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The flying ace known as the 'Greta Garbo of the skies' who ended in a pauper's grave

Novelist Fiona Kidman tells Una Brankin why she's fascinated with pioneering female pilot Jean Batten, who made the first England to New Zealand solo flight

Published 23/06/2016

Author Dame Fiona Judith Kidman DNZM OBE in Belfast
Author Dame Fiona Judith Kidman DNZM OBE in Belfast
Known as ‘the Greta Garbo of the skies’, New Zealander Batten was celebrated around the world for her daring solo flights during the 1930s, beating the women’s record for flight from England to Australia
Known as ‘the Greta Garbo of the skies’, New Zealander Batten was celebrated around the world for her daring solo flights during the 1930s, beating the women’s record for flight from England to Australia
Jean Batten
Pilot Victor Doree

Sharing a surname with an Oscar-winning actress opens doors in Hollywood, especially when you have a book optioned for the big screen. In her novel The Infinite Air, best-selling writer Fiona Kidman has created a potential dream role for any actress - a part based on the real-life aviator known as "the Greta Garbo of the skies".

Distant cousin Nicole Kidman would be perfect to play Jean Batten, the glamorous New Zealander who beat Amy Johnson's solo flight record from England to New Zealand in 1934 in a fragile little Gypsy Moth airplane. And with Belfast featuring in Fiona's next novel, who knows which Hollywood stars could be hitting these shores for another exciting adaptation of her writing?

"I am doing some character research here," says Fiona (76), one of New Zealand's most noted writers.

"There was a mass emigration from Ireland to New Zealand and Australia, but I don't want to jinx the story by talking about it too early. And I'm not allowed to say a thing about The Infinite Air - there are talks going on about a film. And no, I can't tell you which actress I'd like to see in it. Sorry!"

Dame Fiona Kidman, to give her full title, was in town for the Belfast Book Festival. We met for tea in the Europa's piano bar, after her breakfast of sausages with honey from the Mournes - "delicious; I never eat sausages and never would have thought of them with honey, but I'm having these every day while I'm here".

As well as a copy of The Infinite Air, the author gives me a small bar of fragrant mud soap from Rotorua, located on the North Island, New Zealand, hometown of the exciting Jean Batten.

"It's very good for your skin - people come to have baths in this mud," she explains in that odd colonial accent. "Jean herself had a good complexion. She remained glamorous into her sixties.

"She always wore a white helmet and flying suit, and as she could only carry the minimum weight on her planes, she'd pack a single white silk dress to change into, and she always put her lipstick on when she landed."

One of the great early aviators, gorgeous Jean had brilliant navigation skills, an unerring instinct for self-promotion and a persuasive character that had rich men throwing themselves - and their money - at her feet.

Yet her life ended in obscurity and she was buried in a pauper's grave in Majorca after dying alone in a hotel room because of an infection from a dog bite that travelled to her lungs.

Fiona became intrigued by Jean while working as a librarian in Rotorua, on the southwestern shores of New Zealand's North Island. Her parents had moved there and bought a farm with money her father, Hugh Eakin, had inherited from the sale of his Irish family's small-holding in Bandon, Cork. His in-laws, who were Scottish Presbyterian settlers, had disapproved of their daughter marrying an Irishman, even though he was Protestant, and the Eakins initially had to move to the far north of the island to work as servants for an Indian Raj dynasty.

"I was the cook's little girl," Fiona recalls. "I had a sense of isolation, that I didn't fit in, but I had a best friend who didn't either.

"We were hard up before the money came from Ireland - thank you, Ireland! My father was one of the million who had emigrated from Cobh - his single sisters had kept the house back home.

"He was a good man, but sad. He never returned to Ireland and he never called New Zealand home. He was lost and homesick.

"I was an only child, and I used to think, 'Are we not home to you?' He had the look in his eyes of an outsider, and that influenced me and my writing."

It's easy to see why the cook's little girl was attracted to Jean Batten, something of an outsider herself, whose waving statue stands at Auckland airport.

The daughter of a philandering dentist and an ambitious mother, Ellen, she was a gifted dancer and pianist but, at the age of 18, declared she wanted to become a pilot, inspired by the Australian Charles Kingsford Smith, who took her for a flight in his Southern Cross plane.

She took her first solo flight in England in 1930 and gained private and commercial licences by 1932, borrowing £500 from Fred Truman, a New Zealand pilot serving in the Royal Air Force who wanted to marry her, to fund the 100 hours of flying time required.

She then left Truman and turned to pioneer pilot Victor Doree, who borrowed £400 from his mother to buy Jean a Gipsy Moth biplane. According to NZ History Online, "Raising money by taking advantage of her relationships with men was a theme that continued throughout her flying career".

