“Why isn’t ‘Pancho Barnes’ a household name?” demanded a viewer at Athena Film Festival’s screening of a new documentary on the life of Florence Lowe. Gun-runner, stunt pilot, proprietress of a notorious bar, the woman who was to become Pancho Barnes was a lifelong rebel against the social shackles binding women in the early twentieth century. There’s a recurring theme in The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club: Barnes didn’t fit standards for women of the time, in her behavior or in her appearance. “If she had been a man, she wouldn’t have had to reinvent herself,” notes the film’s director, Amanda Pope.
Legend is a carefully researched documentary and a feel-good movie introducing us to yet another daring, boundary-pushing woman—this one from the early days of flight.
Frances Lowe, born at the turn of the twentieth century, seemed destined to seek adventure. She idolized her grandfather, an inventor who had flown a fleet of surveillance balloons in the Civil War. Her parents married her off at 18 to a clergyman, hoping that life with Reverend Barnes would civilize her into a genteel woman of the upper class. Unhappy and stifled, she left her husband eight years later, in 1927.
Thirsting for adventure, she disguised herself as a man and joined the crew of a banana boat bound for Mexico (and, as it turned out, running guns into the middle of the Mexican Civil War, possibly more adventure than even the thrill-seeking Barnes could have desired). When she came back from that enterprise, she had acquired her nickname.
In 1928, Barnes flouted convention again, signing up for flying lessons. When her instructor tried to scare her with a speedy first flight full of swoops and rolls, she just laughed. She took special delight in flying low over Reverend Barnes’s church during services.
“Flying is my escape from the conventional me,” Barnes once said. Early aviation was a dangerous and daring business—for both men and the few women who flew. Barnes and her fellow pilots would gauge whether they were level by hanging a keychain in the cockpit: If it hung straight, they were flying straight. In the picture for her pilot’s license (signed by Orville Wright himself), taken by Barnes’s friend, Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, Barnes cuts a sleek, dashing figure-—all traces of femininity obscured.
The documentary radiates warmth. Talking about Barnes seems to make almost everyone in the film smile. Friends and family grin, remembering Pancho’s boisterous sense of fun and adventure. She beams from countless photos, next to planes or surrounded by merry crowds in her club. Even as the film’s historians bring Barnes’s story into the larger context of gender roles and aviation history, the warmth of her personality comes through.
Barnes, who loved speed, was especially focused on beating records set by media darling Amelia Earhart. In 1930, in the latest and fastest plane money could buy, the Travel Air Model R Mystery Ship, Barnes became the fastest woman pilot, at 196 miles an hour. She was also the first female stunt pilot, flying in a number of Howard Hughes films. Flying stunts was a risky and underpaid business. Barnes helped unionize stunt pilots for safer conditions and a fair wage. In 1930, Barnes pioneered new air routes into Mexico; some sources maintain that this is how she got her nickname.
After retiring from flying, Barnes stayed close to the cutting edge of the aviation world. She founded the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a raucous bar/restaurant/ranch in the California desert, near Muroc (now Edwards) Air Force Base. There she could trade stories with young test pilots who loved speed and daring as much as she did. In photos and reminiscences of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho looks like an feisty den-mother figure to the uniformed men surrounding her. She promised a full steak dinner to the first pilot to break the sound barrier.
Chuck Yeager, the Air Force test pilot who earned that dinner, became a close friend of Barnes’s; he speaks of her with a fond smile in the film. Yeager wouldn’t tell Pope a particularly juicy story he remembered, she noted after a recent screening, because he deemed it too racy for a woman to hear.
Pancho’s story wasn’t always a happy one: In the 1950s, the Air Force wanted to shut her ranch down (it was in the way of an expansion of the base) and the FBI wanted to investigate her business practices. The ensuing lengthy court battle included attacks on her character, and drained her financially and emotionally.
One of the ways the film creates Barnes as a character is through excerpts from her letters and interviews, with voice-over by actress Kathy Bates. Why voice-over, when Pope had access to some taped recordings of Barnes? It seems that the exuberant, larger-than-life pilot sounded quavery on tape. Her print interviews were more candid, and earthier. Kathy Bates, Pope declares, “really got who Pancho Barnes was.” And this boundary-breaking woman was, as Pope told viewers at the Athena screening, “as outrageous in her personal life as she was professional in her flying life.”
The Legend of Pancho Barnes and The Happy Bottom Riding Club is available on Netflix Instant, as well as available to purchase on DVD. It has been screened on public television as well, though some of Pancho’s pithier observations had to be censored.