Maiden Flight is the true-life story of the Wright sister who in 1926 left her world-famous and intensely possessive older brother to marry newspaper editor Harry Haskell, the man she loved, and suffered the unhappy consequences. An international celebrity in her own right, Katharine embodied the worldly, independent, and self-fulfilled New Woman of the early twentieth century. Yet she remained in many ways a Victorian. Torn between duty and love, she agonized for months before making her devastating break with Orville at age fifty-two.Cast in the form of three interwoven first-person memoirs, Maiden Flight is imaginatively reconstructed from personal letters, newspaper reports, and other documents of the period—in particular, Katharine’s lively and extraordinarily revealing love letters to Harry. In allowing Katharine to step outside of Wilbur and Orville’s shadow, it sheds new light on the central role she played in their private lives, as well as on her often misunderstood contribution to their scientific work. Above all, Maiden Flight celebrates Katharine’s abundant store of what she called “human nature”—her lively and perceptive outlook on life, her great capacity for both love and indignation, and her acute and sometimes crippling self-awareness.
|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
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About the Author
Harry Haskell is the grandson of Henry J. (Harry) Haskell, husband of Katharine Wright. He is the author of Boss-Busters and Sin Hounds: Kansas City and Its Star, The Early Music Revival: A History, and editor of The Attentive Listener: Three Centuries of Music Criticism. He lives in Guilford, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
By Harry Haskell
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 Harry Haskell
All rights reserved.
What I remember best about that winter in Pau is the bitter cold. If you ask me, all that talk of "sunny southern France" is a delusion and a snare. Orv and I practically froze in our beds! Will had sworn up and down that the Gassion was the best hotel in town, but I never was so uncomfortable in my whole life, not even in the icy grip of an Ohio winter — and that is no picnic, I assure you! Luckily, I came prepared for the worst. When Will took me up in the flying machine for the first time, I was all trussed up like a turkey, with my overcoat bound snug around my ankles and a long scarf looped over my hat to keep it tethered down.
Sure enough, as soon as we got up in the air, my chills and aches vanished in a trice. It was one thing to listen to the boys talk about airplanes — back home in Dayton I used to complain that we didn't hear anything but "flying machine" from morning till night — and something else again to go up in one myself. All those years I had stood on the ground watching Will and Orv make their practice flights over Huffman Prairie and fancied how it would feel to "do the bird act," as Orv put it. Now at last I knew, and I was so proud of them I could have burst wide open.
It was Orv who was grounded that day for a change. Only a few weeks had passed since he had his terrific smashup at Fort Myer while he was demonstrating the Wright flyer for the US Army. I'll never forget how his chin trembled and tears filled his eyes when I came into the hospital room and saw how badly he had been hurt. Dear, brave Little Brother! Wild horses couldn't have kept me from rushing to his bedside in Virginia. Then Will's letter arrived, inviting — no, summoning — us to come join him in France. That was just what the doctor ordered. Orv was still hobbling around on crutches, but Will needed our help getting the machines ready for the exhibition races in the spring, and we had never let him down yet.
The four months I spent in Europe with the boys in 1909 were a fairy tale from start to finish. My very own first flight lasted about seven minutes — but it might have been a lifetime for all I knew. The whole thing was like a dream that words can hardly begin to describe. All I could think to write to Pop the next day was, "Them is fine!" Pau sure is a beautiful place when the weather is nice. Will and I could make out the snowcapped peaks of the Pyrenees glimmering in the distance as we swooped and soared above the farm fields. Never in all my thirty-four years on earth had I seen such a heart-stopping sight. And not until I fell in love, many years later, would I feel like such a giddy young thing again.
"Omnia vincit amor," the Roman poet says — "Love conquers all." The ancients knew a thing or two when they gave the god of love his wings, the better to sweep us mortals off our feet! As nervy as I was up there in Will's flying machine that day at Pau, I knew in my heart of hearts that he would bring me back down to earth safe and sound. I always had perfect confidence in Will and Orv, ever since we were little children. Come to think of it, I always felt perfectly safe with Harry too.
We met up with him in Washington in the summer of '09, not long after we got back from Europe. The reporters were all hounding the boys for interviews, and it was my thankless job to keep them at bay. Ha ha! When Harry sent up his card, though, I insisted on making an exception. I had watched him come up in the world since our college days, from editor of the Oberlin Review to Washington correspondent of the Kansas City Star. There always was something special about Harry. His mind soaked up everything like a sponge, and his character was as solid as a rock. Even at Oberlin, I recognized the strength and dependability that came out so strongly when there was a call for them. It pleased me to see that he had become exactly the kind of man I thought he would.
Even so, when he presented himself that day at our hotel room, I had to pinch myself to make sure I was awake. He looked as if he had stepped straight out of his college yearbook photograph. To think that he was not only a husband and father but also a member in good standing of the Washington press corps. I felt easy with Harry on the spot, but Will and Orv could be as prickly as porcupines. Newspapermen had a way of setting them on edge. One of the national magazines had just published a story claiming that since neither of the boys had a college education, sister Kate had had to step in and help with the mathematical calculations for the flying machine.
