When I wrote about Leila Adair — "the only living lady parachutist", as she liked to call herself — I never imagined it from the perspective of someone looking up at her. I always tried to imagine what it was like for her, looking down.
The world below would have seemed so remote, but you could hear all these sounds rising up from the ground. In the 1890s, it wasn't like the hot-air balloons today that have burners. It would have been as quiet as anything.
Women parachutists drew bigger crowds, partly because of their skimpy little costumes and also the novelty of it. A fire was lit in an underground tunnel that channelled hot air into the mouth of the balloon. The trouble was that if the fire was too fierce, sparks would ignite the fabric. Poles were used to hoist the balloon above the furnace and once it was fully inflated, the parachute would be attached to one side. The balloon would then start to ascend, with the "aeronaut" suspended on a trapeze below.
If it was fairly hot, the balloon would rise about 3000-4000 feet, high enough to release the parachute with time for it to inflate for a safe jump. Sometimes the ropes would get tangled or the catch [to detach the parachute] wouldn't work. Often the balloon just didn't get high enough. The parachute would inflate as the balloon descended - but that could be dangerous too. One woman was killed in India when she came down in a tree and fell.
When I first read about Leila, I did a bit of research on Papers Past and could see the sweep of a story arc and dug deeper. What fascinated me was the quirky characters I found along the way. Sequah [a celebrity quack] and Madame Cora [the first woman to tour as a magician in Australia and New Zealand] were all real people. But sometimes there were gaps in the historical facts. I feel like it's an imagined truth, and the more I wrote it, the more it felt true to me.
Leila Adair was her stage name but her real name was Lillian Hawker. She was unconventional for the times, unmarried with two children and doing something considered exceptional even for a man to do, let alone a woman. I'm the complete opposite of her. I'm not a risk-taker in any sense. In my day job, as a medical laboratory scientist at Hutt Hospital, there's no room for creativity. You have to follow a process the same way every time.
Hawker claimed to be American but she was actually born in Australia. A lot of what she said wasn't quite true. She and her sister Ruby hyped themselves up shamelessly in the press. That was part of the problem, because people were expecting something a little more spectacular than what happened a lot of the time. In the Alexander Turnbull Library, I found this note in a diary by a man called Nicholas Rowe. "Went to PN [Palmerston North] to have teeth attended to and see about a few other things. Saw a balloon ascend with a lady about a mile high and come down again. Got wet coming home." He wasn't that impressed.
When Hawker came to New Zealand for a year-long tour in 1894, her children were very young. Leaving them for that length of time must have been quite hard. In those days, women were very dependent on men for money. It was hard to make own your way and some theatrical careers did allow a measure of independence.
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Not having a manager meant Hawker was in control and took all the profits but, because she didn't have someone very experienced to light the furnace, the ascents often failed. At Takapuna, she ended up in the water and had to jump clear of the parachute and the balloon so she wasn't smothered. Years later, [Auckland balloonist] Captain Lorraine drowned when the same thing happened to him.
As part of my research, I went to many of the places she'd travelled on tour. In Ōamaru, I stayed in a little hotel in the Victorian precinct where a lot of the buildings are unchanged from the 1890s. When I looked out the window, I could imagine hansom cabs racing round the streets to meet the train.
There was a point as I was writing where I started thinking, "There's something I haven't found here — this doesn't make sense." About halfway through, I discovered something. I don't want to give away any spoilers but it did change the direction of the story.
— as told to Joanna Wane
* Catherine Clarke drew on her research skills as a keen genealogist to write her first novel, The Only Living Lady Parachutist (Idle Fancy Press, $35) is out now. Lillian Hawker survived her daredevil feats, dying in her 60s of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. To find out more about the story behind the book, visit catherineclarkeauthor.com.