The young girl sat in the garden, listening, as her grandfather, a self-made millionaire, told of floating above the Earth in hot air balloons, supplying intelligence on Rebel forces to the Union Soldiers standing below.
Grandfather was Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, scientist and inventor. His influence on the world was notable indeed, and is chronicled elsewhere in literature. Mount Lowe, towering above Pasadena, is named after him.
A Woman with the Right Stuff
The professor’s impact on his granddaughter was equally profound, and it made her a legend in her own time, and well beyond. Born in 1901, she was given the name of Florence Leontine Lowe. The world would would know her better as Pancho Barnes. She was destined to be a star. The public life of Pancho Barnes started at the age of four when she danced on the stage with Pavlova. She was a selling artist in high school, and in the early motion pictures, doubled in horseback scenes for Louise Fazenda. One could do well with a scorecard to keep abreast of Pancho’s many lovers, exploits, adventures and mishaps.
It’s My Party and I’ll Fly if I Want to.
After a youth spent riding stunt horses in Hollywood and supplying Mexican revolutionaries during the Mexican Civil War in 1920, on a banana boat running guns while disguised as a man, she was dubbed “Pancho” by her compatriots, and the name stuck; her last name was acquired through marriage when she was 18 years old to Episcopalian Reverend Rankin Barnes, with whom she had a son, William, later called Billy. On paper, the Barnes were married for 21 years, although they had parted ways very early on. In December, 1941, three months after the divorce was final, she married Robert Hudson Nichols Jr. The marriage lasted two weeks.
In 1928, and already wealthy through inheritance, Pancho grew tired of bumming around the country, riding the rails and hitchhiking with a friend from her Mexican Revolution adventures, so she obtained her pilot’s license. In 1929, there were 4,200 licensed pilots in the United States. Only 31 were women.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings. ~John Gillispie Magee Jr.
She learned to fly in the era just after Charles Lindberg’s Atlantic hop, and became a flying attraction in her own right. On the day Pancho received her official private license, she led a flight of 65 planes to dedicate the Grand Central Airport in Glendale.
Pancho became a barnstormer and air racer, breaking Amelia Earhart’s women’s world air speed record at the speed of 196.1 mph in a Speedwing Travel Air Type R Mystery Ship in 1931, at the age of 27 years old. The Betsy Ross Corps, founded in the early thirties, was a national organization of female pilots intended to function an auxiliary to the Army Air Corps. Pancho joined immediately but was disappointed by the lack of activities. “Flying,” Pancho once exulted in a characteristic turn of phrase, “makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a stack of hundred dollar bills.” More than anything, Pancho loved to fly fast.
Brazen, cigar smoking and swearing like the fighter she was, Pancho eventually moved to the Mojave Desert, and in 1933 purchased an 80-acre alfalfa farm from a struggling farmer named Ben Hannam, right alongside Muroc Army Air Field. Later it would become Edwards Air Force Base, and a bane to Pancho’s existence. Ben’s plot of desert looked better from the air than from the ground, but Pancho didn’t care. Even though other alfalfa farms had a higher yield, and in spite of the falling price of alfalfa at the time, her gut feeling was to buy it and so she did.
A Flight of Fancy O’er a Windswept Field
Pancho didn’t have much left by the mid-1930s, but she still had an apartment building on Witmer and North Sixth in Los Angeles. She traded it to the Hannams in an even exchange. Pancho didn’t care whether she overpaid for the land. She had lost her beautiful Laguna Beach house and could not afford the upkeep of her San Marino mansion in the depths of The Depression, so she rented for the summer to an airline owner. Her new lover, Logan “Granny” Nourse, and her son accompanied her to the desert. Granny had been flying since 1927, and had designed his own low-wing plane, a precursor to the famous Mystery Ship. Granny would learn later like the others, that Pancho’s heart had a wandering eye.
