Bluemonter Jerome Fanciulli, Publicist of Early Flight
By Susan Freis Falknor
Bluemont’s Jerome Fanciulli is an example of how local history sometimes intertwines with history of the country and the story of technology.
Known to his Bluemont neighbors as a Ford truck dealer, Jerome Fanciulli was also a well-known turn-of-the-century promoter whose abilities as a reporter, manager, marketer, event organizer, salesman, and talent-spotter helped to usher in the age of flight.
By staging flying demonstrations all around the country for aviator and businessman Glenn H. Curtiss, Fanciulli helped establish in the public mind that what had yesterday was impossible—pilot-directed, motorized flight—had become a reality.
At the Ford company from 1912 to his death in 1986 at the age of 98, Fanciulli managed groups of salesmen and landed contracts for fleets of trucks for businesses and government agencies.
At age 55 Faciulli came to Bluemont in 1943, his wife having inherited the striking Queen Anne’s house and land from Robert Marshall. Long-time Bluemonter Martin Mitchell was just a young teenager when he started mowing the lawn for the Fanciullis. Childless, Fanciulli became fond of Martin.
“I was like a kid to him,” Martin recalls.
This article draws on original documents that Fanciulli’s neighbor Martin Mitchell made available for scanning . It describes Fanciulli’s relationships with some of air-pioneering celebrities, including Wilbur and Orville Wright, Glenn Cutiss, and stunt flyer Lincoln Beachey.
Wright Brothers Post Cards
Martin provided two postcards sent to Fanciulli by the Wrights.
The first card, bearing a French stamp, shows a group of people standing in a field, all gazing left. There are numbers inked on the picture above two heads. The number 1 identifies “Orville Wright”—while 2 indicates “Miss Wright” (Katherine Wright).
A handwritten note on the picture reads:
“The King of Spain
watches the re-
appearance of my brother’s
aeroplane after being out
of sight 15 minutes.”
The message reads:
“We are about to leave
Paris for Rome, where we have
a contract that will keep us
busy till about the first of
May. We are then coming
home to give the demonstration
at Fort Meyer. If I am suf-
ficiently recovered I will complete
the demonstration myself. I am
disappointed in not being able
to make a flight before leaving.”
The 1908 flights by Wilbur near Le Mans, France, brought the first public recognition of the Wright Brothers’ achievement. In this message, Orville refers to recovering from injuries suffered in a September 17, 1908 crash during a flying demonstration for the U.S. Army at Fort Myer, Virginia and suggests an additional demonstration is planned. Orville broke several bones in the crash and was hospitalized for weeks, tended to by sister Katherine Wright. The card is addressed to “Mr. Jerome S. Fanciulli, Associated Press, Washington, D. C., Etatis-Unis.”
A second postcard, dated 9/9/11 with a U.S. stamp, addressed to Fanciulli, shows an early aircraft with a cutout of the face of Wilbur Wright. It seems to be a promotional postcard, stamped “APEDA STUDIO-PHOTOGRAPHERS, N. Y.”
The address shows that Fanciulli is now working for Curtiss, but still in touch with the Wrights: “Jerome Fanciulli, Curtiss Expo Co., Birch Bldg, New York, 1773 Bwdy [Broadway?].” The message, perhaps signed by O. Wright, reads:
start over [?}
in 2 or 3 days.”
Fanciulli and Early Flight
While still in his teens in New York City, Jerome Fanciulli [1888-1986] had demonstrated his showmanship by managing a regimental band led by his father, who later became a leader of the U.S. Marine Corps band.
In 1907, at the age of 19, Fanciulli worked as a reporter for the Washington Post and the Associated Press. Making aviation his specialty, he covered the early flights of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Glenn H. Curtiss, and other aviators, himself learning to fly. Covering a flying demonstration in California, he took the opportunity to ride with Curtiss as the aerialist’s first passenger (photo below).
Fanciulli worked for aircraft business pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss from 1909 to 1912. As general manager of the Curtiss Exhibition Company he arranged air shows around the country, making the Curtiss name famous.
Like the Wright brothers, Curtiss got his start with the mass marketing of bicycles around the turn of the century. Born in Logansport, Indiana, Curtiss (1898-1930) went from being a bicycle racer, to a Western Union bicycle messenger, to owning a bicycle shop, to manufacturing motorcycles and light-weight engines. In 1906, he set a speed record of 64 mph on one of his motorcycles .
