Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Emmy™Award-Winning Documentary Film

"Broadcast" version now airing on most public television stations.

"Uncensored" version now on DVD and in film festivals.

Synopsis: A charismatic figure featured in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, Florence "Pancho" Barnes was one of the most important women in 20th Century aviation. A tough and fearless aviatrix, Pancho was a rival of Amelia Earhart's who made a name for herself as Hollywood's first female stunt pilot. Just before WWII she opened a ranch near Edwards Air Force Base that became a famous -- some would say notorious -- hangout for test pilots and movie stars. Known as the "Happy Bottom Riding Club", it became the epicenter of the aviation world during the early jet age. Chuck Yeager celebrated breaking the sound barrier there in 1947, and Howard Hughes and Jimmy Doolittle caroused in the bar. The Club's destruction by fire in 1953 is seen by many to mark the end of a Golden Era in post-WWII aviation. In the same fashion Pancho herself has become something of a legend, a fascinating yet enigmatic icon whose swagger is often celebrated, but whose story has been largely unknown. Until now.

A documentary film produced and written by Nick Spark and directed by Amanda Pope. Featuring interviews with test pilots Bob Cardenas, Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and biographers Barbara Schultz and Lauren Kessler. Narrated by Tom Skerritt with Kathy Bates as the voice of Pancho Barnes.

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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"
30 November 2009

(Some) Answers to an Enigma

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Speaking of mysteries. . .  Back in January of 2007, I wrote a production journal entry about Ted Tate, the author of The Lady LadyWhoTamedPegasusWho Tamed Pegasus: The Story of Pancho Barnes.  This biography of Pancho came out a year after the  The Right Stuff movie made its debut and is considered controversial by many of her friends.  Some of them suggested the rather ribald "true story" told in Pegasus was something of a fabrication of, or at the very least a wild exaggeration of, Pancho's real story.  Filled with raunchy jokes, wild escapades and chock-full of racy language and expletives, the book does seem over-the-top at times.  In other areas however, it seems rather true-to-life and wholly authentic.  So how did The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus come into being?  The obvious place to go for an answer to that question would be to speak to Ted Tate, but unfortunately he passed away years ago.

In hopes of gaining some insight Lou D'Elia — one of the men who now manages Pancho Barnes' estate — introduced me to Ted Tate's daughter Tedi.  Turns out that by sheer co-incidence, Tedi practically lived in my same neighborhood in west Los Angeles.  She was happy to speak to me, and while Tedi did not know how the book came to be made, she did share some wonderful stories of her father's, and her own, friendship with Pancho.  She also made an interesting suggestion, that Lou and I were welcome to search through her father's papers and memorabilia, which were stored in her garage.  We both jumped at the chance, figuring that if we could find some of Ted Tate's original notes, or better yet tape recordings that he made while interviewing Pancho for the book, we'd have some real answers.  So Lou and I spent a long day at Tedi's, hauling boxes and boxes of material from her garage and poring over the contents.  While we found many wonderful photos of Ted from his days as a flight test engineer and manuscripts for various book projects, we didn't find anything of value related to The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus.  Well, almost anything!  We did find a photocopy of Tate's original manuscript which interestingly enough said the book was written by "Grover Ted Tate and Pancho Barnes".  That caught my eye because the published book (see cover at right) only credited Tate.  So, why would Ted have taken Pancho's name off of it? I wondered.

In the months after our fishing expedition, intriguing new leads surfaced about Ted and the book, but nothing ever seemed to pan out.  I met Tedi's sister Cindy over the phone and later in person, and she related an intriguing story.  According to Cindy, her father left a large box full of Pancho-related memorabilia at the now-defunct Desert Inn in Lancaster.  That seemed to jibe with another story we'd heard from our friend Barbara Rowland, that a box of Pancho "stuff" had surfaced at the Inn when it was being closed down, supposedly hidden in the hotel's false ceiling.  But neither Cindy or Barbara knew the whereabouts of the mystery box.  Possibly it had gone to the Antelope Valley Air Museum, now known as the Milestones of Aviation Museum, where several other tape-recorded interviews with Pancho were once known to reside.  But a visit revealed that neither those recordings, or anything from Ted Tate's collection, is in the Museum's possession today.

It's now been roughly two yearsTedTate3 since that expedition to Tedi's garage, and while I haven't clarified Ted Tate's authorship definitively, I can now draw some conclusions about the book.  The most important of these, is that Tate should have done what he apparently did initially: share author credit with Pancho Barnes.  I can say that with confidence, because a review of Tate's book reveals that roughly 70 out of 103 pages of his book are drawn directly from an unfinished biography dictated by Pancho.  The original acetate recordings of this biography, and a typed transcript of them, are now in the possession of Pancho's estate.  They were made available to us by Lou D'Elia for the documentary.  Once you compare the two documents, it's crystal clear that huge chunks of Tate's book are pulled directly from this manuscript.  Ted did not actually commit plagiarism — he was careful to put each one of Pancho's lifted comments in quotations — but he did commit a sin of omission in that he did not acknowledge that the words in the book were not spoken to him in an interview, but came directly from Pancho's unpublished / incomplete book.