Surviving was a daily battle filled with neighbor disputes and her contentious family disputing Pancho’s wealthy maternal grandmother’s will for what would later be awarded by the courts to Pancho as a slim inheritance, with the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) receiving the majority of her Grandmother’s assets. The Civilian Pilot Training Program officially began in the Fall of 1939, and Pancho got in on the ground floor, securing a government contract to supply planes and instructors for the area’s first class beginning that winter.
“Desert flying was glorious, the bright, clear, dry, days, one after another, the uncrowded skies, the miles and miles of hard, flat land, smoother and flatter than any airstrip man or machine could make.” ~Lauren Kessler
At first, Pancho’s flight school was based in Palmdale, 20 miles away, but she moved the business to her ranch the following year. Some instructors still thought women were incapable of flying, so Pancho helped two women students become pilots by registering them by their first initials only, rather than their full names, to disguise their gender. Had Pancho been younger, she would have been up there with the WASPS (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots). When the war ended in 1945, and the government lifted its ban on civilian flying, Pancho quickly reopened her ample airfield. She renamed the whole operation as Pancho’s Fly-Inn. Anybody could tie down their plane for free, provided he or she agreed to buy gas and oil from Pancho. Due to it’s popularity, she added more stables and 20 thoroughbreds she rented out to guests. In due time, the Fly-Inn became a big, bustling business attracting elite pilots, fresh from secret test flights, with an almost joyful disdain for orderly commerce. Money was always secondary to having fun. As author Lauren Kessler wrote, “She enjoyed being Lady Bountiful to the desert rats.”
I am Woman, Hear me Soar
The best story is that a famous test pilot once visited Pancho’s Fly-Inn and, to relax, took one of the ranch’s spirited horses for a long ride. Upon returning, he told Pancho that the ride made his bottom happy. The Happy Bottom Riding Club was rumored to have been born at that moment. So that’s the story, and you can make of it what you will. Clearly, it was a place for many a cheerful derriere. The Happy Bottom Riding Club, saloon and grill soon became a haven for Hollywood celebrities and early test pilots, including Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin as well as General Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes. When they first met at the club, Chuck Yeager thought Pancho was the homeliest woman he ever met, but was immediately taken in by her stories and chutzpah. In addition to pilots, the club attracted Hollywood’s glitterati, including Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters and Roy Rogers.
Back in the Saddle Again
With its big meals, bottomless liquor and live dance bands, the Happy Bottom Riding Club’s popularity rapidly catapulted into the stratosphere. The parties, impromptu barbecues, and milestone celebrations quickly became legendary. Pancho even ran an illegal casino in one of the outbuildings. The club boasted 9,000 members worldwide. Most of the booze was flown in from Mexico illegally, so no taxes were paid on it. As one can imagine, alcohol spurred many a brawl, as well as memorable tales.
Rancho Pancho: Precursor to the Playboy Mansion
Now, morality at the Happy Bottom Riding Club was always a matter of opinion. Pancho believed salacious gossip was good for business but she never pimped out any of her hostesses or ask for a cut of the action. Pancho was a good times gal, but never a madame. She had a foul mouth and “a face like a mud fence,” according to Chuck Yeager’s wife, Glennis (of ‘Glamorous Glennis’ fame). Pancho refused to wear dresses and most times was dressed in jodpurs and western shirts, with her cropped hair sticking out “like last year’s straw stack” in the words of a former piano player at the club. After Pancho died many years later, a letter was discovered written to Pancho by pilot Chuck Yeager thanking her for the motorcycle she brought him to ride to the base so his wife, Glennis, could use their only car.
According to former flight student Otto Tronowsky, Edwards Air Force Base was little more than canvas tents and temporary buildings in 1941. Its primary use was as a gunnery range for P-40’s prior to Pearl Harbor. Pancho loved men and she especially loved fliers. They could tell her a dirty joke and she would answer with an even filthier one. Later, the supersonic jockeys called themselves the Blow and Go Club, as a nod to breaking the sound barrier in an X-1 in 1947. Yeager sometimes buzzed Pancho’s motel in a F-86 jet.
