The Fairest of the Brave and the Bravest of the Fair
Louise McPhetridge, Ruth Nichols, and Amelia Earhart heard about Lindbergh’s flight the way everyone else did: on the radio, in the newspaper, or from friends eager to share the exciting news. McPhetridge had just arrived in Oakland and was settling into her new job selling Walter Beech’s Travel Air planes. Earhart had only recently started doing social work at Denison House in Boston. By her own admission, she was barely flying anymore. And Ruth Nichols couldn’t catch a break. She and her foul-mouthed flying instructor Harry Rogers still saw each other from time to time. But Rogers wasn’t calling Nichols — not even to shout at her — leaving her to face an unwelcome reality: she was no aviator. In the spring of 1927, Nichols, twenty-six, was working in the women’s department of a bank on Forty-Second Street, still living in her parents’ house in Rye, and watching as a different Ruth — Ruth Elder, younger and prettier, flirtatious and Southern — made plans to come to New York to capitalize on American air fever and upstage all the other women with a story sure to interest air-mad reporters.
Elder was thinking like a man and talking like Lindbergh. She was going to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic, or she was going to die trying. Either way, Elder was about to prove two points: a woman with a good plane and a bold plan was impossible to ignore — and easy to disparage.
Ruth Elder breezed into Long Island that September, four months after Lindbergh’s flight, landing at Roosevelt Field with the subtlety of a gale. Her colorful sweaters were tight, and her brown hair was bobbed in the latest style. The Alabama native almost never appeared without a rainbow-hued scarf wrapped around her head, pinning back her wild curls. Her airship was equally eye-catching; the single-engine Stinson Detroiter monoplane was a brilliant shade of orange. The color choice had less to do with flair than practicality. In a wide expanse of gray-blue ocean, the floating wreckage of an orange plane was easier to spot than the remains of, say, a silver one. But Elder — and her male copilot, a Floridian named George Haldeman — had no intention of putting her plane in the water. It was too beautiful, too perfect, all the way down to the name painted on the fuselage in large, sweeping cursive script: American Girl.
“Gas bought, runway ready, plane dandy, pilots OK,” Elder told reporters in their first meeting at Roosevelt Field, already commanding their attention with her looks, style, and distinctive high-pitched voice. “Give us a weather break and we’ll take off then.”
“What’s your hurry?” one reporter asked.
“Say,” she replied, “I’ve been dreaming and planning this ever since I first learned to fly two years ago. Then Lindbergh did it — and I was more determined. I want to be the first girl to turn the trick. I’ll do it — I and Captain Haldeman.”
“Do you only want to fly to Paris because you are a girl?” another reporter asked.
“Well, they’ve got pretty evening gowns there, I hear,” Elder joked. Then, more seriously, she added, “I’ve never been to Europe. Might as well go this way. Get some clothes. Doll up a little. Come back by boat, taking it easy. No flying back for me.”
The reporters wanted to know everything about her. Was she married? Engaged? Or were she and Haldeman together, maybe? No, Elder replied. No and no — especially to the last question. “Say, listen,” an insulted Haldeman interjected, “I’m married.” Was Elder afraid and would she back out in the end? Be honest. Or would her family ultimately talk her out of it? No, she replied again, and no. “They’ve been perfect peaches,” she told them.
Elder had been in New York for a half an hour. Hadn’t even left the airfield to check in to her room at the nearby Garden City Hotel. And already the New York press was picking her apart. Reporters described her nose: “Perfectly powdered.” They called her vain, criticizing her purse or her knickers, and they pushed the twenty-fouryear-old woman again and again to admit that she wasn’t truly serious about her transatlantic plans.
“What is this you’re doing?” another bewildered newspaperman asked her. “Advertising a movie? Or just getting yourself well enough known to be offered a vaudeville contract?”
“Oh, no,” Elder said. “I’m really going to fly to Paris.” Didn’t they understand? “I’m here to fly,” she said. “Quickly.”
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Looking out at the reporters and, beyond them, the long clay runway where Fonck had failed and Lindbergh had prevailed, Elder must have felt as if she’d flown the American Girl not to Long Island but to an altogether different world. She was from Anniston, Alabama, one of seven children raised by Sarah and J. O. Elder downtown on Noble Street. The house there was the latest in a string of modest homes rented by the Elders with money J.O. made as either a farm laborer or a molder in a pipefitting shop — all of which wasn’t good enough for Ruth, J.O.’s third-oldest child and thrill-seeking daughter. She left home shortly after her eighteenth birthday and moved sixty miles west to Birmingham — “the city,” Elder called it.
She rented a room in a boarding house there and her parents figured she’d be back in Anniston soon. Instead, Elder began leading a life that she kept secret and now desperately hoped to hide from the New York reporters. She got a job selling lingerie in a department store — and she got a husband. But the marriage didn’t take. She was divorced and then, in May 1925, married again — this time to Lyle Womack, an electric-sign salesman. Together, the pair moved to Lakeland, Florida, where, for a time, anyway, they lived an ordinary life east of Tampa. Elder got a job in a dentist’s office and Womack helped introduce his young wife to flying — and, also, to some Florida businessmen who were fond of both golf and schemes.
In Elder, the men chasing Lindberghian fame saw an opportunity. The Floridians wanted to put Elder over the ocean with George Haldeman, a well-known local pilot, doing most of the flying and Elder doing most of the smiling. They pitched their idea to some wealthy snowbirds from West Virginia on a golf course in Lakeland, and these men saw value in the plan. As financial backers, they would make money by shooting footage of Elder and selling it to Hollywood. There was just one caveat: she would have to say she had never been married. The men were marketing a product, and it couldn’t be labeled “Mrs. Lyle Womack.”
The West Virginians, intrigued, agreed to put up $35,000 to buy a plane and make it happen, believing Elder was the right woman for the job. She was, men liked to point out, the most beautiful pilot they had ever seen. “So pretty,” one said, “that it doesn’t seem right.” She was, to put it another way, “the fairest of the brave and the bravest of the fair.” She would make it to Paris — or she wouldn’t. She would live to tell the tale — or she would die. Either way, the reporters would get their story. Either way, the West Virginians were insured. And either way, Elder figured, it was better than playing out her years working at a dentist’s office in Florida and making dinner for her husband. The trick was getting Haldeman to teach her to fly — and then getting him to go with her across the ocean. He hated instructing women. Inevitably, they always ended up crying about something, Haldeman complained. But Elder wore him down, not with her beauty but with dogged determination.
“I’ve lived for a while without amounting to a plugged nickel,” she told one reporter after arriving in New York. “I want to do something that will make people notice me, that may give me an opportunity to get somewhere in the world.”
“Is it worth risking your life?” the reporter asked.
“Yes, it is,” she replied.
There was really only one way for Elder to screw up the deal — by losing to another woman who had dreams, money, and a plane of her own. That woman was staring out at the ocean too, three hundred miles to the north.