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22 January 2009
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Seven
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 Seven)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

Keith didn’t see anything more of Denis Conlon until the Pilot’s Reception...but he heard about him.

“Like the Wise Ones say pal,” he told me with a snigger, “there’s two edges to every blade.  From that day on, and for as long as they were in the Spontoons, Conlon and his crew never had to pay for another meal, which was good.”  He winced, punctuating his next words with a rueful chuckle, “And they also didn’t have to pay for another drink, which WASN’T so good.”

“And why might that have been?” I asked, wondering how the devil there could be an underside to getting free drinks. 

Keith’s eyes sparkled for a second, or perhaps it was just the torchlight.

“Coz now every time Conlon turned ‘round, he was having to go and drag one of his race crew out of this or that bar, usually the Harp and Thistle pub...just about drove him barmy.  I know, coz he sent me a message, asking if I could issue some kind of order, barring his lads from the any of the locals.   I told him sorry, but even I didn’t have that kind of authority ”

We were interrupted then by a giggling yip from Lucy.

“But that’s not to say he weren’t able to help at all.”

Keith’s eyes narrowed, and he looked at her, his face assuming an expression I’d not seen since our Outback days, a look of deep, feigned formality, with just a touch of the sardonic.

“I would appreciate being able to tell MY story in me own good time, thank you luv.” he answered curtly, and then turned to me again.

“But I suppose she’s right, I did.”

“And what’d yer do then?” I asked.

Keith’s shoulders lifted upward in a slow, exaggerated shrug.

“Not much, just started a little rumour of my own -- that coz of all the troubles he was having with his race crew, Mr. Conlon was looking at maybe having to pull out of the Schneider.”

Now it was MY turn to nearly fall out of my chair.  Had there been a full moon out, an observer might have thought I was howling at it; I was laughing THAT hard.

“And did it work?” I said, when I finally recovered, “Did the locals bar Paddy Martin and the Donellys from their establishments?”

Keith’s mouth crinkled into a merry, asymmetrical line.

“Didn’t have to.  Soon as the talk got round that Conlon might quit the race coz of his crew, every air mechanic from here to Tillamooka was over at his slip, applying for their jobs.”  He shook his head, pulling at an ear, “Wish I could have been there to see it.  Word is, the line down the dock was so long, you’d have thought it was for the Hope and Crosby Christmas show.” He laughed, getting up and reaching for the pail, which had run dry again.  “And I think you can guess how Mr. Conlon played it...”

It didn’t take a great deal of imagination to picture how the old fox had played it.  I could almost see him.. nervously fingering his muzzle, eyes cast downwards rather than at the fur he was addressing.

“I...I’m sorry, I don’t know what to tell ye.  I mean...can’t race without crew, but me boys have been with me since forever, seems like .  I’d hate to up and cut ‘em loose now, after all this time.  Let me think it over for a bit, all right?”

“And of course,” said Lucy, taking up for her absent husband, “From that point on, Mr. Martin and the Donnellys were all as dry as bones.”

“Naturally.” I said, raising my glass, just in time to have it refilled by Keith, who had just returned to the verandah. “Good on yer for helping him, mate,”

“Well that weren’t just me being charitable, mind.” said Keith replied, sitting down, and refilling his own glass.

“Like hell, it weren’t.” Lucy interrupted, cuffing him lightly on the shoulder and nearly causing him to upset his glass, “Don’t listen to him, Drake; you know’s well as I do what a big heart he’s got.”

Keith had no answer for that...except to lean over and kiss her.

“Wellllll, mebbe I DID have a bit of soft spot for Denis Conlon by then,” he admitted, sitting back down again, “but I weren’t the only one, pal...not by a long chalk.”

No, he wasn’t...and it wasn’t just confined to the Spontoons.  Practically before her engine had even cooled, Charles Crane had got a story about the Lady of Nîmes and her pilot ready to run in the Spontoon Mirror.  And as fate would have it, the tale of Conlon beating Jimmy Haizlip somehow found its way through the wires and into the offices of the Pulitzer papers.

There was no way Bill Hearst’s old nemesis’ could resist an opportunity like that.  By the next morning the story had been reprinted in every Pulitzer paper in America...and Denis Conlon had become the pride of every Irish American household, from Boston to the San Francisco Bay.

And that’s not even mentioning what happened when the story hit Dublin.

“You couldn’t walk in or out of any pub without raising your glass at least once to ‘our finest son,’” Keith raised his own glass as though to demonstrate, “or that’s what I heard afterwards anyway.  Conlon’s lap around the lagoon had done more to raise interest in the Schneider than anything I could have even TRIED to come up with.  After hearing the story, Jimmy Cagney and Joe Kennedy both came out to the Spontoons to watch the Schneider, and John Ford was already showing some interest in doing a film about the Lady of Nîmes.” He raised the glass even higher.  “So how could I NOT lend a paw up to Denis Conlon, after all that?”
“And how did Mr. Conlon react to all this?” I asked.  From what I’d heard so far, he did NOT strike me as the sort of fox to let even that sort of attention go to his head.

