Pancho Barnes – One of Laguna’s Most Fascinating Character’s
Category : Laguna Beach Real Estate
Did you know there used to be an airfield where Laguna’s Emerald Bay bluff is today?
That is until someone came up short and landed in Crescent Bay.
And why was this landing strip built?
To bring Hollywood folks in for ‘Pancho’ Barnes famous 3 day binge parties at her Smithcliff’s home.
It was her familie’s second home built there since she needed her own place to hold these romps.
That’s right, and among other things she was one of the first lady stunt plane fliers, took on Howard Hugh’s and started one of the first union organizers, beat Amelia Airhearts air speed record, and after going broke started the famed Happy Bottom Riding Club at the current Edwards Air Force base in the California desert.
Her ‘hard drinking’ customers were the famous test pilots, like Chuck Yeager, and she was featured in Tom Wolf’s ‘The Right Stuff’.
And it goes on from there. Besides this read, google her and watch the movie made about her.
A Laguna character through and through.
I hope you enjoy the read. I sure did.
Who is Pancho Barnes?
Pancho Barnes (1901 – 1975) is considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest American characters. During her lifetime, Pancho (born Florence Leontine Lowe) gained respect for her intelligence, individuality, outsized personality, creativity, entrepreneurship, humor, generosity and integrity.
A legend in the aviation community, Pancho was one of the first female pilots to be licensed in the United States, and one of the most respected pilots of the Golden Age of Flight.
She began her flying career in the spring of 1928 and soloed after just six hours of formal instruction.
On February 22, 1929 she began her air-racing career when she entered the first women’s air race and won that 80-mile contest by completing the race 24 minutes ahead of the other well-known entrants. In early 1930, while inaugurating a new route for an airline, she became the first woman to fly into the interior of Mexico. Always up for the challenge, on August 4, 1930, Pancho beat the world’s speed record set by flying ace Amelia Earhart. Then, on August 9, 1930, she won the Tom Thumb race from Los Angeles to Santa Paula while flying to attend opening ceremonies at the new Santa Paula Airport. Later that month she competed in the first women’s transcontinental air race, the Powder Puff Derby.
Early in 1931 she set a speed record from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and on March 1, 1931, she set a Los Angeles-Sacramento round trip speed record. The Governor of California presented her with a trophy that noted that she was considered “America’s fastest woman flyer.”
Pancho Barnes holds the distinction of being Lockheed’s first female test pilot, and she subsequently established several other aviation records while working for Lockheed.
Because of her flying skills, Pancho became famous as a stunt pilot for films of the Silent and Sound eras, including Howard Hughes’ 1930 epic “Hell’s Angels.” Later, to Hughes’ chagrin, she founded one of the first unions in Hollywood, The Associated Motion Picture Pilots’ (AMPP).
Pancho’s extraordinary life and outsized personality have been dramatized as part of the sprawling 1983 classic “The Right Stuff” from Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, in which stage and film great Kim Stanley portrayed her. In a 1988 CBS TV biographical movie “Pancho Barnes,” Valerie Bertinelli portrayed her. In fact, the true story of Pancho’s magnificent life is packed with all the right stuff for a major motion picture. However, a movie focused on her many life’s adventures has yet to be made.
THE EARLY YEARS
Born into a family of wealth and privilege, little Florence Lowe enjoyed the benefits of nannies and tutors who instructed her in all the social graces that a proper young lady should exhibit given her social class. She was greatly influenced by her grandfather (famous inventor and legendary Civil War balloonist, Thaddeus Lowe) who delighted in her high spirits and always encouraged her to be herself. For instance, at a very early age, she learned to ride lady-like on a horse. However, in her ‘teens,’ she would frequently go to school riding her pony like a Cossack — standing up in the saddle with the pony in a mad run. Later in life, she went on to hold the record for the farthest distance jumped on a horse. Also classically trained in dance and ballet, she had become so accomplished that at age 10 she performed on stage with the legendary Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova (1831 – 1931), the most celebrated dancer of her time.
Her grandfather took her to the first American Aviation Exhibition held at Dominguez Hills in 1910. He predicted that one day she too would have a flying machine. Later, in her 20’s, she would become one of the first female licensed pilots and barnstormers (her license is signed by none other than Orville Wright), and be deemed the ‘fastest woman on earth’ flying in her Travel Air ‘Mystery Ship’ airplane.
