"All those who see me, and all who believe in me, share in the freedom I feel when I fly."
Interview: Lindie Naughton
Lindie Naughton is the author of Lady Icarus: The Life of Irish Aviator Lady Mary Heath, published in 2004, and is assisting in the documentary of Lady Heath's life, in production now. Keep up to date by reading her blog at www.ladyicarus.blogspot.com
Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans was born in Ireland in 1896. An outgoing and athletic girl, she was one of the founders of the Women's Amateur Athletic Association, and was Britain's first women's javelin champion. She was also a delegate to the International Olympic Council in 1925.
In 1925, she took her first flying lessons. In 1926, she became the first women to hold a commercial flying licence in Britain. She was also the first pilot, male or female, to fly a small, open-cockpit airplane from Cape Town to London.
Lady Mary Heath (her second of three husbands was a peer) came to the United States, where she was known as "Britain's Lady Lindy." She was badly injured in a crash just before the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio in 1929.
Although she recovered from her injuries she was never quite the same again, and died ten years later, in 1939, when she fell off a tram car in London.
I first came across Lady M in a book called From Sophie to Sonia written by a pal of mine, Noel Henry, ten years ago, on Irish women athletes. Lady M was the "Sophie" - as she is still universally known in her native Newcastle West in Co Limerick.
Noel made a reference to her "scandalous" background; what was that, I asked? "Oh her father killed her mother..." he told me ...."and she was married three times." He thought it would have been in bad taste to mention this. I thought, wow, if I can't make a decent book out of this I'm not worthy to be called a journalist.
Because I have been involved in athletics all my life, I have a large reference library of books going back to the 1920s, and flicking through those, uncovered quite a lot of info on her sporting career. The more I delved, the more interested I became. As I'm sure you know, Ireland is a fiercely Roman Catholic and Republican country and those who come from a less insular background had been written out of history. In the troubled times of the 1920s, most non-Catholics were hounded out of the country - in today's terms, it was ethnic cleansing, but of course, it is still not PC to say so. Fortunately, in recent years, Ireland has started to reclaim its great heroes such as Tyndall (climber) and Shackleton (explorer).
Lady Mary is one of the only female heroines we have because women's history quite simply wasn't written. Still, when I went looking, I found that her exploits were front page news not just in Irish and English newspapers, but also in South Africa (in 1928 before her great flight from the Cape) and in the USA when she moved there in 1929. It is difficult for us to imagine how restricted life was for women in those days, especially for "genteel" women; even if you had worked, you gave up when you married; plus you stayed married. So Lady Mary's life offered a great and multi-layered story, which took me six years to re-build.
Describe your writing process.
Lady Heath on a cigarette card
I started out by contacting John Cussen, a solicitor in Newcastle West, whose father had "acted" for members of the extended Peirce-LLoyd-Locke family (Lady's M's grandfather, cousins, etc). He had an archive of material relating to Lady M which had originally belong to her very proud Aunt Cis, who lived in Ballybunion.
I also discovered painting Cis had done during her long life - she outlived Lady M by three years. John's archive included the original documents from the court cases relating to Jackie Peirce-Evans [the trial of her father for killing her mother]; sensational stuff, written in beautiful copperplate and far more graphic than the newspaper reports.
I contacted people like the late Sister Catherine Butler, Pearse Cahill and Chris Bruton, who had all known Lady Mary during her time in Ireland during the 1930s.
A visit to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London uncovered another treasure trove of material from the UK, USA and France, including a collection of spirited letters Sophie had written to the Society, of which she was a member.
There was also the Public Record Office at Kew, where letters she had written to the Air Ministry and other government bodies are held. These files include much correspondence relating to her pilot?s licences. Also held at Kew was a large and revealing file on the military career of her first husband Eliott-Lynn.
A replica of the biplane Lady Mary Heath
flew from London to Cape Town
" A few more mysteries unravelled, such as the date of her first marriage."
Chris Bruton, who knew Lady Heath
Other information came by sheer serendipity. While in the National Library, filling time while awaiting the arrival of yet another volume of the Limerick Leader, I decided to check through the indexes for any mention of the Royal College of Science. Imagine my joy when I discovered a couple of volumes of a student?s magazine from the period around 1916, filled with articles either written by Sophie or mentioning her activities. A few more mysteries unravelled, such as the date of her first marriage.
Over the years spent researching, material occasionally fell into my lap. By chance, I found a yellowing biography of her friend and fellow aviator Bill Lancaster at my local library in Blackrock, Co Dublin. A visit to Paris coincided with a Champs Elys? exhibition on the early days of aviation which graphically underlined just how flimsy the early flying machines were, while in Geneva, I came across a book on a pioneering Swiss flight from the Cape to Europe in 1926, with wonderful maps.
"The internet proved helpful...."
The internet proved helpful in establishing contact with overseas libraries and collections. When I got in touch with John Ahouse at the University of California Special Collections, he used my request for information as an opportunity to tidy up some files, faithfully photocopying anything he thought was of interest, and even sending on the sheet music for a contemporary song mythologising women aviators. Joan Hrubec at the International Women?s Air and Space Museum in Cleveland was equally helpful and provided a stuffed envelope of newspaper clippings relating to Sophie?s American career.
