Charles Lindberg has inspired millions but no woman has yet embarked on trans-Atlantic flight. Three women, based on real aviatrixes from the early years of aviation, determine to make their mark on history and set out on a thrilling but dangerous mission.
Elsie Mackay, daughter of an Earl, is the first Englishwoman to get her pilot’s license. Mabel Boll, a glamorous society darling and former cigar girl, is ardent to make the historic flight. Beauty pageant contestant Ruth Elder uses her winnings for flying lessons and becomes the preeminent American girl of the sky.
Inspired by true events and real people, Notaro vividly evokes this exciting time as her determined heroines vie for the record. Through striking photos, meticulous research, and atmospheric prose, Notaro brings Elsie, Mabel, and Ruth to life, pulling us back in time as the pilots collide, struggle, and literally crash in the chase for fame and a place in aviation history.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Crossing the Horizon
Elsie Mackay, 1920.
Hang on, she told herself as she tightened her grip as much as she could, the wind screaming wildly in her ears. Her eyes were closed; she knew that she should not open them. She was a thousand feet in the air, but right now all she had to do was hang on. That’s all, she said to herself again, this time her lips moving, her eyes squeezing tighter. Just hang on.
Twenty minutes before, the Honourable Elsie Mackay had sped up to the airfield, parked her silver Rolls near the hangar, the dirt cloud of her arrival still lingering in the air. She opened the side door to let Chim, her affectionate tan and white Borzoi, out to run the field. Suited up and goggled for a run with Captain Herne, her flying instructor, she was anxious to get back up into the air. The splendor and alchemy was consuming, swallowing her whole every time she lifted off the ground, dashing through clouds and soaring far above the rest of those anchored below. She had been enchanted at the controls of an airplane, feeling charged and elated—something she had almost forgotten. It had been weeks since she’d been up.
Captain Herne, unflappable, rugged, and a veteran of the early days of aviation, emerged from the hangar with a smile and his leather flying helmet already on, the chin buckles swaying slightly as he walked toward her. He pointed upward. “She’s ready if you’re ready.” He laughed, as if Elsie would have another answer.
She called Chim back, gave him a quick pet and a kiss, and followed Herne to the field where his biplane stood, ready for a jaunt down the runway, which was a short, clear path through a field of grass dotted with wildflowers. With the soles of her black leather spool-heeled oxfords on the wing, Elsie pulled herself up using the lift wires that crossed between the two wings and settled into the rear cockpit. They flew into the air within seconds, and Elsie breathed it in deeply and solidly. She smiled. She had an idea.
“Say, Hernie!” she shouted to him through the cockpit telephone when they had climbed to a distinguished altitude. “Loop her around the other way!”
The veteran flier knew that was a maneuver that meant bringing the plane to a loop with the wheels toward the inside, putting a terrific strain on the struts; the craft wasn’t built to fly that way. But after a glance at his and her safety belts, Herne shook off his caution and shoved the nose of the machine down and turned her over.
Elsie laughed with delight; nearly upside down, she already knew that she was the only woman who had looped with the wheels inside the circle.
“Attaboy, Hernie!” she shouted with a wide smile. “Attaboy!”
Herne laughed, too, then saw the wings fluttering under tremendous pressure like a flag in a windstorm. His smile quickly vanished; he tried to bring the plane back over.
“Turning over!” he shouted back to Elsie, but she did not hear him. The only sound was the howl as her safety belt ripped away from her shoulder and the screaming wind as it snatched her out of the plane. As she was pulled into the air, her hands clenched the bracing wires, clinging to them desperately. They were the only things keeping her from hurtling to the ground miles below.
Herne immediately turned around; he saw her twirling in the air like a stone tied at the end of a string. He lowered the nose, careful not to dive too fast. The wind pressure on her must be enormous, he thought. Good Christ, that girl is never going to make it to the ground. She’s not going to make it.
Elsie knew only that she needed to keep her grip strong and tight. She needed to hold that wire as fiercely as she could; she knew only not to let go. She was in a vacuum, the wind engulfing and beating against her at the same time.
There was no other thought.
Herne brought the plane down as gently as he could, the pressure of the wind easing a bit as they approached landing. Elsie swung her right leg into the cockpit and was able to pull herself back in, still holding on to the wire. The plane rolled to a stop and Herne reached back for her, scrambling out of his seat and helping her onto the wing.
“Let go,” he said, her hands still clenched around the wire. “Elsie, let go now.”
“Yes,” she agreed, her face red and chafed, but her eyes wide and bright. “Yes, I know, but I am not sure if I can.”
Herne lifted the fingers up one by one, uncurling them, releasing the lifeline of the wire, which he saw had cut through her gloves and straight to the bone.
She saw what he saw, and as he helped her to the hangar with only one of her oxfords missing, he patted her quickly on the shoulder and said, “I bet you’ll never ask me to do that again!”
Elsie looked at him, her hands held out, palms up and smeared with blood.
“I’ll loop her anytime,” she said, smiling. “Just get me a stronger safety belt.”
The third and favorite daughter of James Lyle Mackay—or, as of recently, Lord Inchcape, as he was pronounced by the king—Elsie Mackay reminded her father far too much of himself. At a glance, she was a lady, slight in stature, daughter of a peer, a privileged aristocrat wearing gowns of gold and beaded silk, a cohort of Princess Mary, the only daughter of George V. But under the surface of that thin veneer, Lord Inchcape had seen the will of his daughter evolve right before his eyes, her boldness take hold. She was not like her older sisters, Margaret and Janet, who knew and understood their duties. She was most unlike Effie, his youngest daughter, who was kind to the point of meekness and rarely put herself ahead of anyone or anything.
Elsie had failed at nothing. Whatever she set her sights to, she was almost always a quick, blooming success. He was always proud of her for that, but it was also what terrified him the most. Whatever his daughter desired, wanted, pined for, all she had to do was take a step toward it. It was delivered.
While Elsie was bold, her choices were even bolder. He had learned that lesson in the hardest way. As the chairman to Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company and the director of the National Provincial Bank, he recognized a tremendous and dangerous facet of his daughter; she was unafraid, a trait he nearly despised himself for giving her.
From the broad window in his study at Seamore Place, he saw her silver Rolls flash by, the tires crunching on the pea gravel of the drive, Chim’s head out the window as the breeze blew his ears back. Oddly, she was steering the car with her palms, as her hands appeared to be half-gloved. He shook his head and laughed. She was always experimenting with some new fashion. He remembered when she sliced her hair from tresses into a bob; he never had the heart to tell her that from behind she resembled a boy. This one looked more senseless than the others. Half gloves!
It wasn’t until they had seated for dinner that he saw the trend he had been laughing at was actually bandages that rendered his daughter’s hands almost useless.
“Now, before you say anything, Father,” she said the moment she saw his mouth drop as Effie and Mother braced themselves for the scolding, “it’s not as bad as it seems. Just two cuts; they will heal quickly.”
“Exactly how bad are they?” he demanded. “Your hands are entirely bandaged!”
“Not all useless.” Elsie grinned slightly as she wiggled the tops of her fingers that were visible above the wrappings.
“Let me ask if this injury was a result of your reckless hobby. I warned you about propellers and hot parts of the engine,” he said sternly. “Airplanes! Ridiculous! This is complete insanity. I don’t know why . . . anyone—”
“You mean a woman, Father,” Elsie interrupted, mimicking his stern stare and furrowed brow.
Effie giggled as Lady Inchcape suddenly looked away and smiled.
“All of my daughters are capable of anything they set their mind to. But you have so much already on your schedule with the design of the new ship that learning to fly an airplane seems preposterous to me, and that is aside from the prevalent danger,” he insisted, then softened. “My darling girl, my thoughts are only for you.”
The women burst out laughing, and Inchcape grinned as he cut into his roast.
“It’s quite safe, I can assure you,” Elsie relayed. “As long as you have a reliable safety belt, it can be quite a delightful hobby.”
“At the very least, you’ll have Dr. Cunningham look at it,” he added after he had swallowed.
