An Accidental Keeper of a Legendary Aviator’s Flame
Louis D’Elia’s quest began with just one photograph.
D’Elia is a gero-neuropsychologist whose lifelong passion for photography and history led him to acquire two truckloads -- 93 dusty cardboard boxes -- of artifacts from the life of legendary aviator Florence “Pancho” Barnes.
Among the items was a rare image of Barnes that had jump-started the career of famed Hollywood photographer George Hurrell in the 1920s when Barnes introduced him to her actor friends.
D’Elia, 52, was born and reared in Ocean Park in Santa Monica and attributes his deep interest in history to growing up next to his great-grandparents in a neighborhood with few children.
His interest in black and white photography was piqued in the 1960s by his photography teacher, Claire Steinberg, at Pacific Palisades High School. She told him to visit Hollywood shops to look at Hurrell’s celebrity glamour shots. D’Elia began collecting Hurrell’s rare photographs of such stars as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Ramon Navarro, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.
Earlier this year, D’Elia needed the Barnes photograph to complete a collection he was preparing for an exhibition marking Hurrell’s centennial at the Palm Springs Desert Museum in December 2004.
Barnes, an adventurer and wealthy socialite, founded the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a dude ranch and hangout for test pilots that hit its prime in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Located near what is now Edwards Air Force Base in Lancaster, the ranch is depicted in the film “The Right Stuff.”
Barnes had been the film industry’s first woman stunt pilot, working in such pictures as Howard Hughes’ 1930 World War I spectacle “Hell’s Angels.” She organized the Motion Picture Pilots Assn., which pushed for better conditions for stunt pilots.
She also wrote and “doctored” film scripts for director Erich von Stroheim. In 1930, she set a women’s air-speed record of 196.19 mph. Four years later she moved to the Antelope Valley and bought land, purchasing 380 acres by 1947.
D’Elia was a 24-year-old undergrad at UCLA when Barnes died of cancer in 1975 at age 74. Her ex-husband, Eugene “Mac” McKendry, stored her possessions in a railroad car, which his family took charge of after he died in 2001.
D’Elia’s learning of the cache was a moment of serendipity -- and fate. “No one wanted it,” he said. “No one could afford it. It was too big. It was tagged to be auctioned off piece by piece when the executor of the estate called me saying she heard I was looking for a Hurrell photo of Pancho Barnes. I couldn’t believe my luck. I took out a loan and bought it -- all of it. Many of my friends thought I was crazy,” D’Elia said.
Now that he was in possession of 93 boxes of Barnes memorabilia, D’Elia tried to drum up interest from the Huntington and other libraries. They all said they were “extremely interested” in the collection, but it would cost them a few hundred thousand dollars to catalog and maintain it.
So D’Elia has become the caretaker of the Pancho Barnes legend, and believes that it is his responsibility to learn her secrets and set the record straight about an extraordinary woman who has been misunderstood.
After he finishes cataloging everything, he will donate her archives to an unnamed Southern California university library that he is negotiating with at present.
In buying her archives, D’Elia -- an assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s School of Medicine who has a private practice in Pasadena -- also acquired the rights to her franchises, which he has incorporated as Pancho Barnes Enterprises.
D’Elia is a shy person who likes to avoid the spotlight, but his eyes dance when he talks about Pancho Barnes, a woman he knows only through photographs and pieces of paper.
Among the boxes, “I found a note from Howard Hughes apologizing for keeping her plane for more than a week,” D’Elia said.
But what Hughes failed to mention in his note -- and D’Elia found in other papers -- was that Hughes had bent her propeller when he crashed her plane. And although he tried to fix it, it never worked quite the same.
Barnes was an upfront person, and “after that it seems their relationship went south a little bit,” D’Elia said.
“She was a brilliant woman who had a heart of gold and was sadly misunderstood in the later part of her life,” he said.
An endocrine disorder that was never properly diagnosed was responsible for behavior that became unpredictable and sometimes uncharacteristically odd. She was reportedly seen walking around the middle of her yard shirtless, he said.
