Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hollywood dreams become life lessons

The Bessie Coleman story still lives on

Express Staff Writer

Bessie Coleman was the first licensed black pilot in the U.S.

In a brief, foolish hiatus from my reliable career staples of newspapering and radio talk show host, I had the impetuous notion to try my hand at film production.

Financially, it was a costly impulse, but it was an indescribably rich learning experience with profound residual influences on my life.

Bear with me while I go back to the beginning.

After ending my career as publisher of The Arizona Republic and the now-defunct Phoenix Gazette in 1989, friends with more money than brains offered in 1991 to stake me to producing films.

So, for the better part of the next two years I commuted between Phoenix and Los Angeles, partially driven by the example of two former newspaper friends from days at The Miami (Fla.) Herald who made it big—Kurt Leudtke and Denne Petitclerc.

Leudtke abandoned newspapers for screenwriting—and won an Oscar for his first project, "Out of Africa." Petitclerc, who died in 2006 at age 76, ditched newspapers to become a prolific writer and producer for television and movies.

So, why not me?

Meanwhile, a black friend in Phoenix who knew of my plans suggested Bessie Coleman for a movie.

After showing my ignorance, he explained Coleman was the first licensed black pilot in the United States—in the 1920s when, in the ethnic nomenclature of the day, Negroes were not in aviation, much less a black woman.

That uniqueness convinced me of my first project.

With the help of Phoenix attorney Jack Brown, he introduced me to high-powered Hollywood entertainment attorney Bert Fields of the impressive law firm of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger, perched in plush suites on the 19th floor of an Avenue of the Stars skyscraper. I saved plenty when the very pricey Fields handed me off to a young associate, Mark Stankevich, and his more modest fees.

Then I hired a production assistant, Wendy Carrel. This team would plug me into the Hollywood film industry, I thought, learning only later that successful film people live and schmooze in L.A., not commute from Phoenix.

The Carrel connection led me to Bebe Moore Campbell, the rising star black novelist, whom I hired to write a film treatment that we hoped would lead to a contract to film Bessie Coleman's life.

For months, I conducted research into Coleman's life. I scoured archives of black colleges (Fisk, Howard, Bethune Cookman, Spelman) and aviation archives of the Smithsonian and women pilots groups. I flew to Chicago to visit Coleman's Lincoln Cemetery grave and talk to a woman claiming to be Coleman's aunt, plus visiting Chicago's DuSable Museum of black history, where a few mementos of Coleman's life were tucked away in a corner.

Although information about Coleman was hard to come by, we mined enough for a 53-page film treatment that charted a fascinating life of an incredible woman.

Born in Atlanta, Texas, in either 1892 or 1896 of a Native American father and black mother, Coleman was one of 13 children. Rejecting a life of picking cotton, and gripped with an obsession to fly like birds she watched as a child, she moved to Chicago and lived with a brother, who some say was a cook for mobster Al Capone.

Coleman became a manicurist, mindful she'd meet upscale black businessmen, one of whom would be Robert Abbott, editor of the Chicago Defender black newspaper.

Moved by her zeal to fly and aware there were no flight schools for blacks, Abbott financed an odyssey for Coleman to France where she learned to fly and was licensed by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921—two years before American aviatrix Amelia Earhart was licensed.

During this time, Coleman had a steamy romance with the Dutch pilot and aircraft designer, Anthony Fokker, also one of her flying mentors.

Returning to the United States, Coleman was an instant celebrity. She embellished her persona by always dressing in a military officer's uniform. Nicknames popped everywhere: "the black angel," "Queen Bess," "Brave Bess."

Piloting a World War I Jenny bi-plane, she performed stunts before thousands of spectators coast-to-coast—always insisting on integrated audiences, an astonishing demand in those days. When not piloting, she did parachute jumps.

Always, her goal was to earn money to start a flying school for blacks.

She was injured in several crashes but died in a terribly inexplicable accident outside Jacksonville, Fla., where she was to perform in an air show in a new aircraft.

While on a test hop with her mechanic/pilot/press agent, William Wills, the aircraft went into a spin and then flipped. Coleman was thrown out at 500 feet and died instantly. The plane crashed and burned.

She was not wearing a parachute or a seat belt, which was unprecedented for her. Investigators said a wrench jammed the controls, leading some to suspect sabotage.

Bebe Moore Campbell's film treatment thereupon was scattered around filmland. The reigning rejection was this—a movie about black entertainer Josephine Baker had been released that year. A second film about another black woman would be a dud, we were told.

Campbell, who became a close friend during our failed movie effort, died last November of a brain tumor, only in her mid-50s. She left me with not only memories of a special friendship, but a far greater insight into the black culture.

And there's something else:

Two weeks ago, President Bush honored the 994 black pilots of the World War II Tuskegee Airmen with gold medals, many posthumously.

In the course of researching Bessie's life, I was told by several Tuskegee Airmen that Coleman's pioneering belief in black flight schools inspired young blacks to lobby the Army Air Corps and President Franklin Roosevelt for an all-black squadron and the first major flying school for African Americans.

Today, Coleman is memorialized in ways she could never imagine—a major Chicago road near O'Hare Airport named for her; television documentaries; a U.S. postage stamp, books of her life, hailed in aviation circles as a true pioneer.

And every year on the anniversary of her death, dozens of pilots fly over her grave in Chicago, all of them black pilots paying tribute to the first of their race with an unquenchable dream.

Pat Murphy, a Mountain Express columnist, soloed at 14 years old and holds a commercial pilot's license with multiengine and instrument ratings.

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