Pancho Barnes: An Affair With the Air Force : Ex-Socialite, Stunt Pilot, Club Owner Had the Right Stuff

Times Staff Writer

Edwards Air Force Base historian Jim Young had better things to do than to discuss the grande dame--and some say madam--of the glory days at Edwards, a profane former San Marino socialite named Pancho Barnes.

Young was busy unveiling a new trainer aircraft for the press on this particular day. He didn't relish the task of dragging out seven file folders stuffed with photos of Pancho flashing her cackling grin at aviation heroes such as Chuck Yeager, Jack Ridley, Pete Everest and Jimmy Doolittle.

Pancho Barnes--who died ingloriously in Boron 10 years ago--always had a place in her heart for the Air Force, but, to this day, the Air Force has never quite known what to think about Pancho.

Beating Earhart

It would be one thing if she were remembered for her flying exploits--one of which was beating Amelia Earhart's air-speed record in 1930. Then the Edwards folks could provide the customary bio and statistics.

But Pancho's celebrity came as proprietor of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a dude ranch equipped with a landing strip out in the empty desert east of Rosamond. The club, which some Edwards' brass suspected of being a brothel, was resurrected recently in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." Chuck Yeager's best-selling autobiography devotes an entire chapter to Pancho's place, which he calls the "clubhouse and playroom" of the test pilots.

Pancho's personal style must have annoyed the more conservative members of the military in the late '40s and '50s. She had a foul mouth, and a face "like a mud fence," according to Chuck Yeager's wife, Glennis. She refused to wear dresses, and was most often clad in jodhpurs and Western shirts, hair sticking out "like last year's straw stack," in the words of the former piano player at the club.

Born to wealth as Florence Leontine Lowe, she acquired the name "Pancho" when, disguised as a man, she crewed on a banana boat that was actually running guns to Mexican revolutionaries.

Pancho took up stunt flying in the '20s, and toured the country with a spectacle called "Pancho Barnes' Mystery Circus of the Air." As part of the entertainment, Pancho and partner would take a young woman from the audience for her first airplane ride, strapping her into a parachute for safety. High above the crowd, they'd toss the unwitting volunteer out, yanking her rip cord from the plane.

"There was much in her life that shows irresponsibility," said historian Young. "She had absolute disregard for any kind of convention. She had to be the most litigious person that ever lived. She was always suing somebody and making money off it."

Pancho's most famous lawsuits pitted her against the Air Force, which first accused her of running a bordello, and later claimed her land for base expansion.

For nearly 30 years after the clubhouse was destroyed in a fire of unknown origin, the remains of the former flyboys' hangout deteriorated, unvisited. The ruins were posted off-limits because they are adjacent to a small gun range, and test pilots perform a hazardous maneuver known as spin testing in the sky nearby.

But once a year for the last five summers, base personnel have unlocked the gate and patched the dirt road leading out to Pancho's place. A band sets up on the foundation of what was once the clubhouse, and former staff and patrons of the Happy Bottom Riding Club sit around the shell of the swimming pool in the glare of light bulbs strung for the occasion. They swap Pancho yarns, munch barbecue and dance in the dust till past midnight.

The proceeds from the Pancho Barnes Memorial Barbecues (this year, about 800 attended) will help fund a Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards. Due to open in two years, the museum will undoubtedly display relics of Pancho's life. But there may be some episodes left out.

Twenty miles north of Mojave there are two stone pillars just off Highway 14. Drive between these sentinels and you come to a typical desert rat encampment--a few low buildings the color of the surrounding earth, vehicles scattered around, and a handful of cottonwood trees.

A shining Amtrak railroad car contrasts with the rest of the setting. Inside is all that remains of those Pancho Barnes possessions that survived the clubhouse fire. There are dusty cardboard boxes filled with legal papers and receipts from the various businesses Pancho operated with her fourth husband, Eugene (Mac) McKendry.

