Airing it out


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Theasa Tuohy draws on her own experiences, and on her mother’s, in her new novel


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  • Theasa Logan Tuohy, the author's mother and her "crate." Photo courtesy of Theasa Tuohy




  • Theasa Tuohy. Photo courtesy of Theasa Tuohy




BY SUSHMITA ROY

Open cockpits dominated the skies during the 1920s and ‘30s. And that freedom to roam the heavens was, for a time, a metaphor for an epoch when everything seemed limitless. On the ground, too, optimism spread like fog on a summer morning.

And, in greater and greater numbers, women were in the forefront during those heady days. They would gain the right to vote in 1920. And, increasingly, they would take liberties not explicitly granted to them, including flying.

“My mother was a flyer in the ‘30s so I just sort of grew up thinking that you do what you gotta do and it didn’t bother me when people would turn me down because I was a woman. I was like — OK, go on to the next one,” said Theasa Tuohy, 83, a veteran journalist who had tenures at Newsday, The Detroit News, The Associated Press and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger.

Tuohy, who lives on the Upper East Side, recently wrote “Flying Jenny,” a fictional tribute to early days of women’s aviation. Taking place in 1920s and ‘30s, and loosely based on her mother’s exploits, the story explores the journey of two women: Jenny, the daring stunt pilot, and Laura, the first woman journalist at a New York City tabloid. Drawn from the true events in Elinor Smith’s life, who, at 17, and on dare, flew under all four of the New York City’s East River, Tuohy does what, maybe, she was born to do: explore the journey of various women in male-dominated fields.

How would you describe New York in the 1920s?

New York of 1929 was just really fun. Laura (one of the two female protagonists) lives on Gay street and a lot of scenes come from memories; my sister-in-law lived down there for a bit. I used to live in the Village in those days and the scene with the woman screaming from the women’s house of detention came from my memory of hearing a lot of those women. My first apartment was on Bedford Street in the Village so the stuff about Chumley’s came from the memory of its back entrance being on the same block where I lived so I thought it was something really cool that I could sneak in.

Would you say that the main character, Jenny, is inspired by your mother and the stunt pilot Elinor Smith?

My mother had a pilot’s license which of course was very unusual at that time but I think she was just there for the fun of it or to join the boys. My father’s friends were pilots and even though he wasn’t a pilot himself, he flew all the time with these goofy guys. Whenever there was an air show, here is a woman, they would drag her along, to enhance the visuals or something.

A lot of the stunts that Jenny pulls off, Elinor Smith did: stealing the plane, flying under the New York City bridges. The kernel of who Jenny was came from Elinor smith as a stunt pilot.

My mother was so tiny that she always tucked a pillow between her and the seat (which is how I got Jenny to do it); she didn’t even want to fly upside down because she was scared that the pillow would fall. Jenny gets her carefree attitude from my mother probably.

How much does your story of being a woman journalist back in the day lend into Laura’s development as a character?

Laura faced a lot more but I could always sense the kind of things that she faced. She was the only woman in the newsroom at the time, at the tabloid, and the only way she got that job was because she had done very well in English at Barnard and a professor leaned on the publisher to give her a job and I think that’s kind of the way you got a job in those days.

Were there any setbacks when you started your career as a journalist?

I think this was right after I left the Yonkers Herald Statesman; I was sending out resumes and sending them out to every place. One news manager sent me a letter saying “please call to make an appointment for an audition,” so I called and got on the phone and said, “Mr. so and so, I am Theasa Tuohy and you told me to call for an audition” and there was dead silence for a second and then the guy said, “If you are a woman, lady, the deal is off,” but that’s the way it was and so I went to apply to another place. It was then that I went to Yonkers and the guy said, “I have got an opening at my copydesk but I don’t know. I’ll give you a week’s tryout to see what you can do.” And I said to him, “How heavy can a number 2 lead pencil and copy be?” so for me it wasn’t a big deal and I wasn’t particularly offended. I got really good experience at Yonkers: I covered city hall for a while, I covered just about everything.

And how did you land in all these different newsrooms around the country?

I got offered a job by the women’s editor in the women’s section at The Detroit News and I declined even though I needed a job but I had never done that kind of work before; I only did hard news. But then within a week or so, some guy from South Carolina was hired to be the state editor and the day before he was supposed to show up for, he called in and said, “I don’t think I am gonna come up there because I just found out Detroit is north of Canada” and it truly was north of Windsor, Canada and they were rummaging around and they just called me and offered me the job, not because they wanted a woman but just because they wanted someone. And then I got hired at Newsday because they had a women’s suit against them and they were frantically searching for women with the kind of experience that I had and there weren’t many around in those days.

Did you never think about flying yourself?

My father got the idea once when he had too much to drink that, you know, I should be the youngest licensed pilot in the world. There was a tiny airfield near our house in California and my father was like, “Oh yeah! We are gonna go up there; I got the sky lined up!” and my mother was like “No, you are not. No, you are not.” It was a small take-off spot, the Pacific Ocean was at the end of the runway and there were a lot of electric wires and my mother knew it was a dangerous airfield. And that was the extent of my flying: that conversation.

What advice do you have for woman journalists?

I mean they are all around! I looked around one day in the newsroom and I saw all these women; there are more of them than men.





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