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The Revolt of Pancho Barnes

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Born to immense wealth, Pancho had an arranged marriage to a minister. Newspapers proclaimed the marriage of a socialite to a pastor. Tired of the marriage, she couldn't get a divorce so each Sunday morning she climbed into her biplane and dove down over the steeple, buzzing his church during his sermons, drowning out the service. While a school girl she led her horse into her dorm. Called on the carpet, she "sweetly" explained to the headmistress she thought the animal was lonely. In the depth of the Great Depression she spent the last of her money to help fellow aviators but, broke, became a capable business woman, building The Happy Bottom Riding Club and Rancho Oro Verde Dude Ranch in the Mojave Desert and was a surrogate mother to test pilot Chuck Yeager. Years later, using her usual colorful language she told off the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base and he got back by trying to bulldoze her Happy Bottom Riding Club.

Pancho Barnes is included in Don't Die in Bed: The Brief, Intense Life of Richard Halliburton.
She grew up on South Garfield Avenue in San Marino, California in a three-story thirty-five room mansion with eighteen foot ceilings, wood-paneled walls with hand-carved moldings ,and a massive crystal chandelier hanging from one ceiling.  A harpsichord chime summoned the family to dinner.
Silver spigots serviced upstairs baths of marble.  Water lilies decorated a large patio pool.  Guests ambled to tennis courts for a few sets or to the stables, where they rode a mile course.  In Laguna Beach stood another fine mansion on the cliffs above Emerald Bay.  Next it she had a landing strip for her airplane.

Born In 1901, Florence Leontine Lowe was supposed to have grown into a debutante whose coming-out would be into the best Southern California society. But Pancho was born to rebel while her mother wanted a young lady who conformed to social expectations. Pancho loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian but her mother thought that too common. Pancho took after her grandfather and father, both of whom doted on her.

Her grandfather was Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, photographed from below by Matthew Brady as Lowe floated in a balloon at a Civil War battle. He spied on Confederate troop movements while Union soldiers held ropes to keep the balloon from drifting over Johnny Reb’s ranks.

Abraham Lincoln appointed Lowe Chief Aeronaut of the Balloon Corps and Pancho claimed this made him founder of the US Air Force because he was de facto pioneer of American military aviation. In his balloon he became a favorite target of Rebel sharpshooters but fate favored him to grow old and become rich.

Around 1918, Florence attended the Bishop School in La Jolla, her fourth school in eight years. She roomed with Ursula Greenshaw (Mandel), who wrote an autobiography, I Live My Life, saying that life with “Florence was “never DULL!” “One night when I entered our room, I stumbled against a body. I switched on the light and there lay Florence on the floor in a pool of blood. Pinned to her chest with a dagger was a note saying that she had decided to end it all. I soon discovered the blood was red ink and the dagger wound faked.”

Florence was called on the carpet at the principal’s office one day because she led her horse, Dobbins, inside her building and up the stairs. The principal demanded to know the reason for the outrage. “She feigned innocent surprise and soon was expressing deep sympathy for the horse.” She sweetly said, “He must have been so lonesome that he even came upstairs to look for me.”

Florence continued to rebel but for a while, at least, her mother had the upper hand and decided that an arranged marriage would cool her daughter’s spirit. In 1921, Pancho wed Episcopalian Reverend C. Rankin Barnes of Pasadena and ten years older. The newspapers announced that a society aviatrix married a Pasadena reverend.

Three nights after the marriage, they finally slept together and begot a son. After that night they slept apart. William Emmert was born nine months later and grew up close to his mother, dying in 1981 when his WWII fighter, a P-51 Mustang, crashed.

Theirs was not a match made in heaven.

In her unpublished autobiography Pancho wrote, “I had married a clergyman and that was to be my life.” She tried to make it work. “I taught Sunday school. I had a class of boys about nine years old. I bribed them with jackknives to learn the catechism.” But Pancho after all was Pancho, not Florence. She wrote that “More and more I spent time with my horses.” She wanted a divorce but he did not want the scandal.

She tried provoking him into it. After she learned to fly, on Sundays she swooped her biplane low over her husband’s church and buzzed it, drowning out the choir and his sermon. He still refused. But no proper minister could remain married to a woman who publicly said “Flying is like being a sex maniac in a whore house,” one of Pancho’s celebrated quips. Years later, in 1941, he did grant a divorce.

