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Eugene McKendry; Ran 'The Right Stuff' Club

Obituaries

January 19, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eugene "Mac" McKendry who, with his late wife, aviator Pancho Barnes, once operated the irreverent Happy Bottom Riding Club, which was dubbed by Chuck Yeager "the test pilots' clubhouse and playroom," has died. He was 81.

McKendry, who became Barnes' fourth husband after managing her dude ranch and then moving in with her, was found dead Monday at his ranch near Cantil, Calif., in the Mojave Desert. He had suffered from heart problems.

Together since 1946, McKendry and Barnes, who was 18 years his senior, married June 29, 1952, bringing operations at nearby Edwards Air Force Base to a standstill.

Yeager, the famed test pilot, and former base commander Gen. Albert Boyd, who piloted himself there in a jet bomber he was testing, gave Barnes away. About 1,500 pilots, aviation personnel, and wives and girlfriends attended. The wedding ceremony was performed by a municipal judge, followed by a second rite overseen by Blackfoot Indian Chief Lucky and his wife, Snow White.

The generally happy union ended in divorce in 1968. McKendry, as exceptionally handsome as Barnes was homely (Yeager's wife Glennis described her as "ugly as a mud fence"), received a 13-year-old Cadillac and a wrecked plane in the settlement.

Nevertheless, he continued to admire his ex-wife, and in recent years commented favorably for a television program and several feature articles on her colorful life. He also took charge of a train car full of memorabilia amassed by Barnes, who in 1930 had set a women's air-speed record of 196.19 mph. Barnes died of cancer in Boron, Calif., in 1975.

Both McKendry and Barnes long outlived their notorious Happy Bottom Riding Club, most of which burned in a mysterious fire in 1953. The land has since been swallowed up by Edwards Air Force Base, whose commander once accused the couple of operating the club as a brothel.

The club, which long attracted Edwards' brightest and fastest, lives on, of course, in Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff," about the test pilots who became the nation's first astronauts, and in a special chapter of Yeager's best-selling autobiography.

Barnes, an adventuress born to wealth, started the dude ranch in 1933 when she sold an apartment house and her San Marino mansion to purchase 80 acres near what was then Muroc Army Air Field. She gradually increased the acreage to 386 and raised alfalfa, hogs and dairy cattle, selling ham and milk to the Army.

It was Gen. Jimmy Doolittle who gave the dude ranch its "Happy Bottom" name after he enjoyed a long horse ride and commented that the experience gave him a "happy bottom."

McKendry, like Barnes a risk-taking aviator who once taught acrobatic flying, joined her as ranch manager and soon began living with her. Together they expanded the facilities, operating a landing strip, two bars, a restaurant, a dance hall, a motel, a swimming pool and rodeo grounds.

In addition to pilots, the club attracted Hollywood's glitterati, including Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters and Roy Rogers.

When Yeager, a favorite club patron, broke the sound barrier Oct. 14, 1947, the couple offered a free steak dinner to any pilot who could equal the feat.

Last September, McKendry made a special appearance at Edwards to autograph copies of his just-published book about Yeager, "The Quest for Mach 1."

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