In 2014, New-York Historical Society librarian Maureen Maryanski wrote a short blog post about some fantastic images in our collection. Titled “The ‘Suff Bird Women’ and Woodrow Wilson,” the post described a daring stunt planned by suffragists on Staten Island, who set out to “bomb” President Wilson’s yacht with pro-suffrage leaflets as Wilson approached the Statue of Liberty. The “suff bird women” never reached the president, as they were forced down by high winds. Still, the event yielded press coverage for its sheer audacity, as well as arresting photographs of the pilot, Leda Richberg-Hornsby, her partner in flight, suffrage leader Ida Blair, and the group of women who gathered to send them off.
Usually, we at the New-York Historical Society measure the success of our blog posts through clicks, views, and shares. The story of the flying suffragists of Staten Island, however, has taken off. This Thursday, June 8, the Musicians of Ma’alwyck, are premiering a one-act opera in Glenville, New York titled “Aleda or the Flight of the Suff Bird Women.” The opera tells the story of these brave women, and inspired by our original “Suff Bird Women” blog post.
Finding Women in the Archives: Researching the “Suff Bird Women”
Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz, the founder and director of the Musicians of Ma’alwyck, first came across the “suff bird women” on our Library blog, “From the Stacks,” more than two years ago. Talking to Women at the Center this morning before a full dress rehearsal, she laughed at all that has happened since she first encountered this story. “Who would think,” she wondered aloud, “that I would stumble onto this blog and it would trigger this whole set of events?”
The first step was finding a composer who could put the story of these women to music. In May of 2016, Schwartz attended a senior recital at nearby Union College that showcased the work of Max Caplan, a virtuoso performer and composer. “We thought the kid was incredible,” Schwartz told the Daily Gazette. A month after hearing him perform, Schwartz approached him with the idea of writing an opera about the “Suff Bird Women.” Caplan was about to head off to the University of Hartford to study music composition, and neither he nor the Musicians of Ma’alwyck had ever worked on a project this big. Still, he said yes, and as Schwartz explained to the Gazette, “He ran with it, and he did a great job of assimilating all these components into an opera … Max has done a great job and we weren’t surprised. He so stood out at his recital, and we realized he was a fabulous talent.”
Caplan’s process began with our blog post, and from there, he dove into online newspaper databases to learn about the events and the women who took part. He was particularly fascinated by pilot Leda Richberg-Hornsby, whom he traced through a range of profiles and interviews. Richberg-Hornsby was the eighth woman in the United States to hold a pilot’s license, and the first to graduate from the Wright Flying School in Dayton, Ohio. Orville Wright himself, who administered her licensing exam in June of 1914, called her performance “the prettiest flying I ever saw a beginner do.” By the time she volunteered to pilot the plane that would “bomb” Wilson, Richberg-Hornsby had been awarded an all-around pilot’s license that, according to the New York Sun “entitle[d] her to fly as a Lieutenant in the Government’s service in case of war.” However, when the opportunity came to serve in the First World War, Richberg-Hornsby volunteered, twice, and was refused.
Caplan’s opera begins with this refusal, a “chronological adjustment” for “dramatic tension,” as he describes it. Where Caplan sought accuracy, if not in strict chronology, was in the lives of the women he was tasked with portraying. By reading many profiles of Richberg-Hornsby — and there were many, given her remarkable credentials for a woman of her time — he began to get a sense of the person behind the photographs: her “love of tea,” her faith in the “inability of a good pilot to make a mistake,” and “her sense of humor.” This last was on display in a 1916 New York Evening World profile published less than a month before the attempted “bombing,” titled “Aviation is Safer than Marriage” (Richberg-Hornsby was, at the time, recently divorced).
