Identity

'Garbo of the Skies': The Secret, Sexist Story Behind A National Hero

How the legacy of Jean Batten, the world's foremost pioneering pilot, was muddied by the fact she was a woman.

by Frances Morton
Oct 21 2016, 9:00pm

Photo courtesy of the Walsh Memorial Library (MOTAT) 10-0860

New Zealander Jean Batten was the most celebrated aviatrix of the 1930s. Nicknamed the "Garbo of the Skies" for her movie-star glamour, she appeared on newspaper front pages the world over, and drew adoring crowds wherever she went. She deserved the accolades: In 1935, she shared the Harmon International Trophy for "the most outstanding flight by a woman" with Amelia Earhart, then clinched it twice more in 1936 and 1937. She smashed Amy Johnson's record of flying from England to Australia by four days.

No one wanted her to continue because she would be making a record that hadn't been done by a man.

But it was outright records Batten wanted, not records for women. And she achieved it at age 26 with her finest flight: In 1936, she became the first person to fly from England to New Zealand "from one end of the Empire to the other", completing the journey in 11 days and 45 minutes. Using only a compass, maps and a watch, it was an extraordinary feat of navigation and physical and mental stamina. Batten was awarded aviation's highest honour, the medal of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, in 1938.

In her homeland, we know of her achievements. Kind of. But we're just as likely to associate her name with a prickly, gold-digger recluse with a string of doomed romances, and an unnaturally close relationship with her mother. Batten, we know, died alone from a dog bite in a modest serviced apartment in Palma, Majorca.

If Batten were a man, her place in the nation's heritage would be remembered completely differently, says Katie Pickles, professor of history at the University of Canterbury. Because "everything to do with Jean Batten is gendered".

The narrative of a sad and lonely figure, Pickles says, comes from the 1991 biography Garbo of the Skies by Ian Mackersey, published nine years after Batten's death. It is only through the detective work of Mackersey that we know what happened to Batten in the end, and we have him to thank for that, but the tragic picture he painted has been dominant and virtually unchallenged over the last 25 years.

Photo courtesy of Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Batten and her mother moved from Auckland to London in 1930 to pursue the teenager's dream of aviation. With little money to fund such an expensive ambition, Mackersey wrote that Batten used her attractiveness to seduce men into sponsoring her endeavours. Pickles says it's debatable to what extent she did or didn't do this, and Batten defended herself against such claims at the time. Regardless, she needed patronage, and she was successful in getting it.

The book was a considerable distortion of Jean's personality.

Novelist Fiona Kidman has researched Batten for a fictional account of her life, The Infinite Air. She calls Mackersey's book a "considerable distortion of Jean's personality" and suspects Mackersey's viewpoint stems from a chance meeting he and his mother had with Batten in a train. It was just after her record-breaking flight to New Zealand and she was on her way to Franz Josef Glacier to recover from physical and mental exhaustion.

"Jean probably wasn't up for chit chat in a train carriage," says Kidman. "Mackersey seems to have carried this dislike of her through into the way he handled his research."

Batten's glittering flying career came to an end at the start of WWII, during which–as a woman–she wasn't permitted to fly the Gull monoplane she had broken record inside as a pilot. Instead, she spent the war years on an assembly line for a munitions factory in England and gave lectures to raise money for the war effort.

Read more: The History of Erasing Women's History

After the war, Batten spent the rest of her life mostly in private. She travelled the world with her mother, living in Jamaica, tripping around Europe, and eventually settling in Spain. Unlike New Zealand's other great 20th Century adventurer, mountaineer Edmund Hillary, Batten never returned home to humbly go about having a family, and there's an uncomfortable sense history has judged her for that. It plays tantalising into the myth of Jean "the seductress".

She was, in fact, engaged twice, to two different pilots. Both died in air crashes, a common demise for their ilk: Johnson, Earhart and Batten's hero Charles Kingsford Smith all met the same fate. Batten also never severed ties with New Zealand. She made trips back home after her mother's death, opening the aviation pavilion at Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology in 1977, and toured the country in 1980.

In 1982, she moved to Majorca and vanished. What became of her was a mystery until five years later when Mackersey discovered she had been out on one of her regular walks and was bitten by a dog. The wound became septic and the infection spread to her lungs. Staying in a small hotel on her own, nobody knew that the woman found dead on the floor by a maid was once world famous. Batten was buried in a communal grave.

Photo courtesy of Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Commercial pilot Elizabeth Hogarth, secretary of the New Zealand Association of Women in Aviation, says Batten has been part of her psyche since she took a signed copy off her autobiography Alone in the Skies off her grandfather's bookshelf and read it as a 10-year-old. To Hogarth, being a loner, or at least used to solitude, is a requirement of flying. "As a pilot you have to be comfortable in your own skin," says Hogarth.

The aviation industry today is still a male-dominated profession, but female pilots tend to stand out—in a good way, says Hogarth. "The way women set standards are different. They have aspirations, but we don't have ego like men do. We're more careful. More considered. More safe."

Everything to do with Jean Batten is gendered.

Batten was a meticulous planner and Hogarth says she hesitates to call luck the reason that Batten survived her flying career when so many of her contemporaries didn't. She did crash—like when she ran out of fuel on the outskirts of Rome, or the time she had engine failure in a sandstorm above Karachi. She always managed to get herself out of danger.

Batten undoubtedly faced sexism while making her record-breaking journey from England to New Zealand, says Hogarth. "She got to Sydney and basically no one wanted her to continue because she would be making a record that hadn't been done by a man before. The public perception was that she should stop now, because it was too dangerous. I think that really undermined her achievement."

Batten was able to perform remarkable flights because of the image she portrayed while doing it. She was resourceful; expert at using her feminine qualities to her advantage. As Pickles says, "If she hadn't been photogenic, we probably wouldn't know about her."

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Today, Batten's enormous achievements feel overshadowed by a sense of what traditional notions of femininity she didn't 'achieve'. What could be more damaging to a heroine's legacy than the thought of an old spinster dying alone? While her name remains in New Zealand—if you look for it—on street signs and at museums, it's weirdly glossed over. Auckland International Airport is called the Jean Batten Terminal, and yet Hogarth, a commercial pilot, didn't even know until I told her.

"It's like the mainstream media today," says Hogarth. "If you're a woman, it's not about your achievements or being a good actress, or what you've done in politics, it's about what you look like and what you wear. She was at the forefront of all that."

Photo courtesy of the Walsh Memorial Library (MOTAT), 10-0843

Tagged:
Broadly
Books
SEXISM
NEW ZEALAND
hero
AUNZ
midrange editorial