For two weeks in the spring of 1911, crowds had been drawn to a Hempstead Plains flying field by a persistent rumor: A woman was taking flying lessons.
That was big news in an era when women weren't even considered capable of driving a car.
So the curious came at dawn to see an obscured figure taking off from the Moisant Aviation School in what is now Garden City.
It was only on May 10 that the rumors proved true, when a breeze dislodged a veil attached to the pilot's helmet. Someone recognized Harriet Quimby, a beautiful New York theater critic and stereotype-busting photojournalist who would gain the nickname "Dresden Doll Aviatrix." The New York Times headline the next day read "Woman In Trousers Daring Aviator."
She would make even bigger news 10 weeks later: On Aug. 1, 1911, Quimby became the first woman in the Western Hemisphere, and only the second in the world, to earn a pilot's license.
Quimby expanded her reputation that year by becoming the first woman to fly at night and the next spring by becoming the first female to fly the English Channel. Her name might have become better known in her time and ours had she not died less than three months later, on July 1, 1912, at age 37 in a crash near Boston.
"She was an accomplished pilot," said Joshua Stoff, curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in East Garden City, where a mannequin wearing a replica of the plum-colored flight suit that Quimby designed for herself stands by an original 1909 Blériot, the same model Quimby flew during her lessons.
Peter Jakab, associate director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., said: "She was a pioneering woman in that she took on challenges that were not typical for women of the time. Her flying accomplishments were significant. The crossing of the English Channel was her greatest flying achievement."
Quimby also showed a knack for promoting herself.
"She was an attractive woman who would have herself photographed in very stylish clothing and drove around in a little sports car," Jakab said.
A not-so-flashy upbringing
The promotion began much earlier when Quimby's mother fabricated a more appealing background for her. "She came from fairly modest means, but her mother created these stories where she had gone to finishing school and came from a more rarefied background," Jakab said.
Quimby said she was born in 1884 to wealthy parents who owned a California orange farm. The reality is that she appears to have been born May 11, 1875, in Coldwater, Mich., where her father, William, was a farmer and her mother, Ursula, sold herbs. By the 1890s, the Quimbys had moved to San Francisco, where Ursula Quimby supported them by making prune sacks and manufacturing herbal medicines, which made the family prosperous.
While the 1900 census listed her occupation as actress, soon after that Quimby began writing for the San Francisco Dramatic Review and later for the Call-Bulletin and Chronicle. In 1903 she was hired by a New York-based magazine, Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, as a drama critic. While she did review plays, she also was a photojournalist. Her assignments were not the kind given to women in those days and took her to Europe, Cuba, Iceland and Mexico.
"After seeing monoplanes in the air, I couldn't resist the desire to try the air lanes, where there are neither speed laws nor traffic policemen," Quimby told The Times.
After attending the International Aviation Tournament at Belmont Park in 1910, Quimby introduced herself to American pilot John Moisant and "told him I wished to learn to fly," she recalled later. He invited her to take lessons at the flying school he was establishing. In April 1911, Quimby took her first lesson -- she was the only female among six students.
Though she dressed fashionably and wore jewelry in the cockpit, Quimby was serious about flying. "I thought it would be nice to be the first American woman to win a pilot's license, and I shall get one soon," she told The Times.
Her soaring achievements
Exactly 100 years ago today, on July 31, 1911 -- after 33 lessons -- Quimby took her exam on the Hempstead Plains. She had to take off, perform a series of figure eights around pylons and then land within 100 feet of a specified mark. Quimby landed near the mark but forgot to shut off the engine, so the plane taxied too far away. "Miss Quimby was almost in tears because of her failure," The Times observed.
But she returned undeterred the next morning. After the fog burned off, she repeated the test and stopped the plane within 7 feet, 9 inches of the mark -- which the newspaper called "a near record for accuracy." Quimby had passed with flying colors.
On Sept. 4 she became the first woman to fly at night -- over a crowd of 15,000 at the Staten Island Fair.
French aviator Louis Blériot had crossed the English Channel in 1909. Quimby borrowed one of his planes, and on April 16, 1912, she powdered her nose, waved once and took off from England into the fog. At one point the plane tilted and flooded the engine, causing it to skip, and Quimby contemplated trying to land on the water. But she completed the 22-mile flight and landed on a beach in France. Photographers captured a beaming Quimby being carried into town on the shoulders of local fishermen.
Quimby came home to appear at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet with a two-seat monoplane she had purchased from Blériot. During the event she took a trial flight with air show manager William Willard. As 5,000 spectators watched, The Times wrote, "There was an upward flash of the tail and the machine . . . began a swift plunge downward" from 1,000 feet. Quimby and Willard, who were not wearing seat belts, as was the custom of the time, were thrown clear and their bodies were deeply embedded in the muddy bottom of Dorchester Bay before being recovered. The story ran on front pages across the country.
Short career, lasting legacy
Because of her truncated career, Quimby, who is buried in Kensico Cemetery in upstate Valhalla, may not have the name recognition of Amelia Earhart. But she is not entirely forgotten.
The U.S. Postal Service issued an airmail stamp in her honor in 1991. Quimby lives on in more than a half-dozen biographies and children's books as well as museum exhibits. She is featured in a program run by the Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which encourages women to fly.
She lives on in the flesh, too, in a way, thanks to Connie Tobias, a US Airways pilot from North Carolina who has been portraying Quimby in the air and on the ground at aviation events and schools for more than a decade for a living-history foundation.
"She was a very intelligent and courageous woman," said Tobias, who a decade ago created a Harriet Quimby Scholarship for young aviators at Ohio University. "She was blessed with the ability to envision the future. She foretold that airplanes would someday carry passengers from point to point."
And Quimby lives on as a role model for aspiring pilots like Danielle Cirimello, 19, of Centereach. The Dowling College sophomore, who is majoring in airport management, began taking flying lessons this summer to get her license. Her goal is to become an air traffic controller.
"She was a big inspiration for me," Cirimello said. "In my aviation classes I'm one of three girls. To be the first female in a male-dominated field -- I can only imagine the hardships she went through."
Harriet Quimby was a woman before her time, in more ways than one. In an excerpt from an interview with Good Houskeeping magazine, completed just before her death, she said:
"In my opinion there is no reason why the aeroplane should not open up a fruitful occupation for women. I see no reason why they cannot realize handsome incomes by carrying passengers between adjacent towns, why they cannot derive incomes from parcel delivery, from taking photographs from above, or from conducting school for flying . . . Any of these things it is now possible to do."
Other Quimby notables
Aug. 1, 1911: Quimby becomes the first woman in the Western Hemisphere and the second in the world to gain a pilot's license.
Sept. 4, 1911: Quimby became the first woman to fly at night.
1991: U.S. Postal Service issues a Quimby commemorative airmail stamp.
-- Bill Bleyer