Photo from http://www.panchobarnes.com
Imagine while out and about one day you see a woman dressed in men’s clothing, smoking and using language that would make a sailor blush. You probably wouldn’t think much of it really. Some might give a reproachful glance or shake of the head but most of us wouldn’t give it a second thought. Now imagine you see this women in 1970? A little more shocking but not unheard of. Now imagine its 1950. Quite a bit more shocking, right? How about 1940 or 1930? Now imagine it’s 1918? If you did see such a woman in any of those past years (I’m assuming you’re old or have a time machine) it may have been the legendary Pancho Barnes.
Many of you are probably thinking “who in the world is Pancho Barnes? And why should I care?” Truth is, that’s what I would have been thinking a year ago. Then my husband, being an aviation enthusiast, watched a documentary on her. Knowing that I love it when people go against their stereotypical gender roles, especially in time periods where those roles were more rigid, he was eager to show it to me. I was amazed at what I learned about her. This isn’t going to be an easy blog to write, cutting Pancho’s vibrant life down to a few pages is no easy task, neither is separating the rumors (usually started by her own exaggerated or made up stories) from the truth. Different accounts give vastly different tellings of some events in her life but I was fortunate to find a source that seemed to have gotten to the truth. So, who is Pancho Barnes? A colorful woman whose enormous strengths were tempered by her equally large faults, an aviator, an entrepreneur and always an adventurer. A woman who could out party a college frat boy and blew through several fortunes in her lifetime. A woman who beat Amelia Earhart’s speed record, took on the American government and survived both ovarian and breast cancer…. but I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps we should start at the beginning.
Pancho’s grandfather was historically notable himself. Thaddeus Constantine Lowe was the first man to do war reconnaissance from the air. Nope, not in the First World War but in the Civil War and by hot air balloon. He flew over enemy territory and he relayed his observations from the air to the Union. He was often the target of “friendly fire” because Union soldiers were so taken back by the sight of a hot air balloon. Many referred to him as “the most shot at man in the war” and he lined his basket with sheet metal. After the war he moved to Pasadena, California with his wife and expanding family (the expansion stopped at ten kids). Thaddeus was the epitome of a self-made man. Through inventions and opening one of the largest tourist attractions at the time he became very wealthy and a pillar of Pasadena society. He lost most if his wealth by stretching his dreams past his means (a trait his granddaughter would share).
One of Thaddeus’ sons, Thad Junior married a wealthy socialite, Florence Mae Dobbins (despite some objections by her parents). Florence Mae herself was quite plain but well…stinking rich. Thad hoped for a rough and tumble son but instead their first child, although male, was delicate and had major health problems. Their second child, spirited and athletic, did not disappoint Thad even though she was a girl. Of course this energetic girl born July 22, 1901 was Pancho. Okay, okay, her parents named her Florence Leontine. She wouldn’t don the nickname Pancho for many years but I’m going to keep calling her Pancho as Florence just doesn’t fit her. She inherited her mothers not so beautiful looks and her father and grandfather’s spirit. Her Father and grandfather adored Pancho and treated her just like they would a boy. Her mother and grandmother disapproved but were far to busy fussing over Pancho’s older brother, William, to give Pancho much attention at all.
Pancho was completely spoiled, always getting what she wanted. Maids waited on her hand and foot, she didn’t even brush her own hair. At three her father gave her her first pony and she could ride it competently by four. At five she got her first thoroughbred horse. This began Pancho’s lifelong love of horses and all animals. Tragically her brother died of leukemia when she was 12. Her mother and her had nothing in common as Pancho had no interest in embroidery or other “womanly arts.” They both rejected each other yet secretly wished for acceptance. She was a young girl that preferred wearing Jodhpurs (riding pants) to dresses and looked better in them too. Pancho loved to defy convention and caused trouble wherever she could. She even rode her horse naked in the night at a horse show. All the time yelling the name of the horse belonging to a girl she disliked, so everyone believed it was her rival’s indiscretion. She fit right in at her first school Pasadena Elementary, probably because she was the only girl out of the 24 students. She became such a trouble maker rough housing with the boys that her parents pulled her out and put her in a private girls school. After that she bounced from school to school because of her behavior. At one point she even ran away to Tijuana on horseback, the first but not the last of her adventures in Mexico. Every time she was kicked out of another school her parents chose to just try a different one rather than attempting to deal with Pancho themselves.
