Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
From the slanting windows of the observation lounge, Nord watched the ocean slip away beneath her; obscured at times by floating clouds that resembled a flock of enormous sheep, at others clear, yet always accompanied by the moving, cigar-shaped shadow of the airship.
She was conscious of the distant drone of the Zeppelin’s Maybach engines, propelling the giant airship through the air as efficiently as a swimmer’s kicking feet propel them through water. But the sound and vibration remained at a pitch that did not intrude on the comfort of the passengers or the smoothness of their passage.
Nord thought about the deafening engine noise inside the cockpit of her Swallow, and the fatigue that often accompanied the aircraft’s continual jarring. In comparison, travelling by airship was a luxurious experience, almost dreamlike. She thought that if an aeroplane resembled a flying automobile – noisy, cramped, inelegant – an airship was the airborne equivalent of the great clipper ships of a previous age. One did not fly in it, so much as voyage. And like an ocean liner, the Zeppelin required at least forty men to fly it. There were crewmen whose sole task was to work the elevators: enormous, horizontal rudders attached to the airship’s tail that ensured the ship remained level. At the head of the ship and its crew the captain, Dr Eckener, pored over maps and weather reports, searching out the favourable currents and tail winds that would speed their progress, and the storms, contrary winds, and areas of low pressure to be avoided. A master of his element and of his craft, he was a passionate advocate of lighter-than-air flight. Yet Nord sensed that the Zeppelin’s very size and grandeur could be its disadvantage. The great airships offered comfort and convenience – a new way of being in the sky – but they did not possess the same freedom and manoeuvrability as a fixed wing aircraft.
For Nord, the journey from Friedrichshafen to New York was a welcome interlude, an opportunity to reflect on the events of the past weeks and to prepare for what lay ahead. Her lecture in Budapest had led to other engagements, beginning with an address to the Ninety-Nine Club, an association of women pilots based at Curtiss Field, outside New York. But ‘The Future of Polar Flight’ had also unleashed a storm of criticism that followed in her path like a wake. What had proved most controversial was less her declaration that the future of polar exploration lay with aviation than her prediction that this would transform the nature of such expeditions: that while polar exploration remained the ultimate test of skill and endurance, brute physical strength would no longer be a determining factor.
The day after the lecture a reporter from L’Écho de Paris had asked if she’d meant that exploration by air could be carried out by women as well as by men. She’d answered ‘yes’, and told him about the dozens of letters she’d received from women of all nationalities, many of whom declared their willingness to join an expedition.
Yet what she said hardly mattered. The audience at the Budapest Explorer’s Club – over half of them female – spoke for itself. For the first time the Club had opened its doors to a woman, doors that had been shut for over a hundred years, and the response had been both unexpected and overwhelming. Interest in Nord’s lecture was so great that some of the audience had to stand in the aisles and at the back of the lecture hall, and two people – a man and a woman – had fainted from the heat. The newspapers referred half-jokingly to ‘Nordmania,’ or ‘Antarctic fever’ – an oddly unsuitable term to apply to a frozen continent.
As always when someone revealed an ambition that had not previously been expressed, there was a fierce reaction. Some newspapers used Nord’s comments to argue that female emancipation had gone too far. One described her speech as a stunt. Others argued that for a woman to embark on a polar expedition was a fundamentally selfish act, because it served no greater purpose than the gratification of personal vanity.
Nord puzzled over why it was selfish for a woman but not a man to want to explore the undiscovered regions of the world, but gave up the attempt.
Obscurely, the comment that troubled her most was from a male writer who argued that women could not be polar explorers because the foundation of exploration was ‘comradeship – the bond that exists between a man and his fellows,’ and this was something that ‘women are incapable of experiencing.’ She could not have said precisely why this remark affected her when others, equally condemnatory, did not. She resolved to put it from her mind. There were other, more reasonable voices. When reporters asked Charles Lindbergh what he thought of the idea of a woman flying to the South Pole, he replied that in his experience women could be fine pilots, and that he was teaching his own wife to fly. Although he had added, to general laughter, ‘That doesn’t mean I’ll be encouraging her to go to the South Pole any time soon.’
The day before she left for Friedrichshafen, Nord received a letter from Peter Favanger. When she opened it she’d been strangely moved to see that he’d included a sheaf of articles about her clipped from the English magazines and newspapers. There was even the article from Sketch, with the photographs that had been taken the day before she left Abbots Wood. The title of the article was: ‘Arctic reveries – Sketch explores the new white with Margrethe Nord, polar aviatrix.’ Underneath, a photograph showed her posed before the fireplace in the Abbots Wood library. She was wearing a tunic of oyster-coloured silk with an elegant, three-quarter wrap by Auguste Perrod. Nord was not as a rule much interested in fashion, but she remembered the wrap. It was made from a pale velveteen that alternated between beige and a soft grey according to the light; its most distinctive feature was an enormous collar with a border of white fox.
