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Richard Halliburton, Pancho Barnes and John Wayne

In his life Richard met many unusual people but maybe the most remarkable was Pancho Barnes and she is worthy of note because of her personality and character.  She had two precepts in life: When you have a choice, choose happy, and Nothing exceeds like excess.  She lived on her own terms and cussed like a test pilot. Unable to get a divorce from her minister husband, each Sunday she climbed into her plane, took off, and dove down over his church, buzzing it with the engine’s roar drowning-out morning services.

Richard was taken with Pancho, not that he was in love but that she was an unforgettable person. Nobody she met could be indifferent toward her.  She made lasting friendships wherever she went. As shown in the movie The Right Stuff, Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1, was a welcome friend at Her Happy Bottom Riding Club in the Mojave desert. She also did not suffer fools gladly.

In a November 1932 letter from Hollywood, Richard wrote his parents that he visited Pancho Barnes, “the woman flyer I’m so fond of, and she took me to Ramón Novarro’s, a lot of drunk movie people were there, so we left early.”  The line was clearly for mom and dad.  Richard added that on December 4th he would take her to Moye Stephen’s wedding to an Italian contessa although he would miss it, “an especially fine one.”

On Thanksgiving he drove Pancho fifty miles “down the coast to her summer home, which was her Laguna Beach mansion overlooking the Pacific.”  In this letter home he plays bad to the good boy he was in the earlier correspondence, as if he vacillated between two roles regarding his parents.  “We took off our clothes and pulled clams from the rocks, then put the clams in a big stew pan to steam, and had that for our thanksgiving dinner.”  One imagines his parents raising their eyebrows, asking, What kind of woman is this?

Big time movie people were not Pancho’s thing.  She did not care if you were a mogul, a star, or a janitor.  She did not like airs.  With her what you saw was what you got.  One of the habitués at her mansion was a husky eighteen-year-old named Marion Michael Morrison, attending the University of Southern California on a football scholarship.  Seeing that money was tight with him, Pancho helped him out.  Fifty years later, she sat in the Universal Studios cafeteria eating lunch when a big man walked up to her table, quite sure of himself.  He asked if she remembered him.  Gray-haired, bent over her plate, she sat back and paused to look theatrically at him and slowly, feature by feature, sized him up.  Yes, she did.  “You are Marion Morrison,” she said.   Of course she recognized him as John Wayne but as one of Wayne’s movie personas might have said, his ego had gotten too big for his britches.

From Don't Die in Bed: The Brief, Intense Life of Richard Halliburton. See upper left corner of this page.

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