Thursday, 7 June 2012

Miss Jean Batten - "Anything but Love and Kisses"

Miss Jean Batten in her Heyday
[Source : "Alone in the Sky"]

The 1930's solo flying exploits of the fearless New Zealand Aviatrix Extraordinaire Miss Jean Batten are still legendary. But she is best remembered in this part of the world for her 14,224 mile 11 day record-breaking but gruelling solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936. Her "Percival Gull' aeroplane is 'hung' in pride of place in the departure lounge of Auckland International Airport. My own brief 'meeting' with her in 1980 has forever remained vividly etched on my mind but more of that later.  

Rather than list her endless achievements and tortuous personal life, an excellent 1988 Television New Zealand documentary provided on-line courtesy of the New Zealand Film Archive accurately describes her life including her lonely end : Jean Batten - The Garbo of the Skies [Click this title to view].

Miss Jean Batten's 1936 England to New Zealand  record flight
Percival Gull Aeroplane
[Source : Wikipedia]

Ever enjoying the limelight and adulation she appears to have craved attention, forever reliving her glory days of the 1930's. But conversely she was also an extremely private person, "going to ground" like a lost soul for long periods of time. In her later years she made her second to last trip back to New Zealand as Guest of Honour to open the Aviation Pioneers Pavilion at Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology in 1977. What became her final visit to New Zealand in 1980 appears to have been mainly to promote her newly published book "Alone in the Sky". While she stayed with family in New Zealand she is reported to have been distant and 'somewhat difficult'.

The still glamorous Miss Jean Batten with bleached hair
as she appeared around the time I met her.
[Source : Jean Batten - The Garbo of the Skies"]

My own brief 'meeting' with Miss Batten occurred at a book signing in a departmental store in Invercargill during her 1980 visit. Arriving after 1pm and presumably after the lunchtime rush she cut a rather lonely figure standing beside a table of her books, the book department then being devoid of shoppers - or admirers. I expressed an interest in her book whereupon she gave me instructions in her authoritative and cultured voice to take it to the counter, pay for it, they would put it in a bag for me, then to bring it back to her whereupon she would sign it.

And the Treasured Autograph of Miss Jean Batten 

Her words to me have remained vividly etched on my mind. "Now what would you like?" she asked when opening the front cover of her book, then in a no nonsense tone of voice, "You can have anything you like as long as it's not love and kisses". I replied that "Anything would do". I suppose I was somewhat star-struck! Whereupon she asked my name then signed the book personally to myself adding "best wishes, Jean Batten, 13/3/1980". As she proceeded to place it back in the bag she turned the book over to reveal the appealing photo of herself on the back of the dust cover shown at the top of this page. She merely said "That's me" with a smile and in a proud tone of voice, obviously revelling in being able to bring to my attention such a glamorous photo of herself from her glory years. Always immaculate, there was never anything deshabilé about Miss Batten, especially later in life.

The Statue of Miss Jean Batten outside
Auckland International Airport.
[Source : Wikipedia]

It was Miss Batten's intention to return to New Zealand in 1981 as the Guest of Honour aboard a specially chartered supersonic 'Concorde' flight to celebrate the 45th anniversary of her 1936 record-breaking flight. The 14 hour flight was to follow the route she herself had taken. But sadly, lack of bookings meant the flight had to be cancelled. Jean was "absolutely devastated that it didn't happen". Again she 'went to ground' and it was to be almost five years later that news of her eventual demise finally emerged.

Miss Jean Batten, taken in 1936
[Source : Wikipedia]

Not letting anyone into her personal life, she quietly met her end as a lonely recluse living at Palma on the Island of Majorca on the 22nd November 1982, her leg having become infected after a dog bite for which she had refused medical attention. Although 'a woman of means', a bureaucratic bungle by the Spanish authorities on Majorca meant that she ended up being buried in a communal pauper's grave. The immediate news of her demise was exacerbated by Miss Batten's own intense desire for privacy. But her intention that her ashes should be interred close to the Auckland International Airport Terminal Building remained unfulfilled. A life-sized statue of her has however been installed outside the airport terminal.

In life as in death Miss Batten (for few were ever allowed to call her Jean) remains enigmatic. But her undisputed achievements will keep her name alive, least not by her fellow New Zealander's. And as you walk through the departure lounge of Auckland International Airport cast your eyes up at her Percival Gull aeroplane suspended from the ceiling and remember for one quiet moment Miss Jean Batten - Aviatrix Extraordinaire.

Bibliography :

- Wikipedia
- New Zealand on Screen

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