Barnstorming Hell’s Angels
Pancho Barnes was the film industry’s first woman stunt pilot, and worked in pictures such as Howard Hughes’ famous 1930 World War-1 spectacle, “Hell’s Angels.” While stunt flying for the movies, Pancho ran her own civil pilot training school at her own Muroc Dry Lake Airfield with five instructors and fifteen planes. She organized the Motion Picture Pilots Association, which pushed for better conditions for stunt pilots. She also wrote and “doctored” film scripts for director Eric von Stroheim.
Straighten Up and Fly Right. ~The Andrew Sisters
Pancho’s energy was limitless. She was dynamo, as much a force of nature as the desert windstorms. Pancho married for the third time to gregarious Don Shalita, six years her junior, in Reno on July 29, 1945. The marriage lasted only four months. Pancho continued to increase her spread and by 1947 it had grown to a 360 acre alfalfa ranch called The Rancho Oro Verde, where she developed a thriving dairy, cattle and hog business. Pancho married her fourth husband at the age of 45, Gene “Mac” McKendry, in 1946. Gene was 18 years her junior, almost the same age as her son. Chuck Yeager, the famed test pilot, and his friend, former air base commander Gen. Albert Boyd, gave Barnes away to the young groom. Just to be showy, General Boyd flew to the wedding in a new jet bomber that he was testing at the time. In all, about 1,500 pilots, aviation personnel, wives and girlfriends attended the lavish affair. According to a story in a March 1949 magazine called ‘Flying,’ Pancho even once ran for election to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors and via her own skywriting advertisements, attracted 6,000 votes to rack third of 12 candidates. When a penniless Armenian kid named Kerkor “Kirk” Kerkorian showed up on her doorstep, Pancho gave him room, board and flying lessons in exchange for shoveling manure at her Rancho Oro Verde, where the Happy Bottom Riding clubhouse flourished. Pancho admired talent, and she liked the ambition and promise that the high school dropout displayed. Kerkorian went on to become a billionaire tycoon, and owner of MGM studio.
The Beginning of the Bitter End
Tragedy, tenacity, and triumph followed Pancho when the base tried to evict her after a change of command in 1952 when it was decided Edwards needed to drastically expand. The base planned constructing a huge runway right through the middle of her ranch. She sued the government three separate times and won, although at least one was considered only a moral victory rather than a legal one. Then in 1953, most of the Happy Bottom Riding Club was lost to a mysterious fire which destroyed her beloved horses and every flying trophy she had ever won. Suing the government had become a full-time job. Pancho called it “The War of the Mojave.” Despite long drawn out court battles where Pancho represented herself, insisting her grandfather had started the air force, Edwards ended up buying her ranch under eminent domain. However, thanks to her litigation, Pancho received twice the paltry low-ball fair market value that Edwards had paid her neighbors for their properties. She had been the last hold-out. Ever the optimist, Pancho rebuilt some of her ranch that burned down but by then the Happy Bottom Riding Club was a veritable ghost town. It was an end to an era.
Pancho used much of the money from Edwards to buy large portions of acreage in Cantil, to amass 640 acres. Pancho joked she would secede from the United States and proclaim an Independent Nation of Pancho, but none of it actually came close to the former glory days Pancho had enjoyed before. She added a trout pond by the Jawbone Motel, a free campground, livery stables and offered trail rides through Red Rock, Jawbone and Last Chance Canyon. Life at Gypsy Springs was primitive and harsh but Pancho wasn’t done making grandiose plans for improvement. She envisioned creating a thoroughbred horse breeding operation. Eventually she paid $60 in cash a day just to have baled hay trucked in to feed 54 expensive racehorses but she couldn’t bring herself to sell any. Bills, but not business, continued to rise.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
Bright sunny days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. ~Louis Armstrong
Despite her personal money woes, Pancho’s generosity continued; she fed anyone hungry who couldn’t afford to eat at Jawbone Cafe. She gave groceries away to those in need at her Cantil store, with no expectation for repayment. Word spread far and wide that Pancho would feed anyone down on their luck. Although Pancho took care of others, she didn’t take decent care of herself. Pancho discovered her undiagnosed hypertension could rise as fast as her former mystery ship when her blood pressure rocketed to 265/135 and she suffered a retinal hemorrhage, a life-threatening emergency, but did not seek treatment until she collapsed several days later. In those days, there were no drugs to control hypertension so she elected to have a grueling nerve-cutting operation called a sympathectomy at the Mayo Clinic in New York. It worked, although she had two 18 inch scars on each side of her body. But Pancho loved a good fight, or even a bad one. Two weeks later, still unbalanced and impaired from the side effects, Pancho went for a horseback ride in the desert.
