Actors in the silent era appeared in aeroplanes, but pioneer aviators Harriet Quimby and Blanche Stuart Scott were both actors and script writers. Once the public saw photos of them flying, it didn’t take the movie makers long to discover that they could draw crowds by appearing on film or writing scripts about their experiences.
Script writers of the early silent shorts were paid between $10 and $30 per scenario. The films typically ran 18 minutes. The scripts were approximately thirty pages long, and narrative in style with vague plot details. The quotes below from Yours in Hurry suggest that the work wasn't always glamorous.
“Harriet looked in the hallway mirror. Her eyes were puffy. She was glad that her friend arrived from Los Angeles late the night before to help her with the scenario she owed Biograph Studios. Linda Arvidson was recently separated from D.W. Griffith. The pretty blonde was shorter than Harriet, and at this point in the morning, better functioning.”
Harriet began her career as a stage actress in California with her friend, Linda Arvidson and Linda’s soon to be husband, David Wark Griffith. Harriet quickly learned that writing was a better career for her than acting. She excelled as a journalist in California and later New York City.
Griffith was later known as D. W. when he became a popular American director, writer, and producer. But he didn’t forget Harriet, and in 1911, she is credited with seven Biograph scripts including Fisher Folks, in which Linda starred, and Harriet made a brief appearance. Others are: The Broken Cross; His Mother’s Scarf; In the Days of ’49; A Smile of a Child; The Blind Princess and the Poet ; and, Sunshine Through the Dark. Film historians report that only one of these films still exists, a copy of His Mother’s Scarf, and it’s at UCLA.
Harriet never mentioned her script writing in any way, and she sometimes used an alias. It’s thought she felt it would harm her credibility as a legitimate journalist for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Harriet appreciated the stage and films, and wrote in 1909, "The Value of moving pictures as an aid to historians can not be overestimated." (Leslie's Illustrated Weekly)
Tomboy of the Air
"Lee plays the aviator and Bill the auto driver," Blanche explained. "Can you believe? Many of my friends call me Betty, as I'm not keen on Blanche. My character's name in the story is Bertha—worse yet."
Blanch Stuart Scott ended her piloting career at the start of World War I. She was disappointed at being refused the opportunity to fly in the war. She also realized that women wouldn't be given the opportunity to be engineers. After a stint as a test pilot, she left for Hollywood where she had earlier made two movies, starring as an aviatrix in both: The Aviator’s Success and The Aviator and the Autoist Race for a Bride. Over the years, she worked as a script writer, film producer and radio broadcaster in Hollywood, California.
And she didn’t stop there. In the 1930s Blanche worked as a scriptwriter for several major studios. She also wrote, produced and performed on radio shows aired in California and in Rochester, her girlhood home where she retired.
Both Harriet and Blanche were naturals for moving pictures. They were self promoters and knew how to excite an audience.
Photos: Library of Congress
The Early Birds of Aviation CHIRP newsletter, January, 1971, Number 7
The Harriet Quimby Scrapbook, Giacinta Bradley Koontz, 2003
It's the 105th anniversary of the international tragedy, the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912. Those who have read Yours in a Hurry know that the date also had significance for Harriet Quimby. Walter Lord's A Night to Remember may be the most popular novel about the event, but my Dorothy Gibson story is based on her testimony from the nonfiction The Story of the Titanic as Told by its Survivors edited by Jack Winocour. We don't know if Harriet and Dorothy were acquaintances, but it would be likely given that they were both actresses and scenario writers in New York.
Titanic Survivor Dorothy Gibson
Following is an abbreviated account of their meeting after the tragedy taken from Yours in a Hurry.
Shortly after her return, Harriet was curious to get Dorothy Gibson's first-hand account of the Titanic disaster. Dorothy arrived at Sherry's in a high-waisted black and white stripped dress, trimmed with black lace piping and transparent lace from elbows to wrist. Her large white hat with a black underside anchored flowing black plumes, with abundant auburn curls seeming to burst from underneath.
After they ordered, Dorothy commenced her story, her large expressive eyes focused on Harriet's. "To this day I don't know how many were in the lifeboat with me. Ours was one of the first lifeboats to be lowered after the iceberg struck just before midnight. There was no advance warning. Some remembered feeling more vibration than usual on the ship. It probably depended on where one was at the time. But when the motors stopped, we became concerned. It was some time before the crew came to tell us all to go on deck with our life jackets. Many thought it was a drill."
Harriet leaned in further toward Dorothy. "What was it like after you all realized what was happening?"
"Well, the crew kept shouting 'women and children first,' but there appeared to be no order. Mr. Ismay was helping to direct people to lifeboats, and crew members were assigned to each boat to row and to keep order. Some passengers started changing into other lifeboats after we were in the water, mostly over disagreements on whether or not to row back and pick survivors out of the water."
"We were all freezing. Someone wrapped a sail around two of the others. No one minded that a woman had her Pomeranian with her, given that our boat wasn't full."
"Yes. I read that some of the lifeboats were less than half full."
"In some ways, I understand. Once terror sets in the mind, we don't always think rationally. I was told on the Carpathia that many feared the sea worse than staying on the ship, and in the beginning, few wanted to risk leaving. That way of thinking changed as events worsened.
"I never experienced such sadness as on the Carpathia—so many people in one place who had lost loved ones. The trip home was slower than expected due to ice, fog, and rough seas. Thank goodness for the wireless. At least we had contact with the world."
"Some of that didn't help," Harriet replied. "Rumors started. At one point it was reported that the Titanic was being towed to port and another that all had been saved. Later the survivor lists were incorrect, leading to more confusion and anxiety. I was still in England. It was sad there, especially in Southampton, since four of every five crew members were from there."
Dorothy gazed out the window. "I can still see the thousands of people standing in heavy rain when the Carpathia docked. Everyone wanted to help us, but anyone who was not a New Yorker just wanted to go home by the fastest means possible."
"What will you do now?" Harriet asked.
Dorothy continued without a beat. "My film, The Lucky Holdup, was released while I was on ship, so there are engagements around that. And, can you believe, I started working on a film this week titled Saved from the Titanic. I helped with the scenario." She placed her hands on the table and leaned toward Harriet. "They even want me to wear the sweater I wore that night."
"Is that in good taste?"
"Harriet, have you read the survivor's interviews? Telling our stories has been cathartic. They want to start filming next week so it will be out as soon as possible. The Germans are making a film about the disaster, and the studio hopes ours will be first."
Reading Historical Novels
David McCullough has said that Walter Lord, author of a Night to Remember and Day of Infamy about Pearl Harbor ". . .knows how to do research and how not to use all the research he found. . ." What you just read about actress Dorothy Gibson is taken from the sources mentioned in the introduction and newspapers I read from the period . We can learn much about history from reading historical novels, especially the more human aspects. That's why so many of us love reading and writing them.
Find out more about Dorothy's life and film career at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Gibson
Ann Kathleen Otto is the author of Yours in a Hurry, a historical novel of 1908-1912. Her next novel will include stories based on Ohio's Little Cities of the Black Diamonds in the 1920's.