The “Wind, Motion, and Freedom” of Lillian Gatlin, UIUC’s Pioneering Aviatrix

This guest post was written by Nathan Tye. Nathan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Illinois and the Assistant Book Review Editor of Middle West Review.

Lillian Gatlin in the Los Angeles Herald, March 1917

The early history of aviation is filled with pioneers and “firsts” whose accomplishments were quickly overshadowed by more impressive feats. Lillian Gatlin, a UIUC student from 1906-1908, is rarely remembered today, but in the fall of 1922 was the toast of the nation when she became the first woman to fly across the country.[1] Although Gatlin did not graduate from UIUC, transferring to Michigan for her senior year where she received an A.B. in English in 1909, she maintained a long correspondence with her old Rhetoric professor, Thomas Arkle Clark.[2] A lifelong writer and aviatrix, it was at Illinois that Gatlin discovered her love of writing. As she told Dean Clark, “I think it was Rhetoric 10. The number is of no consequence – it was where you encouraged me to write.”[3] Although Edward Bok, editor of Ladies’ Home Journal gave Gatlin her first big break, “he did not ‘discover’ me – entirely.” As she informed Clark, “Much to my mystification, you did – that: and trained me for him[.]”[4] Gatlin and Clark’s letters, recently identified in the General Correspondence of the Dean of Men, reveal a woman set on breaking free from society’s expectations, first as a writer and later as an aviation pioneer, whose life of adventure was started at the University of Illinois.

The Life of an Aviatrix

 

By 1915, Gatlin was an established aviatrix and author living in San Francisco. That March her flight instructor (and possibly fiancé), the famed barnstormer Lincoln Beachy, died in a crash at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.[5] Beginning in 1916 Gatlin flew over Beachy’s crash site just off the coast of the Exposition Grounds (now the Marina District) and dropped flowers on the anniversary of his death. As untold numbers of pilots began dying in the World War the event became a citywide and eventually national event commemorating dead aviators. In 1921 it was officially reorganized with city sponsorship as “Aerial Day.”[6]

On the first Aerial Day in 1921, the World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker flew Gatlin over the spot of Beachey’s crash where she dropped roses from the plane. The event included speeches from families of deceased pilots, readings from letters written by President Warren G. Harding and General John J. Pershing, and a military air squadron performance.[7] It was an incredible success after years of hard work, Gatlin told Dean Clark the creation of Aerial Day was both a “labor of love” and national obligation to channel her own grief over Beachey’s loss and that of Gold Star mothers.[8]

In the immediate aftermath of Beachey’s crash she also found support in her first love: writing. Gatlin began work on a novel, Bunnie Gates. The outline she sent to Dean Clark details a semi-autobiographical story of triumph over adversity.

Bunnie Gates is the story of a strong woman in the making. As a young girl, with a self earned college education as her main equipment, Bunnie starts out to buffet the world with all the bravery of ignorance. The wholesale toy business is her vehicle. The first thing that she does is to unlearn all she acquired academically. Then come the age old pitfalls in modern disguises, and contact with the mire and seamy sides of life. But the real Bunnie is never submerged. She rises from it all, somewhat tattered and shaky, to be sure, but firmly and consciously triumphant. In the main, Bunnie Gates is a San Francisco story.”[9]

Lillian Gatlin and Laddie Boy in the San Bernardino Sun 15 December 1922

Clark purchased an Author’s Edition of the forthcoming novel and shared the announcement with the alumni association, but Gatlin’s novel never made it to print.[10] Thirteen years later, Clark inquired about the novel “I have seen neither hide nor hair of.”[11] Gatlin returned Clark’s money and explained she could not finish her manuscript until a time when “life would have taught and qualified me to write a ‘last chapter.’”[12] Gatlin did not stop writing despite this setback. She continued working as a scenario writer for film and radio productions, but never published her novel. She also wrote for magazines, including articles on adoption, a summation of her wartime work on behalf of animal veterans in Ladies’ Home Journal and an account of her flight published in The San Francisco Examiner.[13]

In the ensuing years Gatlin continued to appear in the press and write from Clark from time to time. Days before Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, Lillian Gatlin publically offered her services as a pilot to the United States military. “I never like to think of war and its awful consequences but if it is inevitable I am ready to do my duty.”[14] Although Gatlin was never called to the front, she volunteered with the Blue Cross, a British animal rights organization. Gatlin toured California with French trench dogs to raise funds for the care of animal war veterans.[15] Three years later, Gatlin again appeared in the press as a footnote to a tragedy.