He wasn’t.

“Thought the whole thing was a bit over blown.” Keith fanned a paw as he answered me, then assumed his best Irish brogue, “What the Divvil!  Didn’t I SAY that Mr. Haizlip’d have had me with another lap?  Seems a bit much for a vulpine just got lucky is all.”

That may have been true, I observed, but it seemed to me that Conlon was understating the situation every bit as much as the papers were overstating it.

“Facts are facts, mate...an unknown pilot, flying an unknown plane DID win a race against one of the best air-racers out there -- and in the cockpit of a racer built by one of the best aircraft designers in the business no less.”  I shook my head, “No wonder the American Irish ate it up; there’s nothing they love so much as seeing one of their own beat the odds.”

And they do...when the supposedly washed-up James Braddock beat Max Baer for the Heavyweight Boxing Title that same year, every Irish saloon in New York was standing room only.

“Oh, I know, pal.” Keith said, “But you couldn’t tell Mr. Conlon that...especially since after that story broke, he was right back to not being able to get any work done.  Couldn’t turn half-way round without some uninvited visitor showing up at his hangar.”

This bit of news brought up something that I’d often wondered about.

“Was that what led you to place the race hangars off limits to anyone but the pilots and their crews?” I asked.

Keith’s expression became half irritated and half rueful

“That...and all the flamin’ souvenir hunters; like a plague of locusts, that was.”  He stopped himself for a second, then went on.  “No one took anything from the Conlon slip, mind; you don’t steal from a fur’s just scraping by.  But the British team had so many items go missing, they had to have replacements flown in special by International Air.”  He growled, slapping a paw across his muzzle, “Could have chewed me own tail off for not seeing that one coming.”

I just nodded; that was Keith all over.  He’s always been a dog for details, and never forgives himself when one escapes his notice.
“But getting back to Denis Conlon,” he said, batting away the thought like a gnat, “Believe it or not, his stock was about to go up even further.”

“Right mate, let’s hear it,” I answered, not waiting for the dramatic pause that I knew by now as coming.

Keith scratched behind an ear, a sign of unease that I knew very well.

“Errr, right....Listen, I’m not tryin’ to string y’ along pal, but errr,  before I talk about that, it’s necessary to...grrrr, what’s the phase I’m looking for?  Ahhh, it’s necessary to inject some background by mentioning another, smaller incident that took place first.”

He had just arrived back at his office from officiating at another of the days events, a mock battle between the British cruiser HMS Uganda and the Rain Island Naval Syndicate Bomber Squadron Number 1.  (RINS won that one, much to the annoyance of the Admiralty and Keith’s secret delight.) When he entered, there was his secretary Miss Makele, with two sheets of paper in her paw and a puzzled look on her face.

“Ah, Mister Lawton.” she said, searching carefully for each word,, “I....ah, don’t know if this is important, but you, ahhh...might want to have a look at what I found here.”  She held out the paper to him, gingerly as if it might be a fragment of ancient papyrus that would crumble if handled carelessly.

Irritated, Keith took the papers as carelessly as if they were a flyer he was accepting, only to be rid of the fur offering it.

“Silly goose...as if I wouldn’t recognize a Schneider-Cup entry application when I saw one.  But when I took it from her, I realized that this one was for the ‘36, not the ‘35 race...dated four months previously” He winked, raising a finger, “And guess whose name was on it?”

I think no one will be surprised that I got it right on the first try.  Even so, I was bewildered.

“Conlon was going to enter the ‘36 race...and then showed up for the ‘35 contest instead?”  I fell back in my seat, shaking my head, “Cor, that’s peculiar, mate.”

Keith also shook his head, a weary gesture this time.

“No, mate...actually it wasn’t so odd..  I already knew why Conlon had  done it...or at least I thought I did.”  Without waiting for prompt this time, he continued...which could only mean he was about to tell me something that still made him angry to think of it.

About four months earlier, right about the end of April, a series of editorials had begun to appear in the aviation press and elsewhere, pieces with titles such as, ‘Swan Song For The Schneider?’ and ‘Can the Schneider Be Saved?’

“The authors’ answers were ‘yes’ in the first case, ‘no’ in the second.”  Keith’s voice remained neutral, but I could see the hackles rising on his neck, “And in both cases, they were predicting that the ‘35 Schneider Cup would be the LAST Schneider Cup.” He let out a low, rumbling snarl “And those were two of the more tactful pieces got printed.”

“Uh-huh.” was all I could say to this. Actually, I had seen one of those article for myself, but hadn’t given it much mind. (I had been waiting in a dentist’s office at the time; needless to say, the piece was well out of date by then.)