McKendry lives in a house beside the Amtrak car with his wife, Lenora. McKendry's plan is to sort through the memorabilia in the train car and establish a Pancho archives. This has been his plan for the past eight years, but Lenora's poor health has interfered with the museum's progress.

"I'm thinking of making a little bar like the bar Pancho and I used to have for our friends who come to visit," said McKendry. "You can always talk better in a bar."

There's little doubt that the years McKendry acted as foreman of the Happy Bottom Riding Club were the most exciting of his life. Like some members of the current base administration, he'd like to see a gathering place like that open again, but no one seems to know how to re-create the atmosphere without Pancho.

Photo of Pancho

McKendry opened a copy of the Yeager autobiography and turned to a photograph of the famous pilot taken with Pancho shortly before her death in 1975. In the picture, she appears bloated and ill, yet still wears that trademark grin.

"I wish they'd have had a better picture of her in there," said McKendry. He said that Pancho had undergone two cancer operations resulting in the removal of both breasts. "She was worn out, really.

"Here's the way I remember her," he added, and he passed across the desk a photo of a 1958 flying vacation to Mexico. In the snapshot, pink with age, Pancho stands in front of her Cessna 195, looking as good as possible for a woman who is often described even by her admirers as being homely. In her arms is a Chihuahua-Yorkshire terrier mix, Mopsy.

Many of the hundreds of photos of Pancho in McKendry's office show the aviator with a pet dog, an airplane or a horse. Her fondness for her pets seemed to offset a lack of affection for people. Riding and flying were the activities Pancho used to spring her from the privileged but stuffy world of her childhood.

She was born in San Marino on July 19 in either 1901 or 1905, depending which version you believe. Her grandfather was Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, a balloonist in the Civil War who is often credited with originating the modern Air Force. (Mt. Lowe above Pasadena is named for him.)

Pancho conformed to her family's wishes by attending finishing schools and studying the ladylike arts of ballet and painting. When she was in her late teens, she acquiesced to an arranged marriage to the Rev. Rankin Barnes Pancho's father, a sportsman, taught her to ride, an activity that gave her entrance to an adventurous world that was at that time reserved largely for men. When Pancho took up flying in 1928, she signaled her rejection of high society by buzzing the Episcopal Church in Pasadena during her husband's Sunday sermons. Though officially wedded to Barnes until 1942, Pancho in essence declared herself a free woman when she learned to fly.

Freewheeling Crowd

She took up with a freewheeling crowd of '20s film stars and Hollywood characters. She was romantically linked with silent-film heartthrob Ramon Navarro. She flew in many air adventure movies of the '30s, including Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels." But Pancho decided that she wasn't being paid enough to perform dangerous stunts on camera, so she organized the Motion Picture Pilots Assn., which pushed for better conditions for stunt pilots. (The association survived for many years, and was only recently disbanded.)

Pancho was a regular on the air-race circuit; she competed in the first Powder Puff Derby in 1929.

There were more marriages. A union with one of her flight students lasted only a couple of weeks. Then she wed a magician--and divorced him the same year.

In 1933, Pancho traded an apartment building she owned in Los Angeles for an 80-acre ranch in the Antelope Valley.

At this point, her wild days might have come to an end as she lived out her years as a respectable hog rancher and mother (she had a 12-year-old son, Billy, by her first husband. William Barnes died in 1980 when the P-51 Mustang he was flying to an air show at Edwards crashed not far from the ruins of the Happy Bottom Riding Club). But the same year Pancho moved in, the Army Air Corps discovered the natural 44-square mile dry lake adjoining her property, and deemed it a good place for a bombing range. Where once there was nothing was now the Muroc Army Air Field. (It would later become Edwards Air Force Base.) So began what Edwards' historians call Pancho Barnes' "symbiotic relationship" with the Air Force.

Pancho raised alfalfa and sold milk from her dairy cows to her new neighbors, the Army. She collected garbage from the base for a fee and fed it to her hogs. Then she sold hams right back to the base for the enlisted men's breakfasts. By World War II, Pancho's place had grown to 386 acres.

