That Daring Young Gal on a Flying Machine : On a Wing and a Prayer, Lillian Thrilled Fans
The headlines called her all kinds of things, and she loved it: The Girl of Nerve. The Aerial Sensationalist. The Fair Devil of the Air. And more.
She was the Wonder Woman of her day, the prestigious palestrian of an earlier time. Mostly, however, she was Empress of the Air. Her name was Lillian Boyer, and she was to the barnstorming of the 1920s what the sauce is to the taco, the afterburner to the jet airplane--that delicious and powerful boost that helped to make the decade roar.
Lillian, who would have turned 89 in June, died early this month at a San Diego convalescent hospital and took some of her most cherished memories with her. She had an amazing inventory of experiences from her youthful exploits in the dizzying world of aerial stunts and talked at length about them shortly before she broke her hip and her health declined.
A widow who went by the name of Mrs. Ernest Werner in her later years, Lillian was an audacious acrobat, a wing-walker, and more in the early era of aviation, performing madcap feats across a nation eager for new thrills--a pretty brunette hanging by her toes in perilous acts to show that aviation was safe and a big part of the future.
But she did it for herself, too, not to mention the money. (Also, Billy Brock loved her.)
From late 1921 to late 1928, Lillian dazzled huge crowds at fairs in 22 states as she took to the air in a Curtiss Jenny biplane piloted by the well-known flier William S. Brock, and risked her neck in ways marveling spectators had never seen.
In Trenton and Chicago, in Toronto and Chattanooga, from New York to Canada, from Texas to the Dakotas, she hung by one hand or two, by her knees or her ankles or toes, walked wings and even stood on the top wing while Brock looped the loop.
Her scrapbook says she was the only woman to perform these feats regularly, and that not even any male stunters entertained with them as consistently and for as many years as she did.
Yes, in those days, Lillian Boyer could bell the cat or run the gantlet, take the bull by the horns or march up to the cannon’s mouth.
She was Lillian Lion Heart.
“I loved stunting from the first minute,” the petite white-haired octogenarian commented during a recent birthday interview. And would she have done anything differently?
“I don’t believe I would.”
Among the things she did (at 65 m.p.h.) were:
Change from a speeding automobile to an airplane (the first woman to do so) . . . change from plane to plane . . . hang by her teeth (and by toes, knees, or ankles) . . . hang by one hand from the skid under a wing tip . . . balance on her head . . . stand there--her feet under a strap--while Brock looped that old flying machine once, twice . . . do stunts on a ladder, and parachute drops, though there are some of those she would have preferred to forget.
“Most of our tricks were original, and mostly Mr. Brock’s ideas,” she said. “Hanging by one hand from the skid under the wing--I thought that would be original. It’s become a very popular photograph by itself. And some of my suggestions were worked up into stunts.”
Hanging by Teeth
The deed that pleased the crowds the most, she said, was hanging by her teeth. She called it the breakaway.
“It was the surprise. When I’d leave the cockpit I would take a strong thin cable with me and attach it to a strut.” Her mouthpiece was on it, and Brock could reel in the cable from his cockpit. But the spectators, watching from 3,000 feet below, did not know that.
“After I’d do a few things on the tip of the lower wing, I’d put the mouthpiece in and climb over the wing to the skid, do one thing and another and then hang there a minute and let go. The ‘Ahs’ and ‘Ohs’ would start. They thought I was falling. Then, the cable would go taut and I’d hang here under the plane, do a spread eagle and other tricks.
“As long as my weight was on the cable, there was no way I could open my mouth. Then, Mr. Brock would lower the ladder and I’d grab it, let go of the mouthpiece, and do a few more tricks on the way up.”
She also felt it was the most dangerous stunt, in case the cable broke.
‘Was Never Afraid’
“But I was never afraid. I don’t know if I lacked good sense or what. But I never had any fear at all. I never left the ground without a prayer to God, though, and, when I returned, I thanked Him.”
She also placed supreme confidence in Brock.
“He was such a wonderful flier. I don’t know why he didn’t have more recognition than he did. I trusted him. He always checked things carefully, turnbuckles, wires, telling me where to step. I always felt safe.”
Brock received most of the money they earned, but that was her idea.
“We’d get $1,000 to $1,200 a day and always tried to insist on three days at a fair, and sometimes get a week. I had a contract with Mr. Brock. All I wanted was $100 a day. He got the remainder and paid all my expenses, the mechanic and took care of the plane. A hundred dollars a day clear was big money.”
So Brock handled the cash and the flying machine and ran the business, but the show was called Lillian Boyer’s Flying Circus.
(Of course, he loved her.)
Born in Nebraska
Lillian, who was born in Hooper, Neb., and later moved to Canada, was 21 and a waitress at a Chicago restaurant when two fliers, Elmer Partridge and Johnny Metzger, became regular customers. One day they asked her whether she would like to take a ride in their plane, a Curtiss JN4D, a Jenny. They went to Cicero Airport, and Partridge took her up. She liked it. It was April 3, 1921.
Partridge suggested she buy an old sweater and some pants and tennis shoes, and they would fly again. Four days later, up in the old Jenny once more, he asked whether she would like to step out onto the wing.
