Wednesday 20 June 2018

A polar adventure gets the Hollywood treatment

Biography: The Stowaway, Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Simon & Schuster, hardback, 256 pages, €23.20

Subduing the antartic: The Byrd expedition which start in 1927. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
Subduing the antartic: The Byrd expedition which start in 1927. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
The Stowaway

This glitzy expedition, with on-board stowaway, was a far cry from Shackleton heroics, says Robert Leigh-Pemberton.

The 1930 documentary, With Byrd at the South Pole, promised to bring to cinemas "drama of human daring and courage at the bottom of the world! Actually filmed in the vast unknown of the Antarctic!" It followed the American navy commander Richard Byrd's celebrated expedition, and captured the first flight over the South Pole.

"It is hard to believe," grumbled one English newspaper, "that the South Pole can be vulgarised, but this has been done and done thoroughly [...] it has, in brief, found it snow and left it slush."

Perhaps it is not surprising that on this side of the Atlantic, where the public imagination had been captured by an earlier age of Antarctic heroes, the mechanical era should have fallen flat.

Shackleton and Scott were, in essence, Victorian figures; the final messages of Scott's tragic Terra Nova expedition have echoes of Newbolt's 'Vitaï Lampada' or Gordon's death at Khartoum: "I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past..." Commander Byrd's exploits, no matter how heroic, had a very different flavour. As the American journalist Laurie Shapiro shows in this biography of a stowaway on the trip, this was the first thoroughly modern Antarctic adventure, a product, not of Victorian derring-do, but of the bright, loud, commercial American Jazz Age.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a survivor of Scott's Terra Nova expedition, had written in his 1922 The Worst Journey in the World: "For scientific organisation, give me Scott, for a dash to the pole, Amundsen, and if I am in a devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time." And for public relations, one wanted Commander Richard Byrd. Publicity to raise funds had been part of these voyages from the very start - even Scott had been burdened with a tonne of Colman's mustard with which to season his seal and penguin - but Byrd took it to new extremes.

A veteran of press attention after his (somewhat dubious) 1926 flight over the North Pole, he enlisted for his Antarctic party the New York Times journalist Russell Owen, from whose account much of Shapiro's narrative is taken, along with two Paramount cameramen.

Indeed, it seems to have been a wily understanding of public taste that prompted Byrd eventually to agree to take on board Shapiro's stowaway, young Billy Gawronski, after his third attempt to smuggle himself aboard one of the expedition's vessels.

So popular had Byrd become that, as Shapiro points out, scions of the Rockefeller and Vanderbilt clans "were among the thousands who competed for spots and were rejected even as mess boys".

The press immediately took to Gawronski, a plucky Pole with no obvious skill, who fitted neatly with the new ideal of an America that rewarded "dogged spirit". 'Stowaway Wins His Goals to Pole With Byrd!' ran the Daily News.'Triumph of the Century!"

Doggedness was clearly Gawronski's main asset. His magnificently gutsy, remarkably ill-planned first attempt to join Byrd had involved swimming across the grim Hudson river to the flagship, where he hid in the forecastle, entirely naked, having abandoned a soaking school graduation suit.

Here he was greeted with derision by two more-organised stowaways, one of whom asserted his right to be there by producing a valise packed with thermal underwear of extremely high quality. When all three were eventually detected and turfed off, Macy's was quick to run the advert, "Antarctic Stowaway Took His 'Heavies' Along... Practical stowaway found clutching his 'Winter Undies'."

Shapiro is at pains to point out that both Byrd's voyage and the stowaways' ambition to be part of it were a microcosm of American pre-crash optimism. She stresses, with perhaps a surfeit of detail on his father's upholstery business, the lowliness of Gawronski's origins, and points out that the expedition came at a turning point for American science: the Empire State Building was under construction, and a high school teacher in Tennessee had just been exonerated for breaching the Butler Act, which outlawed the teaching of evolution in schools.

Shapiro deserves credit for unearthing Gawronski's story, which was largely undocumented. Her research even took her to a Florida high-security prison, where Gawronski's son is being held for drug offences. It is a remarkable tale, but rather like Byrd's expedition itself, clearly geared for an American audience.

Those unoffended by the notion of an entire Antarctic range being named the Rockefeller Mountains in honour of a vast cheque to Byrd may be able to withstand Shapiro's excitable prose: "If only his pop would sign the damn parental waiver!"

The hackneyed episodes from Gawronski's later life are no doubt of interest to those who collect tales of advancement among second-generation New York immigrants, but probably not significant enough to forgive such outbursts as: "He was in great spirits, making real money now as an officer, and he had a hot date who made other women nervous and men a little jealous..."

In England, one newspaper critic had more to say about Hollywood's "subduing" of the Antarctic: they had "split polysyllabic heroics over it, decorated it with sentimental ribbons, trodden it with captions... supplied it with brass bands and letters from home and photographs of the explorers' children on the croquet laws of Massachusetts - with everything except, by some unaccountable omission, 'love interest'." Sadly, in The Stowaway, this omission appears to have been corrected.

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