Katharine Wright — aviation’s unsung heroine
Books and Manuscripts specialist Heather Pisani delves into letters from Katharine Wright, sister of Orville and Wilbur Wright, which reveal intimate details about the life of an extraordinary woman. Offered in New York on 14 June
Katharine Wright — Kate or Katie, to her friends — was the bright, lively, and strong-willed sister of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. As vivacious as her brothers were shy, her dedication to them was an essential factor in their triumphs.
Over the years Katharine Wright deftly managed their affairs and championed their legacy — all the while effortlessly charming those around her. The archive of letters offered at Christie’s in New York on 14 June highlight her vital role in the larger Wright narrative.
But Katharine Wright was so much more than merely a supporting player in the story of early aviation. Her personal successes extended well beyond those defined by her brothers: she was an energetic advocate of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Ohio and one of the first female trustees of her alma mater, Oberlin College.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1874, Katharine Wright was the youngest of five children, and following her mother’s death in 1889 became the woman of the house. Rather than remaining at home, however, she would be the first Wright to attend college, enrolling in 1893 at Oberlin, the first co-educational institution in the country.
Fiercely loyal, she postponed her studies during her junior year to nurse a sickly Orville — whom she tellingly nicknamed ‘Younger Brother’, even though he was older than her by three years.
After graduating in 1898 with a degree in Classics, she returned home and took a post as a high-school Latin teacher. According to Orville she would go on to ‘flunk many of Dayton’s future leaders’ while also managing her brothers’ bicycle shop. (At the time, bicycling was proclaimed by some as a moral hazard, although the spirited Katharine was apparently unfazed: an 1896 photo shows her and Oberlin classmates grinning together beside their bicycles.)
Her marriage proved divisive — Orville accused his sister of abandoning him and they never spoke again
Sacrificing her own ambitions on the altar of her family’s needs would be a recurring theme throughout Katharine’s life. In 1908 Orville broke several ribs after crashing an aeroplane during testing for the US Army at Fort Myer in Virginia — his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, was the first person to be killed in a flying accident. Katharine gave up teaching, and went to his rescue once more.
She would not marry until 1926, less than three years before her death at the age of 54. Sadly, her union with widower and fellow Oberlin alumnus Henry (‘Harry’) Haskell proved divisive — Orville accused his sister of abandoning him and they never spoke again.
Katharine had risen to prominence while in France in 1909, where she emerged as an important figure in the story of early aviation. Orville and Wilbur were there to demonstrate their planes and garner support, and while the people of France were dazzled by their exhibitions, they were less impressed by the brothers themselves. Oberlin Alumni Magazine reported that they were ‘not the kind of guys you would want to invite to dinner. You could picture them coming over [...] and not saying a word.’
Katharine, though, made a much more positive impression on the European public. The only Wright to speak French, she dominated the social scene with her Midwestern charm and candour, landing invitations to exclusive dinners (including the Aéro-Club de France, where she was reportedly the first woman ever in attendance). The French would award all three Wrights the Legion of Honour.
On 14 June, Christie’s will offer an archive of correspondence from Katharine Wright to journalist and longtime friend Earl Findley in New York. Below, we present a selection of highlights.
Battling the Smithsonian Institution over recognition for her brothers
The Smithsonian credited Samuel P. Langley (1834-1906) as the inventor of the first working aeroplane, despite Langley’s failure to conduct a successful test in his lifetime. In fact, Langley’s machine only flew after Glenn Curtiss’s modifications to the design in 1914.
Here, on 3 February 1915, an impassioned Katharine writes about the Curtiss-Wright patent war that dragged on for years and consumed her brothers: ‘The Curtiss people are trying to show that the Langley machine was the real pioneer machine. [...] Before I ever quit on this business, the Smithsonian Institution must be shown up for joining in such a fraud. That will be difficult to do and must be handled with great care and tact, but in time, I think we can get the facts before the public, in the right way.’
She continues, ‘I am determined that the country shall know that Wilbur was killed by the fights he had to make to keep from having every thing stolen, that the last years of his life were worse than thrown away — that the government which pretended to give him a patent has made the patent worthless by disregarding it, even now after the case has really been settled — that, in short, a patent is a swindle, pure and simple, and that patent procedure in the Courts is a disgrace’.
Cementing the Wright brothers’ legacy
‘I’ve been thinking about the book,’ writes Katharine on 11 March 1915, contemplating the prospect of a full-length Wright Brothers biography and all that such a serious undertaking would entail. In 1915, Orville and Katharine Wright asked if Findley would author such a biography. ‘I have been touched — I shall not try to say how deeply — by the spirit which I discover in all you do and say about writing this book, in which I, too, am so tremendously interested.’
She notes that Findley desires ‘a complete history of the invention of the flying machine,’ and comments, ‘I want to be sure it is in the hands of someone competent and trustworthy. I am afraid that if anything should happen to me, Orville would not see the importance of getting it done.’ Despite Katharine’s guidance, however, Orville ultimately disapproved of the project and Findley’s work was discarded.
Katharine’s other cause — the Women’s Suffrage Movement
An energetic community activist, Wright organised a 1914 march in Dayton, Ohio, that drew 1,300 supporters, including her father.
Katharine vividly captures the climate in February 1917 when she writes to Findley: ‘Wednesday, I spent going to Columbus to be present in the Senate when the bill granting presidential suffrage to women was voted upon and passed. The ‘Antis’ who believe that ‘woman’s place is in the home’ (!) and the liquor men took the defeat with not very good grace. The chief argument against it was from an O'Brien of Cincinnati, a saloon-keeper. The House passed the bill, several weeks ago, so it will become law as soon as the governor signs it.’
Katharine’s marriage, and the rift with Orville
Seen as an act of betrayal by Orville, Katharine’s marriage at the age of 51 caused an irreparable rift between the siblings. On 14 November 1926, Katharine writes to Findley: ‘Harry Haskell and I are to be married next Saturday at Oberlin. Mr Haskell is the Kansas City Star friend of whom we have talked a great deal.
‘You may remember hearing of him,’ she continues. ‘You will understand how almost unendurable it is for Orv and me. I count on your understanding and sympathy for us both. Please don't write to Orv now for he can't bear it.’
She closes the letter with the thought: ‘It is all very difficult for me. I love my Little Brother so much, as you know. But you will like Mr Haskell. I am sure.’