“I am a nurse, dear father,” she reminded him. “You do remember that.”
“Oh, indeed I do,” he volleyed. “And it is because of the result of your nursing that I am so concerned for you now. We nearly lost you once, Mousie Mine, with that marriage incident, and I am reluctant to lose you again. Your girlish charms have unbridled powers.”
Elsie smiled slightly as a response, but quickly withdrew it. She wasn’t hungry—the food on her plate actually repelled her—and her fingers were throbbing. After Herne had pried her sliced hands off the bracing wire, he wrapped one of them with her handkerchief and the other with her flying scarf, then drove her to Dr. Cunningham, who stitched ten loops in her right and twelve in her left, and gave her a small bottle of laudanum for the pain. Elsie would get the use of her hands back in several weeks, the doctor said, but until then, there was no flying. Herne looked on and agreed.
“I’m going upstairs,” Elsie said as she pushed back her chair. “I’m in need of some rest. Sophie had said she might stop by; if she does, send her up, will you?”
Upstairs in her room, Elsie took a sip of the laudanum and slid into her bed. The palms of her hands were beginning to bristle with sharp pain. It was nothing, she thought as she swallowed the bitter liquid, nothing compared to what she had seen during the war. This was nothing but a scrape. She laughed at herself.
Out of her bedroom window she could see the lights of Mayfair start to shimmer as London came to bright life at night. She had just missed the view as the sun finished settling below the horizon, nestling right behind the arches of Hyde Park, which Else’s bedroom window looked out over from the third floor.
She laid her head back on the pillow and closed her eyes. It was not lost on her how right her father was, and just how close she had come today to cutting her life short. She had fallen out of a plane a thousand feet in the air. She knew she should be terrified and unwilling to even look at another plane again, but she simply couldn’t locate the fright in herself.
The laudanum was beginning to seep in, softening everything. She thought about the flight at the moment right before she was ripped out of her seat. The thrill of the inside loop was so absorbing, she pictured it over and over again. Flying was an indescribable release for her, one she first discovered when she was stationed at Northolt, one of biggest aviation centers during the war. She understood the pilots she had seen taking off, suited up in their leather and gloves, confident and unyielding, and their passion for flying. She knew the damage these men would experience in a crash, if they survived at all. Horrible burns, broken limbs, shattered spines. And many of them healed, got stronger, and went right back into the cockpit. A cut on the hand was nothing next to what she had seen, wrapped, cleaned, and treated.
Despite the horror of the things she had witnessed, she missed her time at Northolt. When England declared war on Germany in 1914, she was in the thick of the cheering and determination, and also the center of the silent, underlying panic of families about to see off their sons and husbands, who would come home as different men with pieces inside them that didn’t fit together anymore—if they returned at all. She was twenty-one, and her accomplishments consisted of mentions in the gossip column in the Daily Express for what she wore to a dinner party or the hat she wore when presented at court.
Sophie Ries, her close friend since childhood, had joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment at the outbreak of the war as many girls of the upper classes had, training to be nurses to aid the national effort. Elsie galloped at the chance and proposed to her father that she must also do something. It wasn’t until Margaret and Janet, egged on by their younger sister, announced their plans to go join the VAD that he conceded.
With the urgency of war always present, the Mackay sisters learned first aid and how to give blanket baths, feed a soldier, and keep a ward clean. Far from any sort of silk gold net, Elsie found herself in a painfully starched blue uniform crowned with a large white overlay, like a nun’s habit, that she ripped off hastily at the end of every shift.
Although Janet and Margaret approached their roles with a brawny sense of duty, Elsie felt more at ease talking with each patient, attempting to puncture some of their loneliness with a few minutes of conversation. It was not an approach the professional nurses sanctioned, but filling the need for a soldier, blinded and burned by mustard gas, or shot through the jaw and unable to speak a word, to have a bedside companion did more for them than a swift cleaning of a bandage or the spooning of soup between grimaced lips.
After several months, Elsie was transferred to Northolt, a training squadron in West London, to be a courier and driver. Angry about being removed from nursing, she felt that her time with the wounded had been not only beneficial but necessary for her patients.
The base was not just a training squadron: It was a Royal Flying Corps aerodrome, newly built for the No. 4 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron. The cavernous hangars stretched in a single row to the horizon; the sound of whirring motors hummed steadily, like a beehive. Within several seconds a plane touched down and another took off. Another sputtered into the air and one landed in the dirt field with a hard bounce.
“Is it always like this, sir?” Elsie asked her commanding officer, her anger evaporating. “Or are they practicing for something?”
“Going to start flying sorties in defense of London against the Zeppelin air raids,” the officer said. “You got here just in time. Can you drive?”
“I can.” Elsie smiled. “Tight and fast.”
“What kind of car can you handle?” he asked.
“Bentley or a Rolls-Royce,” she said.
He laughed. “How about a Crossley?” he said.
“Still has a great kick to it, sir,” Elsie said, waving away the dust cloud the last landing plane had created.
As a driver to the higher-ranking officers and even some of the pilots, Elsie tore the stocky, curved convertible from hangar to base. The sight of her burning up Uxbridge Road, a major street in London, with a car full of brass hats was common. Driving was delightful, she found, but flying was the activity that Elsie really loved—taking off, landing, circling, the swooping as the pilots performed daredevil stunts during test flights. She tried to imagine what being in the air felt like, what the ground looked like from above, how brash the wind felt on the face, and what exhilaration it was to dip and dart among the clouds like a bird. After delivering several officers to headquarters, a ruddy-cheeked, handsome young pilot asked if he might catch a lift with her to the farthermost hangar.
“I’ll drive you around all week if you take me for a spin in one of those biplanes,” she countered with her brightest smile.
“Afraid of heights?” he asked wryly.
“Possibly not.” She shrugged.
“Won’t get mad if your hair gets mussed?”
Elsie laughed loudly. “Look at it,” she said. “I just had it bobbed. I drive a convertible all day and it hit an officer in the face. I believe he ate some of it.”
The pilot laughed and Elsie leaned over to open the passenger door.
“Tony Joynson-Wreford,” the pilot said, extending his hand after he got in.
“Elsie Mackay,” she replied, extending her hand back.
The pilot hesitated for a moment.
“I’ve seen you in the Times. You’re the daughter of Lord Inchcape? The man who set the gold standard in currency for England?” he asked with a weary smile.
“Yes, the very same one who was knighted by the King,” Elsie said with a tired sigh and then a smile. “But he’s never flown, so I can at least beat him to that victory.”
“Looks like we’re going for a ride, then,” he said, smiling as her foot hit the gas and the tires spun out wildly, creating a magnificent plume of dust behind them.
Up in the sky, Elsie couldn’t believe it was real. With the bright sun forcing her to squint, she didn’t know where to move her eyes—to look up, down, sideways, or ahead, or to watch the blur of the propeller create a constantly moving grey circle. The higher they rose, the more insistent the wind came and the stronger her heart beat.
Elsie laughed loudly and slapped the outside of the plane.
“Oh, Tony!” she cried. “I am so awake!”
She could hear Tony laughing back, and then he shouted, “Hang on!”
He dipped the plane, flipping Elsie’s stomach inside out, but she just laughed louder. He circled the aerodrome, now a line of squares and rectangles placed over a neat brown patch. The freedom in the sky was austere, no boundaries, no stopping, no starting, going as fast as you wanted to go. It was limitless. She was never so untethered and genuine. It was terrifying and serene at the same moment. She loved that.
Tony took the plane higher, closer to lower-lying clouds, and headed right for them. In a moment they were enveloped in a thin, ethereal mist, the sun diminished to a golden, delicate glow. She reached her right hand up gently to touch it.
“I’m in a cloud,” Elsie whispered to herself. “I am in a cloud.”
Suddenly the sun burst forward, and she squinted again. They were back in the blue of the sky, brilliant and endless. Elsie could see the span of London below her, looking more like a puzzle than a large city. This is what the world looks like from up here, she thought, so narrow and small. Life up here is bigger. And faster. And forever.
