Grosse Pointe Patch: Wright Plane Visited Grosse Pointe a Century Ago
By Elizabeth M. Vogel
One hundred years ago, Grosse Pointers had an early opportunity to see a Wright Airplane. This event not only catapulted the influence of Grosse Pointers into the national and international spotlight, but it also presented for the first time, a debate that was beginning to cause a national stir: should women fly planes?
The Detroit Aero Club
In a slideshow and brief history written for the Grosse Pointe Historical Society, John A. Bluth outlines the early history of aviation in the region, which was formed by many prominent Grosse Pointers.
"William E. 'Bill' Metzger a prescient investor in bicycles and automobiles was also early to recognize the future potential of aviation. With Aero Clubs being formed all over the country, the well-connected Metzger sold the idea to establish an Aero Club to further Detroit's aviation activities. The kick-off meeting took place the evening of Dec. 16, 1909 at the Pontchartrain Hotel. All of the top auto industry and business leaders were invited. To stimulate interest in the event, Russell A. Alger, a community pillar and a Packard Motor and Wright Airplane Co. investor, invited the Wright brothers to Detroit to attend the meeting. The Wrights were under considerable pressure to come to Detroit…All told 75 prominent Detroiters showed up at the Pontchartrain that Thursday night.”
According to Bluth, “The stature of the Detroit Aero Club was demonstrated the following year when it took over the Grosse Pointe Golf Club on June 19, 1911, for three days of flying, during the height of the golf season. Russell Alger, president of the Aero Club, had arranged for a Wright Flyer airplane and a pilot to come to Detroit and give demonstration rides to Aero Club members and their families.”
The cost, Bluth contends, was astronomical. “The Wright plane cost $7,500 in a time when manufacturing jobs paid .39 cents an hour and senior clerks earned about $1,136 annually.”
The plane was so new, so exhilarating, and so out-of-reach to most people, that money—for those who had it—was not about to get in the way of trying out this wild new sport.
Despite not being a very fast or long airplane ride, Bluth continues, “the 1911 airplane did offer sportsmen the thrill of an utterly new experience with the added cachet of a bit of danger thrown in. At a time when most Americans had never seen an airplane, dozens of Grosse Pointers had actually flown through the air and thousands more on the ground witnessed the miracle of flight.”
The Wright plane that was brought in was piloted by one of the original five pilots from the Wright Brother’s flying exhibition team, Frank R. Coffyn. Research by Suzy Berschback and Ann Marie Aliotta found an article in the Winnipeg Free Press dated July 11, 2011 regarding Coffyn’s stature in the flying community, “Coffyn has made himself a name all over the continent as the steadiest of the bird men—witness the fact that that last month at Detroit he carried in three days as many as 45 passengers, 12 of them ladies.”
Many prominent Grosse Pointers flew that June weekend, but one woman in particular was already making headlines—a full three weeks prior to the event. Mary Mannering and her soon-to-be husband's headline-producing antics had nothing to do with airplanes, but rather to dispel salacious rumors regarding a more personal matter. On June 2, 1911, the headline from the New York Times confirmed the news: ‘Mary Mannering is Mrs. Wadsworth.’
Their wedding came very fast by the day’s standards and was the subject of gossip in high society—both had been recently divorced and had children. Indeed, Mr. Wadsworth’s ex-wife indicated abuse on his part. To make matters even more newsworthy, according to the New York Times article they had applied for a license to marry very quickly, and even surprised their closest friends with the news.
Mannering was a prominent stage actress at the turn of the century: “Miss Mannering’s real name is Florence Freund. She is of English birth, and began her state career at the age of 15… she then became a pupil of Herman Vezin, an American actor and played a number of Shakespearean parts through the English provinces. Daniel Frohman saw her in a comedy called ‘The Late Mr. Costello’ and engaged her to come to America as a member of his Lyceum Theatre Company.”
Mr. Wadsworth was the president of the Michigan Steel Boat Company, which later produced a boat-plane hybrid called the Flying Fish.
The question of the timing of their marriage remains a mystery: was it rushed so they could attend the flying meet as a respectable married couple? Or perhaps was it a honeymoon gift from Mr. Wadsworth to his new bride? Whatever the case, their speedy nuptials seem to be tied inextricably to this Grosse Pointe aviation event.
Indeed, it was Mrs. Wadsworth, of all the ladies, who had the most fun flying. In a report mentioned by Claudia M. Oakes, “Coffyn apparently realized after several days of taking women up as passengers that he need not fly sedately around the golf course to keep from frightening them. When Mary Manning Wadsworth, an actress of the day, flew with Coffyn, he engaged in a race with a passing motorist, much to Mrs. Wadsworth's delight.”
The photographs of her after the flight speak for themselves.
Women flying, a novelty or a reality?
Oakes, who authored United States Women in Aviation through World War I which was produced for the Smithsonian Studies in Air and Space, No. 2 in 1978 documented the Grosse Pointe flying event in detail, as well. The Detroit Free Press headline for Tuesday, June 20, 1911, read, “Michigan Aero Club is Holding First Aviation Meet on Country Club’s Grosse Pointe Golf Links," and an even larger headline on the front page read, “Three Detroit Women Venture in Biplane.” Clearly the early interest in flying for women was causing a stir.
According to Oakes, “By the time the meet ended, the newspaper was calling the women who flew ‘superwomen’ for their courage in making airplane flights. A reporter also predicted, correctly, that ‘Ought women to aviate?’ would become a social issue of the day.”
In an interesting twist, in the very same year that the first aviation meet was held in Grosse Pointe, an Austrian Professor made some wild conclusions as to why he actually thought women would make better pilots than men.
“Professor Rudolph Hensingmüller of Vienna published a list of reasons why he believed women were better pilots than men were. Some of his reasons, which were regarded as so ludicrous that they were immediately held up to ridicule, were: ‘because she has retained the primitive faculty of seeing with full retina; enforced modesty and flirting have caused this; because she has scattered attention instead of concentration; this is invaluable to an aviator who must notice many things at once; because she has the faculty of intuition—that quality of the mind which can take in a number of causes simultaneously and induce a conclusion—an essential in aviation; because her specific gravity is less than man's; because she needs less oxygen and therefore can better meet the suffocating rush of air; altitude affects her less than it does man; because her sneezes, in man an actual spasm, have been controlled by ages of polite repression, because she feels more quickly warning atmospheric changes; because she loves to speed.’”
Indeed, many of Hensingmüller’s assessments were undoubtedly cast away as nonsense—even in 1911—but as a female student pilot myself, I can assure you his final, and perhaps most reasonable, conclusion, “because she loves to speed,” does, in fact, have merit.