Gatlin played a small part in what is considered Hollywood’s first major scandal and known as one of the most sensational criminal cases of the decade: the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle manslaughter trial. Arbuckle was charged with the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe, an aspiring actress, at a booze-filled party (at the height of Prohibition). Doctor’s testified that a chronic condition caused her bladder to rupture, killing her, and that no sign of other injuries were found. Arbuckle was acquitted but his career on screen was over.[16] Gatlin, a close friend of Rappe, accompanied her body from San Francisco to Los Angeles for the funeral.[17]

The First Flight of a Woman Across The United States

On October 8, 1922, Lillian Gatlin and Elmer Leonhardt landed their De Havilland DH-4 mail plane in Long Island. As they touched down after 27 hours and 11 minutes in the air Gatlin became the first woman to fly across the continent. Her achievement was front-page news across the country. Gatlin was soon feted at events in New York and Washington D.C., where President Warren G. Harding introduced her to the White House’s most famous resident, his celebrity dog, Laddie Boy.[18]

Although Gatlin did not serve as the pilot, her trip was an important step in the opening of aviation to women. Early women pilots served as passengers, according to aviation historian Kathleen Brooks-Pazmany, to dispel beliefs that flying was socially or physically beyond a woman’s abilities.[19] Gatlin’s flight led the way for other, more famous female flyers to reach new heights. In 1932, ten years after Gatlin’s transcontinental flight, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo non-stop across the United States.

Reveling in her achievement, Gatlin shared the news with everyone. On the way to her White House meetings, Gatlin wrote to her “dear Dear Clark” with an account of her flight and a small request.

“Though time has flown on since I last wrote you – and I have flown from San Francisco to New York, in 27 hours and 11 minutes via U.S. Air Mail and am the first woman to fly across the American continent. I have not forgotten you. You doubtless read about the flight. The Leaning Tower of Pisa of mail and telegrams that confronts me everywhere makes me thing everyone knows about it! It was a glorified trip; well worth the eleven years of work that preceded it. And an indelible memory! Went over the Rockies at 17,500 ft. Followed the U.S. Air Mail route. The country talked in tones of purple and brown, and in individualized outline.”[20]

 

In the San Francisco Examiner she talked more of those tones, the “uneven skyline of virile green” and “ages-old mountains more thickly mantled in snow” guarding “an unbroken horizon in the East.” Tucked into the mail compartment she imagined what her younger self would think of her journey. “Across the span of years I telegraphed her definite answers to the questions she used to ask about the sky and the birds.” Those answers were provided by the “wind, motion, and freedom,” of flight, something she was one of the small number of women to experience at the time.[21]

In her letter she also told Clark that as she prepared for her trip at the San Francisco airfield she met another Illinois alumni, Warren E. LaFollette. LaFollette was a Air Mail pilot working out of San Francisco.[22] Gatlin and LaFollette bonded over “a long ‘Tommie Arkle’ Talk,” and she happily reported LaFollette was “one of [Clark’s] numerous admirers and apostles.” Gatlin agreed with LaFollette’s assessment of Clark and hoped he would use his good will and prominence to promote her historic achievement as well as her efforts to make Aerial Day a national holiday by arranging public events in Urbana-Champaign.[23]

Gatlin proposed she, the triumphant former student, accompanied by films of her adventure, would lecture students on the finer points of flight and hope to instill in them the larger message of the trip: the need to commemorate deceased pilots and their families. Pathé and Fox Films filmed portions of the trip and provided prints for her to screen at public events. Speaking to the students was a matter of positive intellectual growth. Her talk was “educational – aeronautically and progressively” in nature, but she stressed its greater importance was the linking of students together with her patriotic tribute to deceased aviators. Gatlin made this clear to Clark, “In keeping faith with the son one keeps faith with the mother; one becomes both and keeps faith with both, by keeping constructively alive that for which the son lived.” Students would, Gatlin hoped, become active participants in her tribute.

It appears Clark was not interested in making arrangements for Gatlin. He shared a portion of the letter with the Daily Illini who then published a brief account of the trip on December 13, 1922, but no mention is made of Gatlin coming to campus.[24] Gatlin’s letter made clear her proposed visit, although made in the spirit of good will, required payment. Even though she wrote it could otherwise, claiming “I wish I could make you a gift of my proposed visit.” Clark’s decision on the matter was easy according to Gatlin, “knowing you always do the just and generous thing,” made all the easier given her University ties, national renown, and patriotic mission.

Gatlin and Clark continued to correspond over the years, the last letter dates to 1928, four years before Dean Clark died. Although she did not complete her degree at Illinois, Gatlin cherished the three years she spent on campus and particularly the inspiration and friendship of her Rhetoric professor, Thomas Arkle Clark. Clark and Gatlin’s letters document a common university occurrence – students reaching out to former professors with thanks, but her appreciation also renders them rare letters documenting an aviation milestone. Gatlin’s letters are artifacts capturing the wind, the motion, and the freedom of the first woman to fly across the country.

 

Further Reading:

Kathleen Brooks-Pazmany, United States Women in Aviation, 1919-1929. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Henry R. Lehrer, Flying the Beam: Navigating the Early U.S. Airmail Airways, 1917-1941. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2014.

