Plane truths about Jean Batten

Fiona Kidman sheds light on top aviatrix

Last updated 05:00 05/10/2013
Fiona Kidman
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ

Dame Fiona Kidman's interest in Jean Batten has been fuelled by commonalities and coincidences.

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Famous and glamorous aviatrix Jean Batten was not the heartless gold-digger she has been painted as. Dame Fiona Kidman tells Diana Dekker why. 

Jean Batten was the most famous New Zealander of her time, a record-breaking aviatrix who made the first solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936 - and became an international celebrity.

And now Dame Fiona Kidman is shedding new light on her story.

Earlier writers have it that Batten - the product of an "idyllic childhood" - became as adept at manipulating men as she was at making her breathtaking solo flights across the world. She is supposed to have coerced one man into parting with his life savings, and others to part with aircraft - or in one case, the wings of his plane - as she single-mindedly strove for fame and adulation. Website NZ History repeats the story that a theme of her flying career was raising money by exploiting her relationships with men.

Kidman, in her book The Infinite Air, does not agree. She paints Batten as driven, but human and sometimes fallible, the product of a seriously dysfunctional family and living an often sad life punctuated by loss.

"I challenge the impression she was a gold-digger. I think she was a very young woman and quite naive in some respects and might have accepted help from men keen to find favour, and as she got older she might have found her way round the traps better."

There is nothing to prove, says Kidman, the validity of the often-quoted sum of £500 of life savings said to have been loaned to her by New Zealand pilot Fred Truman - whose name is changed to Frank Norton in the novel. Truman did not succeed in marrying her and pursued her for the money. Whatever the sum actually was, says Kidman, "I think she was desperate at the time".

After Truman, Victor Doree is said to have been vilely treated after he borrowed £400 from his mother to buy Batten a Gipsy Moth biplane. "I can't see how that can be. The family sent her to India, where she was stranded in Karachi after a forced landing in the desert, and she was abandoned [by them]. Lord Wakefield of Castrol gets her back. Despite Jean Batten being a genius, she was neither goddess nor whore, simply a human and sometimes fallible person. She was real beneath the glamour.

"In my view, history doesn't stand still. We add to it as new sources become available, we see things through different eyes and contemporary sensibilities. That doesn't invalidate the research and information gleaned in the past, but it becomes enhanced. You can't put a line under a life and say ‘that's it'. There's always more to learn."

Kidman faced many obstacles writing her book, in which fact is interspersed with well-informed imagination. She wasn't, for example, given access by Batten's brothers' descendants to Batten's unpublished memoir, which had been made available to Ian Mackersey, whose biography The Garbo of the Skies was published in 1992 and became the authority on the aviatrix's life. "I challenge some of his interpretations," says Kidman.

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She considers Batten "one of the true heroines of our history. When we talk about heroines in New Zealand we think perhaps of Katherine Mansfield, but Jean Batten was the bravest and most extraordinary woman I can think of. I'm sure she and Christopher Columbus would have got on well. She was able to navigate her way with precision. Yet her life was so difficult in so many ways."

That life ended with a 73-year-old Batten, unrecognised, dying alone of an untreated, infected dog bite in a modest serviced apartment in Palma, Majorca in 1982. She was buried in a pauper's grave and her death was undiscovered in New Zealand for five years.

Batten's life, says Kidman, has never been fully traversed. "I think you cannot look at the trajectory of her life without looking at her family and what happened to it. There were secrets in that family."

One of Batten's brothers had a history of mental ill-health and was a farmer with a failed limestone quarry in Waiapu. The other became a Hollywood movie star who lost his wealth in the Wall St crash, shifted to England and starred in Under the Greenwood Tree. He was, like gay men of the era, briefly married. Much later in life Batten passed one brother in the street in New Zealand, but neither spoke.

Batten was born eight months after Frenchman Louis Bleriot's historic flight in a monoplane across the English Channel, and her mother pinned a newspaper picture of the pilot and his plane above the newborn's cot.

The Batten family, headed by a dentist, disintegrated while Batten was a child. "I think the father cared about the children but he was a serial womaniser and his wife was not able to cope. The mother was quite a vain character who grew up in Invercargill, a thwarted actress. When things fell apart, her life became centred around Jean."