Elsie wanted to stay, floating in the miraculous blue of the sky, the sigh of the clouds, and far above the cramped, tiny world below.
The brown patch came closer and closer, the aerodrome in view. This couldn’t be the last time she felt like this, she told herself; it just couldn’t. She had to figure out how to get back up here again, for as long as she could stay.
With a bump and a bounce, Tony brought the plane in on the dirt field, right next to a row of biplanes currently doomed to the earth.
He removed his goggles, climbed out to the wing from the cockpit, and helped her down. She landed back on the dirt with a small jump.
“So,” Tony said, smiling and removing his leather flying helmet, “how does it feel to be back on the ground?”
“Boring,” Elsie said, not hesitating to answer. “Devastatingly boring.”
Tony laughed and nodded. “We’d better find a comb,” he said, tapping her on the shoulder. “Your hair is a wreck.”
Elsie convinced Tony to take her for two more flights before she was summoned back home. Inspired by the work her daughters had done to aid the war effort, Lady Inchcape decided that she, too, needed to contribute in the only way a woman of high-ranking nobility was able to.
Four Seamore Place, a vast Georgian town house built a century before, was located on one of the most respectable streets in Mayfair. Two addresses down from Alfred de Rothschild’s mansion that housed his famous art collection and looking westward over Hyde Park, the house at Seamore Place was gracious, with a wide, sweeping staircase that opened to a palatial drawing room on the second floor.
“Here,” Lady Inchcape said, waving her arms widely, “is where we shall set up initially. I think the view here over the park is lovely, especially at dusk, a time when things can get so dreadful. It will do good to lift some spirits, don’t you agree?”
The four Mackay daughters all nodded precisely on cue.
“Forty beds if we’re economical,” Lady Inchcape pointed out. (This was the same woman who had told her husband to turn down the offer of viceroyship of India when she learned they would have to pay for a complete china service, since the exiting viceroy was taking his with him. Her husband took her advice.) “I’ve contacted the Red Cross and we can probably expect six or seven VADs to be sent over in addition to you four by next week.”
Elsie understood then that her chances of flying were over. Of course she would abide by her mother’s wishes, but since she had taken that first flight through the clouds, she could barely stand to think of anything else. Her driving became her grounded substitute as she felt the speed and the wind shoot past her. It was the closest she could get to being in the air, although after she received several speeding reprimands, the Crossley was replaced by a much slower Ford, which was then replaced by a rattling, falling-apart motorbike that barely started, let alone flew.
The Seamore Place hospital was full immediately. The injuries and wounds were more horrific than Elsie had remembered in the earlier days of the war: the boils and burns of mustard gas were more prevalent, as was the damage of charred lungs and skin that had simply melted; faces that were twisted and torn by artillery; eyelids and noses that were burned off; and cavernous head wounds that could never be healed. Elsie held hands; she patted brows, cooled fevers; she talked. She took dictation when hands were too shaky to write, or when there weren’t hands left at all. She read letters to those anxious to hear them, and passed on a good joke when she heard it. She knew, truly and honestly, that at that moment her presence there was more important than anything, even flying.
The injuries of the new patient in bed eighteen were not serious in the grand scope of things. He had all appendages, and a face that was intact. He had suffered a blighty one: a nonhorrific wound that was enough to get him sent back to England and probably not back into battle thereafter. Dennis Wyndham, a lieutenant from South Africa, had shell shock along with teary eyes and raw lungs from a mustard gas attack. He was fair, tall, and handsome, with a square jaw and serious eyes. He had smiled slightly at Elsie when he first arrived, uninterested in making any small talk. He spent most of his day by the window, sitting in a tufted armchair that Princess Mary had once taken tea in. Before the war, he had been a popular actor frequently seen in starring roles in London’s West End.
But now he required very little contact with anyone. He would rather not speak. He preferred to spend those daytime hours sitting in what sun he could catch, studying the people below who were able to go about their lives—those who still had lives—and he spent his nights trying not to fall asleep. It was better not to fall asleep.
Initially, Elsie had sensed his separation from the world; she had seen shell shock many times before. Sometimes, it was only a matter of days before they came back to the surface, and other times they were lost somewhere inside, forever. She respected Wyndham’s solemnity, his separation from the rest of the men, his time in the chair staring at the park. But as she passed him one brilliant and sunny afternoon, she noticed his hand on the arm of the chair. Lean, long fingers, but strong and capable. Shaking. They moved with a firm tremor, from side to side, without pause.
And Elsie, doing what she always did, simply reached down and took ahold of his quivering fingers, put his hand in hers, pulled up a nearby chair, and sat quietly.
The romance between the Honourable Elsie Mackay and Lieutenant Dennis Wyndham blossomed quickly, but was steadfast and unwavering. His lungs healed, the tremors eased, and he came back to the surface full of unquestioning confidence of his love for the curly-haired, slight, dark-eyed heiress. Her smile popped, he said over and over again, until he simply called her “Poppy” and she found it adorable.
It was only a matter of time before her father caught wind of the pairing and wasted no time announcing his aversion to the entire idea.
“He’s . . .” Lord Inchcape angrily declared, nearly shuddering, “. . . an actor!”
Elsie stopped listening. And as soon as Dennis was well enough, Lord Inchcape instructed his wife to make sure the actor was moved to another hospital. Undaunted, Dennis bravely approached Inchcape for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Inchcape forbade it, and made it clear that if his wishes were not respected, the consequences would be severe.
“Elsie, be reasonable,” Margaret tried to tell her. “Father is right. You can’t marry Dennis. He’s a very fine man, but it isn’t sensible. You are one of the richest women in Britain; play this one very safe.”
Elsie laughed. “You mean Father will disinherit me? Cut off my income? I don’t care,” she said, still smiling and determined when her father whisked her to Scotland to examine the fifteen-thousand-acre estate of Glenapp Castle near his childhood home. He had purchased it, Elsie believed, out of spite, and instructed her to set up the household.
It was Effie, Elsie’s youngest sister, who ran into Dennis, waiting at the edge of Hyde Park across the street from Seamore Place for an opportunity to pass her a letter for Elsie just before Lord Inchcape returned to London.
In Scotland, Elsie’s hands tore open the letter and immediately saw Dennis’s shaky handwriting; addressed to his dearest Poppy, it said he still wanted to marry her. Elsie proposed to Lord Inchcape that she return to London as soon as possible, preferably before the Royal Ascot or the regatta. She was anxious to get back to the social season, she said, and surprising her, he agreed.
Elsie and Dennis met at the registrar’s office on a quiet Saturday morning in early May to secure a marriage license. She wore a light blue silk dress with a slightly dropped waist, carefully picked out for the occasion. Dennis looked handsome in his starched captain’s uniform of khaki barathea wool and brass buttons; it was hard to believe he had been so ill just months before. After delivering their names and addresses, the registrar took a moment, then informed them that an objection had been made. No license could be issued to them with that standing.
“There is nowhere in London that will marry us,” Dennis told her once outside the office. “There isn’t a corner that your father can’t touch.”
“I won’t let him stop us!” Elsie objected.
“I’m going to the telephone box to call my station; we’ll need more money than what I’ve got. I’ll be back in minutes,” he told Elsie as he steered her into a tearoom. “Stay hidden.”
When Dennis retuned, Elsie saw that his face was pale, his brow furrowed. For a moment he looked frail, revealing shadows of the man Elsie first saw in his hospital bed.
“My leave has been canceled,” he spit out as soon as he got close enough. “There are provost marshals coming to arrest me. We’ve been followed.”
“Now I have an idea,” Elsie said, carefully watching the door, then approached a uniformed waitress and whispered in her ear.
When Elsie returned, the waitress was with her, as was a young man from the bakery counter of the shop. Elsie jotted notes on two pieces of paper, handing one to the waitress and the other to the baker, along with several folded pound notes.
“Thank you both,” Elsie said, and the waitress smiled.
