The Wright Brothers (Page 58)
They drive up in carriages and pairs with gold-braided coachmen and footmen, and Wright shoulders an umbrella for a walk through the rain to the house where the dinner happens to be. . . . He is just himself in the most refreshing way.
During an extended conversation with Wilbur one evening at the Bergs’ apartment on the Champs-Elysées, it became clear to the correspondent how greatly Wilbur enjoyed Paris. “He has too keen an appreciation of the beautiful not to do so.”
In early December, with winter setting in, Wilbur sent the Comte de Lambert to the southern reaches of France to look over the fashionable resort town of Pau, close to the Pyrénées Mountains and the border of Spain, as a possible location at which to continue the demonstrations. It was where de Lambert had grown up, a town of some 34,000 people known for its fourteenth-century castles, its foxhunting and eighteen-hole golf course (the first on the continent), and what was considered one of the most appealing winter climates in Europe.
The prospect of visiting a destination so popular with the high society of England and Europe might also, Wilbur hoped, further entice Orville and Katharine—Katharine especially—to join him there for an extended stay. A few months in such a place would do them both great good, he wrote to her. “I know that you love ‘Old Steele’ [her high school], but I think you would love it still better if the briny deep separated it from you for a while. We will be needing a social manager and can pay enough salary to make the proposition attractive. So do not worry about the six [dollars] per day the school board gives you.”
But she had already made up her mind. “Brother and I are coming over as soon as we can,” she wrote only a few days later, in advance of his letter reaching Dayton. She had only to make satisfactory arrangements for the Bishop, who had just turned eighty and was not up to such a trip.
In Paris, where new toys being sold were part of the “streets sights” of the Christmas season, the most popular was a little reproduction of the Wilbur Wright airplane, of which much was made in the newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune.
It is quite a wonderful toy, for even the smallest details have been perfectly carried out, and the tiny machine will start from the ground, make its miniature flight, and then descend in a manner that is most remarkable. “Mr. Wright” himself is seated in the toy and operates it in the most life-like way. The features of the inventor have a distinctly more Parisian than an American cast, but for all that no one but knows for whom it is intended and the sale of them has been quick and large.
In Le Mans, despite increasingly cold days, Wilbur, having switched to wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket, was busy practicing takeoffs without the use of a catapult. He had decided to compete for the Michelin Cup, a prize newly established by the French tire company, and in the competition such launching devices were not allowed.
On the day of the event, December 31, the last day of the year and Wilbur’s last big event at Camp d’Auvours, in spite of rain and cold he was barely able to endure, he put on his most astonishing performance yet, flying longer and farther than anyone ever had—2 hours, 20 minutes, and 23 and one fifth seconds during which he covered a distance of 77 miles. He won the Cup.
He was sorry to have missed Christmas at home, he wrote his father the next day. “But I could not afford to lose the Michelin Prize, as the loss of prestige would have been much more serious than the direct loss. If I had gone away, the other fellows would have fairly busted themselves any record I left. The fact that they knew I was ready to beat anything they should do kept them discouraged.”
After landing he prepared to go up again, no matter the cold and rain, and this time took the minister of public works, Louis Barthou, with him. “He informed me that the government had decided to confer the Legion of Honor upon both Orville and myself.”
For many, even veteran travelers, the prospect of crossing the Atlantic in the middle of winter would have kept them happily safe and comfortable at home. But Katharine Wright, who had never been to sea, never even set foot on board an ocean liner, seems to have had no misgivings or hesitation whatever. On January 5, 1909, in New York, she and Orville went aboard the German liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Orville hobbling up the gangplank as best he could beside her, bound for France. She who had so long been confined by work and family responsibilities was now at last, at age thirty-four, embarking on a venture such as she had only been able to dream of, scarcely imagining it might one day happen.
She had made her first visit to the dress shop in Dayton in early December to choose a traveling ensemble and hat, and ultimately packed her trunk with two new evening dresses as well, one pink, the other black. When asked by friends and reporters about the purpose of the trip, she and Orville would say it was for “a sort of family reunion.” In their absence, Bishop Wright would be looked after by Carrie Grumbach, who, with her husband and child, had moved in with him at 7 Hawthorn Street.
Katharine’s primary responsibility would be Orville, who was walking now with a cane instead of crutches, but was still quite unsteady on his feet, with a decided limp, and needed somebody with him to make sure he did not fall. Except for one rough day at sea, the crossing turned out to be extremely smooth. Even so, Orville had trouble walking the deck.
They were traveling first-class, enjoying good service and in “pleasant company,” as Katharine wrote their father. Clearly all was as she would wish.
They landed at Cherbourg the afternoon of January 11 and by boat-train reached Paris at one in the morning to find Wilbur waiting at the station to greet them—“in silk hat and evening clothes,” no less, Katharine was delighted to record. He had come all the way from Pau, and with him were the Bergs and Arnold Fordyce, who stepped forward to present Katharine with a large bouquet of American Beauty roses from which protruded an American flag.
They all went to the Myerbeer Hotel on the Champs-Elysées, near the Bergs’ apartment. Once the others said good night, the three Wrights sat up talking until three in the morning.
The following day the brothers met for lunch with André Michelin, the automobile tire manufacturer, who presented Wilbur with the $4,000 that went with the Michelin Cup. Katharine, meanwhile, went shopping with Edith Berg, “a pretty woman and very stylish,” Katharine reported to the Bishop later that night. “She will be down at Pau with me and that will make it more pleasant. She will take her automobile and take me about in the country.” Wilbur and Hart Berg had already left for Pau. She and Orville would follow shortly.