The boys stayed with their father.

Batten decided, when she was 18 and a promising musician and ballerina, that she wanted to be a pilot and, equipped with social skills from a Remuera boarding college for girls, was taken to England by her mother to join the London Aeroplane Club. Her beauty and determination drove her to celebrity and fame, but not to happiness.

One by one, says Kidman, the people close to her simply died, mostly flying. Over the years they included Charles Kingsford Smith, her hero; new lover Charles Ulm, killed flying; possibly another great love killed during the war; and, later, Beverley Shepherd, an Australian pilot she fell in love with, lost in flight between Brisbane and Sydney.

"When he dies, heartbroken she returns to England and the glamorous life - supper with the King and Queen where Princess Elizabeth shows her her dog and newspaper articles talk about it, and, before that, a private meeting with King Leopold of Belgium, who makes a pass at her. She's in her late 20s and trying to pull it together after Beverley has died. She has been befriended by Louis Bleriot and he dies shortly after they meet. World War II is coming along. She offers herself and her plane and they don't want her.

"I've imagined what might have happened in a lot of instances, but most of what I've suggested is supported by where she was and what was going on in the world at the time."

One of her suggestions - "as a novelist" - involves James Bond creator Ian Fleming. "I think she was in a relationship with Fleming. She and her mother went to Jamaica in 1946, the same year as Fleming and Noel Coward. They were all great friends, six years at each other's places all the time." Fleming had numerous relationships with women, including Viscountess Rothermere, whom - after she fell pregnant and was divorced by the Viscount - he married. Tellingly: "Jean Batten and her mother up and left."

Kidman's interest in Batten was fuelled by coincidences. Kidman lived in Rotorua, where Batten was born in 1909, and worked as a teenager in the local library where people often asked about Batten. "At 35 she had effectively disappeared, touring with her mother around Europe."

Kidman has had "a lifelong fascination" with planes. Her husband, Ian, learned to fly, and the couple live in a house overlooking Wellington's airport. There are other links and Kidman relates to her in other ways.

"I identify with her desire to achieve. I decided to be a writer at 22. Very much in suburban Rotorua [the attitude was] ‘Who does she think she is?' . . . I've survived and done what I wanted to do.

"It just so happened flying an aeroplane meant enormous adulation. I don't know that she did it for the fame. When I was a young woman desperately wanting to write books I didn't perceive 50 years later I would be sitting giving interviews. I just wanted to write books and see my name on them.

"With success come certain other things. Those women flying at that time won adulation and fame and she was beautiful. After all the losses in her life, I think she saw fame wasn't necessarily what she set out to find, and she searched for solace in solitude, not to be seen and recognised. She was likened to Greta Garbo - the Garbo of the skies. She and her mother visited Winston Churchill on the Riviera and Garbo did too. In my story she sees Greta Garbo and identifies with her desire to be left in peace.

"She was a person who suffered enormous losses and that led to a sort of melancholy as she aged. She came out of her solitude and came back to New Zealand a number of times. There's a school named after her in Auckland and she did lecture tours."

Her last visit was in 1977.

Kidman says she has seen many letters written by Batten on tour "and I can't relate that thoughtful, kind person in those letters to someone avaricious and trying to get the better of people, though she seemed quite imperious, which could have been interpreted as arrogance."

Kidman finishes her novel with Batten seeing her brother in the street and neither speaking. "Because I started with the family, it comes back to that moment. In a sense that's the final loneliness. The novelist in me says leave it there."

The Infinite Air, Kidman says, is the book she has found most difficult to write in her long career. "There was a lot of technical stuff to get my head around and barriers to cross.

"I do feel I understand her need to pursue what she wanted to do. I just wanted to be a writer. She could have been so many things. I think the book is a kind of homage to Jean Batten. When you choose to write about someone else, you're committing yourself to them in a funny sort of way. I think you have to like them, not just admire their feats. I think her spirit was extraordinary.

"She and I both have the French Legion of Honour which is something I like, a funny little thing, something I'm really proud of. I like it that she had it too."

The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman, Random House, $37.99.

- The Dominion Post

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