“They’re looking for a captain and his girl in a light-blue dress,” Elsie said. When the baker and waitress returned, each had a package; in the misshapen brown paper was a grey tweed suit, and in the streamlined box was a tailored beige linen dress that had been waiting at the dressmaker’s for Elsie since the week before.
And into a crowd of men wearing homburgs and tweed suits, Elsie and Dennis were absorbed, and then simply vanished.
Within an hour of arriving in Glasgow, they had applied for a marriage license and were married at St. Aloysius’ Church, with a verger and an old woman who had been praying acting as witnesses. The bride wore her blue silk dress.
Elsie telegraphed her family and Sophie before they left for London that night, announcing their marriage and that they would be back the following day. She wasn’t surprised when they pulled into Euston Square Station in London and saw the provost marshals on the platform, waiting to arrest her husband.
Much to Lord Inchcape’s dismay, the “arrest” consisted of the provost marshal taking Elsie and Dennis to his home, where they were served breakfast and then Captain Wyndham was simply ordered back into uniform.
The consequences for disobeying her father, however, were not so hollow for Elsie. He refused to see her, despite pleas from his family, especially his son, Kenneth, who had come back from the war to find his family fragmented. But when it came to the subject of his favorite daughter, Inchcape was devout in his conviction.
His heart was shattered. The man who had been knighted by the king saw a bleak future for his daughter, but he had reconciled himself to the fact that he would not contribute to the disreputable and venal world she had just introduced herself to.
Elsie, in the days of being a newlywed and believing that things would always remain as delirious and sanguine, laughed at her disinheritance. Dennis was invalided from the army and returned to the stage, having secured a medium-size part in a West End play. Elsie busied herself by creating a home in their tiny, little third-floor flat in a somewhat unsavory neighborhood.
When her older brother, Kenneth, was in London, he would always stop by Elsie’s flat and plead for her to just make an effort to mend things with their father. He suggested that perhaps an apology might smooth things over a bit and perhaps give Elsie some access to her bank accounts, but she shook her head adamantly. Yes, she admitted to her brother, finances were difficult. Dennis’ salary didn’t provide for everything. Elsie had sold some jewelry to stretch things further, but she had exciting news to share.
“I’m going to be a film actress,” she said, her cheeks full, eyes beaming.
“Oh, Elsie,” Kenneth mourned, stopping just short of holding his head in his hands. “Do you have any idea what this will do to Father? As it is, he saw Rothschild on the street the other day, who immediately issued his condolences after hearing that his daughter had run off with a lion tamer from the circus.”
“No—listen, Kenneth; it’s perfectly fine. It is!” His sister spoke excitedly. “There’s another actress by the same name, so clearly I can’t be myself! She was in a West End play with Cyril Maude. It would create mayhem if there were two of us!”
Elsie grabbed his arm and gave it a playful tug. “What do you think,” she said, rolling her hands forward to present herself, “of the actress named Poppy Wyndham?”
“Ooooooh,” Kenneth said with a wince. “Well, that sounds . . . tarty.”
“I play a horsewoman, and the name of the movie is A Great Coup,” Elsie said, ignoring him. “Have you read the novel? In most of the film I’m riding, which I am awfully excited about. I haven’t been riding in quite some time.”
“Even under a stage name, Father is bound to find out,” Kenneth said with a grin. “This news will keep the Mayfair gossips busy for years!”
“Well,” Elsie replied, hesitating a bit, “they’ve offered me a year contract.”
“Darling sister,” Kenneth said as he tilted his head downward and looked up over his brow, “nothing is beyond you, little dear.”
Kenneth ground out his cigarette and stood up to depart. Elsie smiled and threw her arms around him, giving him a quick peck on the cheek.
“By the way,” he said when she let go, “it’s a delightful little hovel you have here. I bet even the rats are flawlessly adorable.”
A Great Coup was a marvelous success, with the reviews hailing Elsie as not only an expert horsewoman but as possibly the brightest new thing to happen in silent film. She made eight movies that year, but it didn’t mean to Elsie what it meant to Dennis. It was his art, it was his profession, whereas to Elsie, being an actress was terrible fun.
She secured Dennis a part in her new film, and it was on that set that Elsie, wearing a flowing gown, was to walk down a dark hallway with only candles lighting her way. One of the small, flickering flames caught the edge of the gauzy dress, and within seconds the whole train and back of the gown billowed into flames. Dennis leapt up and threw himself on her, extinguishing the fire and saving her from an excruciating death.
That was the man that Elsie remembered; that was the man that Elsie had married. Now he spent more time at the theater, working out new roles and taking on bigger parts. He was hardly at home. There were some mornings when Elsie woke alone in her flat after he had fallen asleep in his dressing room. Those mornings became more frequent.
He missed the premiere for A Dead Certainty; she waited at the flat until the last minute, then stood outside the theater for as long as possible until she was the last person seated. When she asked him why he hadn’t come, he didn’t even offer up an excuse.
“For heaven’s sake, Elsie,” he replied in a huff, waving her away with his hand. “It’s not a live performance. I could go watch that movie right now and it wouldn’t be any different than the night of the premiere. Why does it matter when I see it?”
The film made her famous. In Spain, collector’s cards with her name and photo were given out with chocolate bars. She was offered another movie, and with each passing success she saw Dennis fade more and more into his own separate life.
She saw a facet of him return: the solemn man by the window, only interested in his life outside their home. She offered to abandon acting if that was what Dennis needed; she had already abandoned riding and flying because they simply could not afford it.
But Dennis would say nothing. Stunned again by the quiet, Elsie felt the frustration rise up in her until it breached. As Dennis was heading out yet again without a word, she abandoned her composure and grabbed him by the arm. “Tell me,” she said fiercely, looking him in the eye. “Tell me what it is I’ve done.”
He looked at her briefly and calmly removed her clenched hands, then shook his head. He looked weary.
“I’m sorry, Elsie, I am. It’s impossible. I could never be happy with you,” he said quietly. “There are things you will never understand.”
Then he opened the door and simply left.
Elsie did not know if he ever returned. She packed a few things, called a car, and sought refuge with Sophie, who offered her a home for as long as she needed it.
Then she sat down and wrote a long, honest letter to her father.
After Lord Inchcape read the letter that was delivered to Seamore Place, he called for his driver and was at Sophie Ries’ apartment that afternoon. Elsie hadn’t seen her father in almost four years. He hadn’t aged as much as he had shifted, seeming a little smaller and slightly lower, shrunken. While never a tall man, his overwhelming presence and the force that he carried with him had always been apparent. Some of that was now gone.
She knew she had done that.
But as her father entered Sophie’s drawing room, slightly smaller than he had been, he approached his favorite daughter without hesitation and embraced her gently.
“My darling girl,” he said lightly, then released her to look at how much his daughter had transformed. “Oh, my dear girl.”
Elsie and her father returned to Glenapp Castle, where, along with her sisters, brother, and mother, a wiggling little present was waiting for her, too. It was a lanky, doe-eyed tan and white Borzoi puppy named Chim by his laughing, delighted mistress.
Lord and Lady Inchcape and their prodigal daughter set sail for New York on the maiden voyage of the White Star Line’s Majestic, the largest vessel in the world. With a scrupulous eye, Elsie examined the ship and suggested improvements to their stateroom. It gave Inchcape a marvelous idea: bring Elsie into his cruise ship company. When he presented this idea to his daughter, she smiled and immediately began taking notes.
It was on the return trip that an electric blonde with milk-colored skin plopped down next to Elsie one night during dinner at the captain’s table.
“The Honourable Elsie Mackay, I’d like to introduce you to Miss Mabel Boll from New York,” the captain said before taking his seat at the dining table.
“Pleasant to meet you,” Elsie said, nodding, noticing at once the amount of jewelry that had landed all over Mabel’s body in the appropriate places.
Mabel, whose wide blue eyes sparkled almost as much as her diamonds, lit a cigarette, ignoring the men at the table who feebly offered matches. Her champagne blond hair was perfectly waved, sculptured. She was generous with her makeup, the bloodred color of her lips accentuating the poutiness that they possessed naturally. She was striking more than she was beautiful, and seemed more interesting than alluring.
