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Swan song

The first Mrs. Guest

C. Z.’s mother-in-law was an aviation enthusiast who bankrolled Amelia Earhart’s transatlantic flight.

In last Saturday SNL’s Weekend Update’s sketch, “Truman Capote loves Women” comedian Bowen Yang (as Capote) pilloried transatlantic pioneer pilot Amelia Earhart, calling her “The Great Butch of the Sky” and saying to host Colin Jost, “That’s why we don’t have female pilots.”

Well we do, and more interestingly there is a strong, if little known link between Capote’s Swans and Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic.

Before his feud with the Swans, another group of women were the social leaders of New York and abroad. The “dollar princesses” had fathers who were enormously successful self-made men but were not accepted by New York society so they took the traditional route for burnishing the gene pool—marrying impoverished aristocrats abroad with social position.

One of these women was the Hon. Mrs. Frederick Guest (C.Z. Guest’s mother-in-law). Born Amy Phipps, Guest was the daughter of Henry Phipps Jr., the American entrepreneur and partner of U.S. steel tycoon Henry Carnegie. She was married in 1905 to the younger brother of Lord Wimborne and a cousin of Winston Churchill, the Hon. Captain Frederick E. Guest. 

Bowen Yang (as Truman Capote) on SNL Weekend Update attacking pilot Amelia Earhart
Bowen Yang (as Truman Capote) pilloried pilot Amelia Earhart in a SNL Weekend Update’s sketch, calling her “The Great Butch of the Sky”. But another connection links the Swans gossip with the transatlantic pioneer—C. Z. Guest’s mother-in-law. Photo via YouTube
Mrs. Frederick Guest, left, with Amelia Earhart, center, after Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane
Mrs. Frederick Guest, at left, with Amelia Earhart, center. An aviation enthusiast, Guest sponsored Earhart’s record-breaking transatlantic trip on her plane Friendship after originally hoping to take the trip herself. Photo by Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Long fascinated by aviation (her husband was the former British Air Minister), Guest bought the monoplane, Friendship, intending to make the trip across the Atlantic as one of the crew (Phipps was not a trained pilot herself). She planned to touch down on the Thames river just in front of the Houses of Parliament as aviation daredevil Sir Alan Cobham did in 1926. 

But her family interceded and begged her not to go. Instead, Guest underwrote Earhart’s trip personally. In 1932, she was  made an honorary member of the Women’s Aeronautical Association in recognition of her support for female pilots.

Her family interceded and begged her not to go. Instead, Guest underwrote Earhart’s trip personally. 

Guest herself could be shockingly brave. In one episode from 1908, during a housewarming at Burley Hall—the English stately home she and her husband rented —a fire broke out. All the guests were safely evacuated – but Guest realized that her children were still in the nursery. She dashed back into the flames, grabbed her boys, Winston and Raymond, stuffed them in a pram and ran barefoot without stopping for three quarters of a mile. Winston Churchill was also in attendance at the party—he returned to save some of the family heirlooms.

C. Z. Guest and her husband, Winston Guest at Belmont race course, 1953
It’s rumored that Mrs. Frederick Guest and her equally strong-willed daughter-in-law C. Z. (seen here with her husband, Winston Guest, in 1953) were not always on the best terms. Photo by Slim Aarons/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Villa Artemis, immortalized by her daughter C.Z. in the famous Slim Aarons photo, originally belonged to Guest, and it’s rumored that she and her equally strong-willed daughter-in-law were not always on the best terms. Nonetheless, I’m sure she would have respected the discipline with which C.Z. conducted herself. They were clearly trailblazers in their own way.

Hero photo of Mrs. Frederick Guest and her son, Winston Guest, by Bert Morgan/Getty Images

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