Tragic Timing: Staples Aldous Fitzgerald Titanic Quimby

What with all this centenary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic and build up the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee there seems to be very little said about any other historic anniversaries or commemorations of late. So I thought I would amend that for you… especially as I have been neglecting my blog again for a few weeks. This post is all about important events that were overshadowed by other, perhaps more important events.

Anyway, on the 16th of April 1912 the delightfully named Miss Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. She took off from Dover en route to Calais and made the flight in 59 minutes, landing about 25 miles from Calais on a beach in Hardelot-Plage.

Harriet (and I am sure she would not have minded me calling her ‘Harriet’… she seems that sort of girl) was quite a remarkable creature. Born in 1875 she was an early American aviator and a movie screenwriter… an obvious combination? In 1911 she was awarded a U.S. pilot’s certificate by the Aero Club of America, at the same time becoming the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States. (I have a crush on her already.) Despite all this flying about she also found time to author seven screenplays that were made into silent film shorts by Biograph Studios. Her image, in her distinctive purple flying suit, graced billboards and magazines across the pond.

Sadly however she (as Freddie Mercury would have said) flew “too close to the sun. ” Soon after her crossing of the English Channel  Harriet flew in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet. She flew out to Boston Light in Boston Harbor at about 3000 feet, and then returned and circled the airfield. William Willard, the organizer of the event, was a passenger in her brand-new two-seat Bleriot monoplane. At an altitude of 1,500 feet the aircraft unexpectedly pitched forward for reasons still unknown. Both William and Harriet were ejected from their seats and fell to their deaths, while the plane “glided down and lodged itself in the mud.”

But I am getting ahead of myself; the reason why you have never even heard of Harriet Quimby is that her epic crossing of the Channel occurred on the day that news that the RMS Titanic was lost reached London. The news papers were filled with lists of passengers and details of the crossing… the news frenzy lasted a month as news of survivors and their graphic descriptions of the band playing hymns on deck while the graceful iron queen slipped into the icy waters filed the pages. You might even say it has lasted a century.

The second tragic confluence that springs to mind occurred on the 22nd of November 1963. In the space of little over an hour we lost three great men… While the newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic and ran ‘specials’ and the world mourned the untimely loss of President John F. Kennedy we also lost two of our foremost men of letters.  JFK was assassinated at 12:30 and pronounced dead at 13:00 CST. (That makes his time of death probably about 18:32 GMT.) On the very same day Aldous Huxley died at 17:21 and CS Lewis died at 17:32. 

All three men profoundly changed their corners of the world, and were truly outstanding in the field. All three believed, in different ways, that death is not the end of human life, and this has resulted in often bizarre novels and plays speculating what would have happened when they all met at the Pearly Gates.

One thing I do know, is that I bet they were surprised to meet each other there. I bet they also had great fun with each others silly name combinations… Staples Aldous Fitzgerald Quimby? 

But this is all a bit morbid… I promise more light-hearted distraction soon.

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Filed under Oxford: The Perspiring Dream, Timology

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