Throughout her life, she clearly demonstrated that she loved people, cherished life, and lived by her motto, “Be Yourself!” As her grandfather Thaddeus Lowe had encouraged her, she encouraged others to be all they could be — and more. She would tell others, “Don’t even try to be like someone else, because we’ve seen it already!”
LIFE AS THE WIFE OF AN EPISCOPAL PRIEST
At age 20, by family arrangement (1921), she married C. Rankin Barnes, a handsome and prominent pastor of St. James Episcopal Church in South Pasadena. She was now Florence Barnes. A little over 9 months later, son Billy was born, and shesettled into domestic life, living at the parrish rectory on Mission Street. However, it quickly became apparent to her that all the women in the church’s congregation were also in love with the dashing reverend Barnes. Early in the marriage, she tried to ignore what appeared to be his special interest in some of his parishioners and remained the dutiful wife and mother. She attended church functions and supported the reverend Barnes in all his efforts to achieve his goal of eventually becoming a Bishop of the church. But more and more, church functions seemed to require that the reverend be away from the home. Understandably, she became quite lonely. She tried to get his attention, but nothing she did seemed to work. The church congregation to this day still talks about how she frequently buzzed her husband’s church with her Travel Air Mystery plane during Sunday services. After a few years, the marriage had become quite strained, and they separated. Although they truly cared for each other, they lived separate lives through the early 1940’s when they finally divorced. The reverend subsequently married his long time church secretary.
One of her closest friends in the 1920’s and 1930’s was Ramon Novarro (1899 – 1968), the dashingly handsome Latin film star who then ranked as the worlds number one box-office attraction. Their mutual respect led to their becoming each others most trusted confidant. Their antics, adventures and misadventures became legendary. For a time they were inseparable, taking trips to Mexico in her plane, hosting wild parties, and spending quiet times with friends at her estates in Pasadena and Laguna Beach.
She had a keen eye for art and artistic talent, and is credited with discovering legendary Hollywood glamour photographer George Hurrell (1904 – 1992), who was then eking out a living as a painter and photographer in Laguna Beach, California. She initially hired him only to shoot a photo for her pilot’s license application, but she loved the photos he took of her, especially the ones that made her look glamorous. To boost Hurrell in his career, she introduced him to all her Hollywood friends. In short time Hurrell became the most famous and in-demand photographer in Hollywood.
George Hurrell eventually went on to become chief portrait photographer for MGM Studios. In addition to Hurrell’s being an extremely gifted photographer, he also enjoyed a good time. It was inevitable that they would become lasting friends. In later years, Hurrell regaled his family with stories of his major adventures with ‘Mrs. Barnes,’ especially delighting in how he wing-walked on her plane en route to Los Angeles for his first interview with Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM.
During one of her many parties at her mansion on the cliffs at Emerald Bay in Laguna Beach (where she had installed a landing strip so her friends could fly in), she jokingly proposed an impromptu adventure to her friends. “Why don’t we go up to San Pedro and catch the next boat out for South America. “Let’s visit the Lost City and those pyramids we’ve all been reading about. We’re going to Machu Picchu!” On a dare, she went up to San Pedro with a group of friends to do exactly that. However, she was the only one who didn’t chicken out at the last minute. Noticing that there were only crewmen on the schooner, she quickly borrowed some clothes from one of her friends who ‘chickened out,’ and dressed as a man in the hopes of ‘blending in.’ She then joined the crew of the banana boat. However, once the boat was safely out to sea, a Panamanian flag was hoisted and she then learned that the boat was actually running guns to Mexican revolutionaries. Naturally, she was delighted. Another adventure!
On board she met helmsman, Roger Chute, a Stanford educated fisheries expert, who had also come aboard for some adventure. Roger quickly figured out that the new crew member was definitely female. The ruse exposed, with some slight embarrassment she introduced herself: “I’m Florence Barnes and I just left a bunch of pudknockers back on the dock.” When she told him about her desire to see the Lost City of Machu Picchu and the pyramids in South America, he offered a compromise. “How about we jump ship, and I’ll take you to see the pyramids in the Yucatan?” So they decided to jump ship when the boat anchored at San Blas, Mexico and they spent the next four months roaming through the revolution-torn interior. At one point on their cross-country journey, Roger Chute was riding a white horse, and Pancho was astride a donkey. She looked up at him and said, “Hey, you look like Don Quixote.” And he looked down and noted, “And you look like Pancho!” She quickly replied, “No you idiot, its Sancho, not Pancho. But I like that name, Pancho, and I think I’ll keep it!” And she did. And her days as Florence Lowe Barnes were left behind forever. She was now Pancho Barnes!
