The First Flat Stanley: Week of July 19th, 1919

deHart_Fairbanks
Dana C. De Hart and Douglas Fairbanks (photo by Charles Townley Chapman)

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on Douglas Fairbanks’ continuing love of airplanes:

Drat the boy Douglas Fairbanks – he just will take all kinds of chances with his precious young life! The other day at De Mille Fields, during a chance visit of Fairbanks, a scout plane, one-seater, and its aviator happened to be visiting. Mr. Fairbanks expressed a desire to make an ascent in the plane.

“But it has only one seat.” said the driver.

“Never mind, I’ll hold on!” exclaimed Doug.

And nothing to do but he must make the ascent, clinging to what the layman would call the running board alongside the plane. They went up 1500 feet, sailed around in the empyrean for several minutes and when they alighted the champion smiler of the world declared it was the most refreshing trip he’d ever taken.

And I thought flying Southwest was bad! I imagine life insurance salesmen never bothered him at parties. I went looking for a picture of Fairbanks and an airplane, and found the one that’s above. Then I fell into a research rabbit hole, figuring out where and when it was taken. The answer was at College Park Airfield near Washington D.C. on October 16, 1918. It was part of a publicity stunt to raise money for the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive. Fairbanks said that if they’d airmail him to New York City, he’d ask bank president Pliny Fisk to match financier Bernard Baruch’s one million dollar bond subscription.

Officials were happy to take him up on his offer. Regular airmail service was quite new in the Untied States; it had just started on May 15, 1918, so it was an attention-grabbing feat and the Washington Times made it a front-page story. They reported that Assistant Postmaster General Otto Prager had Fairbanks step on a scale, then put an aerial stamp on his forehead, canceled it and sent him off. Since he weighed 162 pounds (2592 ounces) and the charge was 16 cents an ounce, the stamp cost $414.72.

The Sun had an imaginative story about Fairbanks’ adventures once he arrived. He ran right over to Fisk’s office and said:

“I want to see Mr. Fisk,” cried Doug to the office boy, who tried to bar his way. “Tell him Douglas Fairbanks—“

The office boy gasped and dropped in a semi-comatose state. Over the boy’s prostrate body leaped Doug and landed on the desk side of the Fisk inner office partition.

“Action, Mr. Fisk!” cried Mr. Fairbanks. “I could have gone to the office of Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie or any of those guys, but just because I like you and always did I give you an option on matching Barney Baruch’s million buck subscription. Dig!”

“But,” said Mr. Fisk, “our firm and I personally have subscribed for bonds till it pinched and so I don’t think—“

“Pinch yourself again,” cried Doug. “I’ve taken my life in my hands all afternoon by flying here from Washington with a nut aviator named De Hart, whose chief diversion on the way over was to pick out cemeteries all through Maryland, Delaware and Jersey and then make a beezer dive at the tallest and sharpest marble shaft in the graveyard. And why did I do it? Because I knew you’d subscribe for a million to match Barney Baruch.”

And even while Doug was talking Pliny Fisk was uncapping the trusty old fountain pen. He signed a check for $1,000,000, handed the check to Doug, who had vaulted out of the office and was gone before Pliny Fisk could ask for a receipt.

Alas, it probably didn’t happen that way: the Washington Times reported that Fairbanks telephoned Fisk before he left, so his arrival wasn’t a surprise. Oh well, that’s how it should have happened! His airplane ride was true anyway, and it’s no wonder his quick trip up in 1919 seemed refreshing, not cold and frightening.

According to the more reliable Washington Times, he collected over 6 million dollars worth of subscriptions in New York, then flew back to D.C. with another airmail pilot, Robert Shank, on October 18th. He delivered them personally to the Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo on the day before the subscription drive ended, helping them to exceed their Liberty Bond quota.

Fairbanks sent himself through the mail, just like Flat Stanley. Unlike Stanley Lambchop, he didn’t need to be squashed by a bulletin board to travel via the mail, nor did he have to fold himself into an envelope so he could visit his friends. Now to encourage literacy the Flat Stanley Project asks children to mail Stanley “to a school, a celebrity, a family member, a politician or anyone of interest and the recipient returns the little flat guy along with a completed journal and perhaps some souvenirs such as post cards, photos, or special items.”

This week, Kingsley confessed to doing something she rarely did:

I’d rather see Mary Pickford in Daddy Long Legs the second or even third or fourth time than most people and plays for the first time! When this delightful picture was at the Kinema a few weeks ago, I said you didn’t know the star or the play either until you had seen Daddy Long Legs, and on –well, I’ll confess it—a third view of the picture at Tally’s Broadway now, I’m even more of the opinion… Miss Pickford’s humor is of so human a sort, there is much whimsicality, so much unction to it, and yet there is always an underlying wistfulness and appeal about her, too, and often gives a tug at your heart-strings even when you are laughing the hardest. That’s what keeps her always in a niche far above all the others, I’m sure.

This is even more remarkable because it wasn’t a bad week for films – she liked the ones she reviewed, and Fairbanks’ The Knickerbocker Buckaroo was playing, too. So it wasn’t only Chaplin who brought in the repeat customers.

Her favorite film this week other than Daddy Long Legs was The Weaker Vessel, a satire on social expectations of gender. It told story of a small town girl (Mary Maclaren) who flees the rich creep her parents made her marry (John Cook), moves to the big city, becomes a waitress and reforms an alcoholic actor (Thurston Hall). Kingsley thought it was a “radiant, human, bubbling story done with charming ease and sincerity.” She recounted her favorite scene, in which the husband is convinced to divorce her:

One bit of skill lies in the fact that certain situations which might easily be farcical are rendered genuinely human by their treatment, as when the heroine, being shut up alone in the bedroom, whiter her no-account husband whom she left on her wedding night because of his drunkenness and sordidness has followed her, first implores him to let her go and then beats him up. When the hero—the bombastic actor played by Hall—comes in with a pistol and says “I will protect you!” the husband replies faintly—“Don’t protect her; protect me!”

Now we know that spousal abuse of any sort is wrong, but then it seemed like she was taking care of her own problems – no wonder Kingsley liked it. It’s a lost film.

 

“District Over Quota,” Washington Times, October 19, 1918, p. 1.

“’Doug’ Flying to New York to get Mr. Fisk’s Million,” Washington Times, October 16, 1918, p. 1.

“Doug To Walk Till He Gets $1,000,000” The Sun (New York City), October 17, 1918, p. 13.

 

 

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