In the accompanying letter Peter asked how it felt to be ‘flying in the eye of the storm,’ and said he hoped the clippings would remind her of ‘happier times.’ He told her that Cynthia had agreed to call off the divorce on condition that he agreed not to attempt any more polar flights. ‘So you see, old girl,’ he’d written in his looping scrawl, ‘from now on I’ll be designing ‘planes for others to fly.’ He also offered to sell her the Farlight. ‘There’s been a bit of interest, but I wanted to offer it to you first.’
She’d stowed the letter and clippings in her luggage and resolved to study them at her leisure during the flight.
For this – the Graf Zeppelin’s inaugural transatlantic flight – paying passengers were almost outnumbered by journalists, celebrities, and public officials who were travelling as invited guests of the Zeppelin company. Nord had already been introduced to Lady Drummond-Hay, a journalist for Hearst News Services. Lady Drummond-Hay’s diary of the flight was being published in daily installments that she retired early to her cabin each night to pound out on her typewriter. Also on the flight were Malcolm Howells, an Australian pilot, and a film director, Robert Hoffman, who was reputed to have a passion for big game hunting. Hoffman was fascinated by the young panther cub that was on consignment to a private zoo in America, and was said to spend hours in the cargo hold studying it. Lady Drummond-Hay told Nord that Hoffman was thinking of including a panther in his next movie. ‘Let’s hope he doesn’t shoot it in the final scene,’ she said.
In addition to the panther, the airship’s cargo was rumoured to include a valuable painting that Betty Rothstein, the famous American heiress and art collector, had purchased in Europe and was shipping back to New York. The identity of the artist and the work were unknown and when there was nothing to be seen from the observation lounge, keen speculation about its provenance circulated among the passengers.
At dinner on the first evening of the flight, Nord found herself seated between Malcolm Howells and Lady Drummond-Hay. They were joined by another journalist, Max Schenck, who was covering the flight for the German papers. Also at the table were Hoffman and Dr Eckener, who had been coaxed out of his control room for a few hours, leaving his second officer, Pruss, in command of the ship.
Of all her fellow passengers, Nord was most curious about Howells. The previous year the Australian flyer and his co-pilot had flown a Lockheed Vega from Canada to Svalbard, an epic journey that had included a long trek over sea ice, with a daring rescue at the end. It was rumoured that the British explorer, Sir Frank Shackworthy, was in talks with Howells about a possible Antarctic flight in the coming summer. It was also rumoured that the Hearst empire might fund the expedition in return for exclusive coverage.
Nord was understandably interested in both rumours, but hesitated to broach the subject directly. Instead, she gave her attention to Robert Hoffman, who was keen to talk about movies.
The director told her that he had seen all her films. His favourite, he declared, was The White Abyss. ‘Those aerial scenes!’ he declared admiringly. ‘Unforgettable!’
‘It was a memorable film for me, as well,’ she said. ‘Erling Bengtsson, who played the pilot in the film, took me up in his ‘plane. It was not my first flight, but it was my first flight in the Arctic and I was – how do Americans put it – bitten.’
He laughed. ‘You got the bug.’
‘Yes, and my bug for acting began to desert me around the same time.’
‘So you don’t have plans for another film? That’s a shame.’
‘I don’t think so. Cinema has changed so much. And I have other interests now.’
Howells leaned forward and said, ‘I believe that you and I may both have our eyes on Antarctica next summer, Miss Nord.’
‘That’s true,’ she said, ‘if I can find an aircraft, and a crew. And enough money to get there, of course.’ Howells raised his hands in mock despair. ‘Welcome to the heroic world of polar exploration!’ he said. ‘If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself opening flower shows, endorsing a brand of cigarettes you don’t smoke, and taking pennies from schoolchildren.’
Nord smiled. ‘I have already been asked what brand of face cream I used in the Arctic.’
‘That doesn’t surprise me,’ Lady Drummond-Hay said firmly. ‘That kind of information is important to readers. It enables them to relate. They may never fly an aeroplane or travel to the Arctic, but they have something in common with Margrethe Nord, the aviatrix – they use the same face cream.’ Howells said, ‘Sponsorship is everything. That’s something Sir Frank and I agree on.’ He dabbed his upper lip with his napkin and added, ‘I’ve been in discussions with Sir Frank, as you may have heard. Trying to persuade him that the age of the dog sled is over, that the future of polar exploration belongs to the aviator.’
Nord replied, ‘I have heard that the American, Carlssen, is also planning an Antarctic flight.’
‘Yes – ever since Lindbergh beat him to the Orteig Prize he’s had his heart set on a record-breaking polar flight. And he’ll be a hard man to beat. The rumour is that he’s persuaded the Navy to support him by sending down an expedition. Two ships, a couple of aircraft, fifty men – and the backing of the United States government.’ He shook his head. ‘It’s the new face of polar exploration. Solitary adventurers like you and I, Miss Nord, will soon be as obsolete as the dodo. No one will be able to explore anything without a committee.’
‘But why would the United States government be interested in supporting an Antarctic expedition?’ Lady Drummond-Hay asked. ‘Especially in these difficult financial times?’
