel. As I fasten my seat belt, I stare serenely off into space, not unlike Lindbergh-Earhart. I even looked a bit like the god and goddess of flight who, in turn, looked spookily like each other. I start up the engine. I am still serene. But as I watched the ancient footage, I recalled suddenly the terror that I was actually feeling. Terror not of flying but of the camera. This was my big chance to replace Mickey Rooney. But where was my script? My director? My talent? Thinking only of stardom, I took off. With Geisse behind me kindly suggesting that I keep into the wind (that is, opposite to the way that the lady’s stocking on the flagpole was blowing), I circled the field not once but twice and landed with the sort of jolt that one of today’s jet cowboys likes to bring to earth his DC-10.
The real terror began when I got out of the plane and stood, one hand on the doorknob, staring into the camera. Gibbons asked me about the flight. I said, Oh, it wasn’t much, and it wasn’t, either. But I was now suffering from terminal stage fright. As my voice box began to shut down, the fingers on the door knob appeared to have a life of their own. I stammered incoherently. Finally, I gave what I thought was a puckish Rooneyesque grin which exploded onto the screen with all the sinister force of Peter Lorre’s M. In that final ghastly frame, suddenly broken off as if edited by someone’s teeth in the cutting room, my career as boy film star ended and my career as boy aviator was launched. I watched the newsreel twice in the Belasco Theater, built on the site of William Seward’s Old Club House. Each time, I shuddered with horror at that demented leer which had cost me stardom. Yet, leer notwithstanding, I was summer famous; and my contemporaries knew loathing. The young Streckfus Persons (a.k.a. Truman Capote) knew of my exploit. “Among other things,” Harper Lee writes of the boy she based on Capote, “he had been up in a mail plane seventeen times, he had been to Nova Scotia, he had seen an elephant, etc.” In the Sixties, when I introduced Norman Mailer to my father, I was amazed how much Mailer knew of Gene’s pioneering.
I record this trivia not to try to regain my forever-lost feetnotehood but to try to recall the spirit of the early days of aviation, a spirit itself now footnote to the vast air and aerospace industries of today. In Anthony Sampson’s Empires of the Sky,2 only a dozen pages are devoted to the first quarter-century of American aviation. There are also three times as many references to something called Freddie Laker as there are to Lindbergh. Well, sic transit was always the name of the game, even now when the focus is on space itself. Finally, I am put in mind of all this by a number of recent books on aviation, of which the most intriguing and original is The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950, by Joseph J. Corn, in which the author recalls the quasi-religious fervor that Americans experienced when men took to the air and how, for a time, there was “a gospel of flight,” and Gene Vidal was its “high priest.” Flight would make men near-angels, it was believed; and a peaceful world one.
Ever since the development of the balloon in eighteenth-century France, so-called “lighter-than-air craft” were a reality. Heavier-than-air craft were considered mad inventors’ dreams until the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright created the first heavier-than-air plane and flew it at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. Curiously enough, it took five years before the press could figure out exactly what it was that they had done. At that time the world was full of inventors like the Wright brothers; but the others were either inventing lighter-than-air craft such as the dirigible, or experimenting with gliders. Only a few certified nuts believed in the practicality of heavier-than-air craft. One of these “crackpots” was Henry Adams’s friend at the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. S.P. Langley; and he was on much the same theoretical tack as the Wright brothers. But they left earth first.
It was not until Orville Wright flew a plane at Fort Myer outside Washington in the presence of five thousand people that the world realized that man had indeed kicked gravity and that the sky was only the beginning of no known limit. Like so many of the early air-ship makers, the Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics. But then the bicycle itself had been a revolutionary machine, adding an inch or two to the world’s population by making it possible for boys to wheel over to faraway villages where taller (or shorter) girls might be found. At least in the days when eugenics was a science that was the story. Other bicycle manufacturers soon got into the act, notably Glenn H. Curtiss, who was to be a major manufacturer of aircraft.
