Orville, Katharine & Wilbur Wright. 1909

It was August 1999 that I was on the tale-end of a three week vacation when I ended up on the Outer Banks.  The previous weeks I had been to:

  • Niagara Falls
  • through the Adirondacks
  • Stowe, Vermont to visit with the surviving von Trapp children
  • down through Manchester, Vermont to visit Robert Todd Lincoln’s beautiful estate, Hildene
  • Hyde Park to visit FDR’s home
  • Manhattan to visit friends and race taxi cab drivers (um… no joke)
  • Long Island to visit Teddy Roosevelt’s home and Montauk Lighthouse (I also sat and chatted with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and her daughter, Tatiana
  • Assateague Island – because in 4th grade Mrs. Lane had read us The Mystery of Assateague Island
  • Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel
  • Jolliffe Road & Methodist Church
  • and down to the Outer Banks – one of my sanctuaries
    • Currituck Lighthouse
    • Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
    • Ocracoke Island

I drove by Wright Memorial, but gave it little thought. Big deal. When Mother and Dad came to Dayton, we went to the Air Force Museum. Dad loved it. I was bored.

As I drove past the huge pylon on top of the hill from which they flew, I glanced, but continued on. As I passed it again, I decided to at least get closer – after all, I was now a Daytonian. What would others think of me if they discovered I had not paid homage to the Miami Valley’s most popular brothers?

That following September, I was roller blading through Centerville’s Stubbs Park. As I sat on a rock resting, I watched a little sparrow flitting about the parking lot, nibbling at food dropped from some event.

“How did that little fellow get his body up into the air, and maneuver to another location?”

I had never really considered this… well, I had never really cared.

I looked up to see a huge plane jetting across the horizon, heading for Dayton International Airport.

“How does that big thing get into the air?”

My eyes went back and forth between the sparrow and the plane… and then… from somewhere came the voices of two young boys. I looked around.

I was alone… or was I?

Again, the voices began – and after a few minutes it was clear I was listening to a conversation between Wilbur and Orville Wright.

But why? And furthermore, why me?

And then it was clear: a musical!

The following day I was in the book store of the Air Force Museum, purchasing books on the Wright Brothers. When I research projects, I always buy books as I like to make notes and have them at my disposal 24/7.

Wilbur Wright

It has been almost nine years since I began researching the Wright Brothers, and their remarkable sister, Katharine. In January 2000, I set down in my own handwriting the first few scenes. Within a year, I had the book completed. The Wrights had become an obsession, and I scoured Dayton for every piece of information.

One day I tripped into The Kettering-Moraine Museum, and was met by the director, Melba Hunt. A fascinating, somewhat eccentric lady that knew her Wright history. In the museum, I was introduced to many relics belonging to the Wright family. A year later, after a friendship had developed, I was invited behind the velvet ropes…

  • I touched the quilt made by Susan Wright, the mother
  • I held Bishop Milton Wright’s spectacles
  • I glanced through the family Bible with all the notes pertaining to births, marriages and deaths
  • I held several of Bishop’s canes
  • I touched Orville’s bed
  • I sat at Katharine’s desk
  • Melba handed me a jacket to hold while digging through a closet; the white dinner jacket, covered in a clear plastic cleaning bag had a note: “Orville Wright wore this jacket to a dinner at the White House with Franklin Roosevelt, 1942.” I reached up under the plastic and held the jacket’s sleeve
  • and then, Melba handed me a little box which I opened… I pulled out two relics – a sliver of wood and a swatch of material from the very first Wright flying machine that flew at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. The one that hangs in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum has been completely restored, and most of the wing covering is now at the Dayton Air Force Museum.

What a great day!

In 2003, two wonderful ladies joined me as my co-writers: Gail Whipple, my lyricist, and Leslie Merry, my composer. These two have been the most marvelous colaborators, and I cannot say enough for what they’ve brought to this project.

Orville Wright

So, here we are in June 2008. It has been a long haul. In the mean time I have continued to teach, raised two sons, shared my home with five foster sons, endured countless trials with all these boys, performed in several shows and major concerts, directed ten shows, worked with show choirs, traveled, buried two grandparents, welcomed two new nephews, and countless other moments in life – joyful and trying.

The past three weeks, my youngest son has been with my brother and his family in Indiana, and I have tackled one of the most amazing experiences withthis project. I completely isolated myself, with the exception of two ball games for the Lockhartfamily, and a movie night with Sophie Lockhart. I would teach all day, Mondays through Wednesdays, and then work until 2:00am. Thursdays through Sundays were spent working in the yard, spring cleaning, and writing. No matter what errand was at hand, the Wright project consumed me as I battled so many moments where I just could not budge anything.

Katharine Wright

Finally, something clicked earlier this week, and everything began falling into place. The past few days have been intense, exhilarating and fulfilling. I completely rearranged the outline, deleted a few characters (gulp), cut one of my favorite scenes, and strenghtened the musical for what may be the final rewrite.

Over the past nine years, I have become so fond of Wilbur and Orville Wright, and their sister, Katharine. What an interesting family, an inspiring family. One of my favorite places to visit is Woodland Cemetery and the Wright Family plot containing the remains of Bishop and Susan Wright, Wilbur, Katharine and Orville, and the remains of twins born between Wilbur and Orville, Ida and Otis (they died shortly after birth). There were two other brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin, both older than Wilbur.

