Book Review: The Happy Bottom Riding Club

In recognition of International Women’s Day, a review of one of my favorite books, from Dr. Lauren Kessler a woman who is one of my favorite authors, about another woman who is perhaps the most fascinating, mystifying, irritating, engaging, and colorful characters in aviation history. Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes was… Well, here’s the review of The Happy Bottom Riding Club..

Here we have a biography of a woman who was, arguably, one of the more colorful, outrageous, and engaging characters of her time, or perhaps any time. Referring to Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes as an early feminist would be akin to calling Mary Shelley a good author, or Gloria Steinem a decent magazine editor. Pancho Barnes grew up immersed in monetary wealth, but she made a conscious decision early on to live her life free of the trappings (pun intended) of that wealth. Indeed, Ms Barnes’ most endearing, or perhaps most aggravating trait seemed to be her disdain for money, and her conscious effort to spend it faster than it arrived in her pocket.

Inheriting her carefree attitude from a beloved grandfather, she emulated the fellow all her life. Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe made a name for himself as the first to fly a balloon in the Civil War. Grandpa Thaddeus adored young Florence, and the feeling was mutual. He told his darling granddaughter that she would fly one day, but Grampa Thaddeus had no idea just how far, and in what fashion the future Pancho Barnes would do so. She idolized her grandfather, and vowed to go well beyond his exploits.

Here’s how far. Pancho Barnes came by her name on one of her many daredevil adventures in Mexico, one of several forays she embarked on in her rush to escape the boredom of her staid, circumscribed life in moneyed California. She became one of the first women in America to fly her own airplane, married early and often, the first time to a preacher, then took several men as her lovers, and married three others. She traveled the world looking for the next cure for her restlessness, refusing to submit to the conventions of her time, particularly those concerning female deportment.

The author has succeeded in painting a portrait of a life lived at the edges, and without regard to social approval. She’s written the book with care, and with a well developed sense of the journalist’s style, refusing to judge, leaving that to readers. Just the facts, ma’am, is the mantra here, and Kessler holds that line throughout. The writing is expositive without being breezy, informative without adulation, and well researched in its insights and detail. This is a history book without meaning to be. Anyone curious about the background of aviation in America and/or womens’ place in it will latch onto this book and explore it cover to cover. Pancho Barnes wasn’t just present at the creation of womens’ aviation history she made a lot of it. In any scene at her club in the Mojave Desert, where icons of early aviation gathered, Pancho Barnes is close by, slapping backs, filling shot glasses, sharing flying yarns with the likes of Chuck Yeager, Jake Ridley, Ike Northrup and many other test pilots. She’d done her share of those exploits, and was accepted among those men as an equal. Why women don’t figure more prominently in aviation history is even more curious considering the activities of Pancho Barnes and women like her.

Rich man’s daughter & granddaughter, aviator, songwriter, lover of countless men, movie actor/stunt pilot, screenwriter, land speculator and creator of The Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho Barnes crafted a life that never stopped until the day she died. Not exactly a positive role model for young women perhaps, but, maybe so… As the author has done, we leave that to readers. Five stars, and I don’t award those very often.

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