‘America wants to put itself on the map,’ Howells replied. ‘And where better to do it than Antarctica? Apart from a few whalers – your compatriots for the most part, Miss Nord – the continent is virtually an empty canvas.’
‘In my view, Antarctica is the most poetic continent in the world,’ Lady Drummond-Hay declared.
‘Really?’ Robert Hoffman asked. ‘Why is that?’
‘Because an unknown continent is as inviting as a mysteriously veiled woman. Antarctica is terra incognita.’
‘Perhaps also because it resembles a blank page?’ Max Schenck interjected in his heavily accented English. ‘The accommodating whiteness of snow – what a temptation it affords to write one’s name there!’
Howells said, ‘Frank Wild once told me that he was driven to polar exploration by the urge to place what he called “the groping fingers of knowledge on the white edges of the world.”’
Lady Drummond-Hay raised an eyebrow suggestively, and even Eckener smiled.
‘What about you, Dr Eckener?’ Lady Drummond-Hay asked. ‘Do you also dream of writing your name on the obliging surfaces of the Great White Continent? Would you take your airship there?’
‘To the North Pole, undoubtedly,’ the Captain replied. ‘It has already been accomplished. But Antarctica? I think not. What would be the point?’
Hoffman said, ‘From what Mr Howells has told us, the attempt to fly a plane to the South Pole has the same motives as all such enterprises – national rivalry, the race to place one’s own flag on the last unclaimed piece of the earth.’
Howells shrugged, but Nord said, ‘I disagree. Shouldn’t our ability to travel the skies freely and at will break down the tyranny of chauvinism, and permit us to see beyond our purely local interests and squabbles? To bring people of all nations together, as we are here together, in Dr Eckener’s remarkable airship?’
Hoffman looked as if he was about to raise an objection, but Dr Eckener took the opportunity to signal the steward to refill their glasses. ‘I applaud your idealism, Miss Nord,’ he said. ‘I believe it is no accident that all the world’s religions imagine the sky to be the dwelling place of divine messengers.’
They all laughed at him.
Lady Drummond-Hay turned out to have an unexpected talent for playing show tunes. After dinner, she seated herself at the tiny piano in the lounge, slid off her bracelets, and played as the others danced.
While attempting a foxtrot with Nord, Malcolm Howells said, ‘I was a friend of Peter Favanger’s, you know. We worked together after the war on the Cairo-Baghdad air route. I was sorry to hear that he had some personal difficulties.’
She said, ‘I’m happy to say that they appear now to have been resolved.’ But she sensed the unspoken question in his voice, and wondered what it meant. Was he trying to ascertain whether she was involved in the Favanger’s difficulties? She sensed that her and Howells’ shared interests made them a little fascinated with each other. Besides, there was an openness about the Australian flyer’s manner that appealed to her.
The curtains had been drawn to block out the encroaching night, and as she danced with Howells and then Hoffman, Nord almost forgot that she was in the air. That consciousness returned as soon as she retired to her own cabin. She left the curtains undrawn – she was not afraid of the night, and who was there to see her, in the sky somewhere above the Atlantic? She undressed and turned out the light. For the first time in her life, she prepared to sleep in the air.
But lying in her narrow bed as Captain Eckener piloted the giant airship through the night, she had difficulty stilling her thoughts.
Her mind returned to her conversation with Lady Drummond-Hay. The journalist had asked her what attracted her to Antarctica. What, for her, was it’s point? She had replied that she saw it as a place of truth – the last place on earth that one could go to discover the truth about nature, and ourselves.
Was this what she really believed? She’d hardly been truthful with Howells when he asked her about her Antarctic plans. She hadn’t told him about the letter from Peter Favanger, offering to sell her the Farlight. Or told him that she’d written back to Peter, only hours before embarking at Friedrichshafen, accepting his offer, and the stipulated price. She hadn’t worked out yet where the money would come from – perhaps from the lectures she was scheduled to give in America. Nord thought about the photographs and article in Sketch. She hadn’t been enthusiastic about it at the time – it reminded her too much of her life as an actress. But there was a potential there for publicity, and public awareness, she was beginning to see could be turned to advantage. She recalled the photographer – Ann Dexter. She’d been surprised when the magazine had sent a woman, but the young American had impressed her with professionalism, the attention she paid to every detail. And the photographs that Peter had sent her had an indefinable quality about them that was strangely compelling.
Her thoughts moved to her conversation with Hoffman. She reflected that a polar flight was not so different from a film in some ways. Both required months of unremitting labour and expense to produce a few hours of sublime experience.
Nord had a flash of memory from her Greenland flight. She’d been flying the Vespertine while Peter navigated, and at one point had taken them up above a layer of heaped white cumulous. The midnight sun lit the tops of the clouds, and for a few minutes it had felt as if she were following a silver path that stretched across the sky.
When Nord tried to picture what lay ahead, she saw looming obstacles. But she also saw the future stretching out before her like that imaginary, silver path. At the end of it there was a light that both beckoned and obscured.
Still holding the promise of the Farlight in her mind like a talisman, she finally slept.