Friday, August 7, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: Will Rogers & Wiley Post -- August 15, 1935, A Day the Earth Stood Still

"The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets." -- Will Rogers

The 20th century was the dawning of the age of speed.  Man moved farther and faster than ever before and by means imagined but not anticipated to ever be realized.  And, the words of man also moved farther and faster than ever before. The age of flight was accompanied by the age of rapid and electronic communication.  Airmail cut the delivery time of the mails from days to hours, even across oceans. Radio and film carried entertainment and news to the far-flung corners of the nation, bringing word of the latest feats of aviation derring-do, athletic accomplishments, and the world of humor and comedy.  Radio and movies also created national celebrities, their word and deed transmitted and recorded, and a literate population consumed every word written and broadcast about the movement of celebrities.

This new age of technology and sport and entertainment would produce many celebrities.  Those who promoted and used celebrity – the celebrities themselves and also their sponsors -- needed to make celebrities visible to the new breed of consumer, the celebrity fan. The airplane allowed the more daring of celebrities to move about the nation and eventually the globe to satisfy the needs to market to fans, to promote celebrity. Air travel was where business met news met entertainment met adventure, and smack dab in the middle of all of it was a rope-twirling good ol’ boy from the Green Country of Oklahoma named Will Rogers.  He was by every possible measure the world’s largest celebrity, possible the largest celebrity ever. Fittingly enough, he was also the biggest booster aviation had known.

Will Rogers defined singular wit.  Born in 1879 on a ranch on the Osage Reservation (northeastern Oklahoma), Rogers rose to international prominence as a vaudevillian, writer, radio broadcaster, commentator, and film actor.  He is still one of the three-most quotable people in the English-speaking world, elbowing with Winston Churchill and Samuel Clemens in a continual fight for first place.  He was the Man Who Never Met a Man He Didn’t Like. Will Rogers performed in 71 motion pictures, and made the easy jump from silent pictures to talkies, in part because his radio profile made his one of the best-known voices in America. At the time of his death he was the highest-paid performer in Hollywood. His papers fill five hefty volumes published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  Will Rogers  penned over 4,000 columns on affairs of the day ("Slipping the Lariat Over") which appeared daily in all the major papers of the United States and over 500 newspapers in all. His writing was both ridiculous and sublime, and his motion-picture “travel guides” were a fitting, fanciful follow-on to Samuel Clemens’ sometimes biting Innocents Abroad.

Before he became the biggest celebrity figure in the United States, Will Rogers had tried his hand at ranching in Argentina. He then headed to South Africa to break horses for the British Army.  With the end of the Boer War, Rogers took his roping skills into show business, joining “Texas Jack's Wild West Circus” before heading to Australia and then returning to the US as a vaudeville performer.  When he roped a wild steer at Madison Square Garden, it led William Hammerstein to sign him as a performer – Rogers spent the next decade years doing trick riding and rope tricks for New York City crowds. In 1915 he joined Ziegfield’s “Midnight Frolic” and then jumped up to Ziegfield’s Follies the next season. He mixed rope tricks with biting social and political commentary, ripped from the headlines. Soon he was signed to do pictures by Samuel Goldwyn, making Laughing Bill Hyde in 1918.  He moved to Hollywood in 1921.

Will Rogers moved into talking pictures in 1929.  He did three films with acclaimed director John Ford: Doctor Bull (1933); Judge Priest (1934); and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935).  He also played the lead (Sir Boss) in the 1931 talking version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, thus bringing the Will Rogers’ sense of comic timing to a Mark Twain storyline.  He also toured globally in the road company performing Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” Rogers declined to reprise the role in film, thereby freeing his summer in 1935 to fly to Moscow with Wiley Post. For six years he aired a prime-time Sunday night radio show sponsored by Gulf Oil that was the top-rated radio broadcast in America.  In 1935, Rogers was the #2 box office draw in American cinema and also the top-read columnist in the US.  In literally every mass medium, Will Rogers was America’s choice. Will Rogers’ name identification  was so invaluable, back in Oklahoma an unrelated namesake won election to Congress for five straight terms in Oklahoma’s at-large ninth congressional seat from 1933 to 1943; Rep. Rogers once estimated that the real Will Rogers’ fame was worth 50,000 votes to him. Rogers’ son Will Rogers, Jr. served a single term in the US House of Representatives, from California.  It is also worth noting that a statue of the real Will Rogers is in Statuary Hall of the US capitol building.  His head is turned toward the House chamber so as to keep an eye on Congress.

He also loved aviation. Rogers was the first civilian to fly from coast-to-coast. Among his friends and acquaintances he counted flyers such as Charles Lindbergh, Juan Trippe, Howard Hughes, Billy Mitchell, Wiley Post, and Jimmy Wedell.  Rogers was one of the first enthusiastic supporters of aviation in the popular media, writing often on the tremendous benefits of aviation and also writing of his ventures in flight.  It was estimated that Will Rogers traveled a half-million miles in the air during his life.  The New York Times, in eulogizing Rogers, observed that “he had become, in recent years, one of [America’s] leading boosters of air travel.  He wrote thousands of words in defense of the argument that it was safer to travel by plane than by train and demonstrated that he meant it by following his own advice.”

Rogers’ second-to-last published communiqué, wired from Alaska to the New York Times  , was about a flight.  Having some down time in Alaska on their “vacation trip”, Rogers went off to fly up Mount McKinley, the tallest peak on North America:

Well, we had a day off today and nothing to do, so we went flying with friends – Joe Crosson, Alaska’s crack pilot, who is a agreat friend of Wiley’s and helped him on his difficulties up here on his record trips, and Joe Barrows, another fine pilot.  In a Lockheed Electra we scaled Mount McKinley, the highest one on the American Continent.Bright, sunny day, and the most beautiful sight I ever saw. 

Crosson has landed on a glacier over half way up in a plane and took off.  Flew right by hundreds of mountain sheep, flew low over moose and bear.  Down in the valley now, where they sent those 1935 model pioneers.

Yours, Will Rogers

Hours after the column was published, Rogers and Post were dead, victims of an engine failure on takeoff from a lake near Point Barrow, Alaska. 
Post, too, was a romantic character and he loomed larger than life. Post had loved one woman ever, and had swept onto a pasture of her father’s Texas farm to elope, ducking bullets on the way out. He was the first person to ever fly around the world; had pioneered high-altitude flight and developed one of the first aviation pressure suits; and is also generally credited with discovering the jet stream, though empirical scientific documentation of the “river of air” predated Post’s more publicized discovery. It was this river of air that had allowed the one-eyed former outlaw and oil field hand to obliterate the competition in cross-country air races.  He and fellow relocated Oklahoman Will Rogers found each other in California, where their ties to entertainment and mutual love of flying fostered a fast friendship.  
Working in the oil fields of Oklahoma after World War I, he had become destitute and stole a car, ending up in the county prison.  Paroled after a year, he lost an eye in an oil field accident in 1926 and ended up taking a disability compensation settlement.  He used that money, $1,800, to buy his first plane.  He retrained his one good eye to perceive depth, and then took his $1,800 plane into the barn-storming business in 1926.  He met Will Rogers when the star of film and stage needed a lift to a rodeo, which Wiley gladly provided.  His relationship with Oklahoma oilman R. C. Hall had financed his flying and experimenting.  Hall was rich. And he had a daughter, Winnie Mae, who was wild about flying.  The Lockheed Vega that Post used to compete for aerial records was bought by Hall and named for Winnie Mae.   A later, more modern Lockheed Vega (model 5-C) was used by Post starting in 1930.

In June 1931, Wiley Post and his navigator, Australian aviator Harold Gatty, set what was then a world record for circumnavigating the globe in an airplane, making the trip in eight days, sixteen hours, flying west to east from New York City to New York City (Gatty founded Air Pacific, the national airline of the Fiji Islands, in 1951.).  Post bought the Winnie Mae from R. C. Hall and became his own boss; his book with Gatty, around the World in Eight Days, featured an introduction by his friend, aviation enthusiast Will Rogers. Two years later, Post would become the first man to fly solo around the world, breaking his previous pace by 21 hours.  On the way, he set a non-stop record from New York to Berlin of 26 hours. 

Having mastered “around” the world, Post turned to “up” – and started exploring altitude. Aircraft of this era were not pressurized – consequently, if you flew too high, the air became to rare, and the pilot would lose consciousness.    With funding from Bartlesville, Oklahoma-based Phillips petroleum and scientific know-how of B. F. Goodrich,  Post designed a pressure suit, and on September 4 1934 soared to over 40,000 feet.  It was here that he found the “river of air” that is now identified as the jet stream.

Will Rogers and Wiley Post were Occidental travelers in an era where the public mind was obsessed with speed and the daring of the men and women who took to the air on wings of wood and fiber and metal, propelled by petroleum engines.  There was a necessity of the time, always present in the adventures of Wiley Post.  Rogers and Post, Oklahomans relocated to southern California, would take the northerly route up to Alaska.  Their vehicle was a unique hybrid aircraft, a Lockheed Orion-Explorer equipped with seaplane floats.  Post was interested in exploring commercial air routes from the US to Russia, and needed a craft that would allow him to land on the lakes of Alaska and Siberia. Working from limited funds with some help from Pan Am, he salvaged the fuselage and engine of a Lockheed Orion, and then married to it the wing of a Lockheed Explorer and a set of pontoons. 