It was sheer bosh and nonsense, of course, and no one who knew me would have credited it for a moment. I got good marks in math in school, but when it comes to higher mathematics, I have no head for figures — not one speck! Those reporters were simply determined to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Why, the American Magazine even offered me seven hundred and fifty dollars — half of my teacher's salary at the high school — for a series of articles to be called "The Sister's Story." I had a good mind to take the money and run — until I woke up and came to my senses. Not that it kept me from ribbing the boys about it, mind you. It did no harm to let them know they weren't the only pebbles on the beach!
All that bunk about my mathematical ability got under Orv's skin, right enough. He may not be a natural-born scholar, as Will was, or have a bona fide college degree, like me. But he is no slouch at engineering, trigonometry, geometry, and other subjects that make my head swim. I could see how het up he was over those tall tales the newspapermen had been spinning. So the minute Harry stepped through the door, I popped right up out of my chair and exclaimed, "We read that piece in Hampton's on the train last night, and I told the boys there was at least one person outside the family who would know it wasn't so!"
It seems just yesterday that the Wrights invited me up to their rooms in the old Raleigh Hotel. It was 1909, as I recall, the end of June. The Star had sent me to Washington six months earlier, and already I was beginning to feel like an old hand on the capital beat. I must have interviewed dozens of important people for the paper, but the Wright brothers were in a class by themselves. Orville's crash at Fort Myer and the death of Lieutenant Self-ridge had been front-page news around the world. And Wilbur's daring demonstration flights in Europe had made him an international hero. L'homme oiseau, the French dubbed him — "the bird man."
As keen as I was to meet the world's most famous aviators, the prospect of renewing my friendship with their charming sister was an even bigger draw. A few weeks earlier I had stood in the crowd in the East Room of the White House watching President Taft give Wilbur and Orville their gold medals from the Aero Club of America. I was near enough to touch Katharine, almost, but they whisked her away, and I couldn't even speak to her. She was wearing a high-necked white gown, a large plumed hat, and the old-fashioned pince-nez eyeglasses that I remembered so well. The dark, silky hair that she was so proud of in college had turned snow-white. She used to pull it back in a tight bun, schoolmarm style. Somehow it seemed only natural that she had taken up teaching as a career.
Katharine and I were both raised in religious households — my parents were Congregationalist missionaries in the Near East, her father a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren — and our families shared a generally progressive outlook on issues like woman suffrage and coeducation. As a youngster, I was disposed to look on girls as a demoralizing influence in the classroom, but Katharine taught me the error of my ways. She was different from the other Oberlin girls — quick, alert, intelligent, easy to talk to, and a good listener. She was always bragging about her two older brothers — "the boys," she called them — who had a bicycle shop back home in Dayton. There was no doubt in her mind that they would amount to something someday.
We met in the fall of 1894, my junior year. Katharine was a freshman living at Mrs. Morrison's boardinghouse, where I took my meals. In those days, all incoming students were required to take a course known as Math Review. Each pupil was given a tablet that carried problems in algebra and geometry at the top of each page. They were supposed to work these problems three times a week and turn them in to the professor. Now, Katharine was an able scholar of languages, history, philosophy, and the natural sciences. But she had no feeling whatsoever for mathematics. She soon discovered that it was a favorite subject of mine, and before long I was detained after breakfast three times a week to give aid and advice. So much for the old canard about Katharine supplying math help to her older brothers!
The more we saw of each other at Oberlin, the more I grew to admire Katharine's sharp wit and strength of character. But any deeper feelings that might have grown up between us had no chance to develop, as my college girlfriend, Isabel Cummings, and I had decided to get married as soon as I was able to support her by my writing. As it turned out, Katharine was already spoken for at the time herself, though her engagement was a closely held secret. To the best of my knowledge, not even her own family was in on it. Long afterward she told me her fiancé's name and how she had finally broken it off with him when she discovered she wasn't really in love. After graduating in '96, I settled down in Kansas City, Katharine returned to Dayton two years later, and that was that — or so I thought.
Then Wilbur and Orville made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk. Incredible as it seems today, some of the best minds in the country simply ignored one of the great inventions of all time. There was a common saying that man would fly only when the law of gravity was repealed. Eminent scientists had demonstrated the absurdity of the whole idea. On the eve of the first flight, a noted American astronomer even published an article proving that human flight in a heavier-than-air machine was mathematically impossible. I was no expert, but from what Katharine had told me I found it impossible to believe that her brothers had fabricated the story out of whole cloth. As a family, the Wrights are proud, not to say clannish, but I never knew them to stretch the truth or go in for what Katharine calls "personal advertising."
The brief AP dispatch, datelined December 18, 1903, stirred up a nest of happy memories. When I read about the successful flight at Kitty Hawk on the front page of the Star, my first thought was of how proud Katharine must be to see Wilbur and Orville make good. At Oberlin she had spoken about the boys so often, and with such warmth and affection, that I almost felt I knew them. The popular image of the two stiff-necked "mechanics" from the Buckeye State just didn't add up in my mind. Katharine always had been so sociable and vivacious, the kind of woman who lit up a room with her presence. It wasn't easy to picture her as Wilbur and Orville's kid sister.
