Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Aloha

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Brains, Beauty & Breeches – World Tour Offer For Lucky Young Woman…. Wanted to join an expedition… Asia, Africa…

This ad appeared in a Nice (France) newspaper, in 1922.
Idris Galcia Hall – born in Canada in 1906 – was at the time a not-too-enthusiastic guest in a local convent. Her father, an English reserve officer, had died in Ypres, in 1917, and her mother was surviving on a small pension. Idris saw the advertisement as a good way to escape the convent, and make some money to support her mother.
So she skipped church, and went and met Captain Wanderwell, the guy that had posted the ad.

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I end up repeating the usual story – history is usually a lot weirder than fiction, and it’s peopled by characters that would be considered impossible if presented in a novel.
For instance…

“Captain” Walter Wanderwell’s real name was Valerian Johannes Pieczynski, and during the Great War he had been incarcerated in the USA for espionage. He was not a captain, of course, but now, under his new name, he was traveling the world as part of the Million Dollar Wager: he had wagered he’d be able to travel the world on a fleet of Ford Ts in a self-sustained way… that is, rising money for his expences while on the road. The lot, to increase awareness for his organization, which was called Work around the World Educational Club for International Police.
I kid you not.
According to the “Captain”‘s plan, his expedition would shot documentaries in the countries it visited, and show them – for a price – on the next stop, together with a vaudeville show and some lecturing.

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The “Lucky Young Woman” of the ad was supposed to appear in the movies and on stage, and become as a sort of mascotte/celebrity.
Wanderwell was looking for a brunette – because brunettes looked better on film.
What he got was a six-foot tall, 16-year old blonde.
He would not have occasion for complaints: along the way, during the next 7 years, Idris Hall – under her new stage name of Aloha Wanderwell (her mother had prohibited her to use the family name – to avoid scandals) – would be secretary, driver, cinematographer, actress, director, film editor, spokesperson, photographer, writer, seamstress, dancer, interpreter (she spoke five languages) and mechanic.
She put together a respectable curriculum…

She was the first woman to drive around the globe in a Ford Model-T – at age 16 – covering over 380,000 miles and visiting over 80 countries.
She flew across India and did the Cape Town to the Nile run, and was the first woman to fly over (or into, as we’ll see) Brazil’s Mato Grosso – shooting the first film of the Bororo people of Brazil.
She was (probably) a member of the French Foreign Legion and (certainly) of the Women’s International Association of Aviators.

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During the expedition she also directed/wrote/edited a movie called Car and Camera Around the World – the first of twelve documentaries she would shoot in her career.

Once the world tour was over, Aloha and the “Captain” sought more adventures.

aloha wanderwell walter bakerWhile flying over Mato Grosso in 1930, looking for traces of the missing the Fawcett expedition, the Wanderwells (Aloha and the Cap by that time had married, and had a daughter), crashed in the jungle.
The “Captain” embarked on a jungle crossing mission to reach civilization and get help, while Aloha remained behind, a guest of the Bororo tribe.
She made a movie of her experience, Last of the Bororos – one of the three movies shot for the Amazonian expedition.

In 1932, Walter Wanderwell was killed by person(s) unknown while on the yacht he had purchased for the next adventure. The murder, that took place in Laguna Beach, California, was never solved, and it cast a dark shadow on the popular widow. Gossip was rife. The fact that she later married her young cameraman did not make things easier. And yet Aloha kept going.

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Now called Aloha Wanderwell Baker, she continued her travels, shot more film and visited – among other places – Indochina and parts east.
call-to-adventure-cover-560x760In 1939 she published Aloha Wanderwell, Call to Adventure, telling the story of her early globetrotting years. The book was also designed to bring her back in the public’s graces.
The volume (currently available as an ebook, and highly recommended) paints a heroic image of Aloha, and is a weird mix of keen observation and dispassionate, almost haughty detachment. Aloha appears singularly focused on her desire to travel the world, and she is a good writer when it comes to provide color and local detail – even at the risk of appearing cold in her precision.
She lacks, to make a probably unfair comparison, Rosita Forbes‘ wit and grace, but she more than makes up for this by piling adventure upon adventure. Some of the incidents – starting with Aloha booking a fourth-class berth on a ship loaded with French Legionaries in Marseille to reach the rest of the Wanderwell expedition in Egypt – are certainly a sign that the young woman was made of strong stuff.

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Finally, Aloha Wanderwell settled in Ohio, and later moved with her husband to California.
Her last public lecture was in 1982.
She died in 1996.

While we can accept that some of Aloha’s myth was an accurately designed fantasy, part of her late husband’s marketing machine, her achievements are real and her stature as an early-20th-century adventuress undisputed.
And it sort of makes me wonder what changed in these 100 years – if we changed, or the world, or both. Can you imagine, today, a 16 years old girl joining a caravan of cars for destination unknown?
But maybe this sort of stuff does still happen, and our grandchildren will read about in in books, and wonder as we do.

ADDENDUM: in case you’re interested, here’s this interesting Aloha Wanderwell Timeline on Pinterest…

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

3 thoughts on “Aloha

  1. Wonderful story, wonderful woman.
    On first seeing “Captain” Wanderwell’s surname, I thought it was too perfect to be true – and indeed! He must have been shameless. 😀

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    • Apparently he was – a true master of self-marketing, in the habit of wearing strange uniforms (see photographs) and yet very down-to-earth when it came to business.
      His mysterious death adds (more than) a touch of drama to a character that was very comedic in his way.

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  2. WAWEC was inspirational. Aloha was an Enigma!

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