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And They, Too, Remember Pancho

December 08, 1985

Please thank Ann Japenga for her good story on Pancho Barnes. She certainly was a wonderful person, though much misunderstood. I knew Pancho well, and her Happy Bottom Riding Club, a.k.a. Rancho Oro Verde, was a prime source of secret information on events at nearby Edwards AFB, formerly Muroc AFB.

When Chuck Yeager went through the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 on Oct. 14, 1947, all the Los Angeles aviation writers knew it, though the brass wanted it kept secret. But Scholer Bangs of Aviation Week busted the story ahead of release date, much to Pancho's disgust.

A few corrections are in order in Japenga's piece:

Pancho's romance in Hollywood was not with Ramon Novarro, though she did work with him in the movie "The Flying Fleet" at North Island with the stunt team Three Sea Hawks. They were good friends, but her big crush was on Duncan Renaldo, a film star. At Renaldo's death, Pancho led a squadron of women pilots on a cross-country flight, scattering flowers over the land.

Her grandfather, Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe, was more than just a "balloonist" in the Civil War. He organized the Aeronautic Corps for the Union Army, at the request of President Lincoln, and was hailed as "the most shot-at man in the Civil War." (Professor Lowe also was the first Union Army prisoner of the South, when he landed his balloon at Pea Ridge, N.C. He was checking upper winds for a proposed transatlantic balloon crossing, when he encountered adverse winds.)

She did organize the Motion Picture Pilots Assn. (I was a member also), but when she flew in Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels," her assignment was to provide sound effects with her Travel Air Mystery Ship, when sound came in during production. She buzzed Hughes' San Fernando Valley airport, called Caddo Field.

Pancho was careful to point out that the girls at the Happy Bottom Riding Club were not prostitutes. She ran ads in L.A. papers for "hostesses at a prominent dude ranch" and interviewed them at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel. "What they do on their own time," she once told me, "is their own goddamn business."

Pancho was not the ugly person Japenga describes--beauty, she stressed, is in the eye of the beholder. As a child she learned ballet and once danced at the L.A. Philharmonic with Pavlova. In her motion picture days she was rather beautiful. Later, as she aged, you looked deeper for her beauty, for she was possessed of a rare inner loveliness. "Ornery, nasty, ugly?" No way! One of the world's really beautiful people.

As former aviation editor of the L.A. Daily News and Mirror-News, I accumulated a file of materials on Pancho that I plan to use in a book on her life.



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