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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"

Yeager Weighs In: Happy Times at the Happy Bottom

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Chuck Yeager is an intense, serious person, but he also has a famous gleam in his eye...a certain little spark that tells you he knows how to have more than just a little fun, in the air or on the ground. When he talks about Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club, he's animated and that gleam in his eye is sharp. "Pete Everest and I were taking F-86's up to China Lake for Navy Day," he begins a story, recounting one of his better moments, " and we took off at about six in the morning. It just so happened that Runway 4, well that runway went right across the lake over Pancho's house. We were up to about 500 (feet) by the time we got to the house and Pete rattled the roof. And when we got back, General Boyd's aide met us and he said, "General Boyd's in the office and he wants to talk to you and Evers. You guys buzzed Pancho's and just about raised the shingles off this morning." Realizing that the incident might cost him a bit in pay, Yeager put in a phone call to his friend Pancho, who informed him that the reason General Boyd knew about the incident, was for unexpected reasons. "Pancho told me, 'He was sort of romancing his favorite girl over here, and he was over here this morning when you buzzed the place.'"

Photo: Pancho Barnes and Chuck Yeager are reunited in the early 1970's

A solution to the situation began to form in Yeager's mind. When he arrived at General Boyd's office, Boyd said, "I understand you violated my direct orders and buzzed Pancho's this morning." Yeager takes it from here:I just sorta looked at him, and with my little grin I said, "General Boyd, how do you know we buzzed Pancho's this morning?" And he sat there for about two minutes — beady eyes, looking at us — and then all he said was, "GET OUT!"

Of course, most of the fun Chuck Yeager had at Pancho's place occured on the ground, not in the air. But he bristles at the suggestion that Pancho was running anything other than just a guest ranch. "She knows honey attracts flies," Yeager told us during his interview. "But they just sat, served drinks and talked. The only time Pancho paid a gal paid for a favor, was when a friend named Don Forker who owned a hundred thousand acre ranch was flying in. Pancho said, 'How do you want it?' and he said, 'On toast.' So she brought this hard little blonde, took a big silver tray, put toast, stripped her down naked, and when she took him up to his room she opened the door and said, 'There it is on toast!"

Photo: Chuck Yeager with Pancho (background), her fourth husband Mac (right in leather jacket) and Dallas Morely (left), head hostess at the HBRC

Bob Hoover, Meet Pancho Barnes Part III

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Bob Hoover tells a great many stories about Pancho. One of the funniest, if you're a military man, is this one... When Pancho first got her wings and became an aviatrix of renown, she developed a strong friendship with a U.S. Army Air Force Lt. Col. named Henry "Hap" Arnold. This was in the early 1930's, when Arnold had command of March Field. By the late 1930's Arnold had emerged as one of the architects of American military airpower, and by the end of WWII he was Deputy Chief of Staff of the U.S.A.A.F. Despite his rise to the upper echelons of the air forces, Pancho remained friends with Arnold.

Hoover told the story this way to director Amanda Pope:

One night I was sitting at the bar and [Pancho] said, "How come you're only a first lieutenant?" And I explained the background...that I'd been a sargeant pilot and then a P.O.W. And then she said, "Well, I just don’t think it’s right for all you been through and the way you fly and here you are only a lieutenant." And she said, "I’m going to change that."

So she picked up the phone and called General Arnold." He was the highest level you can get. And it was midnight here and that meant it was 3 o’clock in the morning back there on East Coast! And she woke him up at 3 a.m. in the morning and read him the riot act about how I ought to be promoted. And I thought, "There goes my career, that’s the end of it right now."

And you know, apparently he didn’t think anything of it. He says,"Oh, Pancho she’s been drinking. Which she had been. But she, if she liked you boy she’d do anything for you. And she proved that a lot of times to her friends."

Top Photo: Bob Hoover, Pancho, and an unidentified friend (possibly Roscoe Turner?) at the Reno Air Races in the 1960's, courtesy Bob Hoover. At left, Hap Arnold seen in his younger days.