Pancho had a heart of gold, and was extremely generous. Throughout her lifetime she lived the philosophy of giving and helping others in need. She was fond of saying, “I’ve never seen a Brinks truck follow a hearse!” During the Great Depression of the thirties, when thousands lost their jobs and many went homeless, she provided food and arranged lodging accommodations for friends who were out of work. She frequently (and often anonymously) paid the hospital bills for people she learned were financially strapped. In 1934 she help found and organize the ‘Women’s Air Reserve’ to fly in aid to victims of national emergencies.
THE DESERT DIVA YEARS
Pancho was not immune from the effects of the Great Depression. After depleting her fortune through continuing her lavish lifestyle and helping others financially, in 1934 Pancho moved with her son, Billy, to the California Mojave desert for the second phase of her life. She had already sold her famed ‘Mystery Ship’ airplane to pay debts. So she traded her last major asset, an apartment building in Hollywood, for 80 acres of desert land on the then isolated Muroc Dry Lake Bed. She knew of this area since many of the films on which she worked flying airplane stunts had been filmed there. The lakebed appealed to her not only for its fertile soil and agricultural potential, but also because it was the largest natural flat space on earth and therefore an ideal take-off and landing spot for the planes owned by her friends. Her friends could still visit her.
The natural attributes of the area had also recently been discovered by the United States government, and soon the Muroc Army Air Field (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base) was developed and was her only neighbor. At Muroc, Pancho founded ‘Rancho Oro Verde’, where she grew a cash crop of alfalfa and raised hogs and cattle, and founded a dairy. As the Base expanded, so did her visions of enlarging her business. There were all those men at the Base with absolutely nothing to do during their off-time! So, with many years of hard work, as a single mom, she eventually built a thriving 9,000 member dude ranch with glamorous hostesses, its own airport, hotel, restaurant, dance hall, gambling casino, swimming pool, stables and well-stocked horse corral and championship rodeo stadium. She also presided over a world famous bar where she hosted what she called the “fastest and bravest men on earth.”
With these changes in place, Rancho Oro Verde came to be known world-wide as the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club,’ and was the clubhouse for the test pilots, military personnel, designers, mechanics and engineers responsible for advancing aircraft design and breaking the sound barrier. It is amazing to imagine now, but before Chuck Yeager actually broke the sound barrier for the first time, it was widely believed that this achievement was going to be impossible. But as Pancho used to tell the naysayers, “Impossible is not a fact. It is an opinion.” She was proved correct one afternoon in October 1947.
The ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ was home to General Jimmy Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, A. Scott Crossfield, H. H. Arnold, Pete Everest, Bob Hoover, Jack Ridley, and all the pilots with the Right Stuff . In a few short years, and with lots of hard work, Pancho’s Ranch Oro Verde had been transformed from a barren flat parcel of desert land into a verdant oasis in the desert and the site of a lifestyle as outrageous as its host. The ranch started to be referred to as ‘The Happy Bottom Riding Club’ after her old friend, General Jimmy Doolittle, went on a long ride on a new horse and was asked by Pancho if he liked the animal. General Doolittle replied, “Oh yes, it gave me a happy bottom.”
At the ranch, Pancho also ran a thriving cattle and hog business. Ever the entrepreneur, Pancho pioneered a novel ‘recycling’ arrangement with the Base. She struck a contract with the Base to haul away all edible garbage from the mess halls and kitchen. Pancho would then return to her ranch to fatten up her hogs. Eventually pork products from her hogs were sold back to the Base for food.
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, the glow from Pancho’s large circular swimming pool at her ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ became the unmistakable landmark and beacon for pilots flying over the Muroc Lake bed. Pilots landed on Pancho’s private airstrip to pay tribute to the famous aviatrix, swap stories and partake of her generous hospitality and to relax at what had become the watering hole for the most famous pilots of the day. Pancho’s ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ had become center stage for the superstar pilots of the supersonic age.
