Glamour Boy

The day Claude Grahame-White thrilled the crowd at the Boston-Harvard meet.

(Library of Congress)

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Grahame-White remained in the States for another month, basking in the limelight and courting pretty Pauline Chase, one of the country’s most famous actresses. Then, shortly before he was due to depart for England, he was summoned to appear before a circuit court judge. The Wrights had filed suit, accusing Grahame-White of breaching their patent. The brothers demanded a full accounting of his earnings in America, every last cent of the $82,000 that he’d won.

Grahame-White ignored the summons and slipped out of the States on an earlier boat, laughing to reporters back in England that “the Wrights are frightened. I’ve scared them so bloody well that they are terrified. I’m their most formidable competitor and they know it.”

Two weeks later, on December 18, Grahame-White was badly injured chasing a $20,000 prize for the longest nonstop flight from England to the European mainland. It was while he lay in a hospital bed that he weighed his odds of surviving such a dangerous profession. Hardly a month passed without another aviator falling from the sky, and it seemed just a matter of time before his own luck ran out. So he quit competitive flying and plowed his money into creating the Grahame-White Aviation Company and London’s first aerodrome at Hendon. A few years later he sold the aerodrome to the British Government for more than $1,000,000.

Grahame-White died in the summer of 1959 at the age of 79—one of the last survivors of the pioneering days of aviation. While he’d never had the inventive mind of the Wrights or the vision of Glenn Curtiss, his role in early aviation was nonetheless important. Grahame-White got the ordinary Joe interested in aeronautics, and helped to glamorize a business dominated by engineers. In short, to use a modern word, he made aviation sexy.

Gavin Mortimer's books include Chasing Icarus: The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever Changed American Aviation.

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