She did eventually graduate school and at eighteen wanted to become a veterinarian. Her mother would hear nothing of it and enrolled her in art school. Pancho enjoyed drawing to an extent but had no real aspirations of becoming an artist. Pancho was as rebellious as ever and her mother thought the best way to temper Pancho (or at least make her someone elses problem) was to marry her to a reverend. And so after a carefully orchestrated courtship Pancho married Reverend C. Rankin Barnes. At the wedding the men lined up to one by one kiss the bride, many of them kissing her open-mouthed and passionately. (I find this odd as we think of people being so prudish in this time period). Pancho had never even been kissed on the mouth before and she found it somewhat thrilling.
Pancho got pregnant from her and the reverend’s one and only very awkward and unpleasant (for both parties) sexual encounter. Pancho didn’t like her new not totally rich life very much. She was suddenly expected to cook and take care of her home which were not skills she had or cared to have. At 19 years old she was not overjoyed at the thought of having a baby to care for either. Her son William (Billy) Emmert Barnes was born October 9, 1921. Pancho failed to bond with her new little baby. This saddens me greatly, although I can understand that she was young and unsure about having children at all. All she saw in her child was more responsibility that she did not want.
She tried to play the good reverend’s wife but it just wasn’t her. She loved to shock people with her wild stories at ladies events she hosted and bribed her Sunday school class of 9-year-old boys with pocket knives. She started getting some work in Hollywood in the movie industry, mostly with horses. She loved being a part of it all and particularly loved making some extra money to use as she pleased. As soon as she could, she hired a cook, a housekeeper and a full-time nurse for Billy.
Despite their strained relationship Pancho was quite upset when her mother had a stroke and passed away in 1923. Pancho became very ill and was bedridden. At first they said it was a nervous breakdown because that’s what doctors said back then when women took suddenly ill after tragedies. Then they changed their tune and said it was a heart condition and she was dying. In reality it was the same high blood pressure that had killed her mother. Pancho, however was not happy being bedridden and got herself out of bed and ran away from home. She slowly regained her strength as she traveled the U.S. by train, returning home completely healthy. She was convinced she had cured her fatal disease herself.
Pancho inherited her mothers mansion in San Marino and a house in Laguana beach as well as money. She no longer needed the money from working on movies but she loved the adventure and the men. Today everyone would peg Pancho as a lesbian but it turns out she had quite an appetite for men. And although she wasn’t much to look at men were attracted to her energy, intelligence, confidence and unbridled passion. She told her husband about her first extra marital affair and was surprised at how hurt he was by it. She promised him it would stop but couldn’t stay away for long. After some time it was clear Reverend Barnes must have known about her indiscretions but they seemed to reach an unspoken agreement as long as she kept her hanky-panky on the down low he wouldn’t comment. But Pancho always lived loud and when her life became to over the top for her family, they shipped her off on an extended South American cruise. She had a fabulous adventure taking a lover, Don Rockwell who wrote the following poem about her. “With her tawny satin hide/ She would cuddle by my side/ Like a jungle kitten purring in the sun/ She was eager, she was hot/ She was all that I am not/ With her eager lips and arms/ Always quick to prove her charms.” Upon returning home, she took control of her life in a way she hadn’t before. She didn’t even pretend to live with the reverend anymore (although they remained married). She redecorated her mansion in Spanish style and turned it into a party house (woot, woot).
One night her and a few buddies (all men) made a crazy plan to jump a ship to South America. It was your usual crazy drunk talk except (this is where things start getting really good) they actually did it. They boarded a banana boat set to sail to Mexico. Pancho stuffed her hair in a dirty watch cap, wore an oversized work shirt and dungarees and, no lie, joined the crew as “Jacob Crane.” I’m not making this up, this isn’t some crazy movie, she legit joined a banana boat crew as a boy, only her buddies knowing her secret. They didn’t find out until later that the ship was actually running guns to Mexico. Long story short..er, the crew ended up being detained on the ship at gunpoint at one of their stops. Pancho found out a man, Rodger Chute was planning an escape. She convinced him to let her join him even though (again, not making this up) he didn’t like her because he had previously found out she was a woman. The two of them escaped successfully. While trekking through the treacherous jungle and avoiding hostiles on the less than noble steeds they had bartered from locals, Pancho looked up at Rodger and said “If you don’t look just like a modern-day Don Quixote riding such a skate.” He teased her back “In that case, you must be his companion, Pancho.” He meant Sancho and Pancho corrected him. He continued the jest and told her “From now in I’m calling you Pancho.” He had no idea she kept thinking about it and loved the sound of “Pancho Barnes.” They had a long, rigorous and adventurous journey finally arriving in Southern California nearly seven months after leaving. Pancho and Rodger remained lifelong friends. She had loved her adventure and learned she could survive without the luxuries if high society. She had transformed herself and her name, now calling herself Pancho Barnes.