“This was my first trip to New York,” Elsie offered, in an attempt to start a conversation. “It was so much more vibrant than I ever imagined. London almost seems a bit sleepy by comparison, doesn’t it?”
“Wouldn’t know,” Mabel replied, her words clipped as she leaned over on the folded arms she had rested on the table, the glowing tip of her cigarette coming entirely too close to Elsie’s silk sleeve. “Never been there. But I’m not staying in London; I’m going to Paris. New York’s nothing compared to Paris!”
“So you’ve been to Paris?” Elsie inquired, hoping to find some common ground.
“No, but I’ve heard about it,” Mabel replied without a beat. “Just got married, and I’m gonna buy a villa there. My husband is back in South America. He’s the coffee king of Colombia. Señor Hernando Rocha. You heard of him?”
Elsie barely shook her head, still stinging from the word “married.”
“Well,” Mabel said with a sigh, “he’s got his ranch, so I got this.”
The blonde wiggled a finger on her left hand that bore an immense diamond on it, nearly the size of an eyeball.
“Forty-six carats,” she said simply, and shrugged. “Makes complaining worthless, don’t it? Say, don’t I know you?”
Elsie smiled politely, and nodded once. “Well . . .” she replied. “I did do a bit of acting a while ago, but I think I might try my hand at something else soon.”
Mabel leaned in and furrowed her eyebrows.
“And just what might that something be?”
Startled slightly by Mabel’s sudden proximity, Elsie sat up straight and moved slightly farther back in her chair.
“Flying,” Elsie said. “During the war, I was stationed at a Royal Flying Corps base. I’ve never experienced anything that exciting since; even acting was rather dull compared to it. I’m thinking about taking some lessons, learning to fly myself.”
“You don’t saaaay,” the newly married, heavy-fingered bride said, stretching out the vowel for emphasis. She then reached for the cocktail, tipped it, and swallowed it in two dainty gulps.
“Thank heavens for international waters,” she said with a laugh, and then got up, her empty glass in hand. “Prohibition is criminal.”
Mabel Boll never returned to the dinner table that night, and Elsie didn’t see her again for the duration of the trip, although rumors swirled about her on a daily basis. That she danced all night in one of the ship’s clubs; that she had her own stash of liquor in her cabin; that after flirting unabashedly with the marvelously rich Marshall Field III, she caused quite a row between him and his wife, Evelyn; that she emerged from a stateroom not assigned to her early in the morning and scrambled down the hall. Elsie paid no attention to the swirling clouds of gossip about Mabel Boll. She was busy thinking about something else. The moment she got back to London, she tracked down Anthony Joynson-Wreford and asked him for a recommendation for the best flight instructor in England.
“That’s an easy favor, Else,” he said over the phone. “Captain Herne: he’s the most experienced man in the business. He’s right outside of London. I’ll ring him up.”
It was the knock on the door that woke Elsie, who struggled slightly to emerge from a deep, laudanum-aided dream of her past. Her hand throbbed considerably less.
Sophie peeked her head through the barely open door.
“Are you awake?” she whispered. Elsie nodded and waved her close friend in.
“Oh, Elsie Mackay, you have gone and done it now,” she said, sitting on the bed and grazing Elsie’s palms with her forefinger. She winced. “That looks truly awful. Are you going to tell me what really happened? It’s not a motor burn, unless you were daft enough to slam both your hands on the engine. Don’t forget, I was a nurse, you know.”
Elsie sighed. “Swearing you to utter secrecy,” she said, looking at Sophie sternly. “Tried my hand as an air acrobat, but didn’t like it. I’d rather just fly the bloody plane.”
Sophie raised her eyebrows in disgust. “Truth, please,” she asked.
Elsie nodded. “But you won’t believe it,” she said. “Hernie and I were doing an outer-loop trick and it was the most shocking, marvelous thing. You can’t imagine it, Sophie; the wind is whipping so quickly, and your body is reeling with this force and—”
“What happened to your hands?” Sophie interrupted.
“The safety belt ripped and I flew out of the cockpit,” Elsie admitted. “I grabbed the bracing wires until Hernie landed, and, well, now I’m afraid I’m grounded for a while.”
“That’s ridiculous and I wish you’d tell me what honestly happened,” Sophie said sternly. “Have it your way, Elsie; I’m just glad that you’ve been cured of this flying nonsense no matter what absurd injury you’ve inflicted on yourself. Stay on the ground with us.”
Elsie laughed. “Well, it’s true, I won’t be flying any time soon,” she confessed. “But I haven’t been cured of anything. Now that I have some spare time, I’ve decided I’m going to get my pilot’s license and buy a plane of my own.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Crossing the Horizon includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Laurie Notaro. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
“The freedom in the sky was austere, no boundaries, no stopping, no starting, going as fast as you wanted to go. It was limitless.”—from Crossing the Horizon
In her first work of historical fiction, Laurie Notaro delves into the fascinating and little-known world of female aviators in the late 1920s. Notaro maps the trajectories of three women obsessed with crossing the Atlantic by plane: Elsie Mackay, a wealthy daughter of an English peer and the first woman to earn her pilot’s license in Britain; Mabel Boll, a society page damsel known as the “Queen of Diamonds,” and widower with a bottomless bank account also eager to make the historic flight; and Ruth Elder, a twenty-three-year-old beauty pageant contestant from Alabama who used her winnings for flying lessons that helped establish her as the “American girl” of the sky.
Following Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 flight from New York to Paris, Mackay, Boll, and Elder become even more focused in their efforts to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. As they redouble their commitment to flying, Elsie, Ruth, and Mabel find themselves becoming international celebrities in their own right, aviatrixes featured on the front pages of major papers around the world. Crossing the Horizon invites the reader to revisit an era when airplane travel was a brave new world and women were on the cusp of achieving their rightful places in it.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Crossing the Horizon opens with an account of Elsie Mackay’s narrow escape from death in an airplane piloted by her flight instructor. What does her behavior in the middle of this crisis reveal about her character? How does Elsie’s appetite for adventure relate to the choices she makes in other aspects of her life?
2. “Lord Inchcape had seen the will of his daughter evolve right before his eyes, her boldness take hold.” (page12) How does Lord Inchcape’s relationship with his third daughter, Elsie, change over the course of the novel? How do you interpret Inchcape’s elaborate efforts to protect Elsie from harm—typical fatherly concern, the controlling behavior of an aristocrat used to getting his way, or something else entirely?
3. How does the $25,000 Orteig Prize (for the first nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris) bring together Charles Lindbergh, an unknown airmail pilot from St. Louis, and Charles Levine, the Brooklyn-born millionaire and cofounder of the Columbia Aircraft Corporation? How would you characterize the nature of their connection? Were you surprised to learn that both were members of the Quiet Birdmen?
4. “ ‘I am already the Queen of Diamonds, but,” Mabel said daintily, “I’d love to be the Queen of the Air!’ ” (page 54) Who is the “real” Mabel Boll, and how does her passion for flying fit in the larger context of her public persona? Why does Charles Levine find her personality an advantage in publicizing his plans to be the first person to fly the east-west transatlantic route? What aspects of her portrayal in the novel did you find most memorable, and why?
5. In what ways does Ruth Elder seem unconventional for a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks of Anniston, Alabama? Why do speculators from West Virginia decide to help fund her seemingly improbable dream to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic? How does Ruth capitalize on her youth and physical attractiveness to advance her own aviation goals?
6. Compare and contrast the reactions Elsie Mackay, Mabel Boll, and Ruth Elder have when each experiences flight for the first time. What excites them about being up in the air? How does each woman feel about piloting a plane? How do their unique marital situations—divorced (Mackay), widowed (Boll), and married but living alone (Elder) facilitate their pursuit of their dreams of aviation?
7. In what regard does Captain Walter “Ray” Hinchliffe embody the ideal of a pilot? What does his association with both Charles Levine and Elsie Mackay suggest about his profile in the aviation community in the aftermath of the war? To what extent were Hinchliffe’s financial situation and his sense of obligation to his family responsible for his untimely death?
