Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
A Long Spoon
New York/Los Angeles, May – July 1929
‘An expedition of women?’ Nord said. She was unable to conceal her surprise.
Nord was skeptical when Lady Drummond-Hay, her fellow passenger from the Graf Zeppelin, contacted her to say that Hearst, the owner of the International News Service, would be interested in discussing a polar expedition. Nord knew that International News Service was already backing Shackworthy and Howells. Why would Hearst want to support another, rival, expedition? She’d overcome her doubts to the extent of agreeing to a meeting with Hearst and Lady Drummond-Hay in a private sitting-room at the Warwick, Hearst’s New York hotel. To her surprise Hearst came straight to the point. He offered her $20,000 for exclusive rights to cover the expedition, with a bonus of a further $5,000 if she were to win the Northcliffe Prize. But he had some surprising conditions.
Nord frowned. ‘I never imagined leading an expedition of – how do you say – girl scouts, to Antarctica,’ she said.
‘Perhaps more like Amazons?’ Lady Drummond-Hay suggested helpfully. ‘Or an Olympic sports team?’
Hearst spread his hands ‘May I speak frankly, Miss Nord?’
‘I’ve been following the reports of your speeches in the newspapers. You’ve done an excellent job of getting the attention of the press. You, Sir Frank, Carlsen – people are starting to talk about a ‘Polar Derby’.
‘That will be justified, perhaps,’ Nord said ‘once I have funds for an expedition, or even a co-pilot. As yet, I have neither.’
‘But you have an advantage in the publicity stakes,’ Hearst said shrewdly. ‘A glamorous young woman determined to travel to the most remote and inhospitable place on earth. What could be more newsworthy?’
‘And does newsworthiness really count for so much?’
‘It counts for a great deal,’ Hearst replied. ‘We live in an age of information, of publicity. What is the point of going somewhere extraordinary or of performing great deeds if the public can’t be made to imagine it? Yet to fully exploit that public interest, you need something that makes your expedition unique. A pitch, if I may put it crudely.’
‘A publicity stunt,’ Nord said.
‘A woman’s perspective on Antarctica,’ he corrected her. He waved his cigar in the air, as if summoning invisible headlines. ‘What better way could there be to turn your adventure into something pure and heroic?’
Hearst, she saw, did not understand that heroism was not her goal. ‘It was always my plan to form an expedition from the best candidates, regardless of their sex.’
‘An admirable aim’, Hearst replied, ‘and yet, sadly, it may not be possible.’ He held up his hand as if to forestall Nord’s protest. ‘I know what you are going to say. You will say that in Norway things are different, that men and women mingle freely on the ski slopes and in mountains huts. That may well be true, but I’m afraid that society here in America is less advanced. If you take a mixed expedition of men and women to Antarctica, all anyone will write about is the impropriety. And above all, you must avoid any hint of scandal.’
Nord swallowed the response that came to her lips, silenced by a memory of headlines.
She argued, ‘Yet if I take an expedition entirely of women, all anyone will write about is our sex.’
‘That may be true,’ Hearst conceded, ‘but it could be turned to your advantage. The first women to set foot on the Antarctic continent – everything about it will be new and untried. The public will hang on every detail: what you eat, what you wear, how you feel. Women, because they want you to show that females can do what in the past only men have attempted, and men, because they fear that very possibility.’
Nord had been reading the American papers, and she was aware of how the so-called ‘Polar Derby’ was playing out in the press. Carlson’s expedition was sponsored by the New York Times, so the Hearst journalists criticized it for extravagance, implying it was a misuse of public funds. In contrast, they praised Shackworthy and Howell’s more modest undertaking for its economy. She saw that Hearst was looking for a similar way to pitch her expedition against that of Shackworthy and Howell.
‘Isn’t there a risk that such an expedition could be viewed as irresponsible?’ Lady Drummond-Hay said. ‘After all, some of the papers have been referring to it as ‘the suicide prize’.’
‘Not if it’s handled properly,’ Hearst replied. ‘Miss Nord commands the public’s respect. Besides, what better way to take the minds of readers from any worries they may have than to present them with a race between the sexes, in the most dangerous place in the world!’
So that was Hearst’s ‘pitch’, Nord thought. He intended to place a bet on two horses, while getting himself a profitable story in the process. She found herself impressed by his business acumen, even as she found the calculation that lay behind it distasteful. Her feelings were confirmed when Hearst added, ‘Of course, given that the International News Service is already committed to supporting Sir Frank, I’d prefer to keep any assistance private. It should appear to the public as if the expedition is entirely the result of Miss Nord and her companions’ determination and grit.’
Nord said carefully, ‘I’m not sure I would be able to find enough women with suitable experience.’