One footnote: Edwards Air Force Base, where Pancho set up her Happy Bottom Riding Club, was created due to Hap Arnold's foresight. Recognizing that the flat, dry Rogers lakebed made for an ideal training site, he made it a remote base for his March Field squadrons in September of 1933.

Chuck Yeager Weighs In

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Please note, General Chuck Yeager maintains a terrific website, simply called ChuckYeager.com On that site is a wonderful tribute to Pancho, which you can access at this link:here

Throughout his life, Gen. Charles "Chuck" Yeager has been a devoted sportsman and outdoorsman. Anyone who has read his two autobiographical books, Yeager and Press On!, knows that he lives life to the fullest and that this is one of the things that makes him so distinctive a personality. So it was wonderful, when we interviewed Gen. Yeager last year, to hear him talking about his latest trip to Alaska. That's where he, some close friends and his wife Victoria fished and hunted to their heart's delight — and of course the General caught a huge salmon. Not bad for someone in his 80's, but then again Chuck Yeager has always been a hard man to keep up with. For a long time, as we all know, he was in fact faster than any man on earth!

Chuck Yeager and Pancho were close friends, not only because they shared a love of flying, but because they shared a love of the outdoors. At the time Yeager arrived at Muroc (later Edwards AFB), it was July of 1945. WWII was almost over, and Yeager had come through it as a fighter ace with 11.5 victories. Pancho had been just about as lucky during the war, although initially it looked like it would ruin her — wartime airspace restrictions meant she could not operate her flight school. Instead, she invested her time in the alfalfa farm she'd bought, and it began to prosper as the base at Muroc grew. It was quickly turning into a full-fledged ranch and dairy, and once the war ended it would become a "fly-in" resort — the "Happy Bottom Riding Club."

Yeager rode Pancho's horses, hunted with her and her husband Mac, and even took an airplane trip to Mexico with them. Yeager remembers that escapade this way:

Pancho said, “Do you like to hunt deer?” and I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Let’s go down and go to one of the Yaqui Indian villages and bring your rifle." So we went down to Hermasillo. She was a good pilot and she flew the airplane quite a bit. And we got down there and the Mayor came out and met us in a car and we spent the night. He had a big banquet for us. And then the next day, he gave her a bunch of horses. And I took my rifle. Out there in the Yaqui Indian villages, Pancho could speak Yaqui Indian language like a native. She was really a very talented gal. And I shot a buck. We gave it to the Indians. The thing that amazed me was how talented Pancho was in the languages..."

Photo (above): Chuck Yeager (second from right) with hunting party at Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club

Pancho loved Chuck Yeager like a son, and after he became famous for breaking the sound barrier, she took great pride in their relationship. The "Happy Bottom Blister", a brochure made to promote Pancho's rodeo, devoted an entire page as a tribute to Yeager. The text on that page notes that "Capt. Yeager was the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound. This was a goal those in aviation had dreamed of for many years, and its accomplishment hit a high point that will not be easily exceeded." Then it goes on to say, "Capt. Charles E. Yeager learned to ride and rope at Pancho's. He found riding to be good sport and splendid exercise as a deviation from his exacting job as a test pilot. His wife Glennis and two sons Donnie and Mickie, aged three and two years, also have a lot of fun on horseback. Among the first words that Donnie learned to speak were "horse" and "Pancho".

Photo: Chuck Yeager ties up a calf in Pancho's corral, also from a Happy Bottom Riding Club brochure.

Just how one of Pancho's horses and her corral gate would figure into history, coming up soon on the Production Journal. Stay tuned!

Pancho and Ramon

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A Hollywood director once described Ramon Novarro as having "...the physique of Michelangelo's David and the face of an El Greco Don." Victoria Thomas, writing in Hollywood's Latin Lovers says that Ramon Novarro was "...the most truly beautiful of the silent era Latin Lovers and a more gifted actor than...Rudolph Valentino." He was one of the most accomplished, highest-grossing stars in the movie business, and he was a friend and companion of Florence "Pancho" Barnes.

