By Sabina Mollot
Harriet Quimby was the first woman in America to receive a pilot’s license, which she then made good use out of by flying over the English Channel in a Bleriot monoplane in 1911. This too was a first for a woman. Before and during this time, Quimby also wrote screenplays for silent films and worked as a journalist and drama critic for the magazine Leslie’s Weekly.
While there is debate about where she was originally from, Quimby lived in New York City for a few years, on 27th Street and Broadway in what was then The Victoria Hotel.
But, noted local historian Alfred Pommer, author of The History of Gramercy and Union Square, Quimby’s connection to Manhattan wasn’t just her address. She was often seen at 11 East 14th Street, which was home to an early silent film studio. Along with her journalism work, Quimby wrote seven scripts that were made into silent films, directed by D.W. Griffith, and did a bit of acting.
“She was the first successful female screenwriter in America,” said Pommer. Still, he added, “She was most well-known for her airplane flights.”
Quimby’s foray into aviation officially made her a pioneer as she was only the second woman in the world to get a pilot’s license. The first was Baroness Raymonde de la Roche in 1910, according to a profile on history.net. The article also notes that most questions about Quimby’s life have remained unanswered, and this is in large part due to her death in a tragic plane accident less than a year after her historic flight over the English Channel.
“An aura of mystery surrounds Harriet Quimby’s early years,” the profile, written by Frank Delear, says. “It was generally believed that she was born into wealth on an orange plantation in Arroyo Grande, Calif., in 1884 and enjoyed a private school education in America and Europe. Other evidence suggests she may have been born in 1875 on a farm in Coldwater, Mich., and educated in public schools, thanks to the sacrifices of her hardworking mother. Quimby seems to have preferred the California version; at least she did nothing to deny it.”
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Quimby was born in Michigan though she “led people to believe” she was from California, where she actually grew up to a poor, rural family.
She began her journalism career in California with Leslie’s, later transferring to the magazine’s New York office. Her FAA profile states that she had encouragement from her mother to pursue a career, and began writing professionally for San Francisco publications in 1902. She became interested in aviation in 1910 at the Los Angeles International Meet and soon became part of a growing aviation scene in New York. She learned to fly at the Moisant Aviation School, run by aviator John Moisant, who she befriended along with his sister Mathilde.
It wasn’t long before Quimby was wowing crowds with her prowess navigating the sky. She made headlines by making a moonlight flight over Staten Island and later won a cross-country race against another woman pilot. She flew over Mexico City, too, later writing in Leslie’s about being the first woman to do so.
When in flight, she wore a plum, satin flying suit of her own design tucked into high, lace-up boots. The press took notice of her style and her beauty, calling her the “Dresden china (China doll) aviatrix.” Meanwhile, as the FAA profile notes, Quimby continued to work as a writer for Leslie’s, about flying, the potential for it as a commercial sport for women and the associated dangers.
When she decided to fly across the channel on April 16, 1912, it would be her first flight over a body of water. This journey was also made through dense fog. Louis Bleriot had accomplished this flight in 1909 and was followed by a few other male pilots. Quimby’s success as the first female pilot was barely covered in the newspapers, however, due to the Titanic sinking a day earlier.
Tragically, Quimby’s flying career was cut short during a Boston-Harvard Aviation meet on July 1, 1912. She and her passenger William Willard, who was the meet’s manager, were suddenly thrown from the Bleriot plane they were riding as it plunged forward. They fell into the Neoponset River, killing them both in front of horrified spectators. There were many conflicting theories as to the reason for the pilot’s fatal plunge, including the two-seater plane’s known design flaws. An article on the crash on the website Celebrate Boston noted that accidents like this one were “quite common into the 1920s, and eventually led to the development of the modern four-prong torso harness of today’s aircraft.”
While Quimby never became a household name outside of the aviation community, she was immortalized nearly 80 years after her death with a commemorative postage stamp in 1991.