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The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes

The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes

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by Lauren Kessler

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Pancho Barnes was a force of nature, a woman who lived a big, messy, colorful, unconventional life. She ran through three fortunes, four husbands, and countless lovers. She outflew Amelia Earhart, outsmarted Howard Hughes, outdrank the Mexican Army, and out- maneuvered the U.S. government. In The Happy Bottom Riding Club, award-winning author Lauren Kessler


Pancho Barnes was a force of nature, a woman who lived a big, messy, colorful, unconventional life. She ran through three fortunes, four husbands, and countless lovers. She outflew Amelia Earhart, outsmarted Howard Hughes, outdrank the Mexican Army, and out- maneuvered the U.S. government. In The Happy Bottom Riding Club, award-winning author Lauren Kessler tells the story of a high-spirited, headstrong woman who was proud of her successes, unabashed by her failures, and the architect of her own legend.
Florence "Pancho" Barnes was a California heiress who inherited a love of flying from her grandfather, a pioneer balloonist in the Civil War. Faced with a future of domesticity and upper-crust pretensions, she ran away from her responsibilities as wife and mother to create her own life. She cruised South America. She trekked through Mexico astride a burro. She hitchhiked halfway across the United States. Then, in the late 1920s, she took to the skies, one of a handful of female pilots.
She was a barnstormer, a racer, a cross-country flier, and a Hollywood stunt pilot. She was, for a time, "the fastest woman on earth," flying the fastest civilian airplane in the world. She was an intimate of movie stars, a script doctor for the great director Erich von Stroheim, and, later in life, a drinking buddy of the supersonic jet jockey Chuck Yeager. She ran a wild and wildly successful desert watering hole known as the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the raucous bar and grill depicted in The Right Stuff.
In The Happy Bottom Riding Club, Lauren Kessler presents a portrait, both authoritative and affectionate, of a woman who didn't play by women's rules, a woman of large appetites—emotional, financial, and sexual—who called herself "the greatest conversation piece that ever existed."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Advance praise for The Happy Bottom Riding Club

"The hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous pilot and adventuress Florence 'Pancho' Barnes exploded every feminine stereotype on the books. Thank you, Lauren Kessler, for telling her story with the grace and exuberance it deserves."
        —-Barbara Ehrenreich

"Pancho Barnes is an unsung American eccentric who helped keep the 'wild' in Wild West. With tremendous zest, insight, and intelligence, Lauren Kessler has given us a compelling tale of a great woman who wasn't afraid to make life synonymous with risk."
—-Karen Karbo, author of Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse," declares Florence "Pancho" Lowe Barnes in Kessler's colorful biography of the female flyer, raconteur and scandalmonger. Drawing on personal interviews and other primary sources, Kessler details Barnes's flamboyant life: her privileged childhood in Pasadena at the beginning of the 20th century; her disastrous arranged marriage with minister Rankin Barnes, 10 years her senior, and the birth of her only child, Billy; her years as a flying ace and sexual profligate; and her penniless end as a possible murder victim whose corpse was partially eaten by her numerous starving dogs. Barnes was encouraged in her love of flying by her balloonist grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe, who flew the first air reconnaissance for the U.S. during the Civil War. In the 1920s, she began stunt flying for Hollywood, no mean feat considering that in 1929 only 34 of the 4,690 licensed pilots in the U.S. were women and none but Barnes did such work. She tested planes for Lockheed; wrote scripts for director Erich von Stroheim; worked with Howard Hughes on Hell's Angels, his multimillion-dollar flying epic; and founded the Association of Motion Picture Pilots. In 1929, she broke the women's speed record; six years later, she established the Women's Air Reserves, organized along military lines for aid in disasters. She spent WW II catering to pilots like Chuck Yeager at her Mojave Desert ranch and nightclub, the Happy Bottom Riding Club, which may or may not have been a high-toned brothel. This intriguing tale of a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking former debutante engagingly evokes a woman who lived like she flew--fast and dangerous. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Pioneer women aviators had guts, and some of them grace, but none was like Florence Lowe Barnes. Plain and plain-spoken, she went through three fortunes, four husbands, and countless businesses, lovers, and lawsuits during her turbulent life. Taking up flying to escape a boring marriage, Barnes stunted in early Hollywood, became an instructor, then founded the club of the book's title. It became a raucous home away from home for actors, desert bums, and servicemen from the newly established Edwards Air Force Base. Increasingly eccentric, she was fondly remembered--if only by the flying fraternity. An award-winning author and academic, Kessler provides a lively and thoroughly researched addition to two existing small-press biographies and a 1988 TV movie. (Index and photos not seen.)--Barbara Ann Hutcheson, Greater Victoria P.L., BC Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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6.02(w) x 8.99(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt

It was the summer of 1929, and for the first time in history, women pilots were racing  against each other in a cross-country derby  — 2800 miles and eight grueling days, from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio.

Pancho Barnes had taken up flying only a year before, but she thought she had a good chance to win.

On the dirt field that August afternoon, the airplanes were strung out in two long lines as a crowd estimated between 100,000  and a quarter of a million waited in the dust and searing heat for the radio-relayed pistol shot from Cleveland to cue the starter on the field. One of the largest aggregations of newspaper reporters, photographers and newsreelers ever to assemble on the west coast was there.  Movie and stage comedian Will Rogers, an aviation enthusiast, presided over the ceremonies, entertaining the crowd — but not the leather-jacketed flyers — by referring to the entrants as "flying flappers" and "petticoat pilots."  In the press tent, a reporter turned to his colleagues. "I don't care what you guys write about their bravery, their skill, their sportsmanship or their adaptability to goddamn aeroplanes," he said.  "What I'm gonna say is, 'Them women don't look good in pants.'"
At precisely two p.m., the pistol shot in Cleveland sounded over the loudspeaker in Santa Monica, and at one-minute intervals, each contestant took off at the wave of the starter's flag.  The first afternoon's flying was a sixty-mile, get-the-bugs-out hop to San Bernadino.