Taking a keen interest in powered flight, in 1906 Curtiss got in touch with the Wright Brothers about his small, light-weight motors. Alexander Graham Bell—best known as inventor of the telephone—brought Curtiss into the Aerial Experiment Association, where Curtiss collaborated with the Wrights on a new heavier-than-air machine nicknamed the “June Bug.”
At first Curtiss and the Wrights were friends and business associates, but the two companies became embroiled in patent lawsuits, which Curtiss eventually lost.
Curtiss went his own way, however, pushing the envelope of the airplane both as a test pilot and as a businessman. Still later, in 1929, just before Curtiss’s death, the two enterprises merged as the Curtiss-Wright company.
Curtiss trained military pilots, experimented with dropping objects weighing as much as bombs, shooting at ground targets, and sending radio messages from the air. He flew from Albany to New York City in 1910, setting a distance record and winning a $10,000 prize. In 1912 he developed the hydroplane, which was an immediate success, finding buyers in the U.S. military and other countries.
Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Meets
A souvenir booklet from May 1911, apparently written and put together by Fanciulli, highlights Curtiss’s achievements, providing a time-capsule shapshot of the history of manned flight up to that year and speculating on the future.
The booklet, with a dramatic blue and orange cover design, includes photos of Curtiss piloting airplanes, giving a test ride to an “Indian Princess,” and flying over a “record breaking crowd” of 120,000 at a San Francisco Air Show. One article covers the Curtiss War Machine, sold to the U.S. Military, along with photos of several army and navy officers that Curtiss trained in its operation.
A Remington ad (below, right) states: "The CURTISS MACHINE will demonstrate the WAR VALUE of the AEROPLANE."
An article titled “The Aeroplane of the Future” concentrates on the just-developed Curtiss “areo-hydroplane,” especially for warfare. As Fanciulli writes:
“Its practicability in this line was soon demonstrated by Mr. Curtiss, when he flew from his experimental station on North Island, and alighted alongside a United States battleship in San Diego Harbor. By means of special attachments, the aeroplane was hauled aboard ship with its creator, who, after a brief visit with the officers on board, was let down over the side. Once more in the water, it was a matter of only a moment when he gracefully arose from the water and soared away.”
In an interview story, Fanciulli quotes Curtiss on the potential of the hydroplane to deliver mail, reach remote areas, and save lives.
Fanciulli returns to this theme in a 1912 article published in National Waterways: A Magazine of Transportation. It presents the case for the potential of inland waterways as ready-made landing fields for hydroplanes. A picture spread shows the hydro-aeroplane's many uses, including mail carrying and rescue.
This article shows Fanciulli’s flair for mixing the latest technical information with marketing possibilities. National Waterways was a trade journal published by the National Rivers and Harbors Congress, an association that advocated regular federal infrastructure funding for American waterways. Another story in the same issue—with a picture of President Taft—celebrated the 1912 passage of the River and Harbor Bill (R.R. 21477), which appropriated $32 million for local waterway development around the country.
Lincoln Beachey and the Dark Side of Aviation Meets
There was a dark side to the early aviation meets, captured in a 1953 article in True magazine about daredevil stunt pilot Lincoln Beachey [1887-1915]. Fanciulli may have held on to this issue of True because the story mentions him in anecdotes, describing him as “one of the savviest press agents in the business.”
Left: Beachey in the pilot seat. The caption reads: "Beachey didn't fool with puttees and riding breeches worn by other fliers. Tradmark was blue-and-white checkered cap."
As a teenager in San Francisco, Beachey installed motors on bicycles and then on his own engine-powered dirigible, sitting on a suspended catwalk, the craft guided by ropes. At age 15 he took his “rubber cow” to the 1904 Oakland Air Festival. As Adamson relates:
“The correctly billed death defiers had performed brilliantly. A man went up hanging by his knees from a trapeze bar until he vanished from sight. A horse and rider went up in a basket, the rider waving his cowboy hat and firing blanks from his pistol. A dog was dropped by parachute to land in the center of the field. No one had gone smash. The crowd was almost apathetic.
“The Beachy came along, flying at treetop level. The wind was just right, a gentle breeze well within the control of his rudder, and blowing away from the grandstand. He was balanced nicely, well forward on the catwalk, with the rudder ropes running on either side of him, as he pulled it close. He swept almost across the heads of the spectators, and gave them their money’s worth. But there must have been something about the sight of a human figure, so close to them but soi far removed by the power of flight that created a form of madness in the crowd.