In 1928 Pancho’s cousin, Dean Banks, invited her to take flying lessons with him. Always up for a new adventure, Pancho was enthusiastic to join him. When they approached the instructor they had hired he was less than thrilled as he didn’t like instructing women in aviation. The first time he took her up in the plane was a normal easy flight but the next day he decided to try to scare her off. Making steep climbs then diving and rolling the aircraft for good measure he was sure by the time they landed she would be a wreck. In stead she was exuberant and responded to him questioning if she still wanted to learn to fly with “Hell, yes, I want to learn to fly!” Now, remember we’re not talking about modern jets here. These were small open cockpit planes. The only instrument they had was the oil gauge. They flew completely visually with open maps on their laps. The could tell their altitude by looking over the side, their fuel level by dipping a string in the tank and flew straight by hanging a key chain from the control board. Crashes were not uncommon but, only flying at 30 mph, it was not unusual to walk away from a crash. Flying at the time was dangerous, difficult and exhilarating. Once Pancho had her pilot’s license she bought a biplane for herself.
When I first started looking into Pancho, I assumed she and her reverend husband hated each other. But that wasn’t the case at all. Although they did not live together as a married couple, still being married on paper was mutually beneficial. They actually respected and liked each other. Whenever one was out-of-town they wrote friendly even warm letters back and forth. Billy lived with his father and was raised by nannies, not really knowing his mother at all. Pancho’s home eventually became a nearly constant party, even when Pancho wasn’t home. They flew in bootleg liquor from Mexico nightly. She also hosted frequent parties in her Laguna Beach house. Her party goers included everyone from pilots to movie starts.
Now back to the flying. In the interest of this blog post not becoming a novel, I’m only going to share a few of Pancho’s many flight based exploits. Pancho told friends “Flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse.” She learned to fly at night, no easy task with no instruments. People didn’t know what to make of her. Not only were female pilots unusual but she carried her own equipment, serviced her plane herself, wore mannish clothing and was more than happy to tell a dirty joke, or two…or three. She flew for show in her Pancho Barnes Flying Mystery Circus of the Air. She was the only female member of a pilot club called the Short Snorts whose membership card was a dollar bill signed by all the members. She often worked as a test pilot. Pancho knew that the companies liked to use a women test pilot so they could advertise that their aircrafts were “so easy to fly a women could do it.” She wasn’t fond of their reasoning but she wasn’t about to pass up a chance at trying something new. She flew in what was known as the first women’s air race. She won, beating Margaret Perry by six minutes and her friend Bobbi trout by eight minutes. In all fairness, she had a far superior aircraft to her two competitors. Women’s flying events were always well publicized as in 1929 there were only 34 registered female pilots out of 4,690 total. The publicity is why they held a women’s endurance race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio. The women would be flying from sun up to sun down for eight days. Such a rigorous women’s race was controversial, one newspaper ran a story that included this line “Woman have been dependent on men for guidance for so long that when they are put on their own resources they are handicapped.” Twenty three women entered and nineteen of those actually participated in the race including Pancho, of course, and Amelia Earhart. Early into the race the heat and exhaustion overcame one contestant, Marvel Crosson. She got airsick and tried to parachute out but she was too close to the ground and was killed. Many called for the race to be discontinued, not in a respect for the dead way but in a “this proves women can’t fly” way. The fierce female pilots fought to keep the race going saying they all knew the risks of flying. Despite the tragic death, the race continued. Their were several more incidents but none of them fatal. Pancho, who had been making good time, drifted off course to Mexico at one point. Later that same day while she was landing in Pecos, Texas, their scheduled stop for the night, she hit something while touching down. She had a blind spot directly in front of her in her plane when nosing down. So although she had checked to make sure it was clear moments before, she did not see the car that had driven out on the runway (idiot driver). Her plane suffered enough damage to put her out of the race, thankfully no one was injured. Louise Thaden won the race and out of the twenty-three women who entered fifteen finished. That was the highest percentage of people to finish any race up until then, including the men’s races. Pancho bought herself a cutting edge (very expensive) plane called the Travel Air Mystery Ship. It was the fasted plane constructed and there were only four total manufactured. Amelia Earhart had the woman’s speed record but with her new aircraft Pancho beat Earhart’s record on her second try. Pancho also took jobs flying stunts in movies, the only woman at the time. She was even technical director for one film, hiring pilots and coordinating flight scenes. She also tried her hand at writing screenplays one if which was produced. It was Pancho’s idea to organize a union for stunt pilots and due to her efforts the Association of Motion Picture Pilots was formed. She continued breaking records and racing. She won the Tom Thumb aerial derby two years in a row. And was given a trophy engraved “America’s Fastest Woman Flyer” by California’s governor. Pancho even had a tiny parachute made so her pet Chihuahua named Chito could fly with her.