 “Any idea who was behind those opinion pieces?” I asked “Not Cliff Henderson, I hope.”  I’ve twice met the organizer for the American National Air Races...and came away well impressed both times.  When Keith shook his head, I was mightily relieved.

“No, not him...Cliff plays hard, but he never plays dirty.   Matter of fact, he sent me a telegram of apology when he found out about that little press campaign.   As for who WAS back of those articles...to this day, I’m still not entirely sure.” He leaned back in his chair again, “I’ve got a couple of prime suspects, though...whose names you’ll forgive me for not revealing until after y’ swear not to repeat ‘em.”

When he told me who they were, I understood immediately why he’d made that stipulation.

“Nothing to forgive, mate.” I said, “Last thing you want is a libel or slander suit from either one of THOSE blokes.”  Even so, I could feel the hair on my own neck beginning to stand up.  I don’t like underpawed moves any more than Keith does.
“So y’see,” Keith went on, lifting a paw and spreading his fingers “I wasn’t surprised by Conlon jumping the gun like that.”  He gave me that titled smile again, ‘Specially since he wasn’t the ONLY racer who’d done it.”

Here, he gave me another one of those annoying, pregnant pauses again...and this time I was glad for it.

Because this time I already knew what he was going tell me.

“Ah, yeah...Sophia Bianco.” I said, and was most gratified to see him almost drop his glass again.

“You forget, pal.” I went on, wagging both my tail and a finger, “Sophia Bianco is The Duchess of Strathdern’s best friend.   I overheard ‘em reminiscing about the Schneider Cup at a dinner party I attended right after Her Grace came back from China.  That’s how I know.” 

Keith sucked at a corner of his mouth.

“Did they talk about how Sophia Bianco almost didn’t make the ‘35 race?”  

“No,” I admitted, “But I know some of it anyway...that La Belladonna barely passed muster with the SIRA board, and for a while, it looked like she might have to drop out of the Schneider.”

(She didn’t of course, as anyone familiar with the 1935 Schneider-Cup knows.)

Keith nodded once at this, and then his face became hard and chiseled.

“Well, what y’ don’t know mate, is that it was a lot worse than anyone let on.  Miss Bianco, or Miss Casadonte as she was known back then had cut a lot of corners in order to make her plane ready in time for ‘35 race...and as a result, the Belladonna had more bugs in her than the Last Hotel.”  He gestured with a thumb across the lagoon, in the direction of the race hangars.  “I mean it, mate.  You think the Brits and the Frenchies are having trouble THEIR engines?  It’s nothing compared to what Sophia Bianco’s team was going through wi’ theirs.  Every time, and I mean EVERY time they tried to run the Belladonna faster than 225 MPH, her engine would get cranky and start to cut out on them.” He shook his head, regarding the decking floor, “I remember twice we had to scramble the crash boats when Miss Bianco lost her engine altogether.  The second time I thought sure she was a goner...but somehow, she brought the Belladonna safely down in one piece.”

“Mmm,” I nodded, unsurprised.  If there’s any pilot who can make a dicey landing look easy, it’s Sophia Bianco.

I then dropped a bit of news of my own 

“Did you know Her Grace tried to talk Sophia out of entering the ‘35 Schneider?  Yeah...she knew how many shortcuts her pal would have to take in order to be ready on time.” I paused, taking another sip of beer.  “Even so, it was only a halfhearted attempt the Duchess’ part. ‘How could I push her on that, when I’d have done the same thing in her place?’ was how she put it to me.”

Keith let out a short bark.

“Rarf!  Yeah, I know just how she must have felt, Drake.  After Sophia Bianco almost bought it that second time, I came THAT close to disqualifying her from the race.”
“No!”  I said, feeling my jaw drop wide open   If Keith been ready to take a step that drastic, then the Belladonna’s engine problems really HAD been that serious

“Yep,” My friend’s dark eyes rose up to meet mine, “Didn’t have my heart in it any more than Her Grace did, and there was nothing in the rules back gave me the authority to scratch a racer if I deemed their plane unsafe.” He straighten up slightly and thrust out his muzzle, like a dog about to have his last word before the magistrate pronounces the sentence. “But mind, I’d have done it all the same.” And then, completely unexpectedly, he smiled and reached over, taking Lucy’s paw in his, “Or rather, I would have done, if someone hadn’t talked me out of it.”

It’s not often I see my sister looking flustered.

“Well,” she said, her gaze darting about as if a fly were buzzing round her head, “I mean...who could keep Sophia Bianco away from the Schneider Cup?”

“Well, we all know that no one did.” I said, doing my usual poor job of trying not to sound impatient “But how did Miss Bianco do it, then...how did she get back in the race?  And what’s all this got to do with Denis Conlon?

Keith transformed at once  from an Australian Shepherd dog, and into a Cheshire Cat.

“Everything pal...everything.”


(Sophia (Casadonte) Bianco is the intellectual property of Stuart McCarthy. )

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