When I finally caught up with the three of them in Washington, I realized that my fellow newspapermen were all wet. The Wright brothers had earned the reputation of being "fierce" with reporters, but as far as I was concerned they couldn't have been more approachable and down to earth, Orville in particular. With his neatly trimmed mustache, starched white collar, and well-tailored three-piece suit, he might have passed for a bank manager or a small-town businessman. Not in my wildest dreams would I have taken him for what he actually was: a scientific supergenius with one of the most brilliant inventive and imaginative minds in human history.
The Wright brothers, they call us — as if Will and I were the only male pups in the litter! Do those fool reporters never bother to get their facts straight? There were four of us boys, not counting the twin who died in infancy, may he rest in peace. Reuch and Lorin were the original Wright brothers. They left home a good while before Will and I opened our first bicycle shop over on West Third Street. Reuch and I were a full ten years apart, and so unlike each other in temper and outlook that you'd never guess we had the same blood in our veins. He married young and struck out for Kansas City, where he and Lulu brought their four children into the world.
Reuch was a restless man, a loner, and about as stubborn as a Missouri mule. More than once Will and I tried to help him out when he was hard up, but it was no use. As Kate said, a person couldn't do anything to please Reuch; he was just naturally suspicious of everything and everybody. Lorin and he were as different as night and day. Easygoing and easy to please, that's Lorin for you — not that he can't be as ornery as the next fellow when it suits him. Runs in the family, you might say. Lorin tried his luck out west for a spell too. After Mother passed away, he came back to Dayton and settled down with Netta to raise a family in the old neighborhood, down the way from the house we grew up in on Hawthorn Street.
And then there was Kate — Sterchens, we called her, or Swes for short. She was the baby, born August 19, 1874, three years to the day after me. There was always a special bond between us. As children we shared birthdays, toys, playmates — pretty near everything, in fact. It was Kate who held the family together after Mother died; maybe that's why I always seemed to feel like a little boy around her. When I had the accident at Fort Myer, she dropped everything and camped out beside my hospital bed for seven weeks, like my guardian angel. I said to her, "Sterchens, you watch and don't let them hurt my leg!" I didn't trust those army doctors within an inch of my life. Kate had always looked after us at home when we were ill, and I knew I could depend on her. As Mr. Chanute said, she was devotion itself in those days.
Growing up, Will and I knew all of Kate's schoolmates, and our friends were her friends too. She and I threw some swell house parties in the old days. How Father used to fret and fume when he caught on we'd been playing bridge behind his back. In his book, card games, dancing, and such were Satan's work. Once the Wright Company got off the ground, there never seemed to be enough time for such diversions. Will and I were on the move pretty much nonstop. Wherever we happened to be, though, we could always count on Kate to keep us up on the news from home. One Halloween she wrote about how she and her friends had dressed up in sheets and pillowcases and told one another's fortunes in verse. I can still recite hers, word for word:
You'll early leave this earthly sphere,
But not by death! O! No!
You'll guide an airship without fear,
Win fame and a rich beau.
Oh, Swes, Swes, how could you do it? How could you run off and leave me to rattle around this big, empty house alone? We were so happy together, just the two of us, happy and settled and fixed for life. The idea of you falling in love never seriously crossed my mind. I didn't think of you as appealing to other men, not in that way. In hindsight, I should have read the handwriting on the wall the minute you introduced us to Harry that day in Washington. The way you sprang up to greet him — it was like you were a schoolgirl again, all flustered and excited and beaming with pride.
I was proud to have Will and Orv meet Harry and know that he was a friend of mine. They liked him right away. They liked most of my friends, if it comes to that — newspapermen excepted! And who can blame them? The way the papers mangled the story of the first flight was simply scandalous. When Lorin hand-carried Orv's telegram from Kitty Hawk to the city editor of [right arrow] the Dayton Journal, all Mr. High-and-Mighty had to say was, "Fifty-seven seconds, huh? If it'd been fifty-seven minutes it might have been a news item." I wanted to scream! Harry wasn't like that at all. He didn't come on gangbusters or set himself up on a pedestal. The boys knew instinctively that they could trust him. And seeing how quickly Will and Orv took to Harry made me like him all the more.
Some way we hadn't had much to do with each other since Oberlin. It was Harry who let our correspondence drop after he and Isabel were married, but I would have stopped writing regardless. I just didn't feel comfortable keeping up a regular correspondence with a married man. I've always thought it is not right to make any wife even a little bit uneasy. Anyhow, the letters he wrote me in those years were all lost in the big Dayton flood of 1913. The fine edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Vailima Letters that he gave me at commencement in 1898 — that was spoiled too. I tried to replace it later but couldn't get it in the original binding. I wonder if Harry kept the book I gave him for graduation — someday I'll have to ask him. I doubt it meant half as much to him as the Stevenson did to me.
Excerpted from Maiden Flight by Harry Haskell. Copyright © 2017 Harry Haskell. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Interlude: The Explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson,
Interlude: The Professor, R. H. Stetson,
Sources and Acknowledgments,
Glossary of Names,