Florence became Pancho in an adventure wholly typical of her. When friends decided to hire on as seamen on a banana boat, Pancho, the only woman, decided to join them. She cut her hair short, donned baggy pants, and signed on a tramp freighter as an ordinary seaman, Jacob Crane. There she met Roger Chute. She cussed and played poker with the crew but Chute, a Stanford-educated fisheries expert, saw through her disguise. They became alarmed when at sea. The captain hoisted the Panamanian flag—they discovered the ship ran guns to Mexican revolutionaries. At San Blas, she and Chute jumped ship before it became caught between revolutionary forces and sunk.

Deep in Mexico riding horses, Chute on a white steed, she said he reminded her of Don Quixote. He said she looked like Pancho, Don Quixote’s squire. No, she said, you mean Sancho Panza, but she liked the name and kept it because there was nothing dignified about it and because it gave the raspberry to her mother’s proper lady.

The Depression was not good to Pancho. With only a Hollywood apartment left, in 1935 she sold it and bought eighty acres in the Mojave Desert. Almost out of money and flying her Lockheed Vega, one day she looked down on the land below and saw a lush, green alfalfa field and thought it would be a good place to raise her son Billy. March Army Air Base was there and next it was Muroc Field.

She bought a struggling alfalfa ranch and transformed it, having also bought out a dairy called Adair. She sold milk and eggs to the base. She grew alfalfa, had a dairy herd of cows and goats, farmed pigs, raised chickens, grew corn. She had a sweet deal with her garbage business, feeding her hogs on trash the base paid her to haul away and then selling pork back to it. She was an able businesswoman and with profits from her ranch she bought more land.

Near her ranch she built the Happy Bottom Riding Club, because General Jimmy Doolittle once told her he had a happy bottom. It was also known as Rancho Oro Verde Fly Inn Dude Ranch, where she eventually built a dance hall with glamorous hostesses, a gambling casino, a swimming pool, horse stables, and a championship rodeo stadium.

Fellow aviator Moye Stephens recalled that among aviators she commanded respect as an able pilot, and she flew as a test pilot for Lockheed. She, in turn, respected other pilots and gravitated to them.

Pilots went to Pancho’s where she could talk airplanes with them. She was queen of her bar, and the fly boys came to have fun and kid with her. She said she hosted the fastest and bravest men on earth. Pancho did not charge military test pilots for their drinks but triple-charged the civilian test pilots because of their fat salaries.

A 1948 Time magazine article described her place: “Pancho’s Fly-Inn (or the Happy Bottom Riding Club)” has its own airport, lighted at night, “so that guests, friends and airborne wayfarers can fly in at all hours. . . . Chuck Yeager has roared low over the ranch in every sort of airplane, including the fastest jets. When he buzzes the place in a jet plane, the slap from the zipping wing jounces the bar.” The Time cover shows Yeager in his test pilot’s helmet as the man who broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1.

Pancho married again. And again. Three months after divorcing the Reverend she married Robert Nichols, Jr. It lasted a few weeks. He was in his twenties, about the same age as her son, Billy; she was approaching 40. After that marriage, she waited a bit longer and in 1945, she wed Don Jose Shalita, a handsome performance dancer. He left after four months. In 1953, she married her ranch foreman, Mac McKendry, thirty-two to her fifty-one. Her good friend Air Force base General Al Boyd flew cross-country in a B-47 for the wedding. He gave the bride away in the ceremony. Bell X-1 test pilot Chuck Yeager was her best man. Indian Chief Lucky blessed the union. Six hundred fifty people attended for a fifty-eight second wedding. Age slowed her down. It took fourteen years for her to divorce McKendry.

Al Boyd, the previous commander, had been an old school aviator, and had even given Pancho away in her wedding to McKendry but in the 1950s the new Edwards Air Force Base commander took an immediate dislike to  Pancho and she was not about to change.  With her what you saw was what you got.

Brigadier General J. Stanley Holtoner felt she and her place were unfit moral examples for his young airmen and called her a madam, her Happy Bottom Riding Club a cat house, and he placed it off limits.  This hurt.  The pilots and air crews had been her boys.  She had taken them under her wing, cared for them.  The general also decided to expand the Base to make room for a new runway, which conveniently meant condemning Pancho’s land by right of eminent domain.  The General low-balled an offer for her 380 acres.

