Airplanista Author Interview Series – Lauren Kessler (Happy Bottom Riding Club)

11:25 PM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor
There are few aviatrixs in aviation history that can compare to the legend of Florence “Pancho” Barnes, that colorful, eccentric, fearless and stubborn flyer who was known for living a life without regrets. 
Lauren Kessler’s book “The Happy Bottom Riding Club – The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes” (HBRC) published in 2000 will take you on a journey through aviation’s golden years, when pilots flew without restrictions, rules or regulations. It’s a splendid book that I consider to be one of aviation’s finest works, full of great descriptions of a day long ago when aviators could do anything they wanted. With every page, Lauren paints a vivid portrait of Pancho’s flamboyant life.
I recently picked up a copy of HBRC at a Eugene (OR) Library Relief sale, and thankfully this copy had been donated and not pulled from the shelves. I have always wanted to read it as I’ve heard over the years it is one of the finest examples of great aviation storytelling. And it is, I assure you.
But in reading the acknowledgments, I noticed Lauren gives credit to Dorothy Schick of Takewing Aviation in Creswell, OR for giving her a first airplane ride in a small GA airplane. Creswell is literally 15 miles south of where I am writing this, and I have taken lessons from Dorothy and rented her airplanes. So I Googled Lauren and was blown away to find out she lives right here in Eugene! I had to know more. In making contact, I arranged to have her speak to my EAA chapter on June 4th, because while I cannot tell the members how to use an English Wheel (honestly wouldn’t know one if I saw one), I can present a very successful author who produced a legendary aviation book.
I sat down digitally with Lauren recently for the first of what I am calling my Airplanista Author Interview Series…and there will be more in the future. Before I get to the interview, let’s take a look at the official book description and get to know Pancho a bit better:

Pancho Barnes was a force of nature, a woman who lived a big, messy, colorful, unconventional life. She ran through three fortunes, four husbands, and countless lovers. She outflew Amelia Earhart, outsmarted Howard Hughes, outdrank the Mexican Army, and out-maneuvered the U.S. government. She was a high-spirited, headstrong woman who was proud of her successes, unabashed by her failures, and the architect of her own legend.

As a California heiress, she was faced with a future of domesticity and upper-crust pretensions when she ran away from her responsibilities as wife and mother to create her own life. She cruised South America. She trekked through Mexico astride a burro. She hitchhiked halfway across the United States. Then, in the late 1920s, she took to the skies, one of a handful of female pilots. She was a barnstormer, a racer, a cross-country flier, and a Hollywood stunt pilot. She was an intimate of movie stars, and, later in life, a drinking buddy of the supersonic jet jockey Chuck Yeager. She ran a wildly successful desert watering hole in the Mojave Desert known as the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the raucous bar and grill depicted in the movie, The Right Stuff.

Now, let’s hear a few words from Lauren on how this book came together:

Airplanista: Let’s start at the beginning…what is the genesis story of how the book deal for HBRC came together? Did you pitch it, or did someone present the project to you?
Lauren Kessler: Neither, really. I had worked with Bob Loomis at Random House on a previous book. I wrote him an informal note about Pancho, maybe a page and a half, asking if he thought there was a book in it. My “pitches” are much more involved (I once wrote a 50-page pitch) and I always pitch to my agent first, never an editor. It turned out that Bob was Air Force (I had no idea), was steeped in Pancho stories (mostly untrue) and wanted the book immediately. This sort of serendipity has yet to be repeated..

Airplanista: Once you began researching Pancho, did her story become more intriguing as you peeled back the layers?
Lauren Kessler: That’s a major understatement. A story about an early flyer became a story about the golden moment when aviation and Hollywood came together. A story about a brash woman known for her exploits and sailor’s vocabulary became a story about a much more complex and needy woman who paid the price for nonconformity.

Airplanista: Do you have any past aviation experience that drew you to this story, or what it her colorful personality and life?
Lauren Kessler: Not in the least. I did not come to this story with an interest in or knowledge of aviation. I was interested in an ill-behaved woman who made history (as the bumpersticker goes). In fact, when I started researching her story, I had not been up in an airplane for close to 25 years (see a blog post about this here).

Airplanista: Did you ever get to meet Pancho Barnes? If yes, what was the experience like? And if no, did you want to meet her?
Lauren Kessler: Pancho died many years before I became interested in her story. I did meet her last husband, a piece of work. And I did get to spend quite a bit of time with “desert rats” who knew her.

Airplanista: As you got deeper into the story research, what was the one big discovery that surprised you?
Lauren Kessler: How indomitable she was. It wasn’t a matter of being fearless in the sky. It was a matter of being fearless in life. Doing what she wanted and not giving a damn what others thought.

Airplanista: Pancho was a woman who never did care for stereotypes and had no interest in fitting in to the Pasadena elite lifestyle as a young woman. How did her rogue personality serve her later in life?
Lauren Kessler: It both served and sabotaged her, I would say. She liked young men, fast cars, big airplanes. She ran through three significant fortunes—and I think she had some fun doing that. But because she didn’t know how to temper her goals, because she always arrived loaded for bear, she made significant enemies, which lead to the downfall of the Happy Bottom Riding Club. And at the end of her life, she was a lonely woman.

Airplanista: Let’s talk about the specifics of writing the book? First, do you have any sales numbers or information on how popular the book was?
Lauren Kessler: This is now seven books ago for me. I just don’t keep track that long. I will say that it did well in hardcover, was published in paperback, got me on the David Letterman Show twice and has been optioned for a movie.

Airplanista: How much time in days, months or hours do you think you had into the research of this book?
Lauren Kessler: At least a year, perhaps a year and a half.

Airplanista: Did you have fun writing HBRC? As you told the story, did you find you could not wait to get back to the keyboard and write more about Pancho?
Lauren Kessler: I love the act of writing. That is why I am a writer. When things go well, there is nothing like it. I feel more alive in that moment than in any other moment in my life. When things are tough—and even the best writing experience has its dark moments—well, it tests the mettle.

Airplanista: I know people who consider this book to be one of aviation’s most iconic works. How was the book received in the aviation community? How about the literary world, what were the reviews like?
Lauren Kessler: When the book came out, I went on the road and talked to a lot of aviation folks, from EAA chapters to vintage Ninety-Niners. I was on NPR. I did the David Letterman show, during which he (jokingly) declared HBRC the first book in the Dave Letterman Book Club, in fierce competition with the then-famous Oprah Book Club. Reviews and quotes are here.

Airplanista: What challenges in the research and writing did you have to overcome? Did you ever hit a wall and find you had to dig deep and push past it to keep moving forward?
Lauren Kessler: There’s always a challenge in writing about someone you’ve never met. Pancho was an only child, so no siblings to talk to. Her child, Billy, was already dead. Her last husband thought I should pay for his memories. I thought not. So Pancho had to come alive through documents. I had to let the documents (flight logs, lists, letters, court records) speak to me.

Airplanista: You mentioned HBRC was optioned by a film producer. Is that public info, and if yes, tell me more. And tell me what female actress working today would best portray Pancho?
Lauren Kessler: I just signed the option agreement, and that’s all I can say about it right now. If the film tried to encompass her WHOLE life, then one actress couldn’t do it. But for the later part of her life, when she moved to the Mojave and opened HBRC, Frances McDormand or Edie Falco. Ya gotta play tough and gritty.

Airplanista: Do you think Pancho Barnes contributed to the acceptance of females as pilots, either directly or indirectly? As a bold female who took no crap from men, if she were alive today and read about the #MeToo movement, what would her advice to women be?
Lauren Kessler: Ha! Such an interesting question. My sense is that Pancho did not like women much. She enjoyed the company of men, both as friends and lovers. If I had to guess (and it kind of pains me to say this), I think Pancho might dismiss the #MeToo movement. She might have little patience with it. This is not because she was in favor of -- or, Lord knows, would have put up with, harassment -- but because she would not have understood women who failed to fight back at the moment.

Airplanista: Add anything else here you think my readership would love to know about this book, about you or about Pancho.
Lauren Kessler: She was one-of-a-kind and lived the kind of rollicking, devil-may-care life that it is not possible to live any more. So beyond being an aviation story, it is significant as a snapshot of a time gone by.
•  •  •

If you have never read this book, do it today, you will not regret it and will love every word. You can buy it right now on Amazon or learn more about Lauren on her author site She posts to her blog ( every Wednesday, and can be found on Instagram (laurenjkess) and Twitter (@LaurenJKessler).

If you are a pilot and have never heard of Pancho, you have a reading assignment now.

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