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12 January 2009
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Six
by John Urie

Keith Lawton, organizer of the Schneider Trophy races held on Spontoon Island,
tells the story of Denis Conlon's entry in the 1935 race.

The Lady of Nîmes

by Drake Hackett

Special to the London Daily Observer
(Part Six)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

If anything, Keith was understating the situation; Conlon’s feat brought about a SEA-CHANGE for Speed-Week. 

Much of this had to do with a completely unforseen situation -- in the wake of the tri-motor aerobatics competition, a scramble had ensued for the best view of the next days events.  Even before the SIRA board had sat down for it’s breakfast meeting, the stands had begun to fill.  By the time, Jimmy Haizlip had made his challenge to Denis Conlon, they’d been almost packed.  And so their impromptu race had taken place in full view of more than 50,000 cheering fans.

“From that moment on pal,” Keith shook his head, as if in chagrin at not having seen it coming, “it was the talk of the Spontoons.  Which plane WAS that,and  where’d she come from...and who was the bloke who’d flown her?  Was he entered in the race?  For two days I couldn’t get more than halfway down the street without someone stopping me to ask about Conlon and his plane.”

This brought a playful yip from Lucy.

“Yes, but those weren’t questions you got asked the most, were they?   Leastways not at first “

Keith groaned and looked sideway at her.

“Ahhh, haven’t you got something to do inside luv?”  He turned back to me again, “No, the two biggest questions everyone had for me were first, why had I started the days events early, and second, why hadn’t there been anything about Conlon and Haizlip  on the programme?  Furs simply wouldn’t believe it hadn’t been a planned event...and if you’d been there to see it Drake, you’d understand why.  That old fox’s gambit at the finish really HAD been that dramatic.”

He turned towards Lucy again, this time with a jocular yip of his own.

“Since you seem to enjoy our having a FULL reminiscence of that day so much Luce, why don’t you tell Drake about what happened down the bank when it opened for business that day?”

Lucy’s eyes clamped tightly shut, and she let loose a soft, menacing growl, saying nothing more
There was no way, of course, that I was going to let her get away with it.

“Come on sister, fair’s fair.  Keith’s come clean, now it’s your turn. “

She responded by shooting me the old look, the one I’d used to get back when we were pups...ususally just before she threw something at me.

Then she sighed.

“I dunno how, but by the time we were ready to open our doors, word had managed to get round the Islands about Conlon having his entry fee in coins.  The next thing we knew, every patron...and I do mean EVERY patron who came into the bank was asking if they could have part of their change in some of them, ‘as a souvenir” She growled again “They couldn’t, and most were understanding about it, but every ninth patron or so got all testy about it, giving the tellers the old ‘customer’s always right’ barrack.” An even louder growl, “And then guess who got the job of having to sort it all out?”    

I snickered, and looked at Keith.  “Another night on the sofa for you, mate?”

Not this time.  When my friend heard what was happening down at the First Spontoon Bank, he’d simply grabbed the phone and rung up the Grand Casino.

That was enough to change Lucy’s mood; her tail began to wag in metronomic rhythm.

“Old Peng-Wum was more than happy to take that coinage off our paws,” she said, “and for an extra ten-percent, no less.”

She stopped there, looking at me with no expression whatosever.  Grrr, should have known she’d pick up at least one or two of Keith’s habits by now.

“All right then...what did he DO with all those coins?” 

Lucy yipped again, “Serves y’ right for trying to come the clever with me, brother...but I’ll let y’ off the hook this time.  He had all of it loaded into a big, glass hopper, and stuck it over one of the Grand’s biggest slot machines.  Then he had a sign put over the machine, saying where the coins had come from and offering them to whoever hit the jackpot on that slot.  By the time someone finally did, the Grand had made their money back, three times over.”

“Right,” said Keith, nodding first at her, and then at me, “THAT’S the kind of attention Conlon’s race with Haizlip had earned him.”

“Yeah, and speaking of Mr. Haizlip,” I said with a chuckling growl, “Bet he was right browned off about the whole thing, eh?”   

I had to wait a bit for an answer to that.  Keith and Lucy gave each other a long, slow look, as if they’d just caught one of their pups doing artwork on the wall. 

Finally Keith focused on me again, looking almost sorrowful

“Not that rabbit mate, not by a long chalk.  Jimmy Haizlip’s one of the finest blokes ever to go round the pylons, and a true sporting fur on top of it.   When he came up to Mr. Conlon afterwards, it was with an outstretched paw, not clenched fists.”

I could feel my tail curling up beneath my chair as he went on.

“Good race, fella....good race.” Haizlip had said, warmly pumping the old fox’s paw -- and the indicating the Lady of Nimes with a jerk of his head he’d added, “And that’s one helluva plane too.  Build her yourself?

“That I did sir, and thanky.” Conlon was trying to look humble. “And may I say Mr. Haizlip, ‘twere a very near thing.  One more lap, I think, and you’d have taken it.”

Haizlip laughed and cocked a finger.

“Yeah...well just remember, I know what your...” he stopped looking suddenly abashed, Er...excuse me, I meant to say that I know what the Lady of Nimes can do now, so next time you WON’T catch me off guard.”

I had to shake my head and chuckle at that one.  More than any other pilots, Air Racers tend to think of their machines as living, breathing fursons....especially if it’s their own design, and are profoundly insulted when another aviator treats their plane as a ‘thing.’.   (Her Grace always refers to The Little Engine as, ‘my little girl’...and woe to the crew member who calls her, ‘it’.)

“But why’d Mr. Haizlip challenge Conlon to race him like that?  D’you know?”
He did.
“I later had a chance to ask Haizlip about it later.  He told me he’d just liked the Lady of Nimes’ looks and wanted to see what she could do.”

