What People Are Saying About Aloha Wanderwell!
THE NEW YORK TIMES
International Daily Newspaper
Aloha Wanderwell, Explorer and Filmmaker
An excerpt from The New York Times article: “The ad in The Paris Herald called for “a good-looking, brainy young woman” willing to “forswear skirts” and “rough it” in Asia and Africa for an unspecified expedition.
“Be prepared,” it said, “to learn to work before and behind a movie camera.” It was 1922.
Idris Welsh, a 16-year-old student at a convent school in France who was crazy about movies, read the ad and was hooked.
She applied and was given the job of mechanic in an ill-defined endeavor that involved filming a team’s travels as it motored around in 1917 Model Ts. At 6 feet tall, blond and attractive, Idris quickly became the face of the expedition, which captured her adventures in a series of movie travelogues.
She clocked 380,000 miles in the 1920s, traversing six continents, often in places where paved roads were unknown. Newspapers called her “the Amelia Earhart of the open road.
(Before long), Aloha Wanderwell became her nom de route.” The entire article can be seen and read here.
© Copyright Carrie Rickey and The New York Times
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ATLANTIC BOOKS TODAY
Online Literary Magazine
The World’s Most Widely Travelled Girl
Step right up and see the “world’s most widely travelled girl,” Aloha Wanderwell aka Idris Hall of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Hers is a riveting life that took off for the great open road – where she could find one – in 1922, when she was still a teenager.
Despite not having a driver’s license, she answered an ad for a travelling secretary on an expedition – a race and a giant advert for the Ford Model-T, really – to traverse the nations of the world by automobile, as many countries as possible. It sure beat life in the convent school.
Fink-Jensen and Eustace-Walden expertly parse Aloha’s journals, films and photos as well as press coverage and some previously classified government documents to bring readers along on the adventures of an audacious and fierce young woman of the early 20th century.
© Copyright Atlantic Books Today
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COMOX VALLEY ECHO
Urban Weekly Newspaper
The Most Famous Canadian Woman You’ve Never Heard Of
She was the first female to circle the globe by car and the first to drive across India. She knew Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. She was called ‘the world’s most widely travelled girl’. And she accomplished many of these feats before she was even 20. So why hasn’t anyone heard about this adventuring Canadian woman, who went by the improbable name of Aloha Wanderwell?
The complete interview can be found here and begins on page 27: The Amazing Aloha Wanderwell
Interview by Debra Martin
© Copyright Comox Valley Echo
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THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT
Urban Weekly Newspaper
Pioneering Explorer Aloha Wanderwell Lived Large In An Age Of Adventure
Following the great round-the-world auto race of 1908 and great round-the-world aeroplane race of 1924, the North American public went crazy for publicity-hungry showoff adventurers who returned home to give lectures and show films about where they had been.
The best-known American example was Lowell Thomas, the person who had made Lawrence of Arabia famous. The best-known Canadian instance was Gordon Sinclair of the Toronto Star (and later of CBC’s Front Page Challenge); he spent the 1930s visiting Devil’s Island, dining with headhunters in New Guinea, and all that sort of thing. But there was another Canadian of this type: a British Columbian and a woman.
Idris Welsh (1906‒96), who grew up on Vancouver Island, assumed the forename Aloha because it had a romantic ring. As for the phony-sounding surname Wanderwell, she acquired it through marriage to a man actually named that: Walter Wanderwell. He was an accused rumrunner, suspected German spy, political crank, and mountebank showman, who in 1922 advertised for women to join him in a discontinuous round-the-round “endurance race” in souped-up Fords.
The Wanderwell team, a kind of travelling circus about travel itself, would go to somewhere in the Amazon or Africa, for instance, making silent films and snapping photos. They traipsed through nearly 50 countries. At important stops along the way and in major world cities they filled theatres to capacity before moving on. Aloha was the organizer, publicist, photographer, and, when necessary, mechanic. She became a pilot as well and, in the Depression years, quite famous—but also somewhat notorious.