“I stepped onto the wing, and it wasn’t much,” she said, “so I walked on out to the end. He was screaming for me to come back. I guess he thought I was going to commit suicide. I never had any fear at all.”
Brock, who operated the Chattanooga airport, needed a stunter and so Partridge--who knew a girl of nerve when he saw one--contacted him.
Brock learned to fly in 1913 and was an Army flying instructor during World War I. After the war, he began barnstorming, like many other fliers trying to make a living at the only thing they knew. He was 25 when he and Lillian teamed up.
“Mr. Brock was very handsome,” she recalled. He stood 5 feet, 10 or 11 inches, weighed 225 pounds, wore a neatly trimmed mustache, and had light brown wavy hair. His eyes, she said, were “a beautiful blue,” and he was “nice” and “the strong silent type.”
“He was a wonderful man and, to my estimation, no other pilot was as good.”
At first she trained in a barn at Chattanooga for five months, working like a gymnast. A physical-education instructor helped, and Brock watched carefully. They used a mock-up plane with mats underneath.
“We tried out everything in the barn first. Of course, it’s different in the air.”
She was always strong, she said, perhaps from her youth on a farm on the Canadian island of Pelee in Lake Erie. But, in training for an aerial career she also squeezed rubber balls, ran and watched her eating habits.
Were she and Brock reckless?
“Absolutely not. I completely followed Mr. Brock’s instructions and my instructor’s.”
One bit of advice was never to let go of one support until grasping another. Plus: “Keep fit, keep your nerve, think quickly.”
To an interviewer 60 years ago, who wondered what a pretty young thing was doing in such a business, she said:
“Strength and alert judgment are not determined by sex. One of Ruth Law’s pupils was killed in a stunt I was about to learn. I went ahead and learned it. I’m not a fatalist, exactly, but I figure my time to die would have to come anyway, and I went ahead.”
In the 1920s, a lithe and demure Lillian stood 5 feet, 4 inches (“I’ve shrunk to 5-foot-2 1/2,” she said in the recent interview), and had brown hair and brown eyes. She was feminine and alluring. And she was a celebrity.
‘Supposed to Be Big Shot’
“Yes, I was always supposed to be a big shot, especially in Chattanooga. When I’d get to a town for our show, they would have a car pick me up. The public recognized me. Sure, I was a celebrity.”
In such an atmosphere she continually met other well-known personalities.
So she knew the original Siamese Twins and the aviators Ruth Law and Katherine Stinson, plus Stinson’s brother Eddie. She met barnstormer Mabel Cody in the Dakotas, and she crossed air trails several times with the gritty Upside-Down Pangborn himself.
One day in Chicago, when he was a young apprentice pilot--not even wing-walking yet or carrying the mail or planning more transcendental heroics--she met Charles Lindbergh.
“Everybody called him Lindy then. He was a couple of years younger than me. Nice fellow. Never saw him after he became famous.”
Lindbergh never met her after she became famous, either.
As Lillian’s fame grew, newspapers took notice. In 1922, a Milwaukee newspaper wrote:
“She is without doubt the greatest thrill-producer since the days of the gladiators.”
And, like any gladiator, she often paid in broken bones. One of her scariest accidents (“I guess they considered them close shaves, but I never thought much of it at the time”) involved the standing loop. It was over Milwaukee in 1924.
For this one, she would climb onto the top wing and slip her feet under straps, right foot forward.
“The centrifugal force keeps you there when you’re upside down. There’s no pull at all.”
Brock had just finished a loop, and Lillian was standing upright again, when the strap over her right foot broke, causing her to spin slightly and fall hard on a spar of the upper wing. Was she frightened?
What did she do?
“I climbed back down into the seat.”
Would she have fallen to her death if the strap had broken while she was upside down?
“I don’t think so.”
Lillian said she loved the standing loop from the first time she tried it, on Jan. 5, 1922: “I remember hollering, ‘Hot dog!’ I was so thrilled.” Besides, she had supreme confidence in Brock.
Two years after the accident in Milwaukee, Lillian, suffering intermittent pain, learned she had broken her coccyx, a small bone at the end of the vertebral column, and it was removed.
For some of what others would call close shaves, her only punishment was that Brock yelled at her. (Of course he loved her.)
Once, for example, changing from car to airplane, she grabbed the lower rung of the ladder instead of the second: She left no place to put her feet, eliminating the leverage essential for ascending.
‘Seen Man Killed’
“I had just seen a man killed doing that. While the plane was climbing I had to just hang there. When the plane leveled off, the pull was gone, and I got up easily. But Mr. Brock really bawled me out.”
Another time, she tried a free-fall with her parachute, instead of opening it while standing on the wing, as was the custom, and letting the wind in the canopy pull her off.
“I went out on my back from 1,000 feet at Milwaukee, to experiment, and fell to about 500 feet before I pulled the ring. Oh, how he bawled me out.”
(Of course he loved her.)
Lillian’s worst accident involved a parachute drop. It occurred on Oct. 1, 1925, at Trenton, N.J., where she experienced three parachute mishaps in as many days.
