Who was Linton Wells?
(April 1893 – January 1976)
(and the astonishing aviatrix Fay Gillis Wells)
Looking for Mabel
February 3, 2010
Linton Wells (April 1893–January 1976) was a noted foreign correspondent, world traveler and pioneer broadcaster. He was the author of Blood on the Moon, his autobiography; Around the World in Twenty-Eight Days, Jumping Meridians, Salute to Valor and the novel, Suzanna. And he was a friend to Mabel Normand; in his autobiography, Linton wrote of Mabel, “charming woman, incomparable friend and matchless comedienne.”
Linton Wells was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 1, 1893, although he didn’t graduate with the Class of 1914 he did attend the US Naval Academy. When he was 19 years old he became a foreign correspondent where he covered Sun Yat Sen and the Xinhai Revolution for the China Press. With the opening of World War I, he served for a short time in the Navy after returning to the States. He ended up covering another revolution this time in Mexico, in 1915 it was during this time he learned to fly and on a trip to the South Seas even helped build the Samoa dam. Linton had one more revolution to report on; this time the Russian revolution; even being imprisoned by the Bolsheviks near Irkutsk.
Than he went back to Asia as a foreign correspondent not returning to the States until 1921 where he became a Hollywood reporter this lasted until 1923; it was during this period he became a friend to Mabel Normand, writing the novel for her feature film Suzanna (Sennett 1922). Suzanna had a historical theme, the characters were drawn with great fidelity; it was a vividly colored story of love and romance in 1835 California. He became reunited with his wife and young daughter, Barbara Jeanne, it was during this period his second daughter, Patricia Suzanna was born. He wrote about the Roscoe Arbuckle trials, the William Desmond Taylor murder, Wally Reid’s death and all the stories that made the period as exciting in Hollywood as a revolution.
There was a rather nasty business which developed between Linton Wells and Mack Sennett regarding the credit for the authorship of Mabel’s feature film, Suzanna. It seems to be a misunderstanding between two alpha-males. The battleground was the Los Angeles courtroom. Linton Wells argued that Mack Sennett had asked him to write Suzanna as a book and Mack was going to pay a ‘substantial’ bonus and a large share of all royalties from the sale of the published volume and Linton also said that Mack had promised him screen credit as Suzanna’s author. Linton also was asserted there would be a large amount of money and acknowledgement would be coming but Linton Wells’ name does not appear on the screen, Mark Sennett had on screen credit as the author of the story and he had not received any money by the fall of 1922. Linton told the court that he wrote the novel in just 5 months and sent the manuscript to Mack. But when the novel Suzanna appeared it was not with the name Linton Wells as the author instead the name Harry Sinclair Drago was the name of the author of Linton’s Suzanna.
Mack Sennett seemed to feel that Suzanna was his idea and that he had to pay a second writer to rewrite Suzanna because the publishers refused to put out a book by Linton because he was an unknown author and Harry Sinclair Drago was not. Mack said that Linton was under a Sennett contract at the time the book was written in the studio’s scenario department and Linton was writing feature stories on the filming of Suzanna. Mack was adamant that he had paid Linton for his work. Of course, Linton was adamant that the book was extraneous to the terms of his other contract and the work done on the book was done at his home and not in his capacity as a Sennett employee and was part of a separate agreement. And he was to receive a bonus or royalty or percentage of sales. The book with Harry Sinclair Drago’s name on it and the manuscript was both read in court. Harry had lifted page after page and had done a wholesale plagiarism of Linton manuscript even to the grammatical errors. Harry did add a prologue, and a bandit character that was not found in the Suzanna movie or Linton’s story. Linton fixed the amount of $10,000 as reimbursement for his time, and share of his royalties. Linton does not include any mention of the lawsuit in his biography. This was not a war that Linton reported on.
After his adventures in the wilds of Hollywood he headed for Japan as an Associated Press reporter and where he was injured September 1, 1923 in the Great Kanto earthquake.