The coauthors, respectively a freelance writer and a filmmaker, present this book as a lively bit of obscure social history, competently and journalistically told, and as a biography of a pioneer breaker of gender roles. But well before the end it becomes something quite different: a murder mystery. Over the course of their joint career the Wanderwells graduated from Model Ts to a hundred-foot Nova Scotia–built schooner called the Carma.
During one of its voyages, Walter had to defuse an attempted mutiny. Later, in 1932, he was shot to death in the vessel’s cabin. A long, heavily sensationalized trial in Los Angeles put Aloha in the headlines all over again. The man tried for the crime was found innocent; the one Aloha herself suspected wasn’t charged. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.
Reviewed by George Fetherling
© Copyright The Georgia Straight
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Literary Trade Publication
How Aloha Wanderwell Became A Tomboy Starlet
Slender, beautiful, bisexual Idris Hall was a world renowned explorer and Hollywood starlet who was raised in North Vancouver, Duncan and Qualicum.
As perhaps the first woman to travel around the world by car, she reputedly faced a firing squad in Russia; drove across Africa and China; lived with Amazon tribes; shook hands with Mussolini and flirted with Hollywood royalty.
Her husband was Walter Wanderwell, a WWI spy who was mysteriously murdered on their yacht.
Now she’s the subject of Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer (Goose Lane $24.95), a long-delayed biography co-written by Randolph Eustace-Walden with Christian Fink-Jensen.
It sounds like a Wes Anderson movie…
After an elite education in Belgium and France, tomboyish Idris Hall was hired as a secretary and driver for around-the-world expeditions headed by “Captain” Walter Wanderwell. Born in Poland, his real name was Valerian Johannes Pieczynski. He had no military rank; he just wanted a name that would appeal to Americans. He changed her name to Aloha Wanderwell.
In 1922, with his wife Nell (from Seattle), Walter led two motoring teams on global expeditions in Ford armoured cars, ostensibly to compete for most miles logged, likely supported by Henry Ford and Standard Oil. Initially, Walter claimed Aloha (on his team) as his adopted sister, then abandoned Nell. Upon their return, the expedition was feted with a ticker-tape parade in Detroit.
The couple ran afoul of the Mann Act (transporting women across state lines in the U.S. for immoral purposes) and married in Los Angeles in 1925. He was 29; she was 18. He was 5’6”; she was 6’. They would have two children, Nile and Valri, born in Capetown and Miami respectively.
It has been erroneously suggested that Aloha Wanderwell, masquerading as a man, was one of the few women to serve in the French Foreign Legion until she was unmasked; similarly, there is little proof that she engaged in a fire-fight with Arabs in North Africa in the mid-1920s.
She did, however, hang out with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. She also participated in the search for the lost “Percy Fawcett” Expedition in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil just prior to her husband’s death when he was shot in the back. She also learned how to fly a float plane.
There are various B.C. connections: Relatives of Idris Hall have owned tracts of land in North Vancouver, Qualicum Beach and Merville.
Her father Herbert Hall bought and developed a large parcel of waterfront land in Qualicum Beach bordering on what is now known as Judge’s Row. The site eventually became home to the Qualicum Beach Boys’ School (Qualicum College), and later a hotel complex.
This new biography draws from her diaries, family interviews and recently declassified FBI material to reveal the ambiguities of a seemingly sensual and bold woman. It also re-opens the book on Walter Wanderwell’s murder.
Randolph Eustace- Walden of Vancouver discovered the bizarre story of Aloha Wanderwell in 1998 while researching a documentary he wanted to make about driving around the world. A Google search for ‘Aloha Airlines’ and ‘round the world’ produced a myriad of results, including ‘Aloha Wanderwell.’
For more information on Aloha Wanderwell’s B.C. connections, including land holdings in Merville, go to the Eustace-Walden entry on ABCBookWorld.