  1. Robert van der Linden, Airlines and Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

 

[1] Kathleen Brooks-Pazmany, United States Women in Aviation, 1919-1929 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 13.

[2] “Local News,” The Daily Illini, April 16, 1909.

[3] Lillian Gatlin to Thomas Arkle Clark, October 1915, Folder: Ga-Gd, Box 9, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1, Student Life and Culture Archives

[4] Lillian Gatlin to Thomas Arkle Clark, September 28, 1928, Folder: Fr-Grey, Box 47, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1

[5] Gatlin’s friendship with Beachey was mentioned in posthumous memorials to the pilot but Gatlin only remarked on their engagement years later in a meeting with Gold Star Mothers in Salt Lake City. “Service Star Legion,” The Utah Payroll Builder, Vol. 4, No. 11 (November 1922), 18. Beachey offered flights for Exposition attendees but it required being strapped to his plane’s wing. Rose Wilder Lane tried it and offered to set up a flight for her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, when she arrived in San Francisco. Rose Wilder Lane to Laura Ingalls Wilder, Spring 1915, in West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder to Almanzo Wilder, San Francisco 1915. Roger Lea MacBride, ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 4.

[6] “San Francisco Aerial Day,” Aviation and Aircraft Journal, Vol. 10, No. 18 (April 18, 1921), 508.

[7] “10,000 United In Tribute to Dead Airmen,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 14, 1921.

[8] Lillian Gatlin to Thomas Arlke Clark, November 16th, 1922, Folder Gal, Box 30, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1

[9] Lillian Gatlin to Thomas Clark, October 1915, Folder: Ga-Gd, Box 9, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1, Student Life and Culture Archives

[10] Thomas Arlke Clark to Lillian Gatlin, October 25, 1915, Folder: Ga-Gd, Box 9, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1, Student Life and Culture Archives; “Among the Illini: 1910,” The Alumni Quarterly and Fortnightly Notes, Vol. 1, No. 3 (November 1, 1915), 88.

[11] Thomas Arlke Clark to Lillian Gatlin, October 3, 1928, Folder: Fr-Grey, Box 47, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1

[12] Lillian Gatlin to Thomas Arlke Clark, October 25, 1928, Folder: Fr-Grey, Box 47, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1

[13] Lillian Gatlin, “Adopting a Baby: The Stork Gives Blindly, But Only the Fittest Qualify as Parents by Proxy,” Sunset: The Pacific Monthly, Vol. 46, No. 2 (February 1921), 83-86; Albert Payson Terhune and Lillian Gatlin, “What We Two Dogs Did: Incidentally We Saved the Lives of 1062 Soldiers,” The Ladies’ Home Journal (September 1919), 17; Lillian Gatlin, “Looking Down on the United States From A Mail Plane,” The San Francisco Examiner, Box 47, Folder Fr-Gey, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1, Student Life and Culture Archives

[14] “Bird Girl Offers Herself and Plane to U.S. If War Comes,” Los Angeles Herald, March 30, 1917.

[15] “Blue Cross Takes Care of Animals on Battle Fronts; Representatives in Santa Cruz,” Santa Cruz Evening News, August 15, 1918. For more on the role of trench dogs during World War I see “Dogs’ WWI jobs uncovered in records,” BBC News, November 28, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-25147640 Accessed February 16, 2018.

[16] Gilbert King, “The Skinny on the Fatty Arbuckle Trial,” Smithsonian.com, November 8, 2011. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-skinny-on-the-fatty-arbuckle-trial-131228859/ Accessed February 13, 2018.

[17] “Rappe Girl’s Body To Be Shipped to Los Angeles Today: Will Be Accompanied by Miss Lillian Gatlin, Scenario Writer and Friend,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 16, 1921.

[18] “Woman Crosses Continent In Air,” New York Times, October 9, 1922; “Gold Star Mother Ends Coast-to-Coast Flight,” New York Tribune, October 9, 1922; “First Woman Completes Transcontinental Flight,” The Baltimore Sun, October 9, 1922; “Laddie Boy Likes S.F. Woman Flyer,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 7, 1922.

[19] Kathleen Brooks-Pazmany, United States Women in Aviation, 1919-1929 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 1.

[20] Lillian Gatlin to Thomas Arlke Clark, November 16th, 1922, Folder Gal, Box 30, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1

[21] Lillian Gatlin, “Looking Down on the United States From A Mail Plane,” The San Francisco Examiner, Box 47, Folder Fr-Gey, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1, Student Life and Culture Archives

[22] Dale Nielson, ed., Saga of the U.S. Air Mail Service, 1918-1927 (Air Mail Pioneers, 1962), 108.

[23] Lillian Gatlin to Thomas Arlke Clark, November 16th, 1922, Folder Gal, Box 30, Student Affairs/Dean of Men/General Correspondence, 1912-1943, 41/2/1

[24] “Miss Gatlin Ex-’09 First Bird Woman To Jump Country,” Daily Illini, December 13, 1922.

 

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