02 January 2007

Exploring The Enigma of "Pegasus"

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Ted Tate (seen in the photo with his friend Roscoe Turner) lived one hell of a life. A decorated pilot who flew combat missions in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, he was also a flight test engineer who worked on the F-111 and B-58 Hustler programs. He was a prolific writer who authored over 150 articles, and he produced a stack of books in his lifetime concerning a wide variety of subjects including flight test, travel in Mexico, and human survival.

One of Tate's most well-read books is "The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus", a biography of Pancho Barnes that he claimed he'd co-authored with Pancho. The book, which is out-of-print but still widely available, is something of an enigma. Just how much of what appears in the book is true, and based on Pancho's actual recollections, and how much Tate added for the sake of drama, is highly unclear. It came out years after Pancho died, and was independently published, so it was never reviewed. Tate never seems to have discussed how he came to write the book.

We do know this much: Ted Tate was a good friend of Pancho's late in her life, possibly her best friend. In the 1970s while stationed up at Edwards Air Force Base, Tate sought out Pancho, who he'd heard about from a friend. When he found her she was in poor health, living in squalor in Boron, California. Tate not only arranged for Pancho to receive medical care, but he re-introduced her to the staff at Edwards. Before long Pancho, who had been estranged from the Air Force after the lawsuits surrounding the "Happy Bottom Riding Club" affair, was voted "1st Citizen of Edwards" by her re-discovered friends. Thanks to Tate, a special banquet was held in Pancho's honor just prior to her death in 1975. It must have been one of Pancho's proudest moments.

It might surprise you to learn that Ted Tate's book "The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus" is a polarizing force. Filled with raunchy escapades and chock-full of racy language and expletives, it's appearance in print in 1985 outraged some of Pancho's friends, who felt it diminished Pancho's legacy. Some of them, including Chuck Yeager, denounced it.

What's interesting to us, however, is that many of the stories that appear in the book appear authentic, and some of them are not documented elsewhere. Is the narrator that's speaking in the book really Pancho Barnes? Are these her owrds? The question of what portions of it are true, and what's false, is difficult to speculate about. One of the problems is that Ted Tate passed away a number of years ago, and so it is impossible to ask him about how he made the book.

Our hope has always been that we'd find some additional documentation to help resolve the mystery. Perhaps if we did some digging, we could find some of Ted Tate's original notes, or better yet tape recordings that he made while interviewing Pancho for the book. Through Dr. Lou D'Elia, who has preserved Pancho Barnes' personal archives, I was able to meet with Ted Tate's daughter Tedi last week. (She showed me the terrific photo I've posted here, of Pancho in a tigerskin jacket! That's Tedi on the right.) I learned from Tedi that she does have several large boxes of her father's personal papers in storage, and would be happy to look for any materials related to "Pegasus". Whether any of it contains the materials we're seeking, and can help clear up the mystery surrounding this controversial book, remains to be seen. Stay tuned!