Pancho later endured two radical mastectomies for breast cancer in the late 1950s but wasn’t shy about showing anyone who cared to look and a few who didn’t. When a neighbor complained of someone shooting a gun, the local sheriff went out to Pancho’s house to investigate. Pancho asked him if it was a social call or a business one. “Because if it’s a social call, I’ll put on my rubber titties,” Pancho casually remarked. A serious endocrine disorder, which was never properly diagnosed, was responsible for Pancho’s behavior that became unpredictable and sometimes uncharacteristically odd. She was reportedly seen walking around the middle of her yard, shirtless.
Pancho’s marriage took a nose dive but she wasn’t going to give up easily. Her dwindling money was at stake. After hiring a private investigator, she accused Mac of having a romantic fling with Lenora, a waitress at the Jawbone Cafe in Cantil, which Pancho owned. Mac sued Pancho to prevent her from selling the cafe. More lawsuits followed. After an acrimonious divorce from Mac in 1963, Pancho continued to spiral downhill and became a recluse living in squalor. Later in 1963, an old friend named Ted Tate became alarmed when he accidentally discovered her dire bedridden condition. Another friend from the 1930s whom Pancho had helped in her time of need, Arlene Milhollin, invited Pancho to move from remote Gypsy Springs to Boron to live in a rent-free house. At least Pancho would be in a town near some conveniences like a store, post office and a 13-bed hospital.
“She’s gone from a mansion in San Marino to a shack in Boron.” ~ Independent Press-Telegraph, 1968.
She gratefully accepted and the old Pancho started to spring back. Although the quirky rock house with its lopsided porch and dirt floors was humble, it had running water. Pancho decided to start a purebred dog breeding kennel, but as you already guessed it, was unwilling to sell any. Filth and animals inside the house began to quickly pile up and became a health hazard. Ted Tate and his family paid for a maid to come out twice a month to tidy the mess. Although late in her life most enjoyed the legend of Pancho Barnes, many had avoided the argumentative, profane, unkempt woman herself. Sometimes no one saw her for weeks. Feisty until the end, she was still involved in several court battles. The most notable one involved a defamation of character suit she filed against the Bank of America National Trust and Savings Association in 1971 for $630 million dollars in punitive damages for stopping payment on a $50 money order. The bank fought the case in Kern County courts for three and half years. Again, Pancho acted as her own legal counsel. The courts awarded Pancho with $500 but dismissed her other complaints.
From victory roll to tail chase, at heaven’s very door. ~ Commander Jerry Coffee
When Edwards AFB noticed Pancho on their radar again, they threw a big bash in her honor at the ruins where it had all begun, the Happy Bottom Riding Club. They proclaimed March 23 as “Pancho Barnes: The First Citizen of Edwards Day.” She was able to reunite with many of her blow and go friends and exchanged ribald stories like the old days. The base commander toasted Pancho and remarked she was a living heritage. Soon Pancho was invited to less formal gatherings and her popularity grew. In 1970, Pancho even showed up to an affair wearing a fancy wig, make-up and a dress for possibly the first time in her life. Everyone gathered around and made a gigantic fuss over her. People cheered and clapped. Pancho was in her element.