While it would be easy to condemn Tate for not giving Pancho credit, it's also possible to speculate that there were logical reasons he did not.  He was after all a good friend of Pancho's and would not have wanted to hurt or slight her.  Plus, he would have realized that having Pancho as a co-author would have helped sales of his book.  So how do you explain his omission?  There's only one explanation I can think of that makes a sense, and here it is. . .  As I've detailed in previous entries, Pancho's fourth and final husband Mack McKendry inherited her estate after she died in 1975.  Mack was notoriously protective of his ex-wife's legacy, going so far as to sue anyone who threatened his control over her story.  It's entirely possible that once he learned of the book project McKendry threatened Ted Tate with legal action.  He definitely did that in several other instances, and although Mack apparently never did sue Tate, Tate might have decided that it would be wise from a legal perspective to drop any pretense of having Pancho as a co-author.  A piece of evidence that fits neatly into this scenario is that a typewritten version of Pancho's autobiography — the same one that Tate quoted liberally from — has surfaced with a cover page added onto it by McKendry.  The cover page makes it absolutely clear that the text is not to be reproduced in any way without his permission. 

So given McKendry's possible meddling, maybe Tate can be forgiven for not giving Pancho her due.  But there's another aspect of Pegasus that needs to be addressed.  While Tate quoted liberally from Pancho's autobiography in his book, he also made some critical changes to her dictation. As a result, she comes across as very coarse.  TedTate4Case in point?  In Pancho's autobiography she speaks of her friend and lover Bob Short noting that he "got a job flying ferrying airplanes" in war-torn China during WWII and that after he died a "violent death" the Chinese "erected a large monument to him and he was a national hero for many years.  It's a funny thing how some people who can be a complete so-and-so can be a good national hero."  In Tate's book this text appears virtually word-for-word, with the final line being altered to read "It's a funny thing how some people can be complete sons-of-bitches and wind up as some kind of f--king hero."  That's not a solitary alteration, and while one can understand Tate's choice to make Pancho seem crude in her choice of language, it's regrettable since it's not faithful to what she herself said or likely wanted to say in print.  The fragment of an autobiography that she left behind contains descriptions of many adult situations, but it basically has no adult language outside of a few "hells" and a "damn" or two.

Another thing about Tate's book ... When Amanda Pope and I initially got ahold of Pancho's unfinished autobiography, we were disappointed to learn just how incomplete it really was.  Pancho simply never had the time, energy or encouragement to really tell her story, and she only scratched the surface in the musings she left behind.  There's a reason that Tate's book is only 100 pages long — he simply did not have enough material to draw upon to make it longer, because Pancho didn't leave much behind.  It's a shame because as a result, Tate did not apparently exercise much judiciousness (some would say any) in his choice of material from the autobiography.  He pretty much used everything, including portions that really didn't deserve to be published.  A more careful or respectful editor would have seen the value in leaving some of the unimportant escapades by the wayside, and concentrate on what made Pancho truly great.

There remain continuing mysteries with Tate's manuscript.  Roughly 1/3rd of the book didn't come from Pancho's autobiography, and I haven't been able to source it.  Much of this material seems "real" and in Pancho's voice.  So it's entirely possible that Tate did do his own interviews for the book, and perhaps tape recordings of them do still exist.  If Tate did conduct interviews however, it is fairly likely that they were incomplete because many significant parts of Pancho's life story are not addressed in Pegasus.  This above all else is the main failure of the book.  It really covers her aviation career only in passing.  Her participation in the 1929 Powder Puff Derby, her breaking of Amelia Earhart's air speed record, or her work as a Hollywood stunt pilot were major milestones.  Yet they scarcely get a mention in The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus.

One final conclusion is inescapable.  While Pegasus is a readable, even entertaining book, and while a lot of it is in Pancho's own words, no one should forget that it's a hodge-podge that was mostly created from an unfinished, first-draft autobiography.  As such, it should not be viewed as Pancho's autobiography or even as a serious portrait of this amazing lady pilot.  Not by a long shot.  (Fortunately, both Barbara Schultz's Pancho and Lauren Kessler's The Happy Bottom Riding Club are excellent and complete portraits.)  

Had Ted Tate had more time, and been able to conduct in-depth, formal interviews with Pancho before she died, I suspect his book would have been markedly different.  By the same token, had Pancho exerted more effort to tell her own story, she probably could have written quite a good autobiography.  With the benefit of an editor who could have identified what stories were important to relate and which were not who knows?  It might have been a best seller.  In either case, the end result would probably have concentrated not so much on racy escapades, but on its subject's lifetime love affair with aviation. 

While many other people have condemned Ted Tate for The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus, I am not one of them.  In fact, I'm rather a fan of this weird little book.  It's a portrait that Tate wanted to sketch, and he did so in his own way.  I respect that.  So I encourage you to read it, but please read one of the "real" biographies first. Then you'll discover Pegasus is kind of a hoot to read actually.  It has some jokes in it that will make your hair turn white.  

Perhaps at some future point, some enterprising person will cobble together Pancho's unfinished autobiography, using quotes from the other existing interviews to fill in the gaps.  Then we'll have a "real" autobiography.  Meantime, I can take some solace in the fact that the film we've made tells Pancho's story in a way we believe she'd want it to be told and — whenever possible — in her own words. 

Want to buy a copy of The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus?  It's out of print but used copies are available on Amazon.com by clicking here.

You can read an on-line tribute to Ted Tate here.

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