Although the first generation of flyers believed that airplanes would eventually make war unthinkable, the 1914-18 war did develop a new glamorous sort of warfare, with Gary Cooper gallantly dueling Von Stroheim across the bright heavens. By 1918 the American government had an airmail service. In 1927 the twenty-five-year-old Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and became, overnight, the most famous man on earth, the air age beautifully incarnate. In 1928 Amelia Earhart flew the Atlantic; and took her place in the heavens as yin to Lindbergh’s yang.
It is hard to describe to later generations what it was like to live in a world dominated by two such shining youthful deities. Neither could appear in public without worshipers—no other word—storming them. Yet each was obliged to spend a lot of time not only publicizing and selling aircraft but encouraging air transport. Of the two, Lindbergh was the better paid. But, as a deity, the commercial aspect was nothing to him, he claimed, and the religion all. On the other hand, Earhart’s husband, the publisher and publicist George Palmer Putnam (known as G.P.), worked her very hard indeed. The icons of the air age were big business.
Time magazine, September 28, 1931:
To Charles Townsend Ludington, socialite of Philadelphia, $8,000 might be the price of a small cabin cruiser such as he sails on Biscayne Bay…. But the $8,073.61 profit which showed on a balance sheet upon [his] desk last week was as exciting to him as a great fortune. It was the first year’s net earning of the Ludington Line, plane-per-hour passenger service between New York, Philadelphia and Washington.
As practically sole financiers of the company [Nicholas and Charles Townsend] Ludington might well be proud. But they would be the first to insist that all credit go to two young men who sold them the plan and then made it work: brawny, handsome Gene Vidal, West Point halfback of 1916-20, one-time Army flyer; and squint-eyed, leathery Paul (“Dog”) Collins, war pilot, old-time airmail pilot.
Timestyle still exerts its old magic, while Timecheckers are, as always, a bit off—my father graduated from West Point in 1918. An all-American halfback, he also played quarterback. But he was one of the first army flyers; and the first instructor in aeronautics at West Point. Bored with peacetime army life and excited by aviation, he quit the army in 1926. Already married to the “beauteous” (Time epithet) Nina Gore, daughter of “blind solon” (ditto) Senator T.P. Gore, he had a year-old son for whom Time had yet to mint any of those Lucite epithets that, in time (where “All things shall come to pass,” Ecclesiastes), they would.
New airlines were cropping up all over the country. After 1918, anyone who could nail down a contract from the post-master general to fly the mail was in business. Since this was the good old United States, there was corruption. Unkind gossips thought that an army flyer whose father-in-law was a senator would be well placed to get such a contract. But during the last years of President Hoover, Senator Gore was a Democrat; and during the first term of President Roosevelt, he was an enemy of the New Deal. Gore was no help at all to Gene. But anyone who could fly was automatically in demand at one or another of the small airlines that carried (or did not carry) the mail.
In 1929, C.M. Keys combined a couple of airlines and started Transcontinental Air Transport, or TAT. For a quarter million dollars cash, Keys hired, as a sort of consultant, Charles Lindbergh; he also gave the Lone Eagle shrewd advice on how to avoid income tax. Thus, TAT was dubbed “The Lindbergh Line.” Keys was perhaps the first true hustler or robber baron in American aviation: “He had been an editor of the Wall Street Journal and had worked with Walter Hines Page on the old World’s Work; Keys was also an important aviation promoter. He got into the manufacturing end of the industry during the war and eventually won control of Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company….”3 In other words, a businessman who “got control” of companies; who bought and sold them. TAT also acquired the ex-airmail flyer Paul Collins and Gene Vidal.
