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Sonora Carver, 99; First Woman to Ride the Diving Horses in Atlantic City

September 25, 2003|From Associated Press

Sonora Webster Carver, the first woman to ride the diving horses at Steel Pier in Atlantic City and the inspiration for the 1991 Disney movie "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken," has died. She was 99.

Carver died Sunday at a nursing home in Pleasantville, N.J., where she had lived for several years.

In 1924, she made history when she plummeted 40 feet on horseback into a tank of water. The stunt was first performed by W.F. "Doc" Carver, who would become her father in law. In 1931, Sonora Carver went blind from detached retinas suffered after one of the horses, Red Lips, went into a steep nosedive during her performance, sending Carver face-first into the water.

She continued to ride the high-diving horses until World War II.

During her career, Carver was part of an act that included her sister, Arnette Webster French, who died in 2000, and their friend Josephine K. DeAngelis. DeAngelis died Saturday at 92.

The diving horses were a popular attraction at the pier before being discontinued in the 1970s after complaints from animal-rights activists. But Carver insisted that the horses loved the dives and were not forced to jump, said Atlantic City historian Allen Pergament.

Her 1961 autobiography, "A Girl and Five Brave Horses," was the inspiration for the Disney movie.

Carver was one of six children born to a working-class family in Waycross, Ga. At age 20, she was intrigued by an ad she saw in a newspaper for "a girl who could swim, dive and was willing to travel."

She joined Carver's carnival act and married his son, Al, five years later.

After leaving the carnival in 1942, she and her husband moved to New Orleans. She learned Braille and worked as a Dictaphone typist until her retirement in 1979. Carver's nephew, Donald French, said her life was a testimony to the human spirit.

"Bad things happen to people, but you can't let them get you down," he told the Press of Atlantic City.

"She represented courage, fearlessness, but also the fun of the times. She represented Atlantic City at the height of an era."

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