“As Beachey tossed over his landing rope, the crowd surged forward as a unit, broke through the rails, swarmed over Beachey’s ground crew, beating them down. Yelling men grabbed the landing ropes. They pulled, they hauled, they wrenched. Beachey in horrified alarm, killed his engine lest its propeller start slicing skulls. (He never did that again).
“When it was all over, Beachey was all but naked. His catwalk and the ropes that held it had been carried away in shreds and splinters. The bag, its back broken, sagged heavily on its belly, and the propeller was gone.”
Beachey soon figured out, however, that if he stood up immediately after landing, he could talk down the excited crowd and take command.
According to author Hans Christian Adamson, it was Fanciulli who understood the crowd appeal of Beachey’s free-wheeling, aggressive flight style—later to evolve into the aerial dog fights of World War I.
Wright employee Roy Knabensue made the connection, as Adamson tells it:
“’I know you, Linc. You keep reaching out for the impossible—and sometimes you get it. But I know you have air-feel. That’s why I’ve written this letter. There’s room enough in the air for all of us. I’m going to see that you get a chance.”
“’Where?’ snorted Beachey, looking at the blank envelope.
“’Glenn Curtiss—That’s where,’ replied Knabensue.
“‘But why would he give me a better break than you bosses?’
“’For three reasons—first because Glenn Curtiss has more showmanship than the Wrights—look at his flight last May from Albany to New York. Second, with the Wrights crowding Curtiss in the courts with their patent-infringement suit, Curtiss will need cash from exhibition flights to fight back. And the Curtiss exhibition team will be managed by one of the savviest press agents in the business—Jerry Fanciulli.
“’So-o,’ answered Beachey with pleased surprise. ‘Jerry is going with Curtisss? That sounds good! Thanks for the tip, Roy.’”
As Adamson remarks, “the indifference of the Wrights toward Beachey as a potential master-showman of the air was not shared by Curtiss and Fanciulli.”
With some qualms, Curtiss taught Beachey to fly his airplanes. Beachey became a stunt pilot superstar, nicknamed “the man who owned the sky.” He was wealthy and famous. Some excoriated him, however, for tempting other youngsters, by his example, to take risks that could prove deadly.
Beachey himself died in 1915, age 28. He crashed after the wings came off coming out of a loop in a Curtiss air show at the Pan Pacific International Exposition near San Francisco.
Fancuilli and Ford Trucks
Although remaining interested in aviation all his life, this phase of his life lasted only a few years. In 1912, Fanciulli went to work for Ford as a salesman. He came to specialize in trucks, selling thousands to individuals, companies, and government agencies over his lifetime.
Ford officially came out with its first consumer truck model in 1917, but the Ford chassis—modified by inventive users—had been trucking on American roads well before that.
In 1914, Fanciulli wrote the winning bid on a federal contract to supply 125 trucks to the U.S. Post Office. An article in the Summer 1978 issue of Ford Dealer Magazine honors Fanciulli as “The ‘Dean’ of Ford Truck Salesmen.” The article notes:
“His biggest orders include 137 trucks to the Veterans Administration and all the ambulances purchased by the American Red Cross for overseas during World War II.”
At the age of 78, says the article:
“Fanciulli is still going strong at Steuart Ford. He joined the dealership in 1947, after leaving government service as the civilian chief of transportation in North Africa during World War II.
“He maintains an office in his home in Bluemont, Va., and also visits the dealership an average of three times a week to schedule appointments with fleet customers and submit sales orders. The round trip is nearly 130 miles.”
Photo above, left: Jerome Fanciulli with his Ford '500 Club' pin. Below: Fanciulli demonstrates how customers used to kick the tires before buying on a restored 1925 Model truck.
The picture that Martin Mitchell paints of Fanciulli in semi-retirement suggests that Ford considered him a still-to-be-reckoned-with pioneer of mass truck sales with perhaps some valuable long-time connections. As Martin recalls:
“At the last, I did more or less everything for him. Take him down back and forth to Washington [including to events at the Washington Press Club and Washington Areo Club].
“I took him to work in Lanham. I don’t know what he went for. We didn’t stay there. He’d go in the office, sit there and get on the phone and talk to somebody a few minutes. He’d sit ther3 and shuffle through his papers. And he’d say, ‘Let’s go eat.' So we’d get something to eat and then come on back home.
"Evidently he didn’t have any certain time to be there or anything. More or less like he owned the place."
After Fanciulli’s death, his papers went to the Collection History of Aviation Collection at the University of Texas at Dallas.
This story is a companion piece to “Martin Mitchell: Eight Decades of Bluemont Lore.”
A future story will discuss Martin’s work on the Mount Weather installation.