Like most of the early airlines, TAT was a combined air-rail service. Passenger planes did not fly at night; or over the turbulent Alleghenys. On a TAT transcontinental flight, the passengers left New York by rail in the evening; then, in Columbus, Ohio, they boarded a Ford trimotor (eight passengers maximum), and flew to Waynoka, Oklahoma. Here they transferred to the Santa Fe railroad for an overnight haul to Clovis, New Mexico, where another plane flew them into Los Angeles—or Burbank, to be precise. It is a tribute to the faith of the air-gospelers that they truly believed that this grueling two-day journey would, in time, be preferable to the comforts of a Pullman car. Interestingly enough, many descendants of the original railroad barons were immediately attracted to aviation, and names like Harriman and Whitney and Vanderbilt crop up on the boards of directors. These young men were prescient. By the end of the Second War, the railroads that had dominated American life since the Civil War, buying not only politicians but whole states, would be almost entirely superseded by civil aviation and the Teamsters Union. But the railroad lords suffered not at all; they simply became airlords.
The transition was hardly overnight. In TAT’s eighteen months of service, the line lost $2,750,000. There were simply not enough customers at sixteen cents a mile; also, more important, there was no mail contract.
TAT’s headquarters were at St. Louis, and my only memory of the summer of 1929 (other than bleeding eardrums) was of city lights, as seen from a downtown hotel window. For anyone interested in period detail, there were almost no colored lights then. So, on a hot airless night in St. Louis, the city had a weird white arctic glow. Also, little did I suspect that as I stared out over the tropical city with its icy blinking signs, a stone’s throw away, a youth of eighteen, as yet unknown to me and to the world, Thomas Lanier Williams, was typing, typing, typing into the night while across the dark fields of the Republic….
Paul Collins describes the end of TAT (Tales of an Old Air-Faring Man):4
About Christmastime 1929 all the St. Louis executives were called to a meeting in New York including Joseph Magee, the general manager; Gene Vidal, his assistant; Luke Harris, Jack Herlihy, and me. We were introduced in Mr. Keyes’s [sic] office to one Jack Maddux, President of Maddux Airlines, an operation that flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco…. Mr. Keyes [sic] stated that a merger had been effected between TAT and Maddux.
The ineffable Keys then waited until the assembled management of TAT had returned to St. Louis, where they were all fired.
Simultaneously, the Great Depression began. Small airlines either merged or died. Since a contract to fly the mail was the key to survival, the postmaster general, one Walter F. Brown, was, in effect, the most powerful single figure in aviation. He was also a political spoils-man of considerable energy. In principle, he wanted fewer airlines; and those beholden to him. As of 1930, United Air Lines carried all transcontinental mail. But Brown decided that, in this case, there should be two transcontinental carriers: one would have the central New York-Los Angeles route; the second the southern Atlanta-Dallas-Los Angeles route. As befitted a Herbert Hoover socialist, Brown did not believe in competitive bidding. The southern route would go to Brown-favored American Airlines and the central route to an airline yet to be created but already titled Transcontinental and Western Air, today’s Trans World Airlines.
Brown then forced a merger between TAT (willing) and Western Air Express (unwilling). But since neither flew the mail, Brown’s promise of a federal contract for the combined operation did the trick. Since Brown was not above corporate troikism, a third airline, a shy mouse of a company called Pittsburgh Aviation Industries Corporation (PAIC), became a member of the wedding. How on earth did such a mouse get involved with two working airlines? Well, there were three Mellons on PAIC’s board of directors, of whom the most active was Richard, nephew of Andrew, former secretary of the Treasury. The nobles missed few tricks in the early days of aviation. As it turned out, the first real boss of TWA was a PAIC man, Richard W. Robbins. And so, on August 25, 1930, TWA was awarded the central airmail route even though its competitor, United, had made a lower bid. There was outcry; but nothing more. After all, the chief radio engineer for TWA was the president’s twenty-eight-year-old son, Herbert Hoover, Jr. In those days, Hoover socialism was total; and it was not until his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, that old-fashioned capitalism was restored.
During all this, Gene Vidal had retreated to Senator Gore’s house in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC. Certain that he had learned enough about the airline business to start one, he convinced the brothers Ludington that a regular New York-Philadelphia-Washington service was practical. He also came up with the revolutionary notion that the planes would fly “every hour on the hour”: New York to Washington round trip was $23. When the Ludingtons insisted that costs be kept to a minimum, Gene, ever ingenious, said, “We’ll operate at forty cents a mile, taking only a livable salary. Anything under forty cents, we’ll agree to take in stock.” The Ludingtons were charmed.