But his question would have to wait...just then, the group heard the puttering of an approaching engine   They turned, and saw a motor scooter, heading fast in their direction, the wheels playing a discordant marimba solo on the pier plankings.

Keith was about to step forward, ready to berate the rider. (On the Eastern Island docks, there’s a 10 MPH speed limit.)  But then he happened to glance sideways at Jimmy Haizlip.  The dun rabbit’s jaw was clenched, his eyes were screwed shut, and ears were pointed backwards as if a stiff wind were blowing in his face.

“Looked just like a bloke who’s been presented with a repair bill he can no way afford to pay.” Keith said, “Whoever was on that scooter, Haizlip knew him, and whatever it was, it weren’t good.”

No, it wasn’t.  Pulling up in front of the group in a neat, skimming arc, the rider, a bobcat, raised his goggles and spoke to Haizlip, ignoring the others as if they were pillars of salt.

“Mr. Hearst wants to see you in his hotel suite, Mr. Haizlip,” he informed the bunny coldly, and then spreading a healthy layer of relish on his words he pointed to the scooter’s pillion-seat, “and he says immediately.”

Haizlip groaned, and climbed on behind the feline.

I groaned too.  “Did he get the sack?”

The sides of Keith’s mouth moved in opposite directions.

“More like a case of, ‘You can’t fire me, I quit!’”

I found this revelation to be far from surprising, and was about to say so, when something else occurred to me... a little TOO quickly, I’m afraid

“Wait a minute...with Haizlip out, wouldn’t that have given Conlon his race slot?”

I tried, I really tried to stop myself, but the last words were out before I had time to realize...since when would William Randolph Hearst not have been able to find a replacement pilot in the requisite amount of time -- with all HIS money?

Fortunately, my question turned out to be an academic one. 

“Might have.” Keith told me, a wry smile unzipping its way around his muzzle, “except that by the end of the day both Haizlip and Hearst had thought better of the situation and patched things up.

What had happened was this:  Even before Jimmy Haizlip had stormed out of Hearst’s hotel suite, vowing never to return, a rumour had begun to circulate that the Lady of Nimes had knocked both the Chronicler and her pilot out of the Schneider.  It wasn’t true of course....

“But you know what rumours are like, brother,” Lucy was saying, and of course she was right -- as newspaper reporter, I had better know that, and I said as much to her. 

“Sir George Stafford, the Observer’s editor and publisher likes to refer to rumours as dandelions,” I smiled. “because, he says, ‘the more you stamp upon them, the better they grow.’”

Both Keith and Lucy found that one hilarious, nearly falling out of their seats in fits of mirth.  So delirious was their laughter, I couldn’t help joining in, even though I’d heard Sir George state that homily perhaps a thousand times.

It was Keith who recovered first.

“There was no way either Bill Hearst, or Jimmy Haizlip were going to suffer that kind of humiliation.” he said, “And only one way to drive a stake through it.   So they buried the hatchet, and got on with it.” He smiled again, a little more wickedly this time, “Wise decision on both of ‘em as it turned out; the next day, Haizlip got into another spontaneous race, this time against the Jersey Lightning...and this time he won it going away.”

I hope the reader will forgive me for getting off narrative here, but I knew the name Jersey Lighting, knew it very well...and NOT as a race-plane.

Jersey...Lightning.” I said, speaking slowly and deliberately, “Sponsored by...Richard Whitney?”

“The same.” said Keith, nodding grimly.  For her part, Lucy looked as if he had just been handed an apple with worm crawling out of it.

Though quite well known in America, the name of Richard Whitney is largely unfamiliar to most Britons.   He is, or rather was, one of the giants of American finance, a towering figure on the order of Bernard Baruch or Floyd Odlum.  Such was his prestige that he once singlepawedly stopped a panic on the New York Stock exchange.

But then, with the end of Prohibition, Mr. Whitney had decided to go into the liquor business, buying up a formerly illegal distillery in New Jersey, the producer of a very popular apple-jack liqueur called Jersey Lightning.

It was a disastrous mistake.  In his rush to cash in on the end of the Noble Experiment, Mr. Whitney had failed to consider something.  Yes, during Prohibition Jersey Lightning had been a huge seller...much more so than Scotch or Bourbon, but it had also been much cheaper to purchase than Scotch or Bourbon, .    

But now that Bourbon, Gin, and Scotch could be purchased legally, that was no longer the case.  Yes, they were still more expensive than Jersey Lighting...but no longer to the point of being unaffordable to the average American. 

And so it was that the sales of Jack Daniels’ Whiskey and MacArran Scotch soared to new heights, while the sales of Jersey Lightning plummeted earthward...with the result that Mr. Whitney began taking ever more drastic steps to promote his product.  Entering a plane named after his liquor in the Schneider Cup was only the latest in a series of such stunts.  

(Eventually, Whitney’s desperation would take him far, far beyond the pale; as of this writing, he’s serving a ten year prison term for fraud and embezzlement.)

“D’you know,” I told my friends, leaning forward in my seat, “Mr. Whitney once tried to cut down on his competition by keeping MacArran Scotch from being legally imported into the United States?  Yep...and Dewar’s White Label too.”

Keith winced and fell back in his chair, while Lucy let out a pained yip.

 “Cor!” said my friend, sitting up and shaking his head as though attempting to clear it. “Crossing both the Duchess of Strathdern AND old Joe Kennedy?  I always knew that Whitney bloke was a fool, but THAT big a fool?”

Yes, he was...and it was to have considerable bearing on one Mr. Denis Conlon at a later time and place.

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