Miller’s for­got­ten tale soars with der­ring-do

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

Jessie Miller is one of our most fas­ci­nat­ing ad­ven­tur­ers, even if she is lit­tle known to­day. In the 1920s and 30s she was world fa­mous.

She was born in West­ern Aus­tralia in 1901, the year Queen Vic­to­ria died.

Four years ear­lier Mark Twain pub­lished Fol­low­ing the Equa­tor, a non­fic­tion trav­el­ogue about his whistlestop tour of the Bri­tish Em­pire. Of his time in colo­nial Aus­tralia Twain wrote: “It is full of sur­prises, and ad­ven­tures, and in­con­gruities, and con­tra­dic­tions, and in­cred­i­bil­i­ties; but they are all true, they all hap­pened.”

Amer­ica’s most be­guil­ing writer could well have been talk­ing about the fas­ci­nat­ing life and times of Miller. It’s not for noth­ing Carol Bax­ter’s book is sub­ti­tled An Aus­tralian’s true story of ad­ven­ture, dan­ger, ro­mance and mur­der.

This spell­bind­ing tale of an ex­traor­di­nary woman is one of the best books I have read in years.

It is en­thralling to learn what hap­pened when, in early 1927, the pe­tite 26-year-old Miller left sub­ur­ban Melbourne and her news­pa­per­man hus­band Keith Miller to travel to Lon­don by ship. She would go on to be­come the first woman to com­plete a flight from Eng­land to Aus­tralia, which, as Bax­ter doc­u­ments, was dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous.

Along with the great Amelia Earhart, this plucky Aussie, nick­named “Chub­bie”, flew in a cel­e­brated air race for women known as the Pow­der Puff Derby. She then dis­ap­peared in a flight over the Florida Straits but, as Bax­ter tan­ta­lis­ingly puts it, “only to charm her way to a res­cue”.

There are some en­gag­ing il­lus­tra­tions in this de­light­ful book and two stand out. The first is a por­trait pho­to­graph, taken in Oc­to­ber 1929, of Miller land­ing in Cleve­land, Ohio, at the fin­ish of the Pow­der Puff Derby. In­serted is a snap­shot of a beau­ti­fully de­signed winged bracelet pre­sented to each par­tic­i­pant in this first womenonly na­tional air race.

The sec­ond, which com­ple­ments Bax­ter’s vi­brant nar­ra­tive, is a photo of Miller and Bill Lan­caster — soon to be her lover — stand­ing in front of their sin­gle-en­gine, open-cock­pit, du­al­con­trol Avro Avian bi­plane, the Red Rose, on Oc­to­ber 14, 1927. This was as they pre­pared for their his­toric 12,000-mile jour­ney from Croy­don aero­drome in Lon­don to Port Dar­win on the north­ern Aus­tralian coast.

Bax­ter stresses that Miller’s re­mark­able story is nei­ther his­tor­i­cal fic­tion nor fic­tion­alised his­tory. It is nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion; his­tory told as a story about what ac­tu­ally hap­pened. The di­a­logue in The Fab­u­lous Fly­ing Mrs Miller is taken from orig­i­nal records: news­pa­per ac­counts, court records and in­ter­views with and by Miller.

Writ­ing such a fine work of non­fic­tion in­volved huge amounts of re­search, in­clud­ing for­ag­ing for ma­te­ri­als in li­braries through­out Bri­tain, Aus­tralia, In­dia, South­east Asia and the US, es­pe­cially in Florida.

The book ben­e­fits enor­mously from first­per­son sources. Bax­ter specif­i­cally thanks her pro­tag­o­nist — to whom the book is ded­i­cated — for her “con­sid­er­a­tion in leav­ing so many per­sonal ac­counts de­scrib­ing your ac­tiv­i­ties, thoughts, feel­ings and con­ver­sa­tions”. They are, as Bax­ter puts, “a writer’s dream and a reader’s de­light”.

Per­haps the high­light is Bax­ter’s de­tailed for- en­sic ex­am­i­na­tion of how, in the early 30s as an in­ter­na­tional celebrity, Miller found her­self at the cen­tre of one of the US’s most no­to­ri­ous and con­tro­ver­sial mur­der tri­als. This con­cerned the shoot­ing of an air­line pi­lot, Charles Haden Clarke, with whom Miller had been ro­man­ti­cally in­volved.

Bax­ter re­veals the in­creased ten­sions in 1932 be­tween Miller and Lan­caster and how the lat­ter was found not guilty of mur­der­ing Clarke by a grand jury in a cel­e­brated trial in Miami, in which Miller was a key wit­ness.

The full de­tails make com­pelling read­ing. Bax­ter then ex­plains and elu­ci­dates how Chub­bie and Bill were rec­on­ciled af­ter the le­gal or­deal was over.

The fab­u­lous Mrs Miller died in a Lon­don hos­pi­tal in 1972, 10 years af­ter the dis­cov­ery of the re­mains of her beloved Bill and the wreck of his bi­plane in the Sa­ha­ran Desert. Lan­caster had died there in April 1933.

As it hap­pens, Miller’s death went en­tirely un­re­marked by the world’s press, in­clud­ing that of her home­land Aus­tralia.

Bax­ter rightly con­cludes that the irony is hard to miss: “Chub­bie’s avi­a­tion achieve­ments and pop­u­lar­ity had eclipsed Bill’s in life but Bill eclipsed her in death.”

At the very least, The Fab­u­lous Fly­ing Mrs Miller has righted this wrong and high­lights the hith­erto lit­tle-known ex­ploits of a great Aus­tralian ad­ven­turer and a pi­o­neer­ing avi­a­trix. is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of his­tory and pol­i­tics at Grif­fith Univer­sity.

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