October 29, 1910. Belmont Park, Long Island. After a week of strong winds makes flying nearly impossible, the weather finally cooperates for the international Gordon Bennett speed race, twenty laps of a five-kilometer course. A year earlier, Glenn Curtiss won the inaugural Gordon Bennett Cup in France with an average speed of 47 mph. But in 1910 no Curtiss machine is fast enough to compete, while the Wrights’ speedy Baby Grand crashes before officially starting the race. Englishman Claude Grahame-White, flying a French-made Blériot monoplane, dominates the contest by completing the 62-mile course at just over a mile per minute pace. America has lost not only the Cup, but also its reputation for aeronautical supremacy.
Claude Grahame-White was born in 1879 in the former shipbuilding town of Bursledon, in Hampshire, England. He became interested in automobiles in his teenage years and owned one of the first petrol-driven cars in England. In 1905 he opened an automobile showroom in the exclusive Mayfair area of London. Soon boasting a motorboat and a sailing yacht as well, he developed a reputation as an incorrigible ladies’ man.
In 1908 Grahame-White watched Wilbur Wright fly in France. One year later, he was a spectator at the first Gordon Bennett Cup race and decided to learn to fly. After ordering a monoplane from Louis Blériot, who had just narrowly lost the race to Glenn Curtiss, Grahame-White supposedly made his first flight without any formal instruction. He was the first Briton licensed in France, and he received the Royal Aero Club’s Certificate No. 6 in April 1910. Shortly afterward he competed in a 180-mile air race from London to Manchester, at one point flying at night in an effort to catch up with eventual winner Louis Paulhan.
Having given a series of exhibitions in England that earned him the equivalent of more than a million dollars in today’s money, Grahame-White sailed for America in August 1910 to try his luck at the substantial prizes being offered at aviation meets across the country. His presence, along with that of A.V. Roe, allowed the September Harvard-Boston Aero Meet to bill itself as “international.” His Blériot machine was late in arriving, so he borrowed a Farman biplane from millionaire amateur aviator Clifford B. Harmon. As one journalist described Grahame-White’s appearance at Harvard-Boston:
The hum of his motors reached across the field, coming out of the fog like a dream creature. Around came the humming. Then, like a phantom taking shape, the machine swooped into view, looming suddenly, like an apparition, out of the fog. So hard was it to tell where the plane would swoop into sight that it brought home forcibly the possibilities of the airship in war.
At that same aviation meet, Grahame-White won a mock bomb-throwing contest and flew his 100-hp Blériot to win a $10,000 prize for the fastest two-circuit over-water flight to Boston Lighthouse and back.
Along with Harmon and wealthy American socialite John Barry Ryan, Grahame-White immediately set out to demonstrate the military possibilities of the aeroplane. They first arranged an exhibition at Benning Racetrack, within the District of Columbia. The Washington Post had just offered Grahame-White a $10,000 prize ($250,000 today) if he broke the record for a long-distance flight (i.e., the 104 miles claimed by Arch Hoxsey. Grahame-White proposed to do so by flying round-trip between Washington and Baltimore. He and Harmon sent formal invitations to various high-ranking army and navy officers, offering them admission to attend Benning meet free of charge.
On October 14, completely unannounced, Grahame-White circled the Capitol dome and landed his Farman biplane on Executive Avenue, right between the White House and the State, War and Navy Building (see photo). The feat was hailed as “the most remarkable and daring landing ever made from such a height by an aviator.” The next day he canceled his planned attempt to break Hoxsey’s record; he cited minor damage to both of his machines, but it seems clear that Ryan, who was in the process of establishing the paramilitary “United States Aeronautical Reserve,” didn’t want to risk the sort of negative publicity Eugene Ely had garnered earlier that same week with an unsuccessful cross-country attempt from Chicago to New York.
Grahame-White’s surprise landing galvanized the American military. Newspapers ran banner headlines: “AERIAL FLEET AND PILOTS TO AID AMERICA IN WAR.”
A week ago in Washington it was rather a difficult matter to interest the man in the street in the aeroplane as an engine of war. Even though he were too polite to tell you so, it was easy to discern that he thought you were looking into the far distant future. To-day, however, the flights of Grahame-White and Clifford B. Harmon, especially when the huge biplane descended gracefully on Executive [A]venue, have demonstrated to all the vast [military] possibilities of the heavier-than-air machine.
Grahame-White was accorded the unofficial title “World’s Greatest Aviator.” Within six weeks, the dashing Englishman had swept America off its feet.
But, less than a fortnight later, as weather limited the flying at Belmont, the press cast about for other news. Americans began to read disapproving stories of Grahame-White’s very public attentions to sporty socialite Eleanora Sears, whom he had met and first taken for an aeroplane ride during the Harvard-Boston meet, at a time when he was supposedly engaged to actress Pauline Chase—and Miss Sears to Harold S. Vanderbilt. (Vanderbilt, in fact, cut short his European visit the day before the Belmont meet opened, sailing on the Hamburg-American liner Kaiserin Auguste, a vessel shortly to play a pivotal role in the life of Eugene Ely.) Soap operatic as the situation was, for many Americans the thought of losing the Cup—and international prestige—to an individual of Grahame-White’s now questionable character was particularly galling. And so, although Grahame-White easily won the Gordon Bennett speed race on October 29, the ability of new favorite son John Moisant to claim second place led most of the newspaper accounts of the contest.