When she found out her mystery ship was going to be auctioned in Orange County, she knew she had to attend. Billy, who by then ran a flying school in Lancaster, also went. When the 500-person audience found out the legendary Pancho was seated in the front row, they showed their respect by purposely not outbidding Billy. Their paddles went down one by one. Although their mother-son relationship had been distant and sometimes stormy, Billy made the highest bid and bought the partially disassembled mystery ship in tribute for his mother for $4,300 dollars. The audience stood and gave them a standing ovation.
God only knows the real you but there’s a kind of love that God only knows. ~The Beach Boys
We’ve visited Pancho Barnes’ home at 12155 Kern Street in Boron, California, a couple of times over the years. A sadder place you won’t find. When you know the rest of the story about this amazing aviator, and how her life ended, you’ll know what we mean. Pancho died alone on her bed on March 29, 1975, ingloriously inside this small house in its pack rat condition. Alone that is, except for 55 pedigree dogs, 10 of them who had starved to death. Fifteen chickens and two emaciated horses were out back. When Pancho didn’t show up at for a speaking engagement at the Officer’s Wives Club luncheon where she was a popular guest, people grew concerned. Her son, Billy, sent out the constable to Pancho’s house. When he broke a window to investigate, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
The temperature had been turned up to above 80F and the kitchen faucet was running full blast. Three inches of water covered the floor. Pancho’s body wasn’t found for 8 or 9 days, so you can fill in the blanks on how that turned out. Pancho, was 74 years old. The coroner ruled her death as natural, but a number of people questioned the findings and suspected foul play. Amateur theories abounded but the case was never reopened.
We live in fame or go down in flame. Hey! Nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force! ~Robert Crawford, 1939.
Ironically, Pancho had been one of the special guests invited to the annual Barnstormers Reunion in Lancaster, scheduled the weekend after she was found deceased. The banquet became Pancho’s unofficial celebration of life. General James Doolittle eulogized Pancho Barnes during the reunion in a traditional Irish wake with a toast and a roast, attended by 1,000 of her friends. General Doolittle, who gained fame early in World War II leading a bomber raid over Tokyo, Japan, described Pancho as “having a heart as big as a ham,” and how she sat such a great store by courage, honor an integrity. He joked that Pancho was likely looking down from above saying she wondered what that little old bald headed bastard was going to say.
Ted Tate was the master of ceremonies. In honor of his friend Pancho, and at the urging of the tipsy audience, Ted told one of the most filthy, profane stories Pancho had ever told, involving peach ice cream and naked ladies. The room exploded into loud applause and laughter. However, the new museum directors fired Ted on the spot. The next day Pancho’s ashes were scattered from the air by Billy Barnes and Ted Tate, over her infamous Happy Bottom Riding Club just down the road on the edge of Edwards Air Force Base. But she had the last laugh.
Much to Edwards’ chagrin, media had gathered against Edwards’ policy. The urn’s lid was stuck so they two men had to make more than their one allowed pass. Edwards radioed the small Cessna and told Billy and Ted their time had expired. Ted garbled into the mic he couldn’t read them. Billy flew in circles. Edwards kept screaming for them to get out of their military airspace. Finally Pancho’s ashes were dispersed out the window, but were caught in a cross wind and re-entered the cockpit. As in life, Pancho would have the final say.
I’ll Be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places. ~Frank Sinatra, 1962.
In a surprising turn of events, Pancho’s last will and testament left everything to former husband, Mac McKendry. Apparently it had been written in 1958 before they divorced. Pancho had reviled against Mac for the last fourteen years of her life. Billy challenged the will, claiming another will was written in February 1970, absolving the first. It was never found among her belongings. Although Pancho had lived like a pauper, her estate was more than met the eye–about $70,000 dollars. After a year and a half of legal acrobatics Mac settled out of court, paying Billy $22,500 dollars to buzz off. Within months, the Los Angeles Times reported Mac McKendry and his wife Lenora, had taken on the monumental task of displaying the memorabilia of Pancho Barnes. Their first task was to move an Amtrak railroad coach alongside Highway 14 northwest of the Cantil post office. They planned to house some of the photos, papers and mementos in the coach of Pancho’s unique and colorful life. They had recently acquired old iron carts that once stood in front of Pancho’s store. They said they hoped to open the museum by 1978. Instead, Mac published a book in 2000 about Chuck Yeager, “The Quest for Mach 1.” Mac died in 2001, at 81 years old.