No, said Pancho.  Her land had not figured in any previous Edwards expansion plans.  Besides, with her businesses the real estate was worth far more than the offer.  “They picked the wrong gal to push around!," she said.

She was David against Goliath, and Goliath had an unending supply of lawyers on its payrolls.  Years could pass under judicial review and during those years a David could go bankrupt while Goliath played golf on Sundays and had well-paid lawyers.  That may have discouraged and defeated others but not her.  She was joined at the hip to the Air Force for, as she would argue in court, her grandfather founded the United States Air Force.  She went to a law library to study books and legal briefs.  There, she met Shirley Hufstedler, an attorney who was impressed by Pancho’s generous spirit and real grit.  Shirley, her husband, and a friend, both also attorneys, took on the case.

Her case became a cause célèbre with the press following Pancho’s every comment.  Everybody favored underdog Pancho.  The news spread around the world as “The War of the Mojave.”  The courtroom was packed with people who came to attend the trial, spectators, reporters, military personnel.  When both sides had rested their arguments, the jury retired to deliberate, and the courtroom atmosphere was tense as people waited for the jury, and waited, and still waited.  After several hours, the jury returned with their verdict.
They filed back into the courtroom, and everybody stood for them.  Honorable US District Court Judge Gilbert Jertberg asked them, “ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you finally reached a unanimous decision?” “Yes we have your honor,” came the chairman’s reply. 

They found against the United States Air Force and The United States government.  They found for Florence Leontine "Pancho" Barnes.  Cheers filled the courtroom.  Judge Jertberg stated that Pancho was a courageous, forthright individual.  In her compassion and concern for her military customers she had shown herself a friend of the Air Force.  He awarded her a settlement of $414,500, much more than the $185,000 offered by the Air Force.

Today, little remains of The Happy Bottom Riding Club.

While Pancho was away shopping a fire mysteriously started, destroying it.  Just before the end of the trial, on November 13, 1953,  it burned down.  The fire marshal believed it a case of arson, but could not locate a proximate cause. The general had told Pancho that if she didn’t sell he could have her ranch “napalm bombed off the desert.”

After the hullabaloo faded the Air Force took over her land for a runway.  The Happy Bottom ruins are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

She died in 1975, age 74.  Scheduled to be keynote speaker at the annual Barnstormer’s Reunion of the Antelope Valley Aero Museum, she could not be reached when a friend called her.  Pancho’s son, Bill, stopped by her little rock house in Boron, California to investigate and found her dead.  The coroner concluded that she had died several days earlier of a heart attack.  She had requested that her body be cremated, the ashes strewn from an airplane over the 380 acres of her Happy Bottom ranch.

To this day Edwards Air Force Base celebrates an annual Pancho Barnes Day.

She said “We had more fun in a week than most of the weenies in the world have in a lifetime.”  Perhaps most notable, she should be remembered for this:  “If you have a choice, choose happy.”  She took a very large bite out of life.

Leader of the B-25 raid on Tokyo, General Jimmy Doolittle learned that Pancho had died and thus would not appear as keynote speaker for the Barnstormers Reunion.  He prepared a testimonial to her life.  So many there, so many of her friends, from Hollywood to aviation.  Susan Oliver, Richard Arlen, Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin.  General Doolittle said this:

“Good Evening. Ladies and gentlemen, we have recently lost a true friend.  In this day and age, real friends you can depend on in a pinch are rare indeed.  Florence Lowe Barnes left us late last month.  She was an expert pilot and a good organizer.  She had a fine mind, and was intensely loyal.  When the going was rough, you knew that she would always offer a willing hand.  There was no extent to which she would not go to help a friend who was in need . . . In a few words, she put great store by courage, honor and integrity.  She despised dishonesty and cowardice.  She was straight forward and couldn't abide dissimulation, abhorred sham.  She was outspoken, and she said exactly what she thought and believed.  You know, I can just see her up there at this very minute.  In her inimitable way, with a wry smile, she is probably remarking to some old and dear friend who preceded her, 'I wondered what the little old bald-headed bastard was going to say.'

God love her.  And may I now propose a toast: Ladies and gentlemen, to Pancho Barnes.  Pancho Barnes!”

The Air Force has never built its runway on Pancho’s land.  The dairy barn below is among the ruins that remain.

This post first appeared on Mind Shadows, please read the originial post: here

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The Revolt of Pancho Barnes


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