‘What about those hundreds of letters and cards you’ve received from women from all over the world,’ Hearst said. ‘All begging to accompany you on such a venture. Surely some of them must be qualified?’
Nord thought about that collection of hopeful letters. Most of them were from women who were not trained to fly, navigate using a sextent, or even crank an engine.
Hearst pulled out his watch and glanced at it. ‘I must apologise,’ he said. ‘I’m late for an appointment. ‘Think about my offer – you know how to contact me. It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Nord.’ He shook Nord’s hand, nodded to Lady Drummond-Hay and left.
‘More tea?’ Lady Drummond-Hay asked. Nord accepted, and Lady Drummond-Hay refilled their cups. ‘I am grateful to you for arranging this,’ Nord told her. ‘Mr Hearst is a busy man. It was generous of him to meet with me.’
Lady Drummond-Hay laughed. ‘Oh, that’s all nonsense about another appointment,’ she said. ‘He’s gone to visit Miss Davies, his mistress. She occupies an entire floor of this hotel, you know. People say he had the hotel built for her.’
Nord bit her lip. Hearst had a mistress! And he had lectured her on the dangers of impropriety!
Lady Drummond-Hay poured milk into their tea. ‘I think that went rather well, on the whole, don’t you?’ she said.
Unbidden, a proverb that Nord’s father had been fond of saying came into her mind, Han som sups med djevel tranyer en long skye. She translated it for the correspondent – ‘He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon’.
Lady Drummond-Hay laughed. ‘You are worried about Mr Hearst’s motives,’ she said.
‘I find them difficult to understand,’ Nord said. Would you not also be worried, if you were in my position?’
‘I think that Antarctica is a long way from New York,’ Lady Drummond-Hay replied shrewdly. ‘I think that you could find yourself with a very long spoon indeed.’
Nord smiled. ‘Perhaps I could persuade you come with me to Antarctica, Lady Drummond-Hay,’ she said. ‘I believe that you would write some very fine copy.’
The correspondent shook her head vigorously. ‘I’m afraid I would be terribly unsuitable. The truth is, I’m a shallow, superficial creature. I love comfort and luxury. Soft beds, fine food, elegant clothes. No, you need to find yourself someone intrepid. Preferably, who can use a camera as well as a typewriter. Images, after all, tell the true story, even when words can’t be entirely trusted. And they speak to the heart and the imagination with a directness that we mere writers can only aspire to.’
A long spoon. Perhaps Lady Drummond-Hay was right, Nord thought. She was still turning Hearst’s offer in her mind when she left New York by train, on the first leg of a speaking tour that would take to the West Coast and back again via Chicago and Cincinnati. She hadn’t decided to accept Hearst’s conditions. Yet as she delivered her address in clubrooms, town halls and churches, she noticed that it was the audiences of women – whether from sports clubs or sororities, associations of women pilots, or clubs dedicated to the advancement of females of all races – that responded the most enthusiastically. They gave ideas, support, and donations. But she still didn’t know whom she could include in an expedition.
In Los Angeles she met another well-known American who was rumoured to be even richer than Hearst. Howard Hughes was a multi-millionaire inventor who owned a movie company and was interested in aviation. When he read of her arrival, he rang her at her hotel and invited her to go flying with him.
A month had passed since she left New York, and the succession of halls, cities, railway stations, and audiences had begun to blend together with only occasional details that made them stand out. The prospect of flying, even as a passenger, was irresistible.
Hughes picked her up from her hotel and drove her out to an airport to the west of the city. Here, the lush vegetation of the suburbs gave way to a dusty, arid heat. The airfield consisted of a hoarding, some hangars, a shed that served as an office, and a dirt runway, lined with a few desiccated palm trees. It was sleepy and silent, apart from the distant buzzing drone of an airplane coming in to land. The noise made Nord think of a wasp, trapped behind a window on a hot day. Hughes drove them to the door of his hangar, where the mechanics were already preparing his aircraft. To her surprise – for to her knowledge fewer than a dozen had been made – Hughes was flying a Vespertine. Nord assumed he’d bought it second-hand, for she was sure that Peter Favanger would have mentioned selling one to a well-known American buyer.
Sitting in the navigator’s seat while Hearst took the controls, she experienced a slight feeling of déjà vu, although Hearst’s style of flying – all speed, power, and abrupt banks and turns – contrasted noticeably with Peter’s casual manner, his knack of making it seem as if the plane were flying itself and he was along for the ride. The noise in the cockpit made conversation difficult, so Nord concentrated on the view. And what a view it was! California provided perfect flying conditions. It was dry and almost completely cloudless, and the clear skies offered spectacular vistas over the sprawling city, bounded to both the west and south by the ocean, while to the east the city reached out towards the rocky foothills of mountains – the Santa Monica range. As they flew over the outskirts of the city, she gazed down at the newly built suburbs, noticing how many backyards included their own swimming pool. From the air they resembled rows of turquoise eyes, open and unblinking in the sun.
