Simanaitis Says

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HARRIET QUIMBY was the first woman in the U.S. to have a pilot’s license, indeed, only the 37th person in the world to have one. But she was also a San Francisco bohemian, a world-traveling photographer, an avid automobilist, a writer of Hollywood screenplays, a drama critic, a fashion designer—and a real dish.


Harriet Quimby, 1875-1912. Image from “Beauty and the Bleriot, The Story of Harriet Quimby Pioneer Aviatrix,” by Weston George, in Aviation Quarterly, First Quarter 1980, Airtrails, 1980. The book is listed at

Born in western Michigan, Harriet reached maturity in California as part of San Francisco’s bohemian crowd, including the likes of Ambrose Bierce and Jack London. Her mother, Ursula née Cook Quimby, made a living out of Cook’s Liver Invigorator; her father William sold the stuff as well.


The Harriet Quimby Scrapbook, The Life of America’s First Birdwoman, by Giacinta Bradley Koontz, Maverick Publications, 2003. Both and list it.

Briefly Harriet acted on the stage, with the given name Hazel, but found journalism a more fruitful vocation. She wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Call Bulletin and other periodicals. Koontz includes two articles that enhanced her reputation, “A Day with the Fishermen” and “The Artists’ Colony at Monterey.”


In an era of journalistic hyperbole, Quimby’s style was controlled and readable. Image from Koontz.

Harriet moved to New York City in 1903, where her work, including drama criticism, appeared in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. The company also published a series, “Around the World with a Camera,” based on her travels to the West Indies, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.


“One of the marvels of this century is the woman with the automobile,” wrote Harriet in Leslie’s, “and the avidity with which she masters the mechanism of the vehicle despite oily fingers and smudged face.” Image from Koontz.

In “Pleasures and Penalties of Motoring Abroad,” Harriet cites the hazards of questionable fuel. “It is on these foreign trips that the American becomes patriotic and longs for the clean gasoline produced by the much-abused Standard Oil Company.”

An actress friend married film pioneer D.W. Griffith, who offered Harriet the opportunity of writing for the silent screen. During 1911, Griffith shot seven of her screenplays. These 18-minute Biograph shorts included “Fisher Folks,” “The Smile of a Child” and “The Blind Princess and the Poet.”

Such was their mutual admiration that, when traveling in Egypt, Harriet bought D.W. a scarab ring that he prized for years.

In 1910, the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament was held on Long Island, New York. There, Harriet met Matilde Moisant and her brother John, pioneer U.S. aviator and builder of the Moisant-Blériot aeroplane. Both women decided flying was for them.


Harriet designed this outfit, in rich purple, to eliminate the indignity of an exposed ankle while clambering aboard an aeroplane. Image from Koontz.

Harriet Quimby was the first woman in the U.S. to earn a pilot’s license; her friend Matilde Moisant, the second; both at the Moisant Aviation School in 1911. (By the way, women weren’t welcome at the Wright’s school.)


Harriet in her Moisant-Blériot. Image from Koontz.

Harriet became the 37th person in the world, of either gender, to earn a certificate from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. What’s more, in April 1912, she became the first woman to pilot an aeroplane across the English Channel (see for Blériot’s 1909 achievement).

In fact, earlier in April, another woman had flown across the channel—as a passenger with British aviator Gustav Hamel.

Ever the gallant, Hamel offered to disguise himself in Quimby’s purple outfit, fly the channel for her, and have her meet him on the other side. It’s not recorded what Harriet thought of this offer, but it certainly didn’t dissuade her from the flight.


After the death of aviator Cal Rodgers (see for the coast-to-coast flight of his “Vin Fiz”), Harriet assumed the role of advertising this grape drink.

However, the news of Quimby’s cross-channel achievement on April 16, 1912, was preempted by the sinking of the Titanic the day before (see

On July 1, 1912, Harriet continued her flying circus activities at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet. She was to circle the harbor’s Boston Light with passenger William Willard, the event’s organizer. For reasons unknown, the Blériot pitched forward, ejecting both Quimby and Willard to their deaths.

Pioneer aviator Glenn L. Martin, who witnessed the tragedy, wrote, “Had Miss Quimby and Willard been strapped in, the accident would not have occurred, in my opinion.” Harriet was 37. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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This entry was posted on August 1, 2013 by in Vintage Aero and tagged , , , .
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