© Copyright BCBookworld
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VICTORIA TIMES COLONIST
Fearless Young Adventurer Had Roots On The Island
She was a young adventurer, ready to take on the world without fear. She had a fascinating name that perfectly captured her way of life. She was also one of us.
Aloha Wanderwell spent a bit of time as a child in Qualicum Beach, and she went to school in Victoria. As a 10-year-old in 1916, she also earned a mention in the Daily Colonist — but that was before her name was Aloha Wanderwell.
She was Idris Hall then, and she took part in the St. John’s Sunday school concert in the IOOF Hall in Duncan. Along with five other girls, she sang about the delights of sewing on Wednesdays.
That might have been the closest she ever came to the domestic life that was expected for girls in those days. She went on to thrills, intrigue, and travels that are hard to comprehend today.
The story of her early years is not clear. Manitoba birth records say she was born in Winnipeg on Oct. 13, 1906, to Robert Welsh — or maybe it was Welch — and his wife (maybe) Margaret Hedley, whose maiden name, if it can be called that, might also have been Hadley.
Were Robert and Margaret married? No record of a marriage has been found. And we don’t know what happened to Robert, whether he died or divorced or just moved on. There is no definitive record to say what happened to him.
We can say, however, that on Oct. 16, 1909, in Salmon Arm, 31-year-old Margaret Hedley married 22-year-old Herbert Cecil Victor Hall.
With her mother’s marriage, three-year-old Idris Welsh became known as Idris Hall.
The Halls moved to North Vancouver, and then to 40 acres in Qualicum Beach. There they welcomed another daughter, named Margaret after her mother. Idris stayed in North Vancouver with her maternal grandparents while the Halls were building their home at Qualicum.
The 1911 census shows Idris living with her grandparents in North Vancouver, along with a sister, Mabel — but Mabel was born before her mother’s marriage to Hall, and was too old to be confused with the child Margaret. Mabel is not mentioned in the book, so that mystery, like so many others here, is not resolved.
The Great War started in 1914. Herbert Hall signed up in 1915. He was seriously injured in 1916. After she heard the news, his wife Margaret packed up her youngest daughter and headed to England, leaving Idris in a boarding school in Victoria.
Herbert Hall was killed in action in 1917, and his will gave Idris the first hint that she had not been his daughter. She was not mentioned, even though her sister was, and that meant her mother had to tell her that Hall had been her stepfather.
That revelation helped to set the stage for the rest of Idris Hall’s life. She felt there was no place where she belonged.
In 1919, 12-year-old Idris travelled alone from Victoria to England, and saw her mother and sister for the first time in three years. She ended up in a boarding school in Belgium, and her mother returned to Qualicum Beach to deal with her properties on Vancouver Island.
When her mother returned to Europe, she took her daughters to Nice, where Idris ended up in yet another boarding school.
When she was 16, Idris read that adventurer Walter Wanderwell would be giving a presentation at a local theatre, so she skipped out of school to hear him. Soon she agreed to join his travelling band of adventurers as a travelling secretary, and changed her name to Aloha.
As part of the Wanderwell expedition, Aloha travelled the world in a modified Ford Model T. Her goal was to be the first woman to drive around the world, and she proved she could drive as well as the men in the expedition.
They travelled through Europe, into Egypt, China, India and many other countries. The attractive, youthful Aloha became a star of the Wanderwell cast, which made its money by recounting the expedition’s exploits in front of any crowd willing to pay.
By 1929, Aloha was being billed as the first girl to travel around the world. By that time, she had visited 43 countries on four continents.
She had also changed her name again, thanks to her marriage to Walter Wanderwell when she was 19. Her husband had his own mysterious past; he was really a Polish immigrant named Walter Pieczynski, and he was possibly married when he met Aloha, and possibly divorced when he married her.
The day before the expedition was due to leave California in December 1932, Walter Wanderwell was shot in the back. (At the time, Aloha’s mother was back on the Island, living on Government Street in Victoria.)