In September 1930, the Ludington Line began regular service. Tickets were sold in railway terminals. Gene personally built the first counter in Washington, using two crates with a board across. Everything was ad hoc. On one occasion, in Philadelphia, passengers from New York to Washington were stretching their legs while passengers from Washington to New York were doing the same. Then each group was shepherded into the wrong plane and the passengers to Washington went back to New York and those to New York back to Washington.
What to serve for lunch? My mother, always dieting, decided that consommé was bound to be popular. Fortunately, in those less litigious times, the first batch of badly scalded passengers gallantly did not sue. Later, hard-boiled eggs and saltine crackers made the sort of lunch that stayed down longest. As the passengers dined, and the plane lurched, and the smell of exhaust filled the cabin, cylindrical cardboard ice-cream containers were tactfully passed around. The fact that what was supposed to contain ice cream was used, instead, for vomit was my first metaphysical experience, an intimation of the skull beneath the skin. During the Second War, as first mate of an army ship in the Aleutians, I would grimly stuff our shaky passengers with crackers and hard-boiled eggs; and it is true: they do stay down longest.
At the end of the first year, the Ludington Line showed the profit duly noted by Time. As organizer and general manager, my father persuaded Amelia Earhart to become a vice-president; he also hired Felix Dupont to be the agent in Washington. He persuaded Herbert Hoover to light up the Washington monument at dusk because, sooner or later, a plane was bound to hit it. On the other hand, he ignored the mandatory fire drills at the Washington terminal on the sensible ground that “We have a real fire,” as one of his mechanics put it, “most every day.” Between New York and Washington, he put up twenty-four billboards. Slowpoke passengers on the Pennsylvania railroad could read, at regular intervals, “If you’d flown Ludington, you’d have been there.” Were it not for Hoover socialism, so successful and busy a passenger airline would have got a mail contract. But Postmaster General Brown chose to give the franchise to Eastern Air Transport, who were eager to carry the mail at 89x$ a mile versus Ludington’s 25x$. But that has always been the American Way; who dares question it? The Ludingtons lost heart; and in February 1933 they sold out to Eastern. Even though Hoover socialism had been rejected at the polls, and there was now a new president, eager to restore prosperity with classic capitalistic measures.
Franklin Roosevelt was something of an aviation freak and, thanks in part to some backstage maneuvering on the part of Amelia Earhart and her friend Eleanor Roosevelt, Eugene L. Vidal became the director of the Bureau of Air Commerce at the age of thirty-eight. He was a popular figure not only in aviation circles but with the press. Henry Ladd Smith wrote: “Gene Vidal had fared so badly at the hands of Postmaster General Brown and the Republican administration that there was a certain poetic justice in his appointment….”5 But Smith felt that there was more honor than power in the job. The bureau was divided into three parts and Vidal “had all the responsibilities that go with the title, but few of the powers. Unhappy Mr. Vidal took all the blame for mistakes, but he had to share credit with his two colleagues….” I don’t think Gene felt all that powerless, although he certainly took a good deal of blame. Mainly he was concerned with, in Mr. Corn’s words,
the dream of wings for all…in November 1933 [he] announced that the government would soon spend half a million dollars to produce a “poor man’s airplane.” The machine would sell for $700…. He planned to launch the project with a grant from Harold Ickes’s Public Works Administration (PWA), one of the numerous government agencies established in the depression to battle unemployment.
Although a lot of out-of-work engineers and craftsmen would be employed, Ickes saw nothing public in private planes; and Gene was obliged to use his power to buy planes for the bureau’s inspectors. He ordered five experimental prototypes. The results were certainly unusual. There was one plane whose wings could be folded up; and you could then drive it like an automobile. Although nothing came of this hybrid, its overhead rotor was the precursor of the helicopter, still worshiped as a god by the Vietnamese. Finally, there was the Hammond Y-1, which I was to fly.