Pancho saw the ranch as a venue for creating fun. She said, “We had more fun in a week than most of the weenies in the world have in a lifetime!” She hosted innumerable parties and became legendary for adding a twist when creating some new diversion. For instance, her notorious rodeos were famous for opening with the arrival of a voluptuous woman presented as Lady Godiva, wearing a skin-colored body stocking that made it appear that she was only wearing a long blond wig. There were also airborne treasure hunts where pilots were given written clues, and then had to fly all over the lake bed searching for a buried jackpot of silver dollars. And there were also some rumors floating around about a couple of impromptu nude underwater ballets staged in her pool!
Because of the increasing need for military pilots, at the request of the US Government, Pancho established the Civilian Pilot Training Program at the ranch and trained many of the early pilots, including her former employee and ranch hand, Kirk Kerkorian, who later went on to own TWA and MGM Studios, and today owns several Las Vegas casinos and a significant chunk of Ford Motor Company.
As Pancho’s ranch boomed in popularity, her parties and the activities there became the stuff of the popular press and sometimes the tabloids. It was the place to feast on the best steak of your life, ride horses, attend horse shows and rodeos, play cards, play the slots, go on treasure hunts, hear live bands, and rub elbows not only with Air Force test pilots but also with military generals, captains of American Industry, movie stars, and just plain folks. Pancho always made certain that her guests enjoyed a memorable experience. If music wasn’t playing constantly on the jukebox, it was coming from a bandstand that featured Western swing bands. Pancho was also an accomplished songwriter and member of ASCAP. In the Fifties, she enjoyed seeing one of her song compositions, ‘By Your Side,’ sell more than a million copies and reach the Hit Parade. She used to laugh telling the story of her million seller with Jerry Wallace, because her song was actually the “B” side of his monster hit “Primrose Lane.”
By 1952, her dear friend, base commander General Al Boyd, had been transferred to head-up Wright Air Development Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and a new base commander, General Stan Holtoner, was brought in to replaced him. As soon as the new commander arrived on the scene, the entire atmosphere at the base began to change. Flight test activity at Edwards Air Force Base greatly increased and some military brass decided that it was time to purchase more land to expand the base. A lowball offer was presented to Pancho for the purchase of her now 380 acre ranch to expand their test airstrip to accommodate supersonic aircraft. However, Pancho balked at the offer, commenting that her ranch was not in the way of any planned future expansion at Edwards that had been previously acknowledged. She also knew that her land and business were worth far more than what had been offered. Pancho made a few telephone calls and business continued as usual for a time at the ranch. However, some men in the Air Force were envious of Pancho’s business savy and connections, and conspired to destroy her business and close her ranch so that her land could be acquired even more inexpensively. They started a scandalous rumor that Pancho was actually a madam running a house of ill repute at the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club.’ When Pancho found this out, her immediate reply was, “They picked the wrong gal to push around!”
The effect of the rumor was immediate. It was a well known fact that the government historically placed any establishment ‘off-limits’ if there was even a hint of morals issues. The ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ was no exception, and Pancho’s ranch was placed ‘off limits’ to all military personnel, and her business suffered. Pancho was incredulous that, after all she had done for the United States and the morale-boosting she had provided for the airmen stationed at the airbase, that her country would apparently condone such a plan. She firmly believed that it was her patriotic duty to expose the scoundrels within the government who would perpetrate such an injustice.
Then she was served with condemnation papers for her ranch. Serving as her own attorney, Pancho battled in the courts for several months. She countersued for inappropriate taking of land, slander, harassment and conspiracy. The press delighted in reporting Pancho’s every volley and frequently commented that it looked like she might actually win her legal battle with the government. The court fight became news world-wide, and was referred to as ‘The War of the Mojave.’ Then, shortly before the end of the trial, on November 13, 1953, the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ burned to the ground under highly mysterious circumstances.
[Pancho’s fourth husband, Mac McKendry surveying the damage after the fire. In foreground you can see the ramp leading into the circular pool. Legend has it that Pancho designed the pool with the ramp so that she could ride with her horse into the pool to cool off after a hot day on horseback.]
Within days of the fire, the trial ended and Pancho was cleared of all charges. She had fought the government and won. She received a formal apology and over four times what the government had originally offered for her land. However, the will of the scoundrels prevailed. The ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ was gone forever. Pancho, her health compromised from the stress of the long court battle, took some time off to re-group, contemplate her situation and plan her future.
As an interesting historical sidebar, despite the intense battle for Pancho’s land, as of 2008 (more than 50 years later), no expansion of the airstrip near or over her land has ever occurred.