The killing ended the Wanderwell expeditions, but Aloha continued her wandering ways for many years. She died in Newport Beach, California, in 1996. Her younger sister, Margaret, had died in Comox the previous year.
Hall Road in Qualicum Beach was named after Aloha’s step-father, but the Vancouver Island connections to her life have been all but forgotten.
Aloha Wanderwell, the book, is a fascinating look at her travels and her other exploits. She may have slipped from our collective memory for a few decades, but she is back.
The reviewer is the editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist, Dave Obee
© Copyright Times Colonist
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THE ORMSBY REVIEW
A Journal of Serious Non-Fiction About B.C.
The Ormsby Review
Aloha Wanderwell – Tomboy Starlet
Idris Hall transformed herself into a globe-trotting celebrity as Aloha Wanderwell. Bonnie Reilly Schmidt looks at her fascinating biography.
A book about the world travels of a small band of adventure-seekers in the 1920s may seem archaic in a day when space tourism is fast becoming a reality. But, as the authors of Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer know only too well, it is the irrepressible human spirit in adventurers, and not always a particular destination, that resonates for readers across time. This is especially true of a young Canadian woman with the unlikely name of Aloha Wanderwell.
Aloha began her life as Idris Hall in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1906, and she grew up in North Vancouver, Qualicum Beach, and Victoria. Idris’s Canadian beginnings, however, do not feature prominently in her life story largely because she only returned to the country of her birth a handful of times after moving to Europe in 1919. It was there that fifteen-year-old Idris answered an ad placed in a Paris newspaper by Walter Wanderwell seeking “Brains, Beauty — and Breeches: World Tour Offer for a Lucky Young Woman.” It was only after Walter agreed to become Idris’s legal guardian and provide a return ticket home if she wanted one, did her mother agree to let Idris join the expedition.
It is not surprising that Captain Wanderwell’s exciting offer appealed to a young girl searching for adventure. Walter was a larger-than-life character whose life (and unsolved murder) almost overshadows Aloha’s in the book. He was a complex, charismatic man who was part guru and sometimes tyrant to his band of intrepid explorers. He was a master of spin and spectacle who understood how to manipulate an audience, attract sponsors, and seduce young girls. Walter also harboured a secret past that included a wife in Florida and time in jail in the United States as a suspected German spy.
But Walter also had a creative side. He relentlessly promoted his idea for an international police force designed to control militarism and promote peace. He also capitalized on the new medium of film to record his record-setting adventures. Walter was ahead of his time when it came to modifying the Model “T” Ford vehicles he used for his endurance contests, making them lighter by substituting aluminum for their heavy metal frames. In 1932, he received a patent for his idea for an aftermarket Speed Slope for cars that made them more aerodynamic, an idea that Cadillac adopted for some of its models two years later.
After joining the expedition in 1922, Aloha soon became one of its key attractions. At seventeen, she became the first woman to drive a car across India. In 1928, she became the first to circle the globe by automobile, a feat that predated Amelia Earhart’s 1932 solo flight across the Atlantic and sealed her reputation as a female explorer.
There was more to Aloha however than her travels. She soon became an accomplished cinematographer. Her film footage of the expeditions and her editing capabilities secured her the respect of Hollywood’s movie elite. Today, her 1930 footage of the previously-unknown Bororo tribe in the Brazilian rainforest is considered a significant anthropological achievement. Film historians are only now acknowledging Aloha’s cinematic contributions, which are housed in the Library of Congress, the Motion Picture Academy, and the Smithsonian.
Aloha and Walter frequently pushed the boundaries of gender and dress, a fascinating aspect of the book. Walter used military clothing to convey professionalism, insisting that all of his crew dress in breeches and army tunics complete with Sam Browne leather belts. Photographs show that Aloha was seldom out of uniform except while in Egypt, where she was forced to wear a skirt so as not to offend more conservative locals. Her cross-dressing only became problematic when she was several months’ pregnant and was forced to wear maternity corsets to hide “her state” during performances.