Along with the glamour of flight, there was the grim fact that planes often crashed and that the bodies of the passengers tended to be unpretty, whether charred or simply in pieces strewn across the landscape. Knute Rockne, Grace Moore, Carole Lombard died; and at least half of the people I used to see in my childhood would, suddenly, one day, not be there. “Crashed” was the word; and nothing more was said. As director, Gene was obliged to visit the scenes of every major accident; and he had gruesome tales to report. One survivor sued the bureau because the doctor at the scene of the accident refused to replace in his scrotal sac the testicles that lay nearby.
In 1934 the Democratic senator Hugo Black chaired a Senate committee to investigate the former Republican postmaster general Brown’s dealings with the airlines. Black’s highly partisan committee painted Brown even darker than he was. Yes, he had played favorites in awarding mail contracts but no one could prove that he—or the Grand Old Party—had in any specific way profited. Nevertheless, Jim Farley, the new postmaster general, charged Brown with “conspiracy and collusion” while the President, himself a man of truly superhuman vindictiveness, decided to punish Brown, the Republican party, and the colluded-with airlines.
What could be more punitive—and dramatic—than the cancellation of all US airmail contracts with private companies? Since the army had flown the mail back in 1918, let them fly the mail now. The President consulted the director of Air Commerce, who told him that army flyers did not have the sort of skills needed to fly the mail. After all, he should know; he was one. Undeterred, the President turned to General Foulois, the chief of the air corps, who lusted for appropriations as all air corps chiefs do; and the general said, of course, the air corps could fly the mail.
On February 9, 1934, by executive order, the President canceled all airmail contracts; and the Army flew the mail. At the end of the first week, five army pilots were dead; six critically injured; eight planes wrecked. One evening in mid-March, my father was called to the White House. As Gene pushed the President’s wheelchair along the upstairs corridor, the President, his usual airy self, said, “Well, Brother Vidal, we seem to have a bit of a mess on our hands.” Gene always said, “I found that ‘we’ pretty funny.” But good soldiers covered up for their superiors. What, FDR wondered, should they do? Although my father had a deep and lifelong contempt for politicians in general (“They tell lies,” he used to say with wonder, “even when they don’t have to.”) and for Roosevelt’s cheerful mendacities in particular, he did admire the President’s resilience: “He was always ready to try something new. He was like a good athlete. Never worry about the last play. Only the next one.” Unfortunately, before they could extricate the administration from the mess, Charles Lindbergh attacked the President; publicly, the Lone Eagle held FDR responsible for the dead and injured army pilots.
Roosevelt never forgave Lindbergh. “After that,” said Gene, “he would always refer to Slim as ‘this man Lindbergh,’ in that condescending voice of his. Or he’d say, ‘your friend Lindbergh,’ which was worse.” Although Roosevelt was convinced that Lindbergh’s statement was entirely inspired by the airlines who wanted to get back their airmail contracts, he was too shrewd a politician to get in a shooting match with the world’s most popular hero. Abruptly, on April 20, 1934, Postmaster General Farley let the airlines know that the Post Office was open to bids for mail contracts because, come May, the Army would no longer fly the mail. It was, as one thoughtful observer put it, the same old crap game, with Farley not Brown as spoils-man.
In 1935, “lifelong bachelor” (as Time would say) Senator Bronson Cutting was killed in an air crash. He was a popular senator (survived to this day by his estimable sister, Iris Origo) and the Senate promptly investigated. My father was grilled at length.
The bureau was accused of wasting time and money in a futile effort to develop a “flivver plane” for the masses…. Vidal himself did not fare so badly. The committee rebuked him mildly and reported that he appeared “lacking in iron,” but since Vidal was hardly in the position to enforce orders, perhaps even this accusation was unfair. 6
My father’s affection for politicians was not increased by the Senate hearings. But the real prince of darkness had now entered his life, Juan Trippe, and a lifelong struggle began. Even after I was grown, at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton I used to observe the two men, who never exactly not spoke to each other and yet never did speak.