After he’d landed the plane and helped her out of the cockpit, Hughes asked her to have dinner with him. She agreed and he took her to the Biltmore, which he’d recently purchased. Despite the crowd queuing for admittance, they were shown directly to a table by a window. Nord barely blinked when Hughes ordered them Daiquiris: she was getting used to the way Prohibition worked in the United States. As she sipped the cocktail and observed the brilliantly dressed men and women crowding the room, she reflected that this, in its way, was also progress, and was unstoppable. People had drunk throughout human history, but it was left to her generation to discover intoxication.
Over dinner Hughes grew unexpectedly personal. ‘Do you know one reason I love flying?’ he asked her, and when she shook her head said, ‘it’s because I suffer from ringing in my ears. It’s a damn inconvenience, but in the cockpit of a moving plane, I forget about it.’
Changing the subject, he confessed to having seen all her movies. ‘The White Abyss is my favourite, of course,’ he told her. ‘I don’t understand why you abandoned your film career. What makes you so keen to go Antarctica?’
Hoping to play to his own interests, Nord told him about the Farlight. She described some of the innovations Peter Favanger had made to adapt the aircraft for polar flying, like the sweepback on the leading edge of the tapered wing to give extra stability, and the streamlining designed to reduce air resistance and squeeze every bit of speed and mileage from the engine. As she spoke and Hughes listened, nodding and frowning in concentration, she realised it was easier, even for her, to talk about her reasons for going to Antarctica in terms of engines and wing designs, than to try and describe her deeper motives. These, she sensed, lay in an impulse prior to reason.
‘That’s the flying part,’ he replied. ‘But why on earth Antarctica?’
She hesitated. There was a simplicity to ice, she nearly said. A simplicity to remoteness, vastness, the strangeness of those portions of the earth that existed at the very limits of what could be inhabited and endured, that was almost a kind of poetry. But she guessed that Hughes was unlikely to be moved by poetry, except perhaps the poetry of steel and speed, so she said instead, ‘It’s the last place on earth that remains to be explored. Antarctica is the final great challenge.’
Hughes seemed to accept her answer. He leaned across the table and made her an offer. He had recently optioned a screenplay about Alaskan mail pilots. It would be filmed on location, and he was offering her the female lead. If the movie were a success, he’d ensure that she received enough of the profits to fund her expedition the following year.
For a moment, she was tempted. Hughes was eccentric, but she didn’t mind his brusque, excitable manner, or his fascination with machinery and gadgets. Or perhaps she was just flattered by his belief that despite her age and the fact she wasn’t American, he thought her film career worth reviving. She knew that only a few years ago she’d have thought seriously about the offer to make such a film.
But then she recalled what she knew about the film business. It was unpredictable, littered with disappointments and unknown factors. The movie might flop at the box-office or – just as likely – it might never get made at all. Hughes might want her for his movie, but he didn’t care about her Antarctic ambitions. America was like that. There was an allure of endless opportunity, but most of it was a mirage, conjured up by people intent on using your own desires to help them advance their own ambitions, their own projects.
‘Antarctica won’t wait’, she said. ‘I need to get there next season, not the one after.’
His face showed his disappointment. ‘At least think about it,’ he urged her. ‘Tell me you’ll do that.’
And because Hughes had been generous, she agreed that she would consider his offer. She was due to fly to Santa Monica tomorrow, the next stop on her speaking tour. She looked at her watch, and told Hughes she needed to get back to her hotel.
Hughes drove her to her hotel and insisted on walking her to the door of her room. When she said goodnight, he held her arm and tried to kiss her, and she had to wrestle herself free. She wished him goodnight again, and closed the door firmly behind her. The brief struggle gave a slightly absurd, undignified end to the evening. She suddenly felt tired.
When she got up next morning she discovered a white cardboard box outside her door. It held a large bouquet of roses. There was a note from Hughes pinned to the bouquet. He told her how much he’d enjoyed the flight and dinner, and apologized to her for his ‘unacceptable behaviour’ when they parted. It would not happen again, he assured her.
The roses gave off an exquisite perfume. Such perfect blooms must be the product of a hothouse, for surely they would not grow unassisted in the dry Californian climate? She left them behind for the maid when she vacated her room, and their scent – an indefinable mixture of peaches, sunlight, and something else she couldn’t name, but which suggested both luxury and confinement – seemed to follow her down the stairs into the lobby as she checked herself out and walked towards the waiting car.