8. What does Charles Lindbergh’s reception in Paris in 1927 reveal about the world’s fascination with air travel and its pioneers? Compare Lindbergh’s honors and instant fame to the kind of celebrity enjoyed by present-day luminaries and innovators. Why did Lindbergh’s accomplishment seem to galvanize so many people in different parts of the world?
9. Describe the transatlantic attempt of Ruth Elder and Captain George Haldeman in the American Girl and their rescue by the sailors of the Barendrecht. To what extent were the hazards they faced shared by many of those who lost their lives attempting to fly across the Atlantic Ocean? How might the details of their flight plan have played a role in their remarkable rescue?
10. Describe the atmosphere of competition among the pioneers of early aviation. How were female pilots like Elsie Mackay and Ruth Elder treated by their male counterparts when they joined the scene? How does the historical context of Amelia Earhart’s efforts at transatlantic flight color your appreciation for the social and gender barriers that Mackay, Boll, and Elder were attempting to break? Why do you think Earhart remains better known than any of the aviatrixes whom Laurie Notaro profiles in Crossing the Horizon?
11. “Thousands and thousands of women, many of them waving scarves, were crowded on the tarmac at Le Bourget when Ruth took off her flying goggles and finally looked around her. . . .[T]hese were people who believed in her.” (page 270) Aside from their gender, what qualities do Mabel Boll, Elsie Mackay, and Ruth Elder have in common? What accounts for their tenacious pursuit of their goals? What might these women represent to the thousands of women who would never fly on airplanes in their lifetimes?
12. “‘You have everyone on the verge of nervous collapse with your ludicrous flying!’ Have you any idea what it’s doing to this family?’” (page 336) Why does Elsie Mackay deceive her family about her plans to copilot the Endeavour across the Atlantic with Captain Hinchliffe? How do the family members of the aviators in this era tolerate the uncertainty and dangers inherent in the activity of flying?
13. If you had to select one of the figures in this book as your copilot on a transatlantic flight, which would you choose and why? Discuss your answer.
14. How did you interpret the spiritual communications from Captain Hinchliffe delivered by the well-regarded medium Eileen Garrett to his widowed wife, Emilie? If the messages weren’t coming from Hinchliffe, who were they from?
15. Of the many adventures detailed in Crossing the Horizon, which did you find most memorable and why? How did the author’s decision to intersperse the individual stories of Mackay, Boll, and Elder over the course of the novel’s narrative impact your reading?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In Crossing the Horizon, aviators like Elsie Mackay and Ruth Elder find themselves having to contradict their families’ wishes in order to pursue their dreams of flying. Ask members of your group to consider challenges they have faced in balancing their goals with their obligations to family. What dreams have they pursued or achieved, and what dreams have they had to put on hold or put aside entirely?
2. In the early twentieth century, transcontinental air travel was still such a novelty that its viability as a form of modern transportation was by no means guaranteed. At the time, female pilots were thought to be a dangerous development—in part because men were not accustomed to women having unfettered access to the latest in aeronautical equipment. Discuss the notion of a “glass ceiling,” and the extent to which women continue to have limited access in male-dominated spheres and professions today. Your group may want to compare some of the cultural assumptions of women in the early twentieth century with present-day expectations.
3. In contemporary society, celebrity and its trappings are sources of constant fascination and public interest, as evidenced by the rise of publications and websites devoted to stars and the minutiae of their everyday lives. The media, as it is portrayed in Crossing the Horizon, offer an interesting glimpse into the nature of celebrity culture in the early twentieth century. Ask members of your group to consider the historical figures profiled in the novel, and to compare them to some of today’s famous explorers, musicians, authors, actors, athletes, and lifestyle gurus. How would Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Elsie Mackay, Ruth Elder, and Mabel Boll fare under the klieg lights of modern celebrity and social media? What present-day figures, if any, do they call to mind?
A Conversation with Laurie Notaro
Crossing the Horizon is your first book of historical fiction. What initially drew you to these remarkable female aviators and their little-known history?
Sometimes stories just fall into your lap. I wasn’t actively looking for a story per se; writers are always listening very closely to the world to see if something piques their interest, but I wasn’t on the hunt. I was in the middle of writing my second novel, Spooky Little Girl, so I was very tied up with that. But one day I was on my treadmill. I had TiVo, and I always recorded The Real Housewives to watch while on it to make the time go faster. But our Tivo was terrible and it had a mind of its own. It would just record what it wanted to, regardless of what I had programmed it to do. Anyway, I was on the treadmill, put on Real Housewives of New Jersey, but of course, TiVo hadn't taped it. It had taped a British show called Vanishings instead. I was just too lazy to get off and grab the remote. So I watched it, and my mouth fell open. The show was about three women who were lost over the Atlantic while making the transatlantic attempt by air in 19271928. I had no idea. I thought Amelia Earhart was the one and only. And here were three. Three. I didn’t know how I didn’t already know this, why the world wasn’t aware of this.
I didn’t finish my time on the treadmill. I immediately went to the computer after the show was over and started researching. I pitched the idea of book of these three women to my editor at the time, who flatly turned it down. I tried again with a different editor to no avail. Then I realized that I couldn’t write a book where all three main characters . . . die. No one wants to read that book. So I researched more, and found more women who had made the attempt, and to my surprise, there were my ladies. There were seven women, not counting Earhart, who were vying for the crown of first woman across. I remember finding Mabel Boll and thinking, “That’s one of my girls. There she is.” And then Ruth Elder. What else could you want from Ruth Elder's story? The first time I saw her photo I got goose bumps. I knew she was one of my ladies instantly. By then I had a new editor, so I got my presentation down, went to New York, made her drink a couple of glasses of wine at lunch and pitched it. She said, “Um, yes. Do that book.” I almost burst into tears. It was the best lunch I ever had.
You graduated with a degree in journalism, and worked at the Arizona Republic as a columnist for many years. To what extent was your experience in researching these women’s lives akin to investigative journalism? How long did you spend gathering information about them?
My researching skills from my career as a journalist really came into play with this book. The process of researching these stories was similar to something I would have done for the newspaper, except that I was reaching back eighty-five years. Even though technology today is amazing, there’s still a lot of stuff you have to go and root around in person, especially if you really want to get a good feel for your character and find out the little things. Not everything is on the Internet. Very, very little of the accounts and research I found was available online, especially about Elsie Mackay. I had help. I reached out to Jayne Baldwin, who had written West Over the Waves, a biography of Elsie that I had found online. Jayne herself lives in Ballantrae, has been to Glenapp Castle numerous times, and lives in the town where Elsie’s stained glass memorial is. She was right there, in Scotland, and her book was very instrumental in constructing the character of Elsie. The Inchcape family still lives on the grounds of Glenapp Castle, in Elsie Mackay’s house. Jayne was able to answer questions, give me details, send over photos and put me in touch with historic aviation experts like Quentin Wilson. Both Jayne and I feel that Elsie was most likely the first woman to cross the Atlantic, especially considering Wilson’s research and the discovery of what was probably the Endeavour in August 1928. I was able to find photos of the wheel carriage of the plane when it washed up on the Irish coast, and these were photos Wilson had never seen, although he had been studying the disappearance of Mackay and Hinchliffe for more than fifty years. He was able to determine, with a colleague of his, that the plane landed in the water and not on the ice, which was invaluable to the ending of Elsie’s story, and told us what happened to Mackay and Hinchliffe. But then I had two other aviatrixes as well—and through Facebook, believe it or not, I found Ruth’s family and spent a great deal of time talking to them and researching with them. I found George Boll, Mabel’s nephew, who confirmed who I envisioned Mabel to be: a spitfire who would let very little get in her way. Altogether, I started researching in 2010, and then began writing the book in January 2014. Much of the research was actually done at the University of Oregon’s library, as they have access to the entire archives of the New York Times and The Times (London), and I was able to actually get an original copy of Emilie Hinchliffe’s book, which is extremely rare, on an interlibrary loan. Every time I went in for another round of research, the book changed. There was not one day of working on this book when my jaw didn’t drop and I would have to call or email my editor to tell her what I had just found. It was an incredible experience.
