Pancho Barnes didn’t make much of a society lady. In fact, people of her time may not have even described her as a lady at all. They describe her as “colorful”, “adventurous” and “wild”, but rarely does the l-word arise. Nor, from what we can find, does the word lesbian. But, believe it or not – we’re inclined to believe it – Ms. Barnes qualifies as both, as well as all the aforementioned adjectives.
Before we dive into this air diva’s life, we’d first like to give a little background on this story. We must admit, we’d never heard of Pancho Barnes until two weeks ago. We’re not sure if that makes us bad fags or if that’s just history’s iron jaws hard at work, but it’s the sad truth. Another truth: we learned about Barnes from a dog. Well, the dog’s owner…
It all started when we popped into a local bar to say “hey” to our favorite sappho-journo, Kerry Eleveld. She’d gone to said drinking hole to play a little pool. Like so many sports, we’ve had to swear off pool – you know, because we’re so damn good. Thus, we spent much of the time speaking with Eleveld’s friend, Andi, who had brought her little dog, Pancho (you know those lesbians and their pets!). “Pancho” isn’t the most traditional name for a dog, so naturally we asked we’re the adorable little beast picked up such a moniker. That’s when Andi told us about Pancho Barnes.
Born in 1901, Florence Leontine Lowe, the girl who would become Pancho Barnes, came from a wealthy San Marino, California family. Her maternal grandfather, Richard Dobbins, formed a sizable real estate fortune and her paternal grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe, worked with Abraham Lincoln to create the Air Balloon Corps, the predecessor to the Air Force. These men’s combined fortunes insured Florence the most glittering of upbringings. It was Lowe’s encouragement, however, that fed young Florence’s untraditional thirst for adventure.
Discarding timely gendered stereotypes, Florence took up such “male” sports as hunting and camping. As time went on and it became clear the young girl wouldn’t outgrow these masculine, decidedly tomboyish diversions, her mother married the 18-year old Florence found to an Episcopalian Reverend Rankin Barnes, with whom she had a son, William.
As you can imagine, married life didn’t suit a free-spirit such as Florence. Following her mother’s 1924 death – and inheriting a sizable fortune – she soon set off for a bit of adventure. With no mother to appease, nor a husband to please, Florence disguised herself as a man, tucked on a Mexico-bound boat and started working for a banana boat company. The wild winds of wanderlust seduced her, however, and soon she and a friend set out on donkey back. Certainly a far cry from the pure breed horses of her childhood, but an experience that would brand her for life.
Seeing the heavy-set Barnes trotting along on an ass reminded her companion of Don Quixote’s faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza. The man, however, mistakenly referred to the character as “Pancho”, a name Barnes would carry for life.
In 1928, the newly named Barnes headed back to America to be with her family, including her cousin, Dean. Dean too had a sense of adventure, only rather than riding around on a donkey, he chose to zip about in a plane. While driving Dean to the airfield one day, the young adventurer decided to pick it up as a hobby. Like all things in her life, Barnes excelled quickly. The 27-year old adventurer went on to become one of the top aviatrixes of her day, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at her pilot’s license. Women pilots were so rare in those days that Barnes dressed as a man for her picture. The man who took that picture, George Hurrell, would go on to become MGM Studio’s head portraitist, lending his aesthetic to the birth of Hollywood glamour, just as Barnes lent some excitement to the burgeoning aviation scene.
Within two years of her inaugural flight, the high-flying dynamo competed in – and won – a number of competitions, sufficiently tortured her husband’s outdoor congregations and broke Amelia Earhart’s women’s world speed record (196.19 mph, an astonishing accomplishment for that era). It’s worth mentioning that Barnes allegedly had a sapphic affair with the young, doomed Earhart (pictured above, holding flowers). Also during this time, Barnes’ best friend, Ramon Navarro, had just filmed Ben Hur, launching his star as high as Barnes could fly. Perhaps it’s his influence that sent her packing for Hollywood, where she had a brief – yet successful – career as a stunt pilot.
Though schmoozing with the worlds most celebrated people, the Depression and poor financial planning took their toll on Barnes’ bank account. The increasingly dire situation forced her to sell her Hollywood digs and sent her packing for an 80-acre plot of land near the Edwards Air Force Base. Hard up for cash, Barnes started selling the airmen dairy and pork. From there she expanded into a bar, an air field where she trained young pilots – including Kirk Kerkorian, who would go on to own TWA – a resort complete with pool and an all around party known as The Happy Bottom Riding Club.
All accounts describe the Club as a haven for the rich, famous and servicemen: a patch of land where jet-setters and soldiers came to get away from the city, have a bit of fun with and generally live it up. This, of course, qualifies as the truth, but, like so many things queer, there’s more than meets the eye. Yes, air men came from the neighboring air force base, and yes friends came from Los Angeles, but Barnes also etched out a space for like-minded ladies – namely: ladies who liked labia. Her all female staff helped around the house, free to do their thing without a man’s oppressive thing, if you know what we mean. Regardless, hordes of people – men and women alike – came to the Club, each contributing to its increasingly raucous reputation. The Club’s reputation came under fire in 1952 when the air force base’s new management looked to expand. Barnes’ days of happy bottoming would soon come to an end.
When Barnes refused polite requests to leave the land, the air force started claiming Barnes was running a “house of ill repute” or, rather, whorehouse. The rumor spread like wild fire and Barnes’ business suffered terribly. Still, Barnes would not to budge. She raised a lawsuit against the air force, defending herself by insisting, “My grandfather founded the air force!” Badass, huh? Unfortunately, Barnes and her new husband, Mac McKendry, had no other choice after a mysterious 1953 fire destroyed her home. Though she won the case against the air force, Barnes’ resolve had gone up with the ranch and she packed up what little she had left to another part of the California desert.
Barnes languished for a few years – testing dreams and watching them crash – until 1961, when the air force base invited her back to her land and she became the unofficial “mother” of the soldiers. Barnes’ own son, meanwhile, found her old plane, bought it and gave it back to her. The winged reunion brought the aging Barnes back into the air travel fold and she jumped straight back into the scene. She may not have been a stunt flyer anymore, but she certainly counted as a legend. Barnes became so legendary, in fact, that the Antelope Valley Aero Museum invited her to deliver the keynote speech at their Barnstormers Reunion. Barnes died of a heart attack the day of the event.
Since her death, Pancho Barnes has grown to cult status. Tom Wolfe depicted her in his 1983 novel, The Right Stuff, which would go on to the silver screen. Valerie Bertinelli portrayed Barnes in a television movie. The Edwards Air Force base now uses The Happy Bottom Riding Club to celebrate Pancho Barnes Day. And, of course, Pancho’s legend inspired the naming of Pancho the dog. Doesn’t get any more honorable than that…
Some friendly neighborhood Pancho Barnes resources:
Pancho Barnes Enterprises
Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes [U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission]
Pancho Barnes [Wikipedia]
Oh, yeah, Pancho the dog also has a website. It’s some wild shit.
Well, that was comprehensive (and interesting). You should submit it to Wikipedia.
As Pancho’s godmother, another dog-loving lez who, uncoincidentally, hails from Pancho Barnes’ home desert town, all i have to say is that this is one rocking article! Viva la Pancho! Both the historic record of the prior Pancho, and the fierce adorableness of the living Pancho!
Hello from the Estate of Pancho Barnes. Well, this is an interesting take on our dear old Pancho. Who knows if she intimately experienced women during her life? With her, probably anything was possible. She loved people and loved life. She had fairly good and open views about sex. She knew sex was a healthy, normal and natural expression of being alive. What we do know is she could give a ‘rat ass’ whether you were gay, straight or asexual. She was most interested in who you were as a unique individual, and what you were doing with your life. She encouraged others to “be yourself’. That’s why you are here.” She would say, “Don’t even try to be like someone else, because we’ve seen it already.”
We do know that she had gay friends such as actor Ramon Novarro, and straight friends as well. The evidence, however, strongly suggests that she confined her intimate moments to men. She was married four times and reportedly had numerous lovers. During her life, she celebrated diversity. Her ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club’ was integrated. And this was back in the days when the barracks and clubs on the Air Force base were still segregated. If she were alive today, she would continue to embrace diversity. It is diversity…the paint on the pallete of life…that makes life so wonderful and exciting.
What a Great Lady !!
Too bad that I didn’t ever get to meet her, but I was born a little too late…I spent my early years on an alfalfa ranch five miles south of Edwards…but grew up on a dairy in southern Oregon…after that I have done fifty years in an aviation career that is still going strong…Hope to find out more about this Pancho Barnes Day at Edwards AFB,and learn more about this fine person…
Great article! As a fan of silent movies and biographies, I’ve been reading about the lives of those in Hollywood from the early 1900s. It’s interesting to read of those open about their sexuality but sad of the majority who remained closeted. Ramon Navarro died a horrible death and his career would’ve been interesting to follow in later years.
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