Pretty soon she and McKendry--whom she was then living with--had added on a bar, dance floor, restaurant, motel with a swimming pool, rodeo grounds and a small airstrip. Critical to Pancho's success, however, was her decision to hire city women to come out and dance and talk with the lonely pilots. The hostesses also provided entertainment such as impromptu underwater ballets in the swimming pool sans swimsuits.

Oasis of Fun, Games

Pancho worked hard to make the club an oasis of fun and games for the fliers--but even without the amenities the fly-in dude ranch would have been packed. There was really no place else for the men to go in the nearby desert.

The young test pilots cavorted with the hostesses and belted out drunken songs around the old piano. Undoubtedly, they sang Pancho's own composition, "Song of the Air Force," which she hoped would become an anthem for the flyboys she liked so well.

Pancho's personal favorite was WW II fighter ace Chuck Yeager. In a now-famous episode, Yeager and wife Glennis took a couple of Pancho's steeds out for a midnight ride. Yeager fell off his horse and cracked two ribs. Only Pancho and a select few knew that his side was smarting the following Tuesday when he became the first person to go faster than the speed of sound.

Ever after that day--Oct. 14, 1947--Pancho offered up a free steak dinner on the house for any pilot who equaled Yeager's feat and went Mach 1. Her affection was mostly reserved for "the people that did exciting things," according to McKendry.

Said Dallas Morley, former head hostess at the club: "I got along with Pancho because when she'd cuss me out, I'd just cuss her right back and she'd laugh. But she had most of the girls scared to death." Now retired, Morley, 65, lives in Pioneertown, 30 miles north of Palm Springs.

Glennis Yeager commented in a phone interview that Pancho liked her well enough, but only because she was Yeager's wife, and she didn't give her husband a hard time about spending his evenings at the Happy Bottom Riding Club like some of the other wives did.

"She liked men, she got along with men just fine. But there were very few women she'd speak to," Glennis Yeager said. She speculated that Pancho probably really wished she were a man so that she could have been out breaking sound barriers and such herself instead of operating a clubhouse for the men who did.

Air Force legal experts tried to prove that Pancho's popular hostesses were actually prostitutes, and that she was therefore guilty of undermining the morals of the men on the base. The Air Force was unable to prove the allegations and the case was thrown out of court. Pancho, in turn, initiated a suit for more than $1 million in damages over the insult of being called a madam.

While awaiting litigation, Pancho made up a list of rules for women who came to work at the club. Designed to head off further accusations of immorality, it has to be one of least official documents on file at Edwards Air Force Base. Among the guidelines:

--Never spend an undue length of time with any one guest. Circulate.

--Be charming and pleasant to all guests. Don't just go for the guy with the wavy hair.

--Don't be vulgar at any time. Don't sit on guests' laps in public.

--Don't go automobile riding or flying without permission.

--Never are you allowed to accept money in remuneration for the more intimate aspects of romance.

For good measure, Pancho had this sign posted over the bar:

"We're not responsible for the bustling and hustling that may go on here. Lots of people bustle and some hustle , but that's their business, and a very old one."

The Happy Bottom Riding Club thrived, with as many as 400 guests attending the weekly dances. Pancho spent most of her time with her horses and pet dogs, while Dallas Morley cooked, tended bar and played honky-tonk piano. Morley also policed the hostesses to see to it that scandal was kept to a minimum.

The arrangement worked for five years. Then one afternoon a pilot, whom Morley had singled out as her boyfriend, drowned accidentally in the club pool.

Morley showed up in the bar that evening wearing a black skirt and blouse. Although it was against the rules for the head hostess to drink, Morley made an exception because she was nearly hysterical over her friend's death. One of the girls tattled to Pancho. Morley said that Pancho charged into the bar and shouted at her in front of the guests: "I don't like your black garb and your sniveling. The show must go on!"