Photo from http://www.panchobarnes.com
Pancho flew a friend to Mexico and befriended several Mexican air force officers. Once again, she ended up dressing like a man, wearing a Mexican air force uniform, so she could get into the men only (a.k.a. strip) clubs with her new-found friends. After a week of heavy partying even by Pancho’s standards, they started the flight home. The weather was bad, she was fatigued and nearly crashed. They hit fog on top if everything and she nearly couldn’t find a place to land. They managed to land safely only to find later that they only had a minutes worth of gas left in the plane. They were lucky o have lived. Disappointed with the lack of opportunities for women to fly for their country, Pancho founded WAR or Women’s Air Reserve, she wanted show the world women were capable pilots. Though they had no official connection to the military, Pancho ran it like a military operation. They had uniforms, ran drills and had strict rules.
Meanwhile in her personal life, Reverend Rankin was promoted and moved to New York City. Pancho remained in California but they remained married. Pancho wasn’t upset when he took Billy, 9 years old at the time, with him. She had severe abdominal pain when she was 29, it turned out she had a tumor on one ovary. It was removed along with the rest of her reproductive system. She was not sad to lose her ability to have children. In fact, she was happy she didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant while having a very active sex life. Besides that, a little thing called The Great Depression was going on and Pancho spent money like she had an infinite amount, not just a large fortune. She paid almost no attention to finances and was overly generous with friends. She tried to cut costs, firing some domestic staff and making her once grand parties potluck. She even put her beloved Mystery Ship for sale (although it wouldn’t sell initially). In 1932 Pancho tried running for supervisor for Los Angeles County’s third district, she lost and stayed out of politics after that.
By the mid-1930s Pancho had gone as far as she could in her aviation career and was nearly out if money. So she decided to reinvent herself and her life. She’d often admired an alfalfa ranch in the Mojave Desert from the air. So she bought it, she knew little of agriculture but Pancho was (understatement alert) a wee bit impulsive. She was less interested in the alfalfa than she was in the hard flat surrounding land that was perfect for landing airplanes on and the clear blue skies. She initially rented her San Marino mansion but eventually sold it. She took her dogs, her horses, her boyfriend who was for some reason nicknamed Granny and surprisingly, her son. Both Rankin and Pancho agreed a ranch life would be good for the teenage boy. For Billy it was an adventure but also difficult since he had grown up pampered. He also found himself getting much more attention from his mother than he ever had before. Perhaps Pancho could relate better to a teenager than a child.
They were far from city life, the nearest town being 20 miles away. There was also a small military encampment near by, so small it was only 17 men living out of canvas tents. Pancho got to work fixing the ranch to her liking, carving out a dirt airstrip so her friends could easily fly over to visit. And visit they did, Pancho had to build some one room shacks to accommodate all her friends and named the place Rancho Oro Verde. At first she enjoyed working on the farm, she was proud of her physical strength but she ended up hiring out most the work in time. She also wasn’t happy with how much money the alfalfa was bringing in so she bought dairy cows and fed them the alfalfa, selling milk for more than she could sell alfalfa. They actually made quite a bit from her dairy business but as always Pancho didn’t keep track of money and spent without thinking, so they often seemed strapped for cash despite the revenue. Pancho noticed the nearby military encampments needed meat and so she also went into the hog business. Always the animal lover, Pancho even loved her hogs doomed to the slaughterhouse. Next she had the brilliant idea to collect the garbage from the encampments, charging them of course, then she fed the garbage to hogs and sold the hog meat to the encampments, clever right? Eventually, Granny, who had farming experience and had been a huge help to her, fell in love with someone else and left. Pancho soldiered on without him, coming up with new business schemes constantly, most of which didn’t pan out. She was great at starting new things but sucked at the follow through. She tried breeding Dalmatians and springer-spaniels to bring in money but she kept giving the puppies to her friends, losing money. She continued expanding Rancho Oro Verde. She even put in a swimming pool, to the surprise of the humble farmers living near her. Muroc, where she lived, was full of eccentric characters but none like Pancho. And she worked hard to keep her larger than life image. She was invited to tea by the ladies. And although she had been raised in high society and new how she should behave, she told wild and embellished stories complete with shockingly colorful language. She also pulled the backseat out of her fancy Cadillac to make space for her dogs. Oddly enough, she was still well-liked. People in Muroc appreciated her eccentricities. She was also generous and was involved in the community. She did, however have quite the feud going with one of her neighbors.