For a time, in fact, they seemed inseparable. That may seem ironic given the fact that Pancho was not herself glamorous, but fitting when you consider her zest for life, artistic nature, and the fact that in many respects she lived a double life. Ostensibly as Florence Lowe Barnes she was the wife of a prominent Episcopal reverend, but in reality she was a bit of a hellraiser. Novarro also had a split in his personality. He may have been one of the biggest heartthrobs of the silver screen, a he-man who wowed audiences for his portrayal of a fearless "Ben Hur", but Novarro was also closeted. He was one of the few actors from the silent era to make a successful transition to the talkies, appearing in 1932's Mata Hari opposite Greta Garbo. Yet tragically, Novarro's sexual orientation and his refusal to marry, even just for the sake of appearances, ultimately cost him his career. By 1940, according to Victoria Thomas, he was "virtually blackballed from Hollywood".

The Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive contains many wonderful photos of Pancho and Ramon. There is a terrific energy to the couple, seen posing in front of Pancho's Travelair biplane or riding in the star's Lincoln roadster. Some of these photos are simply beautiful, and not just because of who is in them. Most likely they were shot by another friend of Pancho and Novarro's, MGM chief photographer George Hurrell.

The Archive also holds a few handwritten notes from Novarro to Pancho, including one which accompanied a gift of flowers on her birthday in which he writes tenderly, "Florence there is nothing I can do to show you my deep gratitude and love..."

Pancho was also friends with Ramon Novarro's brother, Mariano Samaniego. Mariano accompanied the aviatrix on her historic flight to Mexico City in 1930, and acted as her interpreter.

Unfortunately, this story like many real ones in Hollywood, had a bad ending. During WWII, Pancho got into some financial troubles while trying to build up her Rancho Oro Verde. She defaulted on a $2000 promissory note to the bank, and on a nearly $9000 loan from Novarro. He sued her for principle and interest, and the two apparently never spoke again.

It's worth noting that during Pancho's friendship with Novarro, he was at the pinnacle of his career and paid $10,000 a week. By the time of the lawsuit, his star had faded considerably. He eventually retreated to a small home in Laurel Canyon in the early 1950's. According to Victoria Thomas, in the 1960's he had an occasional role on TV. Sadly, in 1968 he was murdered by some young hoods on Halloween morning, an incident famously recounted in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon.

The "Other" Pancho Barnes Movie

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Free-spirited. Rebellious. A woman ahead of her time, whose adventures are the stuff of legend. Somehow it seemed inevitable, given Pancho Barnes' life and the way she lived it, that Hollywood would find her story worth telling. Or would they? After all, she wasn't exactly the most beautiful, or the most couth of ladies, and her romantic proclivities weren't exactly the stuff of Harlequin novels.

Well, Hollywood did come knocking or, I should put it another way, someone brought Pancho to Hollywood's attention. That person was David Chisholm, a young writer for television whose father had been a jet pilot, and who grew up in the Lancaster vicinity. As a teen he'd even been friends with the children of Ted Tate, who knew Pancho and later released a book about her, The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus. David heard a bit about Pancho's life story, and was hooked. Although she was deceased, and he did not know exactly how to proceed with writing a script about her life, he began doing some research. Along the way he met some of Pancho's friends and got a pretty good sense of what made Pancho tick. Buoyed by the success of the movie The Right Stuff, he wrote a treatment and began working with some producers who packaged Pancho's story. They began shopping it to the TV networks as a movie-of-the-week.

It might have been an impossible sell for a lot of reasons -- in the 1980s keep in mind there were no cable TV networks to speak of, and it was questionable whether a sponsor would want to support a film about such an eccentric character.