On the first day of her show, she landed in a seat on the Ferris wheel. (“The operator saw my trouble and stopped it for me.”)
On the second day, she struck the grandstand roof. (“They had to bring a ladder to get me down.”)
On the third day she was heading for a tent, so she pulled the shrouds to try to change direction. But she turned the chute inside-out and fell hard and fast for the final 50 feet or so.
She suffered a broken right hip, broken pelvis, several broken ribs, and some fractures in the end of her spine.
“Trenton was very kind to me. I was in the hospital two months, and all of the bills were paid, and I never knew who. It wasn’t me and it wasn’t Mr. Brock. I presume it was the president of the fair. He sort of liked me.”
A lot of men sort of liked Lillian Boyer. The public always thought the front-runner for her affections was the handsome Brock. A newspaper in Grand Forks, N.D., even announced their engagement in 1925. The story, she said, was incorrect.
But did Brock love her?
‘Fond of Me’
“I have a very good idea that he did. He was very fond of me, and I certainly admired and appreciated him. But I let it be known from the beginning that I wasn’t going to have any romance with him, that our relationship was strictly business because he was married, though separated. And he let me know that I was not to be in love with anyone else, either. He was insanely jealous. I’d be talking with some of the other boys on the circuit, and he’d stand over there and watch me. But it was for my own good. His greatest interest was in taking care of me.”
Still, she had boyfriends on the circuit of the county and state fairs, though never a serious romance until 1927 in Chicago when she met and married Swan Peterson of Galesburg, Ill, a driver on the race-car circuit.
“After that, in Philadelphia to perform for the sesquicentennial and Mr. Brock found out that I was in love with Mr. Peterson, he all of a sudden started showing up with a girlfriend. That was Dolly, and she was a model for the Hole-Proof Hosiery--that’s what he called it. Later, they got married.”
Lillian continued stunting until 1928, when, she said, federal regulations prohibited low flying and killed barnstorming.
“Then, I traveled with Mr. Peterson while he raced.” But she was not there the day in 1934 when Peterson was killed in a race at Davenport, Iowa.
Meanwhile, Brock was flying the world with Detroit financier Edward F. Schlee. Taking off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, on Aug. 27, 1927, in their Stinson monoplane “Pride of Detroit,” they logged 12,295 miles before the Japanese stopped them at Tokyo. Lillian’s scrapbook says the Japanese were responding to numerous telegrams from the fliers’ American friends urging an end to the attempt because of bad weather.
Became a Celebrity
But the aborted effort was good enough to make Brock a celebrity, and in 1931 he became a personal pilot in Chicago for George F. Harding, Cook County political boss. Brock was ill, however, and died of cancer in Chicago on Nov. 13, 1932, at the age of 36.
Shortly before his death, Lillian had visited.
“He had been such a good-looking man. In the hospital he was just a skeleton, 57 pounds. I wish to this day I had not gone to see him.”
She finished her stunting career with a pilot named Delmar Snyder but would not change from car to plane or plane to plane with him. He was no Brock. Still, her last day in the air--it was Sept. 8, 1928, in Bethany, Mo.--was memorable. Her diary shows that she hung by her toes, hung by her ankles, did the standing loop, the breakaway and the spread eagle.
“I was glad it was over,” she said. “The engine was acting up.”
Lillian had been a free spender and then lost her last $14,000 in the stock market crash, and so a few years after giving up stunting, she was working as a hat-check girl in Chicago. That was when Ernest Werner saw her. He had known Lillian when she was a teen-ager and had kept in touch with a sister. He was three years her senior.
“Mr. Werner was like me, no education, would do anything honest. He was a second cook when I met him. When I married him, he was steward on yachts in Florida. So we went down there and had a beautiful time.” That was 1937.
“He was a wonderful person. He idolized me, spoiled me terribly.”
In 1944, they moved to Los Angeles, where Werner was a bartender, then liquor buyer, for the Hayward Hotel for 21 years. He retired in 1965 and they moved to a mobile home in San Marcos. Werner died in 1971 at the age of 74.
Lillian moved to San Diego in 1976. She had hearing loss but regained some of it (“a nerve condition, probably from the airplane engine”). She did calisthenics, and went to Las Vegas three or four times a year with a group of friends. Asked whether she gambled, she said:
“I sure do. The darn slot machines have me hypnotized. And it’s so completely different from what I have here"--she meant the older residents in her building--"that it does me an awful lot of good to see young people and other crazy people like me.”
In recent years she was rediscovered by the San Diego Aero-Space Museum, where her achievements are featured and where she was a regular guest of honor at one event or another, and where she became a celebrity again after half a century. The Smithsonian Institution is also documenting her life.
“It’s like a second career,” she said. “I hope Mr. Brock is seeing some of it.”
At a recent birthday observance, friends arranged for her to have a short flight in a two-place biplane, a Boeing PT17 built in 1941. It was her first trip in an open cockpit since she quit stunting. She loved it. She stayed inside the cockpit, but, when she landed, commented:
“I wanted to get out there on the wings, but they had told me not to. I would have though, if it had been my regular plane.”
Especially if Billy Brock had been piloting it.