“Because of her lifelong reputation as a colorful character, friends and locals never considered the possibility that she may be in serious need of medical treatment. Instead they figured she was just getting more stubborn and outrageous with age,” D’Elia said.
In the late 1960s, after she had a radical mastectomy, she was living in a rock house in the Mojave Desert in Boron, a former stagecoach stop. When the local sheriff received complaints of someone shooting a gun, he went out to investigate.
“ ‘Are you here on a business call or a social call?’ ” Barnes asked the sheriff. ‘Because if it’s a social call, I’ll put on my [falsies],’ ” D’Elia recalled a friend of Barnes telling him.
As D’Elia continues to dig deeper into Barnes’ past, signs of her loose purse strings from the 1930s through the 1950s become more evident.
“She didn’t lose her inherited fortune by throwing Hollywood parties. Instead, she lost it by buying several houses and apartment complexes to shelter her pilot friends. She also bought food to feed them and paid their medical expenses during the Depression,” D’Elia said.
“Whenever she read or heard about someone destitute, she sent them money, anonymously. And in 1934 she organized the Women’s Air Reserve to fly aid to victims of national emergencies,” D’Elia said.
He has gone through only 38 of the boxes and has so far found six letters from people who tracked her down to thank her for paying their medical expenses.
In 1933, when Blackie Rowan, an airplane mechanic and friend, was seriously injured in a traffic accident and couldn’t hold a steady job, she hired him to do odd jobs for her, and took care of him until the day she died.
When a penniless Armenian kid named Kirk Kerkorian showed up on her doorstep, she gave him room, board and flying lessons in exchange for shoveling manure on her Rancho Oro Verde (meaning green gold, for the cash crop of alfalfa), where her Happy Bottom clubhouse flourished. She saw ambition and promise in the high-school dropout, who went on to become a billionaire tycoon and owner of MGM.
There’s a letter written to Barnes by pilot Chuck Yeager thanking her for the motorcycle she bought him to ride to the base so his wife, Glennis, could use their only car.
“Several of the boxes are filled with her legal records, including a 1953 lawsuit in which she not only sued the U.S. government for the improper taking of her land, libel and slander, but she represented herself and won more than $400,000,” D’Elia said.
That year, a mysterious fire burned down the club. The place had been ridiculed by outsiders and some Air Force brass as irreverent, scorned as a brothel and dismissed as an aging woman’s monument to bad taste. After the fire she secretly salvaged most of her records, including an oil painting of herself that now hangs over D’Elia’s fireplace.
Despite the rumors, no one has been able to confirm whether she ran a brothel. “She loved nothing more than encouraging gossip, saying it was good for business,” said D’Elia, who hopes to find more answers in the remaining 55 boxes.
All of her signature touchstones -- her six-shooter and white cowboy boots, the songs and letters she wrote, her unfinished autobiography, flight log books, hundreds of photographs and more -- have helped D’Elia understand a woman whose philosophy on life was pure enjoyment.
D’Elia said she was not “ornery, nasty and ugly” as some have described her. “She swore, but was never vulgar and she was a beautiful person in her youth. You just had to look deeper for her beauty as she got older. She was an extraordinary woman who possessed a rare inner gift that enabled and encouraged people to be themselves.”
Driven by the letters, documents and photographs of this legendary woman, D’Elia has already begun writing a one-character play about her life, an enterprise that he’s hoping will help pay off his loan.
Others have also been taken by D’Elia’s enthusiasm for Barnes as well as by her notorious clubhouse.
This weekend, the Queen’s Seaport Development Inc., operator of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, unleashed its proposed plan, along with Pancho Barnes Enterprises, to rebuild the Happy Bottom Riding Club Bar and Restaurant dockside of the Queen Mary.
“We hope to locate a thousand of the original 9,000 members who are still alive and invite them for the opening later next year,” said Howard Bell, senior vice president of finance and development.
“I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute to a woman whose motto was, ‘When you have a choice -- choose happy,’ ” D’Elia said.
“And that’s exactly how I feel.”