Lilian Bland – the first woman to build and fly a plane

I’ve always had a fascination with splendid Edwardian planes and this week I’ve found a splendid Edwardian lady who built and flew one, the first woman to do so. Lilian Bland was born in Kent in 1878 to an Anglo-Irish family and around the turn of the century, after the death of her mother, moved to Northern Ireland with her father. Even before she took to the air, Lilian led an exciting life. She was a journalist and press photographer, specialising in sports events, and refused to conform to the standards of the day: she was an excellent shot, a smoker, wore trousers, rode a horse astride and practiced martial arts. She tried to ride in the Grand National but was refused because she was a woman. While in Northern Ireland, she took the first colour photos of birds and developed a fascination for bird flight.

Inspired by Bleriot, she attended the first British Aviation meeting in 1909 and decided to design a full-sized glider. This flew well, but she wanted to know whether it would fly with the added weight of an engine. She therefore talked five local men into holding the wings. When it took to the air with the weight of the men, she realised it would hold an engine, and ordered an engine, coming over to England to collect it and taking it back on the train with her. Lilian soon became not only a skilled engineer but also adept at improvisation: when her order for a petrol tank was delayed, she used her aunt’s ear trumpet and a whisky bottle. Lilian completed the plane in 1910 and named it the Mayfly: ‘may fly, may not fly’ It actually rose thirty feet into the air and flew for thirty yards, pretty good by the standards of the day.

Her father, disapproving of Lilian’s unladylike lifestyle and worried she would injure herself, offered Lilian a Model T Ford if she gave up flying. Knowing that her plane was underpowered and ‘more of a grasshopper than an aircraft,’ she accepted her father’s offer and flying played no further part in her life; she’d proved wrong the people who said that women were incapable of building an aeroplane and that was enough satisfaction for her. The car was the start of her next career as a car dealer. Eventually she married a Canadian and helped him establish a farm on virgin land near Vancouver. They travelled everywhere by boat so her engineering skills came in handy.

In 1935 she returned to England and spent the next 20 years gardening in Kent. When she retired to to Cornwall in 1955, she lived in isolation but was happy in retirement, saying, “I love it. I keep busy, I have my plants, I paint and I gamble. Very occasionally I watch television at a neighbour’s house, but only the horse racing – I back five horses a day, with success, I may add and, great fun!” She died in 1971, aged 92.

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Dorothy Parker – The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue

Dorothy Parker once said that she didn’t mind what was written about her as long as it wasn’t the truth, so apologies for this blog. Dorothy’s caustic one-liners tell the true story of 1920s New York as well as any historical account of the Jazz Age.

Born Dorothy Rothschild in New Jersey in 1893, she had an unhappy childhood: her mother died shortly before her fifth birthday and her father remarried two years later. Dorothy started sharpening her tongue at an early age: she hated her father and stepmother and referred to her as “the housekeeper.” In return, her stepmother sent her to a convent boarding school. After her stepmother died, she attended a finishing school in New Jersey, where she began writing poems. In 1917 she married stockbroker Edwin Parker, an unsuccessful marriage during which Dorothy had many affairs and later quipped, “I only married him to change my name.”

In 1918 she worked as a theatre critic for Vanity Fair, where she met Robert Benchley and Robert E Sherwood. The three met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel and founded the Algonquin Round Table, a group of actors, writers and critics that became known as the Vicious Circle because of their cutting wit, and she later described as “just a bunch of loudmouths showing off.” Dorothy soon gained a reputation for wisecracks such as, “That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.” Here’s another, “If all the girls attending [the Yale prom] were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” When president Calvin Coolidge died, she said, “How could they tell?” But her reviews became too caustic and Vanity Fare terminated her contract in 1920. She later said, “Vanity Fair was a magazine of no opinion, but I had opinions.”

But the most celebrated period of her life was about to begin. In 1925, she became part of the editorial board of The New Yorker and in the next fifteen years published over 300 poems. Here’s one of my favourites:

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

Dorothy was herself no stranger to depression. In 1922 she fell in love with a journalist, Charles MacArthur, a womanizer. When the relationship ended, it took her a long time to recover. But she threw herself into work and extended her writing repertoire to include plays. She also remained in demand as a critic and worked for the New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, Cosmopolitan and American Mercury. She once commented that Katharine Hepburn in a Broadway play: “She ran the whole gamut of the emotions from A to B.”

In 1929 Dorothy won the O. Henry Prize for her short story Big Blonde, which established her as a serious writer. She married Alan Campbell who encouraged her to go Hollywood. They became a successful screenwriting team, peaking with their Oscar nomination for A Star is Born in 1937, and lived a glamorous existence in a Beverly Hills mansion. During the 1930s and 1940s, she championed causes like civil liberties and civil rights and founded the Hollywood Ant-Nazi League.

Although Dorothy made a vast amount of money in Hollywood, she spent every cent of it. She divorced and remarried Alan Campbell before his suicide in 1963. She spent her final years in poverty in New York City, in poor health, a result of heavy drinking. But her legacy is her writing and her quotes, which still raise a smile today.