Juan Trippe was a smooth-looking man with very dark eyes. Grandson of a bank robber, as Gene liked to recall, Trippe had gone to Yale; got into the airline business in 1926, backed by two Yale friends, C.V. Whitney and William Rockefeller (what on earth do the rich do nowadays?). While Lindbergh was officially associated with my father and the Ludington Line, Slim was also being wooed by Trippe, who had acquired a small Florida-Cuba airline called Pan American. By 1931, Trippe had replaced Keys as the principal robber baron of the airways. Unlike Keys, he was wonderfully well connected socially and politically. For Pan American’s original board, he managed to collect not only a Whitney but a Mellon son-in-law, David Bruce, and Robert Lehman. During Black’s investigation of Brown, Trippe had been caught disguising his profits in what is now standard conglomerate procedure but in those sweet days was fraud; worse, Trippe was a Republican. But smoothness is all; and, in due course, Trippe charmed Farley; and Gene; and, for a time, the sly president.
Trippe’s ambitions for Pan American were worldwide. He already had South America; he now wanted the Pacific and China; the Atlantic and Europe. But he would need considerable help from the administration to get the routes nailed securely down. Smoothly, he invited the director of the Bureau of Air Commerce to tour South America. A good time was had by all and, en route, Gene collected a number of exotic decorations from various exotic presidents. Then, back in Washington, Trippe presented Gene with a long list of requests. The guileless director explained to his recent host that the law required competitive bidding and that the United States, unlike old Europe, did not have “chosen instruments.” Naturally, if Pan American wanted to enter in competition with other airlines….
Trippe took his revenge. He went to his friend William Randolph Hearst—no longer a Roosevelt enthusiast—and together they orchestrated a press campaign against Gene Vidal, Jim Farley, and FDR—in that order. It is my impression that Lindbergh may have sided with Trippe. There is a curious photograph in The Chosen Instrument.7 My father is at the center, speaking into a microphone. Trippe is smoothly obsequious to his right while Igor Sikorsky and Lindbergh are also present. The caption: “Attending the delivery of the Sikorsky S-42 in May 1934,” followed by the names of all those present except for the director, whose endorsement was the point to the photograph. Thanks in part to Trippe’s inspired press campaign, Gene quit the government in 1937; and the bureau was broken up. The Civil Aeronautics Board was then created; on January 1, 1985 it, too, ends, a victim of Reaganism.
Although Trippe got most of the world, he never forgave Gene. Some years later, when my father was put up for membership in Philadelphia’s Racquet Club, Trippe tried to blackball him because Gene’s father’s name was Felix. “A Jewish name,” said Juan, smoothly. Those were racist days. When my father pointed out that in our section of Romano-Rhaetia, Felix is a common Christian name, he inadvertently revealed the family’s darkest secret. Upon arrival (1848) in the Great Protestant Republic, the Roman Catholic Vidals had promptly turned Protestant. Obviously, during the Republic’s high noon, no mass was worth exclusion from the Racquet Club against whose windows were pressed so many wistful Kennedy and Lee (born Levy) noses. Recently, a journalist told me that while interviewing Trippe, he noticed the old man was reading one of my books. When the journalist told him that the author was Gene Vidal’s son, Trippe shook his head with wonder. “My, my,” he said. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?” Oh, there were real shits in those days.
I have no memory of Lindbergh. But Amelia Earhart was very much a part of my life. She wrote poetry; and encouraged me to write, too. She had a beautiful speaking voice which I am sure I would have recognized during the war if she had really been, as certain fabulists believe, Tokyo Rose, a captive of the Japanese. Since she usually dressed as a boy, it was assumed that she had what were then called Sapphic tendencies. I have no idea whether or not she did but I do know that she wore trousers because she thought her legs were ugly; and if she were truly Sapphic, I doubt that she would have been so much in love with my father. She had milk-white eyelashes.