While this particular article was written by a woman, Caplan mostly “had to read through the biases of male reporters” who “exoticized” Richberg-Hornsby (the New York Sun described her as a “petite, plucky, brunette.”). Caplan was up to the challenge; one of the pieces in his senior recital was a re-imagining of a Latin poem from the point of view of the heroine. As he told us, he was excited about “trying to get at an aspect of history that’s been somewhat sidelined.” Caplan even took it upon himself to write a Wikipedia entry for Richberg-Hornsby, as he couldn’t find one for her when he began his research (this, in and of itself, is an important contribution to a platform where women are still underrepresented).
Ann-Marie Schwartz continued to do research on the “suff bird women” as well. In May, she visited the New-York Historical Society Library, where she viewed the original photographs and found others to include in the stage sets for the show. She also connected with historian and archivist Gabriella Leone of the Staten Island Museum, who provided essential context on the history of suffrage and aviation in what was, at the time, the borough of Richmond. As it happens, the 1916 stunt was not the first time suffrage took flight in Staten Island; in 1913, General Rosalie Gardiner Jones boarded a plane to scatter yellow suffrage leaflets across the borough. Leone and her colleagues will be in attendance at the opening of “Aleda” this weekend.
Bringing the “Suff Bird Women” to Life
Once Caplan’s opera was written, Schwartz and her team faced the task of bringing these stories to life on stage. Our curators and designers faced a similar challenge while putting together Hotbed, our show on women’s politics and suffrage in early-20th-century New York City. Our solution, pictured above, was a model biplane raining leaflets down on visitors to the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery (pictured above).
For “Aleda,” Schwartz’s staging began with finding a unique venue: a 1942 naval warehouse built for servicing aircraft that is now a recycling facility in Glenville, New York (outside of Albany). The joy of a site-specific venue like this, Schwartz explained, is that unlike a theater, “when the audience walks in, they don’t know what to expect.” They will be greeted, in this case, by poster-size newspaper articles from the period — products of the research conducted by Caplan and Schwartz — mounted on bales of recycled metal, plastic, and glass, creating both an industrial “airplane hangar” feel and offering historical context for the show to come. Once inside, opera-goers will see a stage with a 40-foot iron “X” behind it, a feature of the facility, which divides a muslin screen into four parts. In these sections, the original photos of the “suff bird women” will be projected as the opera is performed.
The show itself will open with the reading of a one-act play titled “The Burden of the Ballot,” written by Krysta Dennis, “Aleda’s” stage director and a lecturer at Siena College. Dennis conducted original research about the upstate Rankin family at their Cherry Hill Mansion, and learned that both Emily Rankin and her mother, Katharine, were staunch anti-suffragists. Schwartz chose to open the show about high-flying suffragists in this way to “really highlight how divided America was at the time,” as she told Women at the Center. Capturing this anti-suffrage perspective is something our educators at New-York Historical Society are doing, as well, in our “Women and the American Story” curriculum.
After the conclusion of the play, suffrage takes flight in Caplan’s one-act, three-scene opera. For opening night, the Musicians of Ma’alwyck have announced a very special addition to the program, as well: a flyover by lawyer and pilot Faith Gay in a plane from the World War I era. Gay’s plane will be dropping — you guessed it — suffrage leaflets, featuring the original text of the 1916 leaflets that Blair and Richberg-Hornsby planned to use to “bomb” President Wilson. Schwartz promises that they will be biodegradable. “We’re performing in a recycling center, after all,” Schwartz laughed, “so we don’t want to litter!”
“Aleda” is set to open this Thursday at 7pm, a little more than four years after New-York Historical’s Maureen Maryanski published her original blog post. It’s a remarkable testament to the power of women’s history to inspire and engage audiences of all kinds, and we are thrilled to have played a part in this story. From the Center for Women’s History, we’ll be wishing the Musicians of Ma’alwyck calm skies and high flying this weekend.
– Nick Juravich, Center for Women’s History
Top image credits: Members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association gather at Midland Beach, Staten Island prior to their liberty flight (detail). New-York Historical Society Library, Prints and Photographs, PR 68.