Authors Christian Fink-Jensen and Randolph Eustace-Walden craft an amazingly detailed narrative from an impressive number of sources, the central strength of the book. The authors understood that the Wanderwells were masters of spin who cultivated their public personas as explorers and adventurers for profit. They also recognized that Aloha was interested in revising her own history later in life. Accordingly, they do not rely solely on her writings but consult newspapers, periodicals, third-party interviews, legal documents, and government files from a number of museums, archives, and repositories. Their research is complemented by a number of fascinating photographs of their expeditions, some taken by Walter and Aloha, which are interspersed throughout the text.
Not a lot of information is given about the personal relationship between Aloha and Walter, an omission that some readers may find unsatisfying. For example, little is known about Aloha’s 1926 disappearance from the expedition while touring in Massachusetts. She resurfaced in Miami some days later claiming she had left Walter a note to explain her absence. The authors suggest that this behaviour may have been because she was pregnant, an explanation that seems too simplistic given Aloha’s insistence in later years that she hitchhiked the distance. This is not entirely the authors’ fault, however, since Aloha was not above manipulating and fabricating facts about their private lives. In fact, she later destroyed her journal entries related to Walter’s mental health and his institutionalization in Geneva in 1923.
Despite this omission, Fink-Jensen and Eustace-Walden have compiled a remarkable biography about the exploits of a young Canadian woman and the charismatic man who guided her early career. In rescuing Aloha’s life from obscurity, they have reintroduced her as a significant and accomplished historical actor who was both a product and a purveyor of her times.
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OWEN SOUND SUN TIMES
Ontario Provincial Newspaper
“I thought I had plundered every corner of Canada’s history, looking for the odd story, the unusual, the offbeat from our past. But I must admit, I had never heard of Aloha Wanderwell. I surely am glad to Goose Lane to have had an introduction to her fascinating life.
The heart of the Aloha Wanderwell story begins on a bright July morning in 1912 when Herbert Hall and his wife Margaret and their infant daughter Miki were greeted at a Qualicum Beach dock by their five-year-old daughter, Idris. A decade later, Idris, now 15, answered an ad for a travelling secretary. In an age when passable roads were rare and cars relatively new to the public, Idris joined the Wanderwell Expedition in their Model-T Ford expedition around the world.
She changed her name from Idris Hall to Aloha Wanderwell, eventually married Walter, the mysterious leader of the globe-trotting pack and became known around the world for her intrepid driving and adventures. The story has now been told by Christian Fink-Jensen and Randolph Eustace-Walden in Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer (Goose Lane, $24.95).
Aloha took on fame as the expedition made its way from continent to continent, navigating rivers, cliffs, and deserts. Walter, whose background lay in a First World War-torn Europe, dedicated the odyssey to world peace and an international police force. But the hit of the show, as the many photographs show, was Aloha.
The authors wrote, “By now Aloha had made up her mind to drive around the globe, a decision that in 1924, was like deciding to grow feathers — bizarre and probably impossible.” But drive she did.
“The times were good,” they wrote, “all around. The country was in the mood to celebrate its achievements. American business was booming, Babe Ruth was batting, the Goodyear Blimp was flying, and in South Dakota, a Danish-American sculptor wanted to carve the likeness of famous American presidents into Mount Rushmore. Soon after, Aloha began billing herself as the World’s Most Travelled Girl. She became the face of the Wanderwell Expedition.”
Aloha Wanderwell offered me a full day’s reading, a chance to savour a story (with a Canadian twist) that defies belief. Well written and accompanied by archival photographs the book lacks only one thing to rate a 10 out of 10 in my annual personal poll – maps!”
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Author, The Lost Amazon / The Serpent and The Rainbow
Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society
“Aloha Wanderwell must surely be the most remarkable woman adventurer to remain virtually unknown to history. This marvelous book sets the record straight, even as it powerfully evokes a distant era of travel when the survivors of the Great War set out to go anywhere but home.”
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ROAD & TRACK
“This Amelia Earhