15 July 2008

Famous People: Harriet Quimby

By Elizabeth Lane

I first read about Harriet Quimby in one of those educational biographies they used to put in the back pages of comic books. Even as a little girl, I was hooked. Harriet was the stuff of romance heroines--beautiful, independent, daring, mysterious, and ultimately tragic.

Harriet Quimby was born in 1875 to a Michigan farm family. It's not known whether she ever married or had children. She was never open about her personal life. What's known is that by the age of 25, she was in San Francisco with dreams of becoming an actress. But it was her ability to find a story and write it that caught on. Instead of an actress, Harriet became a successful reporter as well as a script writer for some early movies.

After San Francisco Harriet moved to New York City. From 1903 to 1912 she took photographs and wrote articles for Leslie's Weekly, a popular magazine of the day. She became a drama critic and eventually an editor. By then, her beauty, charm, talent and independence had made her the toast of New York. At a time when women had barely begun to come into their own, Harriet was earning a good living, supporting herself and her parents and even driving her own automobile!

In 1911 Harriet discovered aeroplanes. Fascinated, she signed up for flying lessons at the Moisant School on Long Island. A few months later she became the first American woman to earn a pilot's license. Her aviation skills, as well as her glamour, made her an instant celebrity. She fetched high fees at air meets--especially after she became the first woman to pilot a plane across the English Channel.

For public appearances, Harriet designed her own flying costume of plum-colored silk. It had a hood to cover her hair and a lower part that could be converted from knickers to a hobble skirt with the fastening of a few buttons.

Harriet Quimby stampsOn July 1, 1912, Harriet flew an exhibition near Quincy, Massachusetts. She and the exhibition manager were flying above the bay, at an altitude of about 1,500 feet, when the plane pitched forward. Harriet and her passenger were both flung out and fell through the air, into the bay. Harriet left behind a vision of courage, glamour and intelligence.

On the Wings of Love by Elizabeth LaneIf I hadn't become aware of Harriet at an early age, I probably never would have written my book, ON THE WINGS OF LOVE (Harlequin Historicals, January 2008). Harriet Quimby was the inspiration for my heroine, Alex. But as the writing progressed, I wrote Harriet herself into the story--first as Alex's idol and role model, then as a perceived rival. It's the news of Harriet's death that brings the story to its dramatic crisis.

One more thing--when my editor asked me for a dedication, I dedicated my book to the memory of Harriet Quimby, a true heroine.