Morley said later: "That was the end for me and Pancho." Like others who had been scalded by Pancho's peculiar lack of compassion, Morley harbored no resentment. "I understand her," she said. "She just didn't give a damn about people."

Morley said that the only time she ever saw Pancho grieve was when one of her mares gave birth to a stillborn foal. Pancho carried the dead horse into the house still in its birth sack, and cried.

Retired Gen. J. S. Holtoner, 74, today works as an aeronautics consultant in New York City, but during Pancho's reign, he was in charge of the base.

"Since I was the commander, I was on the firing line," said Holtoner in a telephone interview. "I had no animosity toward Pancho. I just didn't go out there a lot like the other men did. I was a family man and had no reason to."

Although time may have softened Holtoner's feelings, base historians indicate that Holtoner and Pancho had a vitriolic relationship. It was under Holtoner's rule that Pancho got word that the Army was planning to build a 22-mile runway aimed directly at her ranch and that she would have to clear out. (A much shorter runway was eventually constructed, stopping miles short of the club.)

Representing herself in court, Pancho tried to prove that she and McKendry were being harassed by the base administration, and also that their business had been harmed by Air Force accusations that the club was a house of ill fame. Before the prolonged and expensive legal battle was through, a mysterious explosion in the main building of the Happy Bottom Riding Club triggered a fire that gutted much of the spread, as well as destroying most of Pancho and McKendry's personal belongings.

Threat to Napalm Club

It was the end for the flyboys' hangout, but not the end of Pancho's fight.

She charged that Gen. Holtoner himself had threatened to napalm the club if she wouldn't leave. She claimed that she was victim of a conspiracy by the Air Force to take her land.

"Pancho was always prone to exaggeration," Holtoner commented recently. "I think one time we had an engine gearbox come loose and land within a couple of miles of her place. She made noises that we were trying to bomb her place, but really we were just testing airplanes."

Looking back at that period, Edwards head historian Dick Hallion said: "I do not believe, nor do I comprehend, that the Air Force would have deliberately burned Pancho out of her property."

The Air Force eventually settled out of court on the various charges, awarding Pancho almost half a million dollars for her land. But McKendry said that most of the money went to paying legal expenses. Pancho and McKendry moved to a ranch in nearby Cantil and tried to start a club again, but it never caught on.

Pancho eventually divorced McKendry. While the McKendry-Pancho wedding 15 years earlier had been a gala bacchanal--with Chuck Yeager giving away the bride before a crowd of 1,500 tipsy airmen and others--the divorce was a different matter. McKendry was unceremoniously dumped, receiving only a wrecked airplane that had tipped over in a windstorm, and a junked '55 Cadillac coupe in the settlement.

Pancho moved alone into a shack in Boron with a few dozen dogs and other animals. Yeager still dropped by to see her now and then; so did her friend Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, but no longer did the world of flying men revolve around Pancho Barnes.

"Pancho always said that imagination ruled the world and that you got to keep thinking of new things to do," McKendry said. Apparently out of fresh schemes to tackle, Pancho was found dead in her small house on March 29, 1975. She had been dead for at least a week. By that time, several of Pancho's 55 dogs had succumbed from lack of water.

Memorial Service

Pancho's crowd held a memorial service at the annual barnstormers' reunion in Lancaster, which was held a week after her body was discovered. The text of the eulogy delivered by Jimmy Doolittle is printed beneath a bust of Pancho Barnes that stands today near the Desert Sun Airline counter at Lancaster's Fox Field. ("The bust doesn't look like her," said McKendry. "It's not my Pancho.")

Dallas Morley hadn't seen the old gang since she left abruptly on the night Pancho berated her for mourning. McKendry tracked Morley down last year, and she went out to the reunion where she saw for the first time what had become of Pancho's greatest accomplishment, the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

"I walked all over that place. There were only a few walls left standing, and the hole where the swimming pool had been. I could have cried," Morley said. "Pancho was an ornery, nasty, ugly person. But I loved her."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°