‘Mistress of the Winds’ cheated death and ruled the skies
Brooklyn Bridge commuters cheered and steamers whistled as the famous flying woman swooped low over the East River — just to prove that she could.
The blonde in the balloon wasn’t called Mistress of the Winds for nothing. “Carlotta the Lady Aeronaut” pulled off the feat of controlled flight 130 years ago, from a tiny platform beneath the world’s smallest balloon. She set off from Brooklyn, buzzed the Battery, the bridge and City Hall before following the ferry up the Hudson to land in New Jersey, exactly as she said she would.
And like Ginger Rogers, who danced backwards in heels, she wowed the crowd in July 1888 wearing fabulous shoes. High French kid ones, with patent leather fixings, to be precise.
Before the Wright brothers and Amelia Earhart, there was Mary Myers, whose barnstorming exploits under her stage name “Carlotta” made her a New York City superstar.
With nerves of steel, a scientific mind and a showgirl wardrobe, she was the P.T. Barnum of ballooning.
Born Mary Breed Hawley in Boston in 1849, she married aeronautical engineer and inventor Carl Myers in 1871. Both birdlike in stature, they seemed destined to fly. They pooled their genius to build a balloon-making empire in upstate New York during the Gilded Age of American progress.
Their bizarre homestead in Frankfort was dubbed “Balloon Farm” because a crazy crop of gasbags lay in the fields. Carl’s experiments included exploding balloons in the clouds to make it rain.
At 30, Mary created “Carlotta” and on July 4, 1880, launched her career on the lucrative fair circuit at upstate Little Falls with “Professor” Myers (Carl) as her manager.
Just two months later, she faced mortal danger two miles high over Norwich. She hit a rain cloud, and the soaked balloon plunged to earth, crashing into the branches of a basswood tree.
Dangling precariously 80 feet from the ground, Mary called out to passing hunters and directed her own death-defying rescue amid the raging storm.
“The men said they never knew a woman could engineer a job so well before,” said Mary. “But I guess that may be that they never before caught one up a tree!”
The following spring she gave birth to Bessie Arial but was back in a balloon in time for the Fourth of July. At the age of 3, Bessie became the world’s littlest lady aeronaut and loved a balloon ride with Mom.
But one ascent near Syracuse when Bessie was 7 went badly wrong with a scary splashdown on Lake Onondaga. Mary kept them afloat for an hour until rescue arrived.
“My wife courageously guided her airship and clung to the netting with the little one,” a relieved prof told reporters.
“Carlotta” was a hit on Coney Island, too. Wearing a yellow dress trimmed with gold and waving a huge handkerchief for all she was worth, she rose over the Colossal Elephant (which has since burned down) to whoops from 154,000 people below.
Plucky Mary’s party trick was predicting her exact landing spot. She invented a car with a tilting floor and added a screw sail that allowed her to steer, so she could surf down in her basket with pinpoint precision.
Mary drove herself to go ever faster and higher, piling on the danger.
Claiming a record in 1886 for the highest ascent in a balloon filled with natural gas — rising four miles from Franklin, Pa., — came at a price.
“My eyes bulged out, the blood ran from my nose, my ears rang and my cheeks flapped in and out like sails,” she said. “I opened my dress at the throat so as to let the lungs have just as free play as possible, for my breath came in short, convulsive gasps.”
Pressmen begged to be allowed up with her and she lived to regret giving in to one. She turned to see him with one knee though the netting trying to climb out of the basket.
“His face was not white, it was of a leaden color, and his lower jaw had dropped and was shaking as if he had a fever,” she said. “I grabbed him, threw him into the bottom of the car and tied him up with the anchor rope.”
Later the weak-kneed newsman begged Mary not to reveal his identity.
So much for giving gentlemen journalists a scoop, she decided.
“I hardly care to take any more men up,” Mary said. “I might take a woman with me, but a man — that’s different.”
Mary bowed out of showbiz at the peak of her fame, retiring “Carlotta” in 1891 when she was 42. With around a thousand ascents and no horrible injuries, she was the most successful balloonist in America.
For the next two decades she enjoyed flying over the Mohawk Valley as a test pilot for the booming family business. When they retired, the pioneering couple went to live with Bessie in Atlanta.
She died in 1932 aged 83 — the unrivaled queen of the clouds.
Sharon Wright is the author of “Balloonomania Belles: Daredevil Divas Who First Took to The Sky” (Pen and Sword), out now.
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