Alicia said later that when she was pacing around her father’s empty apartment, trying to plan a trip, an imaginative destination for herself, she kept remembering a special evening some summers earlier at Joe Brooks’s hunting camp, late August, a new visitor at the campfire: “The Colonel” people called him, Col. Quentin Roosevelt, President Teddy’s nephew; wiry, tough, deceptively bespectacled, a seemingly much-esteemed outdoorsman, explorer, hunter, who had spoken so eloquently of the forests of Southeast Asia he’d just returned from, their wildness, beauty, inaccessibility, the amazing plants, the extraordinary animals, such as the Siamese tiger he’d tracked without success, also the immense, belligerent sladang, the Asian water buffalo, that he’d found but had not been able to bring down. Why not Southeast Asia? Why not get herself a Siamese tiger, thereby impressing Poppa as well as the readers of Liberty (which at the time was the second most widely read magazine in America, after the Saturday Evening Post)? She wasn’t sure if she should make an elaborate sales pitch to her father, who was just then enmeshed in a new preoccupation, building a strange modernist house for himself up on the Hudson; but in the end she decided to keep it simple, trust to his distractedness, an approach that seemed to work.
With Poppa’s okay and some Liberty travel and expense funds to draw on, she made her plans, such as plans were in those days, and also roped in an old Chicago friend as traveling companion, Libby Chase, another game girl, a superb horsewoman who sometimes moonlighted as a stunt rider for Zoltan’s Circus at state fairs around the Midwest. With the result that, in late afternoon of September 12, 1930, the sun still high above the Golden Gate Bridge, they steamed slowly out of San Francisco Bay aboard the SS Carnarvon, an eighteen-thousand-ton, midsize, slow-motion workhorse of the Pacific & Orient line, headed southward across the vast Pacific, with eventual stops in Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, and finally Saigon, in what was then known as French Indochina. Alicia at the time was not quite twenty-four.
It took them four long weeks to reach Sydney. The Carnarvon was British owned, and that should have counted for something, at least in the way of that reassuringly superior, apologetic British service, and perhaps in a certain level of shipshapeness or basic competence, whether on the part of first mates or waiters. But sadly the Carnarvon was no Cunarder; the cabins were small, cramped, metallic; the running water rarely ran and then ran discouragingly brown; bells that were supposed to summon people didn’t work, and when they did the people summoned seemed to have been just awoken from long sleeps, or drink-or drug-induceds iestas, or who could tell? In theory the deck designated Promenade Deck promised better things: brisk walks around for exercise, stretching out on a deck chair with one of the many books that had been brought along for the purpose. But in fact the Promenade Deck was mostly obstructed by wooden crates, sometimes lashed together, sometimes not, and thus bumping about on their own whenever the sea got rough, which seemed to be much of the time after they crossed the equator. “There is no denying, the good ship Carnarvon has been claustrophobic,” Alicia wrote in the first of her Liberty articles, “which is one of the reasons Libby and I are looking forward to some shore leave in Sydney.”
According to the schedule the ship was supposed to spend three days in port, unloading and then reloading, before heading northward up the coast to its next landfall at Port Moresby. “But when Mr. Mukerji, our handsome Second Officer, told us it might be three days, or four, or five, whatever the Gods willed,” Alicia wrote, “Miss Chase and I decided to bet on more rather less of a layover, seeing that Mr. Mukerji’s gods were now involved, and have ourselves an adventure, at least a little holiday from the Carnarvon.” At first they thought they’d see the sights of Sydney, but Sydney then was little more than a colonial outpost and seemed to have no sights; the advertised beaches were off-limits on account of sharks. Alicia found an airfield, and there a two-engine Fokker aircraft calling itself Australian National Airlines, which flew them up the coast to Brisbane, even less cosmopolitan than Sydney, where they transferred to a rickety biplane, operated by another new entity called Qantas Airlines, which was about to make a once-a-week run hauling mail and supplies into sheep country. “Harry Soames, our pilot, said where we were flying to was ‘on the dry side right now, not much to look at,’ but added that it was full of kangaroos, and maybe we’d get to see a kangaroo hunt.” In the interests of journalism and keeping moving, Alicia and Libby signed on for the flight. “I had never seen real drought before,” Alicia wrote in Liberty, “but down below us, not far below either, the land was parched and dead as far as the eye could see, not even brown but a dead kind of grey. And everywhere as flat as an anvil, the dirt and dust barely moving even when a wind-gust came up, as if all the elements were too sunbaked to move.”
Charleville, the first sheep station they stopped at, was like all the others, not so much a town or even a village but a haphazard assembly of wooden outbuildings, shacks, a general store with little in it, weatherworn men and women moving slowly. Alicia noted: “Few sheep in sight, although kangaroos were everywhere but hard to get close to. Near sundown, we put down at another station in the middle of nowhere, Longreach. Mr. Soames disappeared for a while and we thought he’d abandoned us, but back he came in a borrowed Ford truck, and with a gun, told us to climb in and ‘we’d get us some roos.’ He drove that truck as fast as it would go, hell-bent over stony hills and ridges, down gullies, the kangaroos running, bounding all around us. Soames stopped and asked Libby to drive while he shot, but she wouldn’t. So he took some shots anyway, and missed, and then gave it up. We weren’t too sorry, they have such sweet faces.”
They spent three days and nights in the arid sheep-ranch country of northern Australia, dropping down onto bleak, heat-blistered settlements with little packets of letters and sacks of flour. They stayed wherever they could find a place to lie down, sometimes in the back of a general store; once at an actual, self-described “inn,” with rooms and beds, though the owner had auctioned off the mattresses and bedding. And then there was Birdum. “I wish there were words in the dictionary foul enough to describe that place,” wrote Alicia, who was usually no pale flower when it came to camping out. “It is a settlement of about twenty persons, nineteen of them men, and most of these drunk all the time. Mr. Soames, who by then was mostly drunk himself, found us not so much a room as a section of cement floor in back of the saloon, separated from the customers by a sheet. That night, there was a gargantuan rainstorm, which brought a tide of rainwater pouring in from outside, us lying in the middle of it, in a sea of muddy water, which in some ways was a relief from bedbugs and Singapore ants.” The day they left, Alicia noted, the heat was so bad that “birds were dropping dead from the trees.”
This is an excerpt from “The Huntress: The Adventures, Escapades, and Triumphs of Alicia Patterson” by Alice Arlen and Michael J. Arlen. Copyright © 2016 by Alice Arlen and Michael J. Arlen. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.