Oregon Magazine    Kick the habit at  Serenity Lane
   Cover  |


 
Mrs. Victor Bruce: Adventurer

This eagle who soared far above her mate touched Oregon but once.  Skipping off its wet surface like a flat rock off a lake, she left barely a trace which quickly disappeared, then flew on.  Surely any mere place lost its magnetic attraction for this marvelous woman when it slid down off the horizon to spin the wheels or slap the hull of her lifelong  journey to faster. 

Born after the last unexplored place had shed its innocence of Europe to the mizzen of a sailing ship or the boots of the wanderer, she found unlimited new destinations in distance divided by time -- the infinitely renewable frontier of speed.  Her life sends a message to all of us.  Don't believe it when they say you can't.  Go ahead and give it a try.  There are no barriers for those who simply will not quit trying. -- OMED (Illustration is a hotlink to a summary of early aviation adventures.)
 

A Woman Of Her Times 
 by Peggy Whitcomb

What really is the story of someone who had the determination to do what most pleased her, at costs we can only imagine?  Whatever it is, it's a very common story for people who live in free societies.
        -- PW


She once drove a race car for seventy hours straight, singledhandedly, to take 6th place in the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally. She started at the northernmost tip of Scotland, and along that 1700 mile route she battled heavy fog, a blizzard, icy mountain roads and sleepiness. When she finally pulled up in front of the casino, she lay her head on the steering wheel and slept. (Photo: race refueling.)

Mrs. Victor Bruce, born in 1896, was a British woman of her times. The world was in love with speed and record setting race cars, motorboats and airplanes.  Mrs Bruce raced them all. She begged the loan of  'hotted-up' cars from auto factories, and motor boats from wealthy sportsmen. She was provided fuel by oil companies who used her name in advertising.  (Photo: An early racing boat. The outboard engine on it was used by Mrs. Bruce on a previous craft, named "Snotty," to set the speed record for crossing the English Channel.)

She enjoyed the camaraderie of the racing world; exchanging tips about particular  race courses or makes of cars and the intense competitiveness between friends and strangers alike. She wore in every race a skirt, blouse and a string of pearls -- her trademark of lady- like, competent professionalism. (Photo is a hot link to a site that sells old photos.)

The first 'flying' she did was on her brother's motorcycle at age 15, setting an early record: that of being the first female called into the Bow Street (London) police court for speeding.  Fifty-five or sixty miles-an-hour in 1911 was very like breaking the sound barrier today. 

Women today aren't inspired to fly, as Mary Bruce  (OMED: sometimes referred to as "Mildred") was -- by the astonishing sight of an airplane in a London shop window.  This was June of 1930. It was a tiny, open-cockpit biplane whose wings could be folded.  She bought the airplane, spent a month planning a round-the-world trip, got an extra fuel tank installed on the side-seat, accumulated maps and packed a meager kit for herself that nevertheless included an evening dress. She chose taking a dictaphone over a parachute, and took along her husband's treasured pocket compass. At that point she decided it was time to take flying lessons. She'd never been up in an airplane before. 

She soloed after a week of lessons, had her pilot's license by the third week of September and her flying experience now included solo flight up to forty miles from the airport. She took off in 'Bluebird' on a misty September morning in 1930. She would fly to Japan, take a steamer across the Pacific, fly across America, sail on to France, and from there she would return to London by plane.  It was a journey with enough adventures and mishaps to satisfy an Amundson.   (Photo: Mrs. Bruce in what the caption describes as "Korea, Japan.)

When reporters had clamored for her itenerary, she refused them, and was gleeful when they dubbed her plans a 'mystery flight'. This way, she figured, if she got lost they'd never know it.  They'd think she intended to go wherever she landed. Her skill at locating airports from the air posed an initial difficulty,  but in Europe there were always golf courses or stadiums, and she had smoke bombs to drop to warn people away.  Europe was still a colonial presence in the world at that time; British and French officials in Syria, Thailand, French Indo-China, India and Shanghai, by prearrangement, supplied fuel, lodging when needed, and occasional rescue. Foreign Office dispatches to London kept the government, her family and the press apprised of her progress. 

She danced every night aboard the ship that carried her and 'Bluebird' from Tokyo, Japan to Vancouver, British Columbia. She was relieved not to be flying for a while, or having to look for ground to land on, or battling intense heat and tropical rainstorms, or placating desert nomads, or repairing her plane yet again. But the mobbing by reporters and long speeches by politicians in Vancouver and Seattle soon sent her on her way, now headed for California. How could any foreigner visiting America pass up the opportunity to see California? An oil company executive arranged for a Stearman (a brand of airplane) to carry her accumulating luggage and to accompany her flight down the coast from Seattle.

At this point there is a mystery. Mrs. Victor Bruce left Seattle in 'Bluebird' with her escort on December 17, 1930 and arrived in Medford, Oregon on December 24, 1930. She  was in Medford for a week, having her plane repaired because she tipped it upside-down on landing. The mystery is, where was she for seven days between Seattle and Medford? No record, so far, has been found. Airplanes, especially two of them together, were still an unusual sight overhead in 1930; someone surely noted their passing. She very likely landed somewhere in Oregon before Medford.  But, where? 