Her spending continued to be outrageous and she was always in debt, no matter how much money she made. She finally ended up selling her Mystery Ship to pay off some debt. That didn’t slow her spending because she knew she would receive a large sum of inheritance from her recently deceased grandmother but it was tied up in legal battles for years before she saw any of it.
In 1939 the U.S. government started the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) as part of their response to Germany’s growing air force and aggression. Pancho got a government contract to provide aircrafts and instructors and oversee her area’s operation. She used her inheritance to build an airplane hangar at her ranch. Women were neither encouraged or barred from participating in the CPCT. Pancho made sure to find two female pilots for the program registering them by first initial and last name only. In her third class she paid special attention to Robert Hudson Nichols Jr. or Nicky. They began seeing each other. Nicky was average in most respects but rumor had it that he had something very large Pancho was interested in. And yes, that “something large” was below the belt (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more). While they were dating Pancho and Reverend Rankin were divorced. Some accounts say that Pancho buzzed his church during his sermon in her plane. Others claim she walked right through the church meeting buck naked to serve him the divorce papers. I’m sorry to say the truth is less exciting. Rankin fell in love and uncharacteristically chose his new love over his career (divorce was frowned upon) and divorced Pancho. Not wanting to be seen as a victim Pancho told everyone a juicy story rather than the truth. Despite having not seen Rankin in years and not being in love with him, she was hurt. That hurt motivated her to marry Nicky in December of 1941. The marriage lasted a whole two weeks.
All private airports within 150 miles of the Pacific were closed after the attack at Pearl Harbor. So Pancho had to close down her flight program. That wasn’t the only change the war brought. With the panic from the attack the tiny Muroc Army Air Base (as it came to be called) grew in leaps and bounds. They also started a top-secret airplane-resting facility. The base was growing too quickly to keep up with and the accommodations for those serving there were less than comfortable. There wasn’t much in the way of recreation or entertainment either. Pancho found herself getting more and more visitors from the base and she welcomed them with open arms. Servicemen only needed to knock on her door to be fed and given access to her horses and swimming pool. She loved having people around especially those involved in aviation. The commanding officer, Colonel Shoop began frequenting Pancho’s and hosted events for the base and even visiting dignitaries there. What started as Pancho opening her home to the servicemen turned into a full-fledged business. Pancho built a clubhouse with dining and dancing featuring a double-sided fireplace. She expanded her horseback riding accommodations and held small rodeos on the weekends. She even set up hotel rooms. She had no interest in making it a family establishments but she let families come during the day and swim and ride horses. She also refused to charge many of her friends for their stays.
Pancho, not one to learn from her mistakes, was running out of money and was far in debt again. And she was already spending another inheritance (again tied up in legal battles) that she hadn’t received yet. Most of the inheritance came in assets rather than cash. She was forced to attend meetings in Philadelphia several times a year (due to a hotel she had inherited), which is where she met Don Shalita, a.k.a. husband number three. A once popular dancer, he was now a dance instructor in his late thirties and loved adventure almost as much as Pancho. He moved to California with her and they were married in June of 1945. Most assumed he was only interested only in Pancho’s money. They were proven wrong when Pancho and Shalita divorced after four months, he didn’t ask for a single penny.
When the war ended Pancho was quick to open her airfield again. Any time Pancho found an extra few dollars she was sure to grab a couple of friends and a Dalmatian and fly down to Mexico. She expanded her operation and renamed it Pancho’s Fly Inn. Muroc was undergoing changes again too. It became a state of the art jet testing facility. At first she had an open door policy at Pancho’s Fly Inn but when too many people she didn’t care for started coming she made it a members only club. As always she spent money abundantly and was quick to help out a friend. One flyer for the ranch listed prices and amenities then added “If you happen to feel a little broke-don’t stay away-we want you anyway.” Her favorite customers were the young test pilots now working at Muroc and they loved her too. She loved talking shop with them and they were often surprised by her knowledge of aircrafts and the bases operations which were supposed to be top-secret. She was friends with many top names in aviation, some who would later become astronauts. One of her best friends was Chuck Yeager, you know, the guy who broke the sound barrier after breaking two if his ribs the night before. Where do you think he was horseback riding when he broke those ribs? You may remember the scene from the movie The Right Stuff, you may or may not recall Pancho (played by Kim Stanley) is a minor character in the movie as well.