The Lockheed Orion was designed by Richard A. Von Hake and devolved from the Altair, with some elements from the Lockheed Vega—such as the high-mounted open cockpit.   The Orion had low-mounted fixed wings and retractable landing gear; 35 were produced.   The Explorer was a fabulously unsuccessful design, originally pursued for Sir Hubert Wilkins Antarctic expeditions.  Deriving from the high-fixed-wing design of John Nortrup’s Vega, only four were ever produced – and all were lost in crashes.  The wing for the Orion-Explorer was salvaged by post from one of these craft, and affixed to the Orion because the additional six feet of wingspan would accommodate the seaplane floats.

Loaded with hunting and fishing gear, fuel, and supplies, Post and his friend Rogers flew off to Alaska in August, Rogers typing on his typewriter. On August 15, the two departed Fairbanks for Point Barrow.  Encountering foggy weather, they landed on a lagoon to ask directions.  On takeoff, their engine failed and the wing fell off as they plummeted fifty toward the water.  Both men died in the crash.

Rogers’ decision to accompany Post all the way across Siberia was a surprise to the world.  As early as July there had been talk of the rope-twirling philosopher accompanying the one-eyed pilot to Red Russia.  Indeed, it was national news suitable enough for the Associated Press to report on and for the New York Times   to pick up and carry in their front section:

LOS ANGELES, July 22 (AP) – Wiley Post tuned up his monoplane today for a leisurely flight to Moscow and back, but whether his friend, Will Rogers, screen humorist, would accompany him remained a matter of conjecture.

Mr. Rogers has two more days in which to make up his mind, since Post said he did not expect to reach Seattle, his first stopping point, before Thursday. 

“Will was out here last week to look over the plane, and joked about putting a bed in back and going along,” said Post, adding however, that he did not think the actor would make the 7,000 mile flight to the Soviet capital.

                  The actor could not be reached, but Mrs. Rogers was reported to have told friends she thought he might accompany Post, and at Rogers’ office it was said that his vacation plans were not definite.  The cowboy humorist is an enthusiastic air traveler.

Post, who has twice circled the globe in the air, will have at least one passenger in the person of his wife.

Although the aviator has said he is going to Russia for hunting and sight-seeing, a report obtained credence that he will map a potential northern air route via Alaska and Asia to Moscow when it was learned that pontoons for his plane were being supplied by Pan American Airways . . . Mechanics have installed a large compass in the brilliant red monoplane and have placed a temperature gauge on the engine.  Post will carry a receiving radio set but no sending apparatus.  Tanks giving an additional gasoline capacity of 220 gallons have been installed.

Rogers remained coy about the trip. In his July 23 “cable” to the New York Times, he started by observing that “Wiley Post and I have been blathering about flying over to a ranch in New Mexico and some guy with poor slant on geography got it missed up with Siberia in Russia.  Looks like New Mexico has got a suit.” Rogers joined the Posts, flying to New Mexico, Colorado, and Seattle, from where Post would leave for Russia.  While in Seattle, Rogers took the time to tour the Boeing facility where he saw what he termed “the world’s greatest bombing plane being finished.” On August 7, Post and Rogers left for Alaska, with the press understanding that Mrs. Post would join Wiley in Alaska by boat.  However, Mae was going back to California, and it was not until W. W. Conner of the National Aeronautic Association made the announcement that Will Rogers was going to Siberia, and that he “didn’t say anything about it, because he and Mr. Post liked to keep things a mystery, but he had made up his mind to go on to Siberia.”

 The Point Barrow crash shook the world. It was if all of the greatest stars in America had fallen at the same time – the world’s greatest movie star, broadcast star, stand-up comedian, and political columnist had all died in that crash.  All business in Claremore, Oklahoma, Rogers’ home town, stopped.  On hearing of Rogers’ death, the longtime targets of his wit -- the US House of Representatives and US Senate -- stopped debate.  House Speaker Joe Byrns claimed to have had a bad premonition of Rogers going on the Siberian adventure; messages of loss were forthcoming from major political leaders of both parties. Governments around the world honored the loss of Post and Rogers.  The German government, not known for its embrace of either individualism or humor, memorialized Post as “a brusque, rough adventurer” and Rogers as “a philosopher in fifteen lines . . . his words were a safety valve for the American soul.” Juan Trippe, head of Pan American Airways and friend of Rogers and Post, dispatched a seaplane to recover the bodies of Post and Rogers and return them to California. Wiley Post’s widow, Mae, got off a witticism worthy of Will Rogers himself regarding of the trip to retrieve Wiley’s remains: “It was just the way Wiley would have wished it. Coming home in an airplane.”