According to Chisholm, who was kind enough to meet me for lunch a few months ago, the secret to getting the film made proved to be, what else?, making Pancho's life "pure Hollywood". That meant tossing out much of the reality of her life, and instead making a film about a character who had some relationship to Pancho, but only faintly. That wasn't what Chisholm'd envisioned doing, by the way, but the decision of the producers. While he'd worked hard to get the idea to the small screen, David found himself in an uncomfortable position, attempting to maintain some of the heart and soul of what intrigued him about Pancho and her character, while the producers fought to make the film commercial. In the end Chisholm lost out. He would be replaced on the film by famed writer John Michael Hayes, who penned the screenplay for Hitchcock's Rear Window. The script that Hayes produced made CBS extremely happy and brought a corporate sponsor on board, but in the end the story had very little to do with the reality of Pancho's life.

And who would end up starring in the role of the rough-and-tumble, tough, abrasive-yet-wonderful Pancho Barnes? Someone you'd least expect, that is, unless you think like a Hollywood producer. The star of the film would be beautiful, cheery starlet Valerie Bertinelli, best known now for her starring role on TV's Touched by an Angel.

The resulting film is, as one might expect, not a real biography of Pancho. Yet it does trace the bare outlines of her life, and features a fair amount of flying and a long segment about the Happy Bottom Riding Club (although it looks a bit more like a country club in the movie than it did in real life!) The producers used Jim Younkin's wonderful replica of a Travelair Mystery Ship for much of the filming of her flying days, which adds some excitement and pizzaz.

While the film is a disappointment to some, and a sort of light entertainment for others, it did get fairly good reviews at the time it was released. When you watch it now, it's important to keep in mind that for the time it was made "Pancho Barnes" was something legitimately different. Before "Lifetime" existed, it was rare to see any kind of film or TV program with a woman at its center, driving the action. (Photo at left: Valerie Bertinelli stars as "Pancho Barnes")

Postscript: Several people have sent emails asking where they can obtain the Pancho Barnes film. Although it is apparently out-of-print and was never released on DVD, you can find VHS tapes on eBay in the $20-35 range.

Rebel Without A Cause...But With A Horse!

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As a young lady, Florence Lowe (later "Pancho" Barnes) was what we'd now call a "problem child". If she lived in the present day, my gosh!, she'd probably have been sent to Outward Bound, or put on Ridalin or who knows what medication. A tomboy born into high society, she was a rebel without a cause practically from the get-go. Except she did not really lack cause — she had a cause and that was to have fun!

In the late 1910's, Florence attended the Bishop School in La Jolla. It was Florence's fourth school in eight years, and as it turned out it would be her last.

Thankfully, we have a really good account of Florence's life at Bishop, thanks to her roommate Ursula Greenshaw (later Ursual Greenshaw Mandel). Greenshaw, who later attended college and became an acclaimed physician, wrote an autobiography entitled "I Live My Life" in which she recounted life with Florence. It was, shall we say, never DULL! (Photo at right: Pancho in her mid-teens.)

"Florence," Greenshaw notes, "...rebelled against convention and all attempts to encourage femininity. The careless dress she preferred was more becoming to her mannish build than was the fine apparel insisted upon and brought to her by her mother. ... One time her mother presented her with some particularly beautiful undergarments that had been imported from Paris. Not wishing to openly hurt her parent's feelings, Florence waited until she departed before placing the box of lingere on the floor and giving it a forceful kick. ... Sometime later, when casting about for a polishing cloth, she characteristically withdrew this finery from a dresser drawer and dusted her riding boots with it."

Florence's disdain for fine clothes and femininity was one thing, but what really got Greenshaw's goat was her penchant for pulling stunts and pranks, which Ursula refers to as "commotions" in her book.

"One night when I entered our room," she writes," I stumbled against a body. I switched on the light and there lay Florence on the floor in a pool of blood. Pinner 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."

On another occasion, Greenshaw returned to their room to discover that Florence had somehow managed to lead her horse, Dobbins, inside! "When called to the principal's office to explain this prank," she noted, "[Florence] feigned innocent surprise and soon was expressing deep sympathy for the horse...'he must have been so lonesome that he even came upstairs to look for me...'"

(Photo: Ursula Greenshaw at about the age when she attended the Bishop School).

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The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club ©2008-2010 Nick Spark Productions, LLC.