Louise Thaden landed first, twenty-seven minutes later.  Marvel Crosson was second.  Pancho clocked in with the third fastest time.  She felt confident as she flew over familiar southern California turf that first day.  She had spent several weeks in June flying the entire course all the way to Cleveland, so she knew well what lay ahead and felt prepared for it.  She had not done as much cross-country flying as some of the other women, but what she had done, she had loved.  She loved the challenge to wits and stamina, the feeling that she was alone and in charge.  That night, the pilots were first feted at a much publicized banquet and then sat through a lengthy briefing on the next day's flight.  It was not until after midnight that they were able to go to their rooms and go to sleep. Fatigue, it would turn out, was almost as great a hazard as the flying itself.  They were up at four a.m. and in the air by six.
By mid-morning of the second day, flying across the desert toward a refueling stop in Yuma, Arizona, the temperature soaring to the triple digits, the women sat in their open cockpits in their leather jackets flying east into the sun feeling woozy.  Landing at Yuma, Amelia Earhart ran into a sand bank and damaged her propeller.  Flying over the Gila River country of southern Arizona, Marvel Crosson was overcome by the heat and the turbulence.  She suffered a severe bout of airsickness and parachuted out — too late and too low.  Her body was found two hundred yards from the wreckage of her plane.
The other pilots heard about Marvel's death at their scheduled stop in Phoenix that night.  Pancho had flown the fastest leg and now led the field in elapsed time, followed by Louise Thaden, Gladys O'Donnell and then Amelia Earhart.  Stunned by the news, the women nonetheless wanted to carry on.  Flying was risky.  The women knew and accepted that.  But the American public was less ready to.  Race organizers were immediately pressured to end the event.  "Women have conclusively proven that they cannot fly," one newspaper editorialized the next day when it reported on Crosson's death.

The women held firm.  "It is now all the more necessary that we keep flying," Earhart  told the press. "We all feel terrible about Marvel's death but we know now that we have to finish."
The next day, again battling the desert heat, there were more mishaps.  One pilot damaged her biplane in a forced landing.  Another ran out of fuel in flight and struggled to bring her plane down safely.  A third discovered a fire in the baggage  compartment of her plane, landed quickly on a mesquite-covered ridge, put out the fire by throwing sand on it and took off again.  On the leg to Pecos, Texas, Pancho made an unscheduled landing near a small town, discovering to her chagrin that she had drifted off course and landed in Mexico.  She managed to get airborne again before the authorities had a chance to detain her.  But later that day, her luck ran out.
She was flying into Pecos just seconds from touching down at the airfield when she hit something.  She had no idea what it was.  The airfield had looked clear to her.  The approach was smooth.  The landing seemed to be routine.  But as she came within a few feet of touching down, she heard a crash and a grinding noise as her landing wheels hit and then caught on something.  She had no time to react.  Her right wing hit whatever was out there, spinning the plane around.  Then her left wing hit.

It was only after she jumped from the cockpit and got clear of the plane that she saw what had happened.
The speed cowling on her Travelair was so bulky that it created a blind spot in front of the plane as it nosed down.  What she couldn't see, directly in front of her on the runway was an automobile crossing the field.  It wasn't there when she scanned the field on her approach, and it shouldn't have been there at all.  She and the driver were both shaken up but unhurt.  The Travelair, however, was a wash-out.  The right wing was demolished, and the supports on the left wing were broken.  The plane could not be repaired on the field.  It would have to be loaded on a train and shipped to the Travelair company in Wichita for extensive work.  For Pancho, the 1929 derby was over.

Meet the Author

Lauren Kessler is the author of nine books, among them Stubborn Twig, which received the Frances Fuller Victor Award for the year's best work of literary nonfiction. She directs the grad-uate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she lives with her husband and three children.

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The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
NRNR More than 1 year ago
Even though I knew the ending before reading this book I found it to be full of excitement, history, and sadness. Each time I reflected on Pancho and her ways I would stop and smile then cry sometimes. She wasn't of her time which made her life all the more difficult and adventurous as well. Pancho Barnes jammed more into her life than many could in two lifetimes. Her neverending zeal for life and adventure remain a tribute to a woman who bucked all convention, broke most of the rules of society and yet left us with numerous firsts. An easy, fast and entertaining read. Enjoy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I saw the author one evening on BookTV and I immediatly went out and got this book. If you like aviation history, stories about wild parties, riches to rags stories, or tales about oversexed, hard drinking, foul mouthed women then this is a must read! I give credit to the author for her detail and for her ability to tell the story of a charater like Poncho Barnes and keep the content at a PG-13 level (for the most part). This story is a great lesson on what can happen to a rich child who is not taught the value of a dollar. For those of us who can only read about the rich and wonder what it would be like to be rich having a good time; well, let me say you will not be disappointed in this read. Pancho is one of those people that you would like to know but (hopefully) not be like. I also learned alot about the early history of Edwards AFB (even how the name was changed to Edwards). I had read Chuck Yeager's Biography years ago and this book ties in and gives the reader a view of life off the base. This is a very good book, so read it, you'll have fun.