Pancho decided to make the bar and grill portion of the ranch a private club as well calling it the (wait for it) Happy Bottom Riding Club. Yup you read that right. Pancho would insist, with a wink, that the name was all about horseback riding. A proper lady wouldn’t be expected to get the dirty joke in the title but we all know Pancho was no proper lady and loved a dirty joke. For a private club it wasn’t all that private, having nine thousand members at one point. Pancho also knew what most men wanted alcohol, good food and pretty ladies. So she put out ads all over California to attract pretty waitresses.
Yup, just about horseback riding.
Photo from http://www.sci.fi
Pancho met her fourth and final husband at the Happy Bottom Riding Club, Eugene McKendry (Mac). Upon returning home from serving in the Army Air Corps his wife served Mac with divorce papers and gave him sole custody of their 4-year old son, Richard. An old friend suggested Mac seek work at Pancho’s and the rest is history. Mac was 26, around Billy’s age which must have bed hard for Billy. Worse yet for Billy, Pancho raised Richard as a son, giving him more of her time and attention than she had ever given Billy. Pancho’s relationship with Billy was increasingly strained. He still worked and lived on his mothers ranch but had married a women (who left him after just a few years) with a young daughter.
In 1946 Pancho suffered a retinal hemorrhage. She should have gone to the doctor, really the hospital but she didn’t. In stead she collapsed just days later causing her ranch hands to call the doctor. She chose to undergo a new, drastic and painful surgery called sympathectomy that would cure her high blood pressure. She went to the Mayo clinic for the procedure which had to be performed on one side of the body then after recuperating, the other side. Pancho was fiercely independent but in those painful, horrible weeks she found she needed Mac and he was there for her. While still recovering she put herself on display at the ranch and made it a joke, she would rather have people laugh then feel sorry for her. She felt the only way to recover was to have an adventure. So her, Rodger Chute, Billy and his wife and Mac took a fishing boat down to Mexico. When she returned she was healthy once again.
The Happy Bottom Riding Club continued to be THE place to party. And boy did they party! There was illegal gambling, an airborne treasure hunt, nude water ballets and one of the rodeos featured an all too accurate reenactment of Lady Godiva’s famous ride. Yup, a pretty blonde rode that horse buck naked. The presence of her pretty waitresses and wild parties made a lot of people believe the Happy Bottom Riding Club was a brothel. Pancho both denied and fed the rumors, loving the attention and business they brought in. Many of her faithful patrons to this day refute those rumors. There were legal investigations which could never prove impropriety. From what I could find, Pancho knew some of her girls were turning tricks and she did nothing to stop it but she never actively encourage prostitution or took a cut of those hostesses earnings. Billy actually married one of Pancho’s hostesses. Pancho disapproved and kicked them both out.
By this point Pancho wasn’t a licensed pilot anymore but that didn’t stop her from flying. She hated bureaucracy and refused to go through the new complicated steps to get re-certified. Her club continued to be frequented by the who’s who of Hollywood, including visits from Lassie. There were also several movies made on or around Pancho’s ranch. Pancho, always trying something new, started writing songs and had a couple minor hits. Her favorite was “Song to the Air Force” which she hoped would become their anthem (obviously it didn’t).
When Pancho got around to marrying Mac it was a massive affair, to say the least. The Muroc base which had been renamed Edwards Air Force Base pretty much shut down for the day. Chuck Yeager served as best man and Pancho wore an actual wedding dress. The feast was enormous and featured four whole roasted pigs and a fifty pound wedding cake (mmmmm cake). Sadly things went down hill for Pancho from there.
Edwards Air Force Base in the 1950s became a large and strict military base that was a far cry from Pancho’s beloved Muroc encampment. Pancho got off on the wrong foot (to say the least) with the new commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards, Brigadier General J. Stanley Holtoner. Holtoner was a strict and disciplined man who was instrumental in changing the whole atmosphere on Edwards. He saw Pancho’s as a den of iniquity, placing it off-limits at times. The growing base also had a lot more recreational opportunities hurting Pancho’s business. The worst thing was the governments plans to enlarge the base. They were taking local homesteader’s land right and left, claiming eminent domain. They compensated the land owners of course but not what the owners considered fair compensation. Pancho did not want to give up her land nor the home and businesses it had taken her twenty years and a lot of money to establish. Some of her confidants have said she would have given them the land had the government approached her correctly. Remember, this was a woman who loved the Air Force so much she wrote a song hoping they’d adopt if as their anthem. Her love and connection to the base made her feel betrayed. On seeing the other homesteaders run off their land, Pancho knew she would have to give up her ranch but she wasn’t going down without a fight.