The next day saw a highly anticipated race from Belmont Park to the Statue of Liberty and back. Moisant accidentally taxied into Harmon’s parked aeroplane, wrecking his own machine; Grahame-White’s time beat that of the only other competitor to start in advance of the designated cutoff time. At the last instant, though, Alfred Moisant bought another Blériot for his brother, and John Moisant was permitted to start right after the official window closed. By using a compass and a more direct route, he completed the round-trip flight forty-three seconds more quickly than had Grahame-White.
The enthusiasm of the day before that had greeted Moisant’s second-place finish in the Gordon Bennett race was nothing next to the jubilation attending his Statue of Liberty victory.
Belmont Park rocked and roared . . . with an outburst of wild, uncontrolled enthusiasm . . . Mr. John B. Moisant, American, had won the Statue of Liberty flight after it had passed hopelessly to all appearances to Mr. Claude Grahame-White.
The British aviator sportingly congratulated his rival and announced that he would try again the next day, presumably intending to fly the direct course. But the Aero Club accepted Moisant’s argument that the meet had officially closed on Sunday—notwithstanding an earlier announcement that it would be extended for a day.
The willingness to bend the rules against Grahame-White reflected such blatant provincialism that aviator J. Armstrong Drexel (an American, but close friends with the British flyer) deemed the ruling “a piece of shameless jugglery” and convinced nine other aviators to boycott the dinner to be given by the Aero Club that night as a celebration of the close of the tournament. Drexel even held a competing dinner in honor of the British aviator. Grahame-White submitted a formal protest to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, thus further antagonizing the American public. (Ultimately, the FAI disqualified both Grahame-White, who had grazed a pylon while landing, and Moisant.) Forgotten was the adulation of September; now he was a pariah.
Grahame-White returned in 1911 to England, where he established a flying school at Hendon Aerodrome in London, made the first official air mail delivery in Britain, formed a company to build aircraft, and published the first of his dozen books on the topic, The Story of the Aeroplane. Long a subject of gossip columns, in 1912 he married a New York socialite and heiress—who was neither Eleanora Sears nor Pauline Chase.
Grahame-White published The Aeroplane in War in 1912. Building on his experience with the U.S. Aeronautical Reserve, he promoted the military application of air power by touring his home country in a program called “Wake Up Britain,” during which he provided H.G. Wells, author of the novel The War in the Air, with his first aeroplane ride. During 1913 Grahame-White proposed a commercial air service between London and Paris and helped to test an aerial machine gun.
An enthusiastic believer in the future of aviation, Grahame-White echoed John Moisant’s prediction at Belmont that transatlantic air travel would be possible within five years.By the end of 1911 he was seriously discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic in under thirty hours, using a machine with four engines generating 250 hp each and carrying a crew of six. He targeted the summer of 1915 for a westward transatlantic flight—an accomplishment he considered “comparatively simple.” He was preparing to raise $250,000 for a construction fund in the summer of 1914 when World War I broke out, promptly ending all civilian flying.
Grahame-White was one of the few pioneer aviators active during 1910-1911 who also saw aerial combat. He received a temporary commission as a flight commander in the Royal Navy Air Service, in connection with which he reportedly flew over London looking for Zeppelins during the opening days of the war. In early 1915 he participated in a bombing raid on Belgium; on the return flight he had to ditch in the English Channel. Later that year, with espionage hysteria sweeping England, he was reported to have been shot as a German spy in the Tower of London; accounts that he had been severely wounded in France were equally unfounded.
Friction with his immediate superior in the air service, Commander John Cyril Porte, coupled with Grahame-White’s primary interest in continuing to build aeroplanes, precipitated an abrupt end to his military service. Roughly coincident with that event, he was rumored to be keeping company with “an actress”—who turned out to be Ethel Levey, ex-wife of vaudevillian and composer George M. Cohan. In 1916 Grahame-White’s own wife, from whom he had been separated for some time, initiated divorce proceedings that were followed eagerly by the press. Hardly was the divorce finalized before Grahame-White married Ethel Levey.
Ultimately, the first nonstop Atlantic crossing took place in 1919 without any involvement by Grahame-White. During the war he had loaned his Hendon aerodrome to the government, which afterward took it by eminent domain. Grahame-White became entangled in a legal battle over compensation for the taking, and for sums he claimed owing for aircraft manufactured during the war. When the litigation finally ended in 1925 he received the equivalent of $2.5 million today. He gave up aviation and didn’t fly again until 1933.He continued to write but otherwise faded from the public eye. His second wife divorced him in 1939 after he admitted to adultery. He remarried yet again.
Grahame-White made another fortune developing property in the United States and Britain. During World War II he purchased an American yacht to be used by the British military as a hospital ship. He maintained a primary residence in Beverly Hills, but for the last several years of his life he and his wife lived in Nice, France.
He died in 1959, two days short of his eightieth birthday.