Linton stowed away on the Boston, a US Army aircraft on the first round-the-world flight; the first leg was between Calcutta to Karachi, he was still working for the Associated Press. In 1925 Linton and Leigh Wade, his fellow pilot made the first non-stop automobile trip between Los Angeles and New York (167 hours and 50 minutes - around 7 days on the road). He was not though with record setting as in 1926, he and Edward Steptoe Evans made a trip around the world in 28 days (14 hours and 36 minutes). It wasn’t long before he was fighting in Nicaragua.
He was back working as a correspondent by 1929 for the International News Service, coving Europe. Linton returned to Russia (USSR) where he reported from Moscow between 1932 to early 1934. While in Moscow he met Fay Gillis, the pilot, who would become his second wife.
Helen Fay Gillis was born on Oct. 15, 1908, in Minneapolis; her family moved often, she graduated from Battin High School in Elizabeth New Jersey in 1925 and attended Michigan State University. Fay’s father Julius H. Gillis, a mining engineer gave her an ultimatum to find something to do. Her first choice – flying; one sunny afternoon in 1929 when the biplane her instructor was piloting spun out of control over Long Island, Fay, a slender, brown-haired woman, loomed large in the public eye. Her parachute jump to safety was reported in all the New York newspapers, resulting in her becoming among the first saleswomen of airplanes, she was hired by the Curtiss Flying Service in Valley Stream, Long Island, demonstrating and selling aircraft across the country. She was reported as saying; she fell into her first job, part of which was convincing women that aviation was safe. How Mabel Normand would have loved her.
By saving her life with a parachute, she became a member of the Caterpillar Club, so named because the silk in parachutes came from caterpillars. To become a member of the Caterpillar Club, you were required to have to be forced to bail out of a disabled plane to save your life. Four days after earning her federal pilot's license -- #9497 -- on Oct. 5, 1929, Fay wrote letters to the 117 other American women who were licensed to fly, asking them to meet on Long Island; in part because of enthusiasm about Amelia Earhart's flight across the Atlantic the year before.
When her father went to Moscow in 1930 to work in his capacity as a mining engineer, she and her sister, Beth went along, Fay as an aviation correspondent. She became the first American woman to fly a Soviet airplane and the first foreigner to own a Soviet glider. She married for the first time on a lark to experience the Palace of Weddings in Moscow only to discover that the immediate divorce, she and her husband Ellery Walter, the writer had planned was a bit trickier. Yes, indeed, Mabel Normand would have understood, Fay.
Linton covered the coronation of the puppet emperor, Puyi coronation in Manchukuo. On June 23, 1931 Wiley Post and Harold Gatty, a navigator started from Long Island and started around the world, Post arrived back in Long Island in exactly 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes, it was the most dramatic flight in history up to that point. Post resumed his duties as a pilot and purchased the Winnie Mae. He equipped his plane with an automatic pilot and in July 1933 repeated his flight around the world, this time in 7 days, 18 hours and 49 minutes.
In 1933, Fay arranged the landing fields and fuel storage for Wiley Post and logistics for the critical Russian leg in Siberia of Post's record solo flight around the world. He invited her to fly with him for a 2,250-mile leg, but then decided against it because it might endanger the record as a solo flight.
Post tried to make it up to her by taking her on a flight in 1935 to Siberia by way of Alaska. The plane was a hybrid Lockheed with a new Wasp 550-horse-power engine, the wings of a cracked-up Sirus and the fuselage of a wrecked Orion and a set of pontoons. Fay regretfully turned down the trip, which turned out to be the one on which Post and Will Rogers, her replacement, died in a crash near Point Barrow, Alaska.
Instead, she went on a honeymoon to Ethiopia with Linton Wells, the very swashbuckling foreign correspondent. They had met up again in New York in 1935; their marriage grew out of a movie date in Manhattan. Instead of seeing ''The Wedding Night,'' starring Gary Cooper, they eloped and saw the movie the next night.
Fay Gillis and Linton Wells were married on Linton’s 42 birthday, in 1935 and their honeymoon trip was to Ethiopia for the Herald Tribune to cover the Italian invasion. Fay reported feeling safer meeting the bearded warriors of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia alone at night than many of the men who hung around Broadway. When she was a foreign correspondent, her mysterious movements during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia caused London tabloids to speculate that she was an Italian spy.
Fay and Linton had bylines on Page 1 of The Herald Tribune on the same day. During lulls in the action, she taught other foreign correspondents to knit. In 1936, the couple went to Hollywood, where Faye and Linton were again Hollywood reporters for The Herald Tribune.
They had taken a leopard, a lioness and a cheetah back to the States, and Fay accompanied by her pet leopard, Snooks did Hollywood interviews. Linton worked on his autobiography which was published in 1937 titled Blood on the Moon. By 1938, Fay and Linton were pioneering in overseas radio broadcasts from Latin America; they became founding members of the Overseas Press Club.
As Linton was nearing 50 his life of adventure didn’t seem to slow, in 1939, it was reported that he and Fay were asked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the British government to investigate a potential location for a postwar Jewish homeland somewhere in Africa, this was a very secret mission; in 1941 they recommended Angola.
Linton was part of one of the first television news broadcasts on December 7, after the attack of Pearl Harbor. During WW II, in West Africa, Linton and Fay headed the US Commercial Company buying war materials between 1942–1946. They came home after the birth of their son, Linton Wells, II in 1946 in Luanda, Angola. Fay became a stay-at-home mother for 18 years. For a number of years, the family lived on a houseboat in Florida and Fay designed yacht interiors, wrote a syndicated column called Nautical Notebook for the Herald Tribune, and got a patent on a furniture design for boats (the work of a stay-at-home mother is never done). Back in 1935, Fay modeled a line of clothes, which she had designed, in one full page article published in February 28, she was shown in crush-proof easy to wear lovely outfits. She looks very much the equal of the movie stars she went on to interview.
In the early 1960s, Linton brought a radio station in New York, and he did some work for the American Export Lines in New York; he opened the Washington News Bureau in 1963 taking over the Storer Broadcasting Company. Fay spent the next 13 years covering Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Fay was assigned to report on the White House. In 1972, she was one of only 3 women selected to accompany Richard Nixon on his historic trip to the People's Republic of China.
Linton Wells died in January 1976, Fay became a widow of 68, that year she had become one of charter members of the International Forest of Friendship in Amelia Earhart's hometown, Atchison, KN. The Ninety-Nines (International Organization of Women Pilots), Fay was one of the last four to become one of the original 99. She was in constant demand to fill speaking engagements; she devoted much of the latter part of her life to maintaining the group's International Forest of Friendship. The Forest was a gift to America on America’s 200th birthday in 1976 from the City of Atchison, Kansas (the birthplace of Amelia Earhart); The Ninety-Nines (International Organization of Women Pilots), and the University of Kansas Forestry Extension. It was Amelia that said, "You haven't seen a tree until you've seen its shadow from the sky.” This forest is made up of trees from all fifty states and thirty-five countries around the world where Honorees reside. There are trees from George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, the Bicentennial American Spruce, a tree from Amelia's grandfather's farm, and the Moon Tree grown from a seed taken to the moon by Command Pilot Stuart Roosa on Apollo 14. The Moon Tree honors the 17 astronauts of the Columbia Shuttle who gave their lives in America's pioneering of space exploration. In 1991, a gazebo was dedicated to Fay Wells, in honor of her leadership to the Forest.
For years, Fay went to Gettysburg, PA., every week to play bridge with President Dwight D. Eisenhower's widow, Mamie. When Fay was 88, she oversaw a contest for fifth graders to design and fly paper airplanes. In 1995, Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker, famous discoverers of comets and asteroids, named Asteroid 4820 in her honor.
She is said to have deeply regret missing out on being an astronaut. Fay Gillis Wells died on December 2, 2002 in Fairfax, VA, she was 94.
It is an honorable family of award winners and public service, and very important (to me) Linton Wells was a friend to Mabel Normand; an incomparable friend.