While waiting (a long time) for the government’s appraisal of her property Pancho launched a lawsuits against the government claiming the Air Force was intentionally harming her business. This was just the beginning of legal battles between Pancho and the government that would last for years. Pancho always acting as her own lawyer and writing drawn out legal documents that included everything from reasons why the Air Force’s plans for her property were unnecessary to personal attacks. She knew she couldn’t win everything she asked for in the suites but she meant to be as big of a thorn in their side as she could. Some of the suites ended badly for Pancho and others she saw as moral victories.
In 1953, Pancho’s establishment went up in flames. She lost almost everything, from furniture to clothes to all of her prize stallions. The fire fighters were able to save her Dalmatians and their were no human casualties but it was an understandably enormous blow to Pancho. She knew she was would lose her home anyways but she had hoped to hang onto until the bitter end when she was forced to leave.The fire marshal concluded that the fire was arson and although there were some suspects, they never arrested anyone for the crime. Her home destroyed, she moved to Lancaster temporarily.
Despite the blow, Pancho continued her legal battles more fiercely than ever. She even started rebuilding what the fire had damaged. Pancho received $205,000 for her land and had to vacate (after pushing it back a couple of times) by August 7, 1954. Pancho moved to a new location about 30 miles away and in a more secluded spot. The move was difficult to say the least. And Pancho still wasn’t done fighting eventually upping her settlement to $414,500, a fortune at the time.
Gypsy Springs was her new home. The land she purchased included a run down shack of a house, the Jawbone Cafe and Motel, the Cantil store and a gas station. All the structures were in bad shape. There was no running water at her house and no out buildings, meaning there was no shelter for her horses (which did not end up in good shape over time) or housing for ranch hands. In true Pancho style, she bought some non-essential items, like an airplane, a catamaran and a color tv. She lived in a house with dirt floors and a state of the art tv. Pancho had big plans for her land, even wanting to build her own city on it but this time she had bitten off more than she could chew. She was both generous, giving away free meals and supplies from her restaurant and store, and contentious, filing more lawsuits and even pulling a gun on a police officer who pulled her over (he called dispatch, who after finding out it was Pancho, told him to “Just get in the car and leave”). It wasn’t long before Pancho was running out if money again.
In 1957 in the middle of all her financial struggles, Pancho found a small lump in her right breast. She had it biopsied at the Los Angeles Tumor Institute. They told her it was benign and Pancho and Mac celebrated for days in L.A. When they got home there was a letter from the institute explaining that further analysis showed the tumor to be malignant. I think we all realize how devastating that would be. The only treatment for breast cancer at the time was a complete mastectomy. Pancho was less concerned about the loss of her breast than the potential to lose use if her right arm. She had always been proud of her physical strength. After the surgery she exercised her arm everyday until it hurt, eventually gaining back full mobility. In 1960 she was back in shape but found her cancer had returned in her left breast and she had to have a second mastectomy. Her life had gone down hill. She finally felt her age (59) and was isolated and overwhelmed in Gypsy Springs. On top of everything her marriage was on the rocks. For the first time Pancho felt truly unattractive, she felt her sexuality that had been such a huge part of her dying. Mac began seeing a women who worked at the Jawbone Cafe. Pancho was never the monogamous type but in her unhappy state she felt jealous and betrayed. She had let Mac into her heart more than anyone else and shown him her vulnerability. In 1962 Pancho sued for divorce. By that time she had become completely overwhelmed by her deteriorating land and was involved in many legal battles to do with her financial difficulties. It was a long and messy divorce.
In 1963 one of Pancho’s old friends told a young man named Ted Tate about Pancho. While Ted was at Edwards on business he tracked her down. He found Pancho alone and in dire need of medical attention, her thyroid was shutting down and she was dying. Even in her terrible state she managed to shock the poor guy by asking (through the closed-door) if the visit was “formal or informal” because if it was formal she’d put on her “rubber tits” (her words not mine). A couple of months after his visit he was stationed at Edwards and visited Pancho regularly, eventually dragging her to the hospital and saving her life. They gave her medication to control her thyroid and while she recovered Ted spread word about her around the base. Only ten years after shutting down her ranch, most everyone on base didn’t even realize she was still around. They organized “Pancho Barnes” day on May 23 and had a huge party in her honor, with many of her old friends in attendance. Of course Pancho loved every minute of it.
Pancho was still in the middle of her messy divorce. When all was said and done they had had three judges ask to be taken off the their case and the final judge ruled nearly entirely in Pancho’s favor.