In the fall of 1936, Amelia, Gene, and I went to the Army-Navy game at West Point. On the way back, as her fans peered excitedly into our train compartment, she described how she planned to fly around the world, following, more or less, the equator. I asked her what part of the flight worried her the most. “Africa,” she said. “If you got forced down in those jungles, they’d never find you.” I said that the Pacific looked pretty large and wet to me. “Oh, there are always islands,” she said. Then she asked Gene: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just go off and live on a desert island?” He rather doubted it. Then they discussed just how you could survive; and what would you do if there was no water? and if there was no water, you would have to make a sunstill and extract salt from sea water and how was that done? As we approached Grand Central Station, I suddenly decided that I wanted a souvenir of Amelia. Shortly before she left on her flight around the world, she sent me the blue-and-white checked leather belt that she often wore. She gave my father her old watch. She also made a new will, as she usually did before a dangerous flight. She left Gene her California house, on condition that if he didn’t want it (he didn’t), he would give it to her mother, something she did not trust G.P., her husband, to do.8
Although my father was as fond of conspiracy theories as any other good American, he rejected most of the notions that still circulate about Amelia’s last flight. Of course, he was at a disadvantage: he knew something about it. When Amelia’s plane vanished July 2, 1937, somewhere between Lae, New Guinea, and Howland Island in the Pacific—where there are all those islands, the President sent the navy to look for her. He also asked Gene to help out; and act as a sort of coordinator. If Amelia had been on a spy mission for the American government, as is still believed in many quarters,9 the commander in chief hadn’t been told about it. Years later, Eleanor Roosevelt used to talk a lot about Amelia. When I asked her if she had ever been able to find out anything, she said no. More to the point, since Mrs. Roosevelt had been devoted to Amelia, if there had been a secret mission, Mrs. Roosevelt would have certainly revealed it after the war, and demanded all sorts of posthumous recognition for her friend. But Mrs. Roosevelt was certain that there had been no spy mission; on the other hand, she—like my father—thought there was something fishy about the whole business.
Shortly before Amelia left the States, she told my father that since she would have to take a navigator with her, she was going to hire Fred Noonan, formerly Pan American’s chief navigator. Gene was alarmed: Noonan was a drunk. “Take anyone but Noonan,” he said. “All right then,” said Amelia, “why not you?” To Gene’s surprise, she wasn’t joking. Although Gene had recently divorced my mother and G.P. was simply Amelia’s manager, Gene’s affection for Amelia was not equal to her love for him. “I’m not that good a navigator,” he said. She then hired Noonan, who swore he was forever off the sauce. The flight began.
From India, Amelia rang G.P. and Gene together. She reported “personnel trouble”: code for Noonan’s drinking. Gene advised her to stop the flight. But she chose to keep on. Amelia rang again; this time from New Guinea. “Personnel trouble” had delayed her next hop—to Howland Island. This time both Gene and G.P. told her to abandon the flight. But she thought “personnel” might be improving. She was wrong. The night before they left Lae. Noonan was drunk; worse, he had had only forty-five minutes’ sleep. When they took off, he was still drunk.
Gene’s theory of what happened is this: Amelia was going through a disagreeable early menopause; she deeply disliked her husband; she hated the publicness of her life and she was, at some romantic level, quite serious about withdrawing to a desert island—symbolically if not literally. Years earlier, she had made a number of conditions when she allowed G.P. to marry her. The marriage was to be, as they called it then, “open.” Also, “I may have to keep some place where I can go to be by myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.” Finally, Gene thought it unlikely that even a navy so sublimely incompetent that, four years later, it would allow most of its fleet to be sunk at Pearl Harbor, would ever have engaged such a nervy lady to spy on Japan, while she would have pointed out that a pioneer circumnavigation of the globe was quite enough for one outing.
