Local Pilot Makes Good

Paul Mantz isn’t well known in Redwood City where he grew up, but he should be because he is a Hollywood legend.

Mantz didn’t become a screen leading man, although he took death-defying risks for them. Mantz was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, stunt flyers (a term he disliked. Mantz used “precision” flyer) in movie history. He took one too many risks. Death caught up with him in 1965 while filming the movie “Flight of the Phoenix” starring Jimmy Stewart.

His name still comes up, usually in a national publication. It landed in the prestigious Smithsonian magazine in an article that drew the attention of researchers in the history room at the Redwood City library.

The magazine, a publication of the Smithsonian Institution in the nation’s capital, bills itself on the web as “the most reliable source of information about history…”   Local folks’ eyebrows went up a bit when a Smithsonian article on Jewish pilots included Mantz, son of a trustee at a Redwood City Christian church. The point may seem minor, but the statement became magnified and important because there was no source for the information.

The article entitled “Flights of Fancy” in the April 2013 issue of the Smithsonian had a famous byline. It was written by David Mamet, a playwright, essayist, screenwriter and film director. Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize and received Tony nominations for “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed-the-Plow.”

“One might ask why this interest in memorabilia and the Jews,” Mamet wrote. “Here is the answer: because there is so little. Perhaps this is an American story: my late discovery of American Jewish adventurers.”

The extensive segment about Mantz claims that at the end of Hollywood’s silent era Mantz “wanted to break into stunt-flying, but the union was tight and closed to Jews.”  There is no source for this contention, and, after repeated queries, the Smithsonian failed to provide an answer. The usual suspects would surely include “The Legend of Pancho Barnes,” a PBS documentary about Florence “Pancho” Barnes, a rare woman among the early stunt pilots, whose work included Howard Hughes’ classic, “Hell’s Angels.”

The colorful Barnes, who always seemed to wear jodhpurs, helped organize the stunt flyers union in 1931. According to the film, she insisted Mantz be admitted to the union even though the members wanted to blackball him because “he was Jewish.”

High-Flying Anti-Semites?

If true, the stunt pilots’ union must have been a squadron of anti-Semites. If not true, the accusation is a libel against a group that fought the entrenched power of the movie industry’s moguls.  The union was the Association of Motion Picture Pilots and, according to the book “The Centennial of Flight,” Mantz had his problems with the AMPP but there is no mention of religion. The trouble was that “Mantz had been taking work from union pilots” because he asked for less money. Mantz eventually joined the association but he first had to surpass the usual standard test. He performed 46 outside loops in a row, setting a world record. Airport Journals also supports this version of the clash with the union. A 2004 article by Henry Holden says Mantz “couldn’t get past the casting offices” without an AMPP card. 

In an effort to find out the truth, The Journal of Local History sent requests to the Smithsonian and received a reply from Carolyn McGhee, the publications’ reader services representative.

“I am so sorry you had to write to Smithsonian magazine again regarding David Mamet’s article in our April 2013 issue,” McGhee responded. “The editor has tried to contact the Mantz family several times to verify that Mr. Mantz was Jewish, but says he has not heard back from them.”

McGhee was asked how The Journal could contact Mantz’ relatives, but she said she could not release the information. The Journal staff found the task of locating his family to be quite simple: Google Paul Mantz.  Paul Mantz III turned out to be a school official in Utah who said his grandfather had “no religious affiliation.” He put the researchers in contact with his dad, Paul Mantz, Jr., 75, who agreed that his father “had no religion at all.”

The Redwood City Years

Having no “religion at all” was certainly not the case with Mantz’ father, Robert W. Mantz, a trustee of the First Congregational Church in Redwood City. Robert Mantz was a Redwood City grammar schools official when he died suddenly in 1917 while working in his garden at the family home.

One of the best accounts of Paul Mantz’ Redwood City years appears is in “Hollywood Pilot” by Don Dwiggins, an aviation writer who died in a car crash in 1988. The biography says Mantz, who was christened Albert Paul Mantz, was born in Alameda in 1903, just a few blocks from where Jimmy Doolittle of WWII’s “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo” fame was raised. When Mantz was an infant his family moved to Redwood City where they lived on Edgewood and later Elwood.

“As a pilot and an aviation writer who covered many of the Mantz legends for two Los Angeles newspapers, I had the opportunity to know Paul professionally,” Dwiggins wrote. After Mantz’ death Dwiggins was given the opportunity to rummage through old trunks and boxes filled with memorabilia, including a pocket address book that led Dwiggins to Marie Merrill, whom he described as “Paul’s first girl.” Dwiggins interviewed Merrill for the book, which was published in 1967. 

She recalled Mantz as a skinny lad with large, wondering eyes who liked to play in a tree house in a giant elm overhanging the family home. His antics included putting on a pair of canvas wings and getting ready to jump until his mother shouted for him to come down “this instant. It’s time to deliver your papers.”  Mantz told Dwiggins his mother then made him put a mattress underneath the tree “for added protection.” His childhood was described as near ideal. “There was a creek to swim in, and a glade of oak, eucalyptus, and elm trees to climb.”

Merrill said that the curious, inventive boy built a crystal set and “called me to come over and listen to the music. We held the headset to our ears and danced around the room. He said, ‘Marie, I want you to be the first girl I ever dance with to radio music!’ It seems silly today, but then it was wonderful, something brand-new. Paul always was excited by new things, new ideas. I suppose that’s why he wanted to fly.”

And Fly He Did

After graduating from Sequoia High Mantz took a job with PG&E. By 1924 he was in charge of the utility’s Burlingame office, but his career there wouldn’t last. He was the chief flight instructor at the Palo Alto Aviation School in 1930 when he set a world record for consecutive outside loops. Nine years later he was operating the Paul Mantz Seaplane Base at the fair on Treasure Island. The artifacts collection at the museum at San Francisco International Airport has a certificate that was given to the brave passengers who were taken aloft by Mantz. The document testifies that the bearer “has seen Treasure Island in all its beauty from the air in one of our giant twin-motor amphibians.”

Mantz went on to establish speed records, including three straight Bendix race wins, serve in World War II and become Hollywood’s leading stunt pilot, although again, he would caution writers with this line – “I’m a precision flier, and I’m alive to prove it.”  The remark would send chills through Hollywood after he was killed filming “The Flight of the Phoenix.”

The film is about a group of men who survive a cargo plane crash in the Sahara. They piece together the wreckage and eventually fly off to safety – at least in the version released to theaters. For what happened in real life just go to YouTube and search for “Mantz Flight of the Phoenix.”

Mantz died instantly when the plane crashed and the engine crushed him. There was much controversy when the government report about the crash cited pilot error, claiming Mantz “misjudged altitude.” The report also mentioned “alcoholic impairment and judgment.”  The report came under attack, with critics claiming the alleged blood alcohol level of 0.13 stemmed from poor understanding of the chemistry involved. The truth is that those who knew Mantz were aware that he drank when he flew, but, as one put it, “he was still a good stick.”

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Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the “Rear View Mirror” history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.

Clifford, the author of “Philip’s Code: No News is Good News — to a Killer,” is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. “Times were good,” Clifford said.

Jim Clifford

Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the "Rear View Mirror" history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.

Clifford, the author of "Philip's Code: No News is Good News - to a Killer," is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. "Times were good," Clifford said.