Your previous books are beloved by readers for their sidesplitting, no-holds-barred humor. How does Crossing the Horizon mark a new direction in your writing, theme-wise?
Thematically, it’s an entirely new direction for the readers of my previous books, but not that much of a new direction for me personally. I began my career as a reporter, not as a humor writer, but I fell into that spot by luck and chance and that’s the work that got published in book form. I love telling stories. I love it. Whether it’s about my mom, my husband, or a woman who risked her life to fly across the ocean to secure a better future for herself than the one she had in Lakeland, Florida. But I didn’t let go of the humor in this book; Mabel Boll and Charles Levine are both very much the comic relief in a book that is heavy with stress and tragedy. Both were quite vibrant characters in their lives, and they fit perfectly into that slot of providing some downtime for the reader. There’s a lot going on in Crossing the Horizon; I needed to give the reader a break every once in a while, and I wanted to give the book lightness in spots to keep it relatable and human. None of these characters are perfect, in their real lives or in this book, and it was important for me to relay that. I just got to use the foibles of Boll and Levine for some breathing room and make their pairing humorous. They were excellent for that.
When most people think of female aviators, Amelia Earhart is the only name that comes to mind. Why is that?
I have tried to figure that out. We know about the attempts of the men who all vied to be the first to reach the Antarctic, but mainly because of their horrific tragedies and experiences. The stakes, honestly, were the same for Mackay, Elder and Boll. and their stories are equally compelling. Frankly, I believe their stories are much more interesting than Earhart’s role with the Friendship; she was chosen, she was picked, and she slept most of the way to Wales. She was never, ever once at the controls of the plane, and she herself admitting contributing as much to the flight “as a sack of potatoes.” Mackay and Elder flew their planes through storms and gales and trained for endless hours. Earhart didn’t. She rather just showed up. Everything was already planned for her. There was no race, essentially: she was only the last piece in the puzzle for George Putnam and Amy Guest. That may be an unpopular perspective, but it is true. History, however, doesn't differentiate for effort and dedication. There’s only room for one winner, and Earhart was it. She was courageous and brave, certainly, but she never faced the struggles the other women had. Her biggest problem was keeping Wilmer Stultz, her pilot, sober. After she arrived in Wales, all of the headlines of Boll and Elder vanished. The game was over, Earhart had won. No one else mattered anymore, and time has since swallowed the accomplishments each of them made.
Of the three women you profile in Crossing the Horizon—Elsie Mackay, Ruth Elder, and Mabel Boll—did you feel an affinity with any of them, and why? Did Mabel and Elsie meet in real life, or was that a moment of artistic license in your book?
I did feel an affinity with each of them, in different aspects. I think Elsie was considered very wild in her youth, so I related to her on that level. She had a taste for adventure, which I think was her main motivator, whereas Mabel wanted more fame and Ruth wanted a better life. Elsie was in it for the charge of it, to prove she could do it. Mabel was quite selfish and ambitious, but she also had a firm tenacity that just could not be broken. I loved that about her. And Ruth had to fight; she fought for everything she had and everything she would ever have in life. Ruth had an incredible spirit, she was like titanium in that aspect, but she could break off in little pieces if you looked close enough. She fought hard her whole life. She made a fortune and went through it in no time; Howard Hughes, a friend from her more glamorous days as the American girl, gave her a job at Hughes Aircraft as a secretary later in her life. But when you see her as a mystery guest on What's My Line?, a TV from the 1950s, she’s exactly as you would expect, even in her fifties. Completely forgotten as the girl who once had a ticker tape parade thrown for her, she’s charming, sweet, humble. You get a sense of her frailty then, but you can also see the twenty-three-year-old who took the controls of an airplane and charged into a storm over the Atlantic in her, even still. Did Elsie and Mabel meet? I think they most likely did at some point. They traveled in very similar circles and had numerous overlapping acquaintances, especially in the theater. They were both famous/notorious at the time; there is no doubt they knew of one another. They did travel to England by ship at the same time, but whether they actually met in person, I don't know. I wanted those two characters to meet in order to fuel one another, but not necessarily pit one against the other. It was a race for all of the women who were trying to make an attempt, and the fact that they came from such distinctly different backgrounds is fascinating to me.
How do the aircraft flown in the 1920s compare to private airplanes flown by enthusiasts and professionals today?
Oh. Oh. The difference between a Flintstone car and Bentley today. In photos, the Stinson Detroiter and the Miss Columbia look like hefty, sturdy planes, but once you get up close to the planes of that era, they are terrifying. Both Ruth and George and Elsie and Ray would have been so close to one another that they would have touched for the entire flight. I can’t even imagine one of them leaving their seat to go and refuel the plane without stepping on the other. The interiors are very intimate. Very small. I don’t think two average-sized people today could fit comfortably in there. I was stunned at how tiny the planes were, I visited several historic air museums to get a sense of what they were dealing with; to me, it seems so frightening and impossible to even shoot down a runway in one of those, let alone be in that craft for over twenty-four hours. Even the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh’s plane, had no forward-looking windows and the plane itself looks like a model a child built. It is impossibly small. But to keep the weight down, they had to be as economical as possible. But I don’t even think hobbits could fit in there.
Do you have your pilot’s license? Are you an avid flier?
No. I was all for going up for a ride in a plane similar to the WB-2 or the Stinson Detroiter, but once I saw just how small they were, I changed my mind immediately. I knew I would be terrified, and I don’t think I could have parlayed the joy the aviatrixes felt up in the air with my overriding sense of imminent death and absolute terror. I mean, the WB-2 was named that for a reason. It was the Wright Bellanca-2, 2 as in, “We’ve only built one other of these . . . ever.” So I let it be. I’m okay with that decision.
Given the professional and social limitations women of this era faced, were Mackay, Elder, and Boll seen as groundbreaking for their efforts, or as foolhardy?
For the most part, they were completely seen as foolhardy, without a doubt. Eleanor Roosevelt even called Ruth Elder out. I think Ruth took the biggest blows of all—the Irish Times was even writing editorials about what a foolish girl she was. Mackay didn't really get any flak, but only because she kept the flight a secret. After her death, articles were written about how she lured Hinchliffe with her feminine wiles, and that’s when the furor rose over a woman flying. Europe prohibited transatlantic flights after the Endeavour went down. Oddly, Mabel received little to no negative coverage about her gender, or none that I could find. Perhaps the fact that she was a woman of wealth elevated her somewhat in popular perception. But poor Ruth. She really, honestly took a beating in the press.
In the course of researching and writing this book, did you uncover anything that truly surprised or bewildered you? Please elaborate.
That happened almost every day. I just kept finding nuggets, particularly with Mabel and Ruth. I had talked to a fellow named Jerry York from Anniston, Alabama, who often gives lectures about Ruth and tries to raise her profile a bit. I would consult him on issues I wasn’t clear about, and we were both puzzled when I found a reference of a warrant for Ruth’s arrest in 1928. So I dug, and searched databases and newspapers and discovered the story about the incident with the traveling minister. I’m pretty sure Ruth fled that tiny town she was in pretty fast and hightailed it back to Anniston, so she might not have known that there was a warrant out for her under some prehistoric law about a married woman and an unmarried man spending time together. It wasn’t until Ruth got famous that the law caught up to her and the whole thing blew up again. I believe she ended up paying a fine, and the issue was dropped. I was also in contact with Christine Turner, who runs the Ruth Elder page on Facebook and is a cousin of Ruth’s. We did some research together and realized that oil leak that brought the American Girl down was probably caused by the damage done when the student pilot crashed into Ruth’s plane at Roosevelt Field. Had it not been for that fateful incident, Ruth and George most likely would have made it across. Christine had done a genealogical search for Ruth during this time, and that was how we discovered that Ruth met Lyle Womack in Panama while visiting her aunt. That had been a missing piece of the puzzle for quite a while; no one could figure out how she met a businessman from Panama.