Pancho’s 58 year-old son Billy Barnes died piloting a North American P-51 Mustang flying near Fox Field in Lancaster, California in October 1980.
Tom Wolfe depicted Pancho in his 1983 novel, The Right Stuff, which would go on to the silver screen, where her saloon was featured. A miscast Valerie Bertinelli portrayed Barnes in a fictionalized 3-hour television movie in 1988, shot on location near Dallas, Texas. Kathy Bates provided the voice of Pancho in a PBS documentary made in 2009.
In 2003, Dr. Louis D’Ella, a gero-nueropsychologist and assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s School of Medicine, learned of the McKendry’s cache stored in the railroad car after Mac died. It was slated to be auctioned off piece by piece until the executor of the will contacted Dr. D’Ella, an avid collector of rare black and white photos. He had been looking for a MGM’s Chief Still Photographer, George Hurrell’s, photo of Pancho Barnes to complete his collection for an exhibition in Palm Springs scheduled for the following year. So, D’Ella bought the archives and became the caretaker of the Pancho Barnes legend. After cataloguing everything, he planned to donate the collection to an unnamed Southern California university library that he was negotiating with. Pancho was a prolific writer and record keeper. Among her things, D’Ella found a note from Howard Hughes apologizing for keeping her plane for more than a week. D’Ella found out later Hughes had actually bent Pancho’s propeller in an accident, and it never quite worked right afterwards.
While going through Pancho’s boxes, Dr. D’Ella discovered whenever Pancho read or heard about someone destitute, Pancho sent them money anonymously. Pancho didn’t lose her money by throwing Hollywood parties, she lost it by buying several houses and apartments to shelter her pilot friends. She also bought food to feed them and paid their medical expenses during the Depression era. 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. And in 1934, she organized the Women’s Air Reserve to fly aid to victims of national emergencies.
We wonder why she was never presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Pancho Barnes, a woman ahead of her time, clearly deserved it.
Pancho was truly a liberated woman in every sense of the meaning 40 years before it became a battle cry for bra burners. Pancho lived life to it’s fullest and broke societal expectations much like she did when she exceeded Earhart’s flying speed record so many years before, deliberately and with joy. Choose happy.
Los Angeles Times: An Accidental Keeper of a Legendary Aviator’s Flame, 26 Oct 2003.
The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes by Lauren Kessler, published 2000.
Los Angeles Times: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes, 28 June 2000.
Pancho: The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes by Barbara H. Schultz, published 1996.
Los Angeles Times: A Tempestuous Affair with the Airforce, 17 Nov 1985.
Times-Advocate (Escondido): Pancho Barnes Museum Planned, 22 Jan 1978.
The Bakersfield Californian: Pancho Barnes: Legend in Her Time, 27 March 1977.
Los Angeles Times: Pancho’s Ex-Husband, Wife Plan Museum in Her Honor, 12 Sept 1977.
The Bakersfield Californian: Pancho Barnes, Kern Legend for 40 Years Found Dead, 30 March 1975.
Independent Press-Telegram: Pancho’s Kind Fading–She’s Pure Individual, 13 Oct 1968.
Independent Press-Telegram: Pancho is Woman Who Has Touched All The Bases, 12 Oct 1968.
Los Angeles Times: Pancho Loses Suit Against Army Men, 21 July 1954.
The Long Beach Telegram: Lowe-Barnes Wedding, 06 Jan 1921.