THE FINAL YEARS
After the sale of her ranch land to the government, Pancho moved to an even more remote desert location in Cantil, California, with the high hopes of rebuilding her business. And, as one might expect, she had some pretty wild plans! However, despite grand ideas and plans, it was not to be. She continued to pursue her many interests, including writing and publishing music and raising and racing thoroughbred horses. With the passage of time, she lost touch with many of her aviation buddies on the base and elsewhere.
Then in 1961, Pancho was ‘re-discovered’ and deemed a living legend of aviation. She was officially welcomed back into the fold at Edwards Air Force Base. She was now respectfully and affectionately referred to as “The Mother of Edwards Air Force Base.” The officer’s dining room at the Base was re-christened “The Pancho Barnes Room,” and showcased memorabilia from her numerous life’s adventures. In 1968, Billy, her son, bought back for her at auction her long-lost, beloved Travel Air ‘Mystery Ship’ airplane. This inspired Pancho to renew contact with her old aviation buddies. There were rounds of parties, recognition dinners and awards. With the repurchase of her ‘Mystery Ship’ it seemed that her life had come full circle. She was back regaling a whole new generation of pilots with her stories and encouraging them all to “go for it!”
On April 5, 1975, Pancho was scheduled to be keynote speaker at the Antelope Valley Aero Museum’s annual “Barnstormers Reunion.” However, several days before her scheduled appearance, Pancho passed away. In fragile health during her last years, she was 74 years old. And so the planned reunion changed to a testimonial wake for Pancho. Those in attendance included present and past greats of the entertainment and aviation worlds — from Susan Oliver to Richard Arlen, Chuck Yeager and Buzz Aldrin to General Jimmy Doolittle. At the meeting, General Doolittle gave the following sentimental, yet realistic, eulogy for Pancho:
“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.
“During the Great Depression of ’31 and ’32, aviation, the newest industry, was the hardest hit. Many pilots — and pilots led a precarious existence at best in those days — were out of a job. In most cases that meant out of food and out of home. Pancho turned her large Pasadena home into a pilots’ hostel. No indigent pilot went without food or shelter as long as Pancho had a buck in her purse. And don’t forget, she also was hard hit by the Depression and wasn’t too affluent at the time. Many an itinerant pilot in those days had occasion to appreciate the fact that Pancho had ‘a heart as big as a ham.’
“A movie actor friend, Duncan Renaldo, found himself in difficulty with the immigration people and Pancho went all the way to Washington, D.C., at her own expense to plead his case — and successfully, I might add.
“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 — abhored 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!”
Little remains today of what once was the raucous desert playground known as the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club.’ However, surviving ruins do hint at the high style and outrageousness that were Pancho’s trademarks. In addition to an amazing rock and boulder four-tiered cascading fountain (originally topped by a statue of a nude goddess!) that graced the hotel esplanade, the double-sided fireplace and door frames from the dining room and bar still stand, as well as some outbuildings including the concrete shell of the dairy barn which housed the gambling activities.
On the east side of the ranch stands the infamous wooden gate which Chuck Yeager struck on horseback – breaking two ribs – the night before he became the first man to break the sound barrier. Also still remaining is the circular swimming pool with special options demanded by Pancho, including recessed underwater lighting and a gently sloping ramp that, rumor has it, allowed Pancho and her horse to cool off after a hot afternoons ride by walking directly into the pool.
CELEBRATING PANCHO’S LIFE AND SPIRIT
Pancho Barnes was a woman of many accomplishments. She definitely took a large bite out of life. Pancho loved her country and was an ardent champion and friend of the United States Air Force. She had a life-long passion for aviation and a special place in her heart for test pilots. Since 1980, usually during the second week of September, thousands of people convene where the ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ and ranch once stood to celebrate the life and times of this great American character with an annual “Pancho Barnes Day” party sponsored by the Edwards Air Force Base Company Grade Officers Council (CGOC) and the Flight Test Historical Foundation. In 2008 Edwards Air Force Base will be celebrating the 28th Annual Pancho Barnes Day Party, and the 78th Anniversary of her world speed record. Money collected from this annual event helps support the non-profit Air Force Flight Test Center Museum (AFFTC), and the museum’s mission of preserving the history and celebrating the accomplishments of the men and women who have helped to advanced knowledge in aviation during their service at Edwards Air Force Base.