When I spoke to Ray Hinchliffe’s granddaughter, I discovered that Emilie had traveled to Australia on the SS Ranchi, the last ship that Elsie had decorated for P&O. That’s quite a coincidence. There were also, naturally, things that I discovered that I didn’t put in the book; for example, Elsie’s Borzoi was so devoted to her that she left the house on Seamore Place and the dog jumped out of a third-story window to follow her and was killed. She was inconsolable for a long time. I toyed with the idea of putting that in, but I just couldn't do it. And it wasn't until I talked to George Boll, Mabel’s nephew, that it was clarified that she did not die as a penniless ward of a state hospital in an insane asylum as is the rumor. She had a stroke in a private hospital, probably Lenox Hill, and died shortly thereafter. And the fact that George’s children used to play dress up in Mabel’s old clothes killed me. I hope someone still has that gold sweater.
Will we be reading more of your historical fiction? Inquiring minds want to know!
I am in the final stages of finishing the research for a new book of historical fiction also based on fact and a grisly murder that happened in 1931, and I have several ideas for novels after I finish that one. It turns out that I really love writing historical fiction; I am enamored with the research, the structure, and the telling of the story. I really love history, I really love digging in archives and putting the pieces together. My dining room table was a massive puzzle for about a year as I was outlining Crossing the Horizon. I certainly hope readers will see what I found so fascinating and magnetic about the stories of Ruth, Elsie and Mabel, and that I can continue to unearth compelling and riveting stories that time forgot and share them with a contemporary audience. I can’t think of anything more rewarding.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings An interesting cross between fiction and non fiction with most of the content of the story being true, but told in a fictional way - I enjoyed reading the ups and downs of the first women to try to cross the Atlantic by plane and all of the hoops they had to jump through just to potentially get the plane in the air. The cast of characters was massive and with the common goal in mind it was hard at times to remember who was who and who they were working with. This was definitely a notepad kind of book and at times I was a little frustrated. In the first few chapters the ladies had their own chapters, but once they were all introduced their stories intermingled in each chapter, I am not sure I liked that. Only as an editing opinion, I would have liked shorter chapters with each of their stories more defined than having them weave in and out.
This book took me a little longer than my usual reading speed, but it definitely helped me absorb what I was reading. Elsie, Ruth, and Mabel are three women all in a race to be the first to cross the Atlantic by plane, but then that Amelia Earhart is around too. It was very interesting learning about these three women that I had never heard of before, and learning how each woman's adventure and life turned out. Who will be the first and get the ticker tape parade?! There was one woman that I definitely was not cheering on, but you decide for yourself! Growing up I only ever feel Amelia was talked about in school so this was definitely a fascinating read that will stay with me!
As a girl I was captivated by stories of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane. First as a passenger, then a pilot. At around this time in my life we were first having female astronauts, and I could envision a life where women did so much more than stayed home and raised children, or worked entry level jobs in secretarial-type roles. So, learning about daring women shaped me, as a youth, and helped me grow into a strong woman, willing to charge forward in male-dominated work roles. I was thrilled with CROSSING THE HORIZON for those same reasons. This is a work of historical fiction, painstakingly researched and lovingly rendered. It surrounds the lives of three female flyers, Elsie Mackay, Ruth Elder and Mabel Boll. They are very unique women who each wanted to prove to the world they had more to offer than femininity. Elsie was daughter of a powerful English Earl. She was the first licensed female English pilot, and served on many committees for pilots within the Royal Air command. She’d defied her father and eloped with a former patient she tended in WWI, an actor, who later abandoned her. She also worked for her father’s shipping line as chief designer of the luxurious staterooms for royal and wealthy travelers. Elsie was 35 years old when she recruited a team to fly the dangerous east-west route over the Atlantic. At age 23, Ruth Elder was a twice-married Alabama girl with a pretty face and love for speed. She’d begun flying lessons after learning that planes went even faster than cars! She got recruited to fly the American Girl plane to follow her dream to fly to Paris, and she worked hard for it. Not only that, she wanted to survive the trip–and designed life-suits that would inflate and keep her and her co-pilot from drowning, as neither of them actually knew how to swim, in the event of a crash. Ruth’s backers knew that she’d make lots of money in endorsements if she was successful, but it wasn’t an easy choice, or an easy mission. Mabel Boll, wealthy socialite and self-proclaimed Queen of Diamonds, wanted fame more than anything. She was garish in her desire to cross the Atlantic and become “Queen of the Air,” and every attempt she made to grasp this title turned on her in ways this calculating gal couldn’t comprehend. The book switches point of view to peer alternately into their supposed lives as each woman plotted her course with destiny. It’s rocky and rough, especially as they learn that one or another is closer to traveling than they, or other women’ missions are lost-at-sea. The sexual politics of the day are also very much present, with reporter, and others, questioning why these woman would defy parents or husbands wishes to stay grounded. The book is a bit bittersweet, as some of these gals do not make it home. The others are forever changed by their attempts. I dug the history here; it spoke to the striving girl still buried within me. I could have looked all this up for myself on the net, and saved myself the agony of loving some of these characters, only to lose them, but I relished the hope that built within me as I chased their dreams from this side of the page. It’s no surprise, I imagine, that none of these women were completely successful, because history has kept Earhart’s name in our consciousness, not that of Elsie, Ruth or Mabel. Still, I feel enriched learning of their footsteps on the journey to womens’ equality. I highly recommend it.
Crossing the Horizon by Laurie Notaro was fabulous! It's about three amazing brave women from the early days of flying. Back in the day when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, it became the thing to attempt more Atlantic crossings. Elsie MacKay, a wealthy British woman, became enamored with flying and planned to fly it east to west, against the wishes of her family. Mabel Boll, a wealthy widow, was determined to be known as the first female passenger and she didn't care what direction, how much it cost, what danger there was. She just wanted to be first. And then there's the story of Ruth Elder, a beauty queen who used her winnings to help pay for flying lessons and is presented with an offer to attempt a west-east crossing with her flying instructor. These are real women who really did what Notaro tells about in this historical novel of their flying careers. Fascinating! A trio of strong determined women! (Elsie was my fav, but the others didn't disappoint!
Riveting! Girl power at its finest! Laurie Notaro, I was expecting something lighthearted so when I started reading I had to check to make sure you were really the author. So well written; couldn't put it down. Great work!
My Thoughts! I had no idea that there were other women flying beside Amelia Earhart. I bet you didn’t either. Three brave women are on a quest to be the first to cross the Atlantic like Lindbergh and this story will have you on the edge of your seat the entire ride. This would make a fabulous movie as well. Mabel Boll wealthy by birth and even more by marriage, known as the Queen of Diamonds, now wants to be known as the Queen of the Air. She attempts to finagle her way onto a flight with Charles Levine and offered to pay any pilot 100,000 francs to get her across first. This society lady is a hard drinking, free spending gambler that really just wants publicity. Elsie Mackay, the titled daughter of English aristocracy, is far ahead of most women her age. She eloped with one of the first movie stars and acted herself. When she discovered that her husband didn’t really love her, she came back home, much to the delight of her father who quickly had that marriage annulled. He gave her a job decorating and planning the interiors of luxury ships that he owned. She learned to fly during World War I when she was a nurse at an airfield. Flying was her life but her family wanted her to stay firmly planted on the ground. Ruth Elder was by far my favorite. She was a feminist before it was readily defined. She entered a beauty contest to pay her way through flight school and her second husband taught her how to fly. She used her looks to actually call out male patriarchy. She was almost the first woman to reach Europe as a pilot but did go on to greater things. These women were all strong and vivacious. The story really is a bit of a thriller as to who will actually make it to the other side first. There are some heartbreaking moments. Notaro has outdone herself in the research and writing. Yes, you can probably google all of these women to find out their story but when you read this story it just truly brings them to life. This is one of my favorite books of the year. I got super giddy just reading it!