According to Gene, there were only two mysteries. One of Amelia’s last radio messages was, “742 from KHAQQ: We must be on you but we cannot see you. Gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. Flying at 1000 feet. One half-hour’s gas left.” Gene said that this was not a true report. She had a good deal more than a half-hour’s gas left. Why did she lie? The second mystery was that of the radio frequency. Amelia’s last message was at 8:46 AM; after that, some fourteen minutes passed with her frequency still coming in strong at what is known as “maximum 5.” “Then,” said Gene, “the frequency didn’t break off, the way it does when you crash. Someone switched it off.” So what happened? It was Gene’s hunch that she had indeed found an island; and landed. “But what about Fred Noonan?” I asked. “He sounds even worse than G.P.” Gene’s response was grim. “If Amelia wanted to get rid of him, she’d have got rid of him. Hit him over the head with one of his bottles. She was like that.”
Over the years, there were many stories of a white woman sighted on this or that island. The only intriguing one, according to G.P., was from a Russian sailor whose ship had passed a small island on which a white woman signaled them; she was wearing nothing except a man’s drawers. “The funny thing is,” said G.P. to my father, “she always wore my shorts when she flew, but I wore boxer shorts, and the sailor said this woman was wearing those new jockey shorts.” Gene never told G.P. that for some years Amelia had been wearing Gene’s “new jockey shorts.” In any event, the ship had not stopped; and no one ever followed up.
Four years before Amelia’s last flight, she and Gene started what is now Northeast Airlines, with Paul Collins as president. Although Gene was never very active in the airline, he remained a director to the end of his life. According to Mr. Corn, Vidal never gave up his dream “of mass-produced personal planes, and in private life began experiments with molded plywood, a material he thought appropriate for the purpose.” This is true enough, except that he also experimented, more successfully, with fibreglass. But by the time he died in 1969, the world was far too full of people even to dream of filling the skies with private planes in competition with military aircraft and the planes of those airlines three of which he had had a hand in founding. I do know that he found modern civil aviation deeply boring; and though he shared the general ecstasy when a man got to the moon, the gospel of flight that he and Lindbergh and Earhart preached was by then a blurred footnote to the space age where technology is all and, to the extent that there is a human aspect to space, it involves team players with the right stuff. Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon but it was Werner von Braun and a cast of thousands who put him there. Mr. Armstrong did not fly to the moon; and for all his personal pluck and luck, he is already perceived as a footnote, a name for Trivial Pursuit.
It was different on December 17, 1934, when my father asked all the nation’s pilots “to take off at 10:30 in the morning and to stay in the air for half an hour. They would thus be aloft at the precise time at which, thirty-one years earlier, Orville Wright had also been airborne. The response to Vidal’s call was impressive…an estimated 8,000 aircraft participated in the ritual.”10
Today it is marvelous indeed to watch on television the rings of Saturn close; and to speculate on what we may yet find at galaxy’s edge. But in the process, we have lost the human element; not to mention the high hope of those quaint days when flight would create “one world.” Instead of one world, we have “star wars,” and a future in which dumb dented human toys will drift mindlessly about the cosmos long after our small planet’s dead.
January 17, 1985
A recent investigation of a certain newspaper of record shows that, contrary to family tradition, I made my first cross-country flight a few months later, at the age of four. In any case, I am still a triumphant footnote: the first child ever to cross the country by air-rail. ↩
To be published by Random House in February. ↩
Henry Ladd Smith, Airways (Knopf, 1942), p. 141. ↩
Foundation Press, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. ↩
Smith, Airways, p. 283. ↩
Smith, Airways, p. 248. ↩
Marylin Bender and Selig Altschul, The Chosen Instrument (Simon and Schuster, 1982). ↩
G.P. managed to suppress Amelia’s final will; and my father didn’t inherit the California property. I don’t know what became of Amelia’s mother. ↩
For a gorgeously off-the-wall “search” for Amelia, read Amelia Earhart Lives, by Joe Klaas (McGraw-Hill, 1970). Apparently, in the Sixties, she was alive and well and living in New Bedford: she who had so deeply hated Rye. ↩
Corn, The Winged Gospel, p. 64. ↩