Perhaps the best moment came through American filmmaker Jayne Loader, who told me that the pioneering aviatrix Elinor Smith, who had written extensively about Sophie in her autobiography, was still alive. When contacted, Elinor, a sprightly woman in her 90s who had enjoyed a long and rewarding career as a pilot, was not only willing to share her memories of her old friend and mentor, but was wonderfully encouraging.
"Finally I could see Sophie in action on film and hear her talking."
Thanks to her letters and e-mails, I felt at last I was getting close to cracking the enigma of Sophie. Even better was to come when Pauline Goodwin, then an archivist at RTE (Irish national TV company), got in touch. Pauline, a native of Newcastle West, had spent many years collecting film references to Sophie and at her own expense, had sent off for a few newsreel films. She copied these for me on videotape; finally I could see Sophie in action on film and hear her talking, a poignant and moving experience. Later came a highly rewarding visit to Newcastle West and Knockaderry to give a well-attended lecture. Afterwards many local people shared with me their memories of Lady Mary.
Despite the many years of research, I cannot pretend that this is the definitive book on Sophie. Because few of her personal papers survived her erratic life, many mysteries remain, particularly relating to her private life; oh, for a stash of papers perhaps even now hidden in somebody's attic!
Only recently have I at last discovered Lynn Newman's book which describes her visit to Aberdeen, where Newman's mother, a Lloyd cousin of Sophie's father's, had moved after marrying a clergyman; Sophie was regarded as a danger to know even then (see my blog at www.ladyicarus.blogspot.com for further info).
Sophie?s story remains one of great achievement tempered by almost unbearable poignancy. She was a larger than life figure, highly intelligent, physically imposing and a lover of the limelight, conscious of the sensitive role she played as a woman in a man?s world, if occasionally incapable of holding back her exasperation. In private, she was a loving and conscientious niece to her aunts and a caring friend to many. She polarised opinion ? some liked and admired her, while others couldn?t stand her; I suspect this will always be the case.
I was able to write up the murder case pretty early on...
Lady Mary Heath and Queenie
The book went though about 12 drafts, depending on which publisher my agent Jonathan Williams was negotiating with and which library I had most recently visited.
I was able to write up the murder case pretty early on, since I had most of the material from the start. I could also write up the story of her Cape Town to Croydon trip, since she had written about it herself and it was extensively documented (spent a week in the British library newspaper archive in Colindale).
While writing the book, I immersed myself in the history and culture of the time to help avoid imposing a modern sensibility on the story. I read up on people like Sir John Lavery, who painted Sophie towards the end of the war.
My own grandmother was born in 1902, while an aunt had volunteered as a nurse in World War 1; I imagined her meeting up with Sophie in Epingles, the great holding base of the British in France. In retrospect, I am glad it took so long because my knowledge of her life and times improved all the time.
There's a documentary being filmed.
Clearly her life would make a great movie - or even two or three. Vanessa Redgrave was interested in Lady Mary's story at one stage, and at 6 ft, would have been perfectly cast, but she's now too old. It's hard to think of a modern actress with the necessary charisma - they're all too fluffy these days. Maybe Kirstin Scott-Thomas? Or Janet McTeer (a good English actress - and tall)? If anyone wants a career-making role - which I'm sure this could be - I'd love to hear from them!
In the meantime, Ravona Productions is making a documentary, with Gabriel Byrne on voice-over, though putting together the necessary financial package is taking some time (over 18 months already).
Ideally, the film would recreate some of the Cape Town to Croydon flight, especially since Brian Palfrey, the film's producer, has discovered a functioning Avro Avian in the UK.
There is also another one in the USA, which was used to recreate Amelia Earhart's journeys in Lady Mary's little plane. All this costs money. Ravona has already filmed Chris Bruton (95 later this year) and Pearse Cahill (91) for the film. Next stage is to talk to Elinor Smith-Sullivan, who is living in sheltered accommodation in California; again, it's all about money - hiring a film crew is not cheap.
Other people are working on radio documentaries, theses, etc; all good stuff which hopefully will make Lady Mary's name better known - and sell the remaining 1,000 copies of Lady Icarus!
What next for Lindie Naughton?
Lady Icarus took over my life. One day, I had been working hard all day on the book and was exhausted. I came downstairs to make a cup of tea and was on the point of going outside to work on my garden. I could have sworn I felt a tap on my shoulder and a ghostly voice saying: "Oh no my dear - you go right back upstairs and continue telling my story!"
I don't quite know how to follow it. One area I had particular difficulty researching was Lady Mary's career in the Army/Air Force/Auxiliary Corps during the First World War. As a test I also researched my aunt. I could find nothing on either of them; women's lives truly weren't important then, even the lives of the thousands who left home to help the war effort. I am intrigued by this and would love to find out more. But I need a few threads to pull on.