Fiona says: "There was a very biased biography that presented Jean as a cold gold-digger, preying on men to get the money to fly. I was always being asked about her in the library - people expect librarians to know everything - so I dug around a bit and found that she was warm and kind, but at times almost childish and naive. She did care about others; she was preyed upon herself.

"Victor Doree was desperate to marry her, but when she had to crash-land the Gypsy Moth in Karachi, his family saw her as a failure and he abandoned her.

"She also most likely had an affair with James Bond author Ian Fleming, while she was living with her mother in Jamaica after the Second World War.

"The closeness between Fleming and Jean suggested an intimacy that may have inspired Fleming's second novel Live And Let Die.

"Like Fleming's character Solitaire, Jean had dark hair and a nature that defied emotional closeness. It's not clear what caused Jean and Ellen's sudden departure from Jamaica, where they had a house, friends and a full social life.

"Whether coincidence or not, it occurred shortly after Fleming's marriage in 1951 to Ann Charteris, who had recently divorced Viscount Rothermere. Jean and Ellen went travelling in Europe for seven years after that."

The more Fiona read about Jean, the more in common she found with her. Also fascinated by flying, Fiona married a schoolteacher with a pilot's licence, and lives by an airport where she enjoys watching the planes come and go, untroubled by the din of their engines. But, unlike Jean, she met the love of her life early, and has been married for 56 years.

"I was 19 when Ian came into the library with his primary school pupils," she says. "He was a bit older than me, but I looked at him and said to the girl beside me, 'See that man? I'm going to put my stamp on him!'

"He's frail now - 84 - but yes, I thought he was gorgeous. We struck up a conversation and I fell head over heels in love. I still am.

"I'm younger and he can't do all the things he'd like to now, but we rub along pretty well. I don't like to be away from him too long."

Jean Batten wasn't as lucky in love. Unable to persuade Victor Doree to buy her another plane after her crash, she turned to Lord Wakefield of Castrol Oil fame, who admired her tenacity and offered her a Gipsy Moth - the plane in which she would make the record-breaking England to Australia flight.

She went on to set many more records, including being the fastest person to cross the Atlantic. A book deal, awards and medals followed and she was made a CBE in 1936.

As the honours mounted, thousands of people started to gather to watch her arrive at airfields across the world. King George VI invited her for informal suppers where a then-Princess Elizabeth showed off her corgis, while the widowed King Leopold III of Belgium courted her. However, it was a young Australian pilot, Beverley Shepherd, who captured her heart after they met in Sydney in 1934.

"On the outside, Jean had everything she had ever dreamed of, but deep down she was plagued by a haunting loneliness, which she often described in her log books," says Fiona.

"These feelings were only reinforced when Beverley died in a plane crash in February 1937. She never fully recovered from his death and then a further blow came when the Second World War broke out.

"Jean was on holiday in Sweden when a telegram from the Foreign Office arrived, advising her not to fly over Germany. After some inquiries, she understood she had clearance and became one of the last civilians to make the journey before the outbreak of the war.

"Her plane was requisitioned for the duration of the conflict and she never flew again. She contributed to the war effort, becoming a fundraiser and public speaker, but her fragility was evident. Unable to fly, she became melancholic."

Jean and Ellen eventually settled in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. When Ellen died in 1965, Jean was consumed by grief and after a brief comeback attempt three years later became a recluse.

"I became haunted by her," Fiona admits. "She had been one of the most glamorous, famous women in the world, and then she vanishes after the Second World War and goes into seclusion and dies in obscurity.

"She was buried under her middle name, Gardner, in a pauper's grave in Majorca in 1983 - she'd only been there for a week and they didn't know who she was - and it wasn't discovered until five years later.

"Somehow, though, solitude suited her. She had a fear of aloneness and loneliness, yet she chose to be alone in the sky - in the 'infinite air', as Gerald Manley Hopkins described it."

The Infinite Air is dedicated to Ian Kidman, "aviator, adviser and dear companion," who got a surprise one day when Nicole Kidman's late father, "handsome" psychiatrist Anthony Kidman, turned up at his door while tracing his family roots.

Having learned to fly with the Armed Forces, Ian encouraged Fiona's interest in aviation and accompanied her to an airfield where she flew in a Tiger Moth in a promotional event for her novel.

"It was quite scary - I was sitting behind the pilot and my tummy was in my mouth," Fiona admits to me.

"Before we went up, Ian had said 'no loops!' but in the air you take things as they come and I'd have felt like a right dullet if we hadn't done a couple.

"So I became the oldest woman to have done a loop in a Gypsy Moth, in my white helmet and flowing white scarf, in tribute to Jean. It was fun but no, I won't be jumping out of any plane next!"

  • The Infinite Air is published by Random House, £9.99

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