Despite her improved health it was clear Pancho was unable to take care of all her animals and land by herself. It was simply too much for one person. She was still used to having cooks and housekeepers and her home was disgusting and she often didn’t eat. An old friend, Arlene Milhollin offered to let Pancho live in a small home Arlene owned in a very small town for free. It was in poor condition and it took some work to make it habitable and even then it was less than luxurious but Pancho was delighted to have running water and a telephone and just to live near people again and without the responsibilities of her huge property. She still kept a mess of animals on her property not to mention the mess her house was. Ted ended up paying for her house to be cleaned every other week himself. She made another friend, Walt Geisen, she stopped by his house once a week and acted surprised when Walt’s wife invited her to stay for dinner. The family loved hearing her stories and she loved telling them. Walt and Ted started finding speaking engagements for Pancho and she was all too happy to share her stories at crowded banquet halls to eager ears. Her wit and wild stories made her a very popular speaker. Her seventieth birthday was a party to remember with Buzz Aldrin in attendance she began her speech “I never thought that on my seventieth birthday I’d be looking at the moon with a man beside me who walked on it.”
Pancho decided to try to reconnect with Billy, he was on his third marriage and owned his own aviation business. I’m happy to say their relationship grew closer and they attended an airplane auction together. Pancho’s old Mystery Machine was to be auctioned off. It was no longer functional but none the less the bidding started out competitively. That is until rumor spread, seat to seat, row to row that Pancho herself was their bidding on the plane. Each person bidding dropped out when they heard the news and Pancho was reunited with the symbol of her fast and carefree youth. Pancho had dreams of flying again but things had changed to much and she gave up those dreams.
Not surprisingly Pancho continued to have money trouble and continued to fight legal battle after legal battle. And her spirited eccentricities which had seemed fun and exuberant when she was younger now just made her seem like the crazy old cat lady, except instead of cats she had dogs, and goats and horses and, well you get the idea. Despite her success in public speaking and people loving her legend, most people avoided her in person. In 1975 Pancho had chest pains and drove herself to the hospital but left before seeing the doctor. Not long after that she failed to show up to a speaking engagement at the Officer’s Wives Club on base. They called Billy (Pancho’s number was unlisted) and when he couldn’t get a hold of her, he called the sheriff’s deputy. The deputy found a grisly scene. Pancho had been dead in her bed for at least a week, the kitchen faucet was left running and the heat had been turned up to over eighty degrees. Obviously, it smelled awful and the house was full of dogs and what always happens when someone’s body is undiscovered for a week in a house with a bunch of hungry dogs happened. Heart disease was the official cause of death but many found the circumstances of her death suspicious. If it was foul play, much like the arson she was victim to, so many years before, it remains a mystery.
Pancho was scheduled to speak at the fifth annual Barnstormers Reunion a few days after her death. The event instead became her unofficial funeral party. The next day, Ted worked hard to get permission to spread Pancho’s ashes by plane over the ruins of the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Begrudgingly, they granted him permission to do one pass over the site that was now part of the base. Billy flew Ted in his Cessna but when the big moment came Ted couldn’t get the lid of the urn and they circled around several times all the while being yelled at by the base. When he finally pried the lid off and dumped the ashes out the window, the wind caught Pancho’s remains and blew them back into the plane onto Ted and Billy. I think Pancho would have laughed.
As long and detailed as this blog entry may seem, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Pancho Barnes’ life. So many crazy stories I had to leave out. I wonder if Pancho’s mother had allowed her to study to be a veterinarian, would it have changed her life? Would she have stuck with it or would she have gotten bored and tried something new anyways? Pancho may not have won any mother of the year awards and was impulsive and reckless. But no one can say she didn’t live her life to the fullest. Pancho wasn’t afraid to be herself and live life on her own terms. She was always quick to stand up for herself and others. Although not everything in this blog is flattering to Pancho, I like to think she’d be happy I wrote this. Because if there’s anything Pancho loved as much as adventure (and sex) it was attention. And that’s why I wrote this, not many people read this blog but I want to help as many people as possible to discover Pancho’s gruff charms. So, let’s put Pancho back in the spot light where she belongs.
*If you would like to learn more about Pancho, and I hope you do, I strongly recommend my “reliable source” The Happy Bottom Riding Club The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes by Lauren Kessler. It could be argued that this blog entry was mostly a summary of that book. The documentary my husband discovered and showed me was The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club.
Photo from http://www.pilot-planes.com
Holden, Henry M. Great Women in Aviation #2- Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes. Black Hawk Publishing Co, 2011.
Kessler, Lauren. The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes. New York: Random House, 2000.
The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Amanda Pope. Nick Sparks Productions, LLC, 2009.