PROPERTY FROM THE WRIGHT BROTHERS AND LINDBERGH PAPERS OF AVIATION JOURNALIST, EARL FINDLEY
Earl Nelson Findley (1878-1956) holds the distinction of being one the only journalists to enjoy the trust and confidence of Wilbur and Orville Wright, and became one of the few people willing to publically challenge the Smithsonian's decades-long refusal to credit the Wright Brothers as the inventors of the first heavier-than-air flying machine. Findley's vocal advocacy on behalf of the Wrights, and his discretion, earned him the enduring confidence and friendship of both brothers, as well as their sister Katharine, until the ends of their lives. While it appears that most of Findley's interactions with Wilbur were verbal (either in person or over the telephone), his relationship with Orville and Katharine resulted in an intimate, decades-long correspondence that prompted a bevy of candid and intimate letters from both—revealing the private world of the Wrights, little-known to outsiders. Appreciating his good fortune to enjoy such intimate access, and the historical importance of his interactions with the Wrights, Findley retained much of his outgoing correspondence, which together with letters from other interested correspondents and related news clippings and ephemera, offer helpful context for the reader.
Born in Xenia, Ohio, just to the west of the Wright's hometown of Dayton, Earl Findley first encountered the Wrights in the spring of 1908 as a young reporter for the New York Tribune. His editor had assigned him to obtain an interview with Wilbur and Orville, who were then visiting New York. Findley camped out in the lobby of their hotel for a good part of a day in hopes of buttonholing the brothers, but only managed to get only an incredibly brief interview: a comment from Wilbur about the beauty of the trees in Xenia, Ohio, before they disappeared into their rooms. Findley made the most of his misfortune, penning a humorous, self-deprecating account on how he managed not to interview the elusive Wright Brothers.
Undeterred, Findley made another attempt during New York City's Hudson-Fulton Celebration the following year, where Wilbur Wright staged a dramatic demonstration flight over New York Harbor. Eager to obtain an interview, Findley crossed a police cordon to approach the hanger where Wright was preparing his plane, and military police promptly arrested him. Wilbur Wright caught wind of the incident, and believing the treatment of the young reporter unfair, invited Findley to dine with him alone—a journalistic coup for the young reporter. "Up to that time I had never had an interview with him alone," Findley recalled, adding that from that “time on until his death, I never failed to reach Wilbur by phone, or in person, on his trips to New York. He told me he had left word at the hotel desk that any message from me was to be given to him. He said 'If I can't see you for any reason, I will always talk to you on the phone when you call me."' Wilbur died in 1912, but Findley remained in contact with the family—a relationship that only strengthened with time.
Beginning in 1918, and until his death in 1956, Earl Findley managed and edited a specialist aviation trade journal, U.S. Air Services. Although he wrote and published articles on a wide variety of aviation topics, Findley's cause célèbre was Orville Wright's long battle for recognition from the Smithsonian Institution as the inventor of the first working airplane. Over a span of thirty years, Earl Findlay and Orville Wright exchanged numerous, frank letters concerning the Smithsonian controversy, as well as numerous other subjects—they even exchanged several frank letters concerning national and international politics. Over those years, Findley grew close to the Wrights. In 1923 Orville invited him to join the Wright family at their summer retreat on Georgian Bay in Ontario, and in 1939, Findlay accompanied Orville on a drive from Washington to the North Carolina Outer Banks, for what would be Wright's final visit to Kitty Hawk. Findley not only enjoyed a frequent correspondence with Orville Wright (who counted Findley among his longest and closest friends), but also with Orville's sister Katharine Wright, Mabel Beck (the family's long-serving assistant), as well as other important players in early aviation including Charles Lindbergh and Griffith Brewer.
This remarkable, revealing correspondence offers the reader a rare glimpse in to the intimate world of the Wright Brothers. Writing to a trusted correspondent like Findley, Orville Wright, who closely guarded his public image and valued his privacy, felt comfortable to vent his frustrations to Findley–resulting in a wonderful selection of detailed letters, though often concerning serious and important subjects, are candid, familiar and often quite amusing.
Findley, Earl N., "The Wrights and the Reporter," The Bee-Hive, Vol. 28 (Spring 1953), 25-29.
McFarland, Marvin W. "Earl Nelson Findley," U.S. Air Services, Vol. 41, No. 7 (July 1956), 5-7.