Her arrival in California was greeted again by the press, parades and city officials, but by this time she was anxious to finish her journey. She flew across the vast continent of America, and wrecked her plane for the last time in Baltimore, then laughed through her tears to see she had done so across the street from an airplane factory. Wonderful luck!  The plane was repaired in time for her to circle the Empire State Building  in New York City, and to endure more festivities before she and 'Bluebird' sailed for France. 

Her round-the-world flight set no records; she had no other competitor than her own fortitude, skills and commitment.  'Bluebird', with its wings and body covered with signatures and messages from people around the world, was displayed for a time in a London subway station, but sits in no museum today. Mrs. Bruce turned her energies to business, developing an air freight and airline company; her planes were the first to carry air hostesses, and made the fastest flights between London and Paris. Her fleet of airplanes and pilots were critical in developing air defenses over London as war in Europe loomed again. 

Mrs. Victor Bruce never lost her love of speed. At age 81, she drove a Ford Ghia Capri once around a racetrack at 110 mph, her best time ever; and at age 83 flew aerobatics in a small Havilland Chipmunk airplane. She said that going slow always made her tired.


A woman of her times: A reflection by the author ... 

We know the names of many women like Mrs. Victor Bruce.  Harriet Quimby -- an American who made the first-woman's solo flight across the English Channel in 1912; Marie Curie -- who discovered radioactivity in 1903 and isolated pure radium in 1911; Florence Nightingale -- who aggressively introduced hospital cleanliness and caring for wounded soldiers in the field during the brutal Crimean War in 1854.  (Photo: Marie Curie)

There are many more women whose names are lost to history but whose contributions were no less vital to civilization. Machiavelli tells us of a woman in a forted city in Italy in early medieval times. The city was ringed by a savage army intent on raping, killing and pillage. Two small children were kidnapped outside the city walls before the citizens knew the enemy was nearby. The attacking army held the children before the gates, promising to return them if the gates were opened. The mother of those children  leaped to the top of the walls, lifted her skirts and shouted she could get more children but the city would not be surrendered. The leaders of the savages were horrified by her immodesty and callousness, dropped the children and fled. She saved the lives of her children as surely as she saved the city.

During the 1800s families trekked across America in wagon trains. As the men rode horses to hunt and scout ahead for water and to fight off Indians, the women generally walked alongside the heavily loaded wagons, for hundreds and hundreds of miles, over deserts, across mountains; their 'facilities' a nearby gully, fuel for their cook fires most often dried buffalo dung, giving birth on the ground beside the wagons, or, during Indian attacks, beneath the wagons.  Much the same as the wives and mothers of the Indians; or the Mexican women who shaped mud for their families' adobe cabins. (Covered wagon  from the Oregon Blue Book  is (C) 2000 by Eric Valentine  Photo is a hotlink to his site.)

When has life ever been easy for women? Women whose names we don't know, marrying, giving birth, caring for their families and homes, using whatever knowledge was available, in their times, to guard the health of their families; plowing fields, tending herds of sheep or cattle or horses; women starting businesses; becoming doctors, secretaries, lawyers, pilots, programmers, flying into space; all, very often, while taking care of their families, working alongside their husbands or brothers or fathers. And sometimes alone.  (Photo: "Queen" Bessie Coleman, America's first black female pilot)

Women passing on to their children concepts of right and wrong,  love of family and country, pride in work accomplished;  instilling in their children, by example, the certain knowledge that they may accomplish, or come close to accomplishing,  whatever in life they desire by dilligence, creativity, compromise and determination. 

Mrs. Victor Bruce embodied it all. So did Harriet Quimby. The heroines of history, and the real heroines today, are not victims, they are doers. When they speak to us, in diaries and journals, in books and magazine articles, on television, it is not in the language of impotent complaint and hurt feelings. Achieving their goals requires no special treatment and they ask for none. They go after those goals and dreams flat out, utterly determined. (Photo: Harriet Quimby, America's first licensed female pilot.)

We used to celebrate these people, root for them and take pride in their accomplishments.  Today, we seldom hear of them in the media.  The ones who get attention now are those who tell us it's just too hard, life is unfair. They try to make the rest of us feel ashamed for being so self-centered that we take those night classes, or work that extra job, plug away single-mindedly, day-by-day, at making our own dreams come true.

I've told the story of Mary Bruce because her life epitomizes the human spirit. She had a dream. And then another, and another. She achieved those dreams because she kept making the decision to pay the cost, and to never give up.

There are millions of Mrs. (and Mr.) Bruces out there, past and present, no one has ever heard of and never will.  An exhaustive exploration of the internet and the necessity of hunting down a couple of books about her attest to how ephemeral is the fame of even those who do get recognition. There are so many people who live their lives as courageously, recklessly even, as determinedly as Mrs. Bruce did,  that the real question is, how is it decided to recognize one person as exceptional and not another just as exceptional? You come across brief references to some of them, almost dismissive snippets, and you think, wait a minute!  But often there isn't even a name to explore further.-- PW