Lessons in flying solo - An unwed pregnant teenager learned independence from rebellious aviatrix Pancho Barnes.
Orange County Register, The (Santa Ana, CA) - Thursday, March 23, 2006

What did she know of the legendary "aviatrixes?" Of the infamous "Happy Bottom Riding Club?" Of the audacity of breaking Amelia Earhart's speed record, running guns in banana boats, trekking overland through Mexico -- by burro, dressed like a man, chomping cigars? It had all happened so very long ago.

Patrice Demory was 18, pregnant and unmarried, when she found herself on the ranch of Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes. All Patrice knew was that once, Pancho was "a famous aviation woman."

Now, however -- in 1966 -- Pancho lived in a grubby house with a dozen dogs in the unforgiving desert. Pancho needed people to care for her and her 30 horses. Patrice, a runaway, needed a place to stay. In exchange for room and board, Patrice and her fiancÚ, George, the father of her unborn baby, would work on Pancho's Gypsy Springs Ranch. The youngsters would marry, have their baby and raise it in the wild, wild West.

At least, that was the plan.

Pancho was never pretty -- Chuck Yeager and his flying buddies used to argue over whether Pancho was the ugliest woman ever born, or just one of the ugliest -- but once she had enough glamour and panache to make Hollywood's leading men her lovers. Now, Pancho was 65 and ravaged by illness. Her eyes bulged and her tongue swelled from thyroid problems. She had lost both breasts to cancer. She wore khakis and wool sweaters and looked like a man -- except for her fingernails, which were long and painted deep red.

The house was a shambles. There was no indoor plumbing. It reeked of propane. Dirty dishes and soiled cans were strewn throughout the kitchen. Patrice went straight to work hauling in water and cleaning the mess.

In Pancho's bedroom were a small bed, a manual typewriter and a jumble of papers chronicling the glory days. Patrice had dropped out of school but was a fast typist; soon she sat at that keyboard, fingers flying as Poncho dictated the astonishing stories of her life.

Florence Lowe was born to a wealthy Pasadena family in 1901 and was expected to be a lady. It didn't quite work out. She loved horses and worshipped her grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe , an aeronautical enthusiast who set up the first balloon reconnaissance unit for the Union Army during the Civil War. Grandfather Lowe took Florence to her first aviation exhibition when she was 8. She was bewitched.

She was thrown out of a series of private schools -- once after bringing her horse into a dorm room. To curb this wildness, the Lowes married her off to the Rev. C. Rankin Barnes, an Episcopal priest. They had a son, but Florence soon ran away, crewing for a banana boat that was actually running guns to Mexican revolutionaries. She and a crewman slipped away and spent months wandering the Mexican countryside by burro. Florence dressed like a man, smoked cigars and earned the nickname "Pancho" -- a sideways version of "Sancho Panza," Don Quixote's sidekick.

The libertine returned home and decided to learn to fly. Her would-be teacher took her up for a ride and tried to persuade her otherwise: The plane looped, rolled and dove like a porpoise in the water. Once they landed, the teacher asked if she still wanted to learn. "Hell, yes," she said.

Pancho got her pilot's license in 1928, broke the women's air speed record set by Amelia Earhart, became Hollywood's first female stunt pilot and tortured her husband by buzzing his church during Sunday sermons. "Flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse," she once said.

Her family owned a fabulous party house on the cliffs just north of Laguna Beach -- where the Smithcliffs estates now stand -- with an airstrip so friends could fly in for wild nights of partying.

Most of her inheritance was gone by 1935, so she bought a ranch in the desert near what would become Edwards Air Force Base and sold milk and meat to the military. The base was stocked with brash young pilots testing the newest technology. For them she built the Happy Bottom Riding Club -- a motel, dance hall, bar and restaurant stocked with beautiful hostesses. It was here that Chuck Yeager celebrated breaking the sound barrier with a free steak dinner -- just days after cracking his ribs in a midnight horseback ride across Pancho's ranch.

Things soured when the Air Force wanted her ranch for an expansion and accused Pancho of running a brothel there. Lawsuits flew -- Pancho's wasn't a cathouse, Yeager would later say, but it wasn't a church, either -- and Pancho won a $400,000 settlement. But soon the club was destroyed in a mysterious fire, and Pancho went packing, to another swath of desert where she intended to resurrect the Happy Bottom.

Instead, Pancho sat in the grimy house with Patrice, reliving her memories. Patrice's belly was growing ever bigger, and her legs were swelling. You don't have to marry George if you don't want to, Pancho told her. You don't need a man. You can make it on your own. And you don't have to keep the baby, either.

Patrice's mind whirled as they had their own adventures. On a mountainous trip to Reno, Pancho insisted on driving despite her poor health. She kept steering off the pavement until Patrice yelled: "Pancho! You're falling asleep at the wheel!" "I'm not falling asleep," Pancho said. "I'm passing out."

Several times a week, the two headed to the far-off post office to pick up mail. Patrice will never forget the day Pancho opened a manila envelope and pulled out prosthetic breasts. "Oh, look at these knockers! I'm going to start showing them off!" Pancho cried with glee, stuffing them under her manly sweater and posing.

About six months after she ran away, Patrice's father tracked her down. He was horrified at how swollen her legs were and insisted she go to the hospital immediately. Patrice went, fully intending to return.

Patrice was in a Los Angeles hospital for weeks. After her baby was born, she gave him up for adoption. Eventually she broke up with her fiancÚ as well.

She never saw Pancho again. But she will never forget her. "Here is a woman who was bolder than life, who brought me under her wing," said Patrice, now 58 and living in Anaheim. "I do believe that I would have very dutifully done whatever my fiancÚ told me to do if it were not for her. She was the one who gave me the courage to say -- I think of it as courage -- that it was the wiser thing, for the love of my child, that I give him up for adoption. She was very, very instrumental in convincing me that I had choices. At the time, I didn't think I had choices."

Pancho died alone on her ranch in 1975. A TV movie was made of her life, and now KOCE-TV is supporting independent producers working to make a documentary. Patrice -- who married an aviation enthusiast, had another son and attends Civil War re-enactments dressed as Pancho's grandmother -- hopes Pancho will inspire a new generation.

"It didn't matter what was in her way," Patrice said. "She found a way to make a joke and laugh. Pancho always said, 'If you have a choice, choose happy.' "

Patrice has chosen happy. Choices are good. But still, she hopes to see her son again.