Katharine entertaining crowned heads of Europe, 1909.

Katharine is the most fascinating. She graduated from Oberlin College in Northern Ohio, and taught Latin and Greek at Steele High School in Dayton. Katharine was the only Wright child to graduate from high school. In fact, neither Wilbur or Orville graduated from high school.

 In September 1908 (nearly one hundred years ago), Orville was injured in a crash while demonstrating a flyer for the United States Army. Katharine left her teaching position to nurse him, never returning to her career. Instead, she served as her brothers’ social secretary, and accompanied them throughout Europe, charming kings, queens, princes and other notable figures. Spains’ King Alphonso said she was the “ideal American woman.”

Katharine & Wilbur – Katharine’s first flight – note the modesty cord on her skirt.

One day, Wilbur took Katharine on her first flight. Her voluminous skirts were tied with a “modesty cord.” With the flight completed, she scooted away from the plane, the modesty cord still in place. Katharine’s playful moment had surpassed her charm and wit. A fashion designer from Paris’ House of Paquin captured the moment – thus was born, the Hobble Skirt!

Wilbur died in 1912, and Orville was devastated. He did not possess Wilbur’s understanding with business, and especially, the ability to tackle the endless court battles protecting their patent. Katharine was at his side. They retired to a beautiful home, Hawthorn Hill, in Oakwood (less than a mile from where I live).

Katharine Wright Haskell

In 1925, Katharine fell in love with Harry Haskell, a fellow graduate of Oberlin. Harry and his wife, Isabelle, were both great friends of Katharine, and had Harry asked her, Katharine would have married him. In 1923, Isabelle died from cancer. Katharine, always the true friend, sent endless letters and gifts to Harry, now the editor for The Kansas City Star. Within a few years, they had fallen in love.

However, Katharine was terrified to tell Orville of her engagement. Orville imagined this unspoken, unwritten pact that they would always remain together. Finally, Katharine and Harry told Orville, and he exploded, refusing to speak to Katharine. 

On Nov. 20, 1926, Katharine, 52, and Harry, 54, were married in the Oberlin home of friends. Katharine moved with Harry to his home in Kansas City. She told friends that her new life as a wife was a fairy tale come true.

The Wright sister would never see her brother again – until he came to her bedside the day before she died.

Orville Wright lived until 1948, but Katharine and Harry Haskell had just two years and three months together. Despite a bad cold, Katharine was planning a trip abroad with Harry in the winter of 1929. It had been 20 years since Katharine’s first trip to Europe, when she had flown in her brothers’ magical flying machine and met King Edward VII of England, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and King Alfonso XIII of Spain.

A couple of weeks before Katharine and Harry were to board a ship for their trip abroad, her cold turned into pneumonia. The death watch began. Harry asked his wife if she wanted to see Orville.

 

Orville arrived on a Saturday. Harry asked Katharine if she recognized her brother.

“Yes, of course,” she whispered. She died on Sunday, March 3, 1929. She was 54.

Katharine Wright had been revered by kings and presidents. She had been to the White House – walked right up to Presidents William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge, and shook their hands boldly. Like the royals in France, the presidents were charmed.

Katharine Wright might be just a footnote to history, but author Richard Maurer said she was far more than a footnote to the lives and achievements of her brothers.

“You can take the airplane out of the lives of the Wright brothers, and they would have been pretty insignificant and uninteresting people,” Maurer said. “That’s not true of Katharine. She did not let the airplane define her.”

If the life of the Wrights were a movie, Maurer said, the sister would be the star:

“Katharine has a bit part, but she’s the character you remember. In the story of the Wrights, she gets the Academy Award for the best supporting actress. Katharine Wright steals the show.”

 

In March 1929, Orville received word that Katharine was dying from pneumonia. He was finally convinced to visit her, arriving the day before she died. Katharine was 53. Orville requested her body be returned to Dayton where she now rests between Wilbur and Orville – a fitting place for the sister who gave so much of her self to the brothers who taught the world how to fly.

Orville Wright. 1945

In 1948, Orville suffered a heart attack and died. That following December, the original Kitty Hawk Flyer was installed in the Smithsonian following a thirty-three year battle which finally resulted with the institution’s recognition that the Wrights were indeed, the first to fly.

So, my journey with the Wright family is nearing an end. There will be additional re-writes, eventual rehearsals and performances, but my intimate work with the Wrights will be over. Once a director steps in, it is much like sending your child off to school for the first time… the acorn can not be closed once the oak begins to grow.

I have several projects on deck, crying to be written:

  • The Mink Story
  • finishing Love Is Eternal: Mary Todd & Abraham Lincoln
  • Eleanor Roosevelt
  • King Edwards VIII & Wallace Simpson
  • a musical on the ghosts of five first ladies, The Sorority
  • and so many more…

But in the meantime, I am enjoying this time with the Wrights… they have been wonderful companions these past nine years.

 

Footnote: Katharine’s husband, Henry “Harry” Haskell, went on to marry a third time, outliving his third wife. Harry received three Pulitzer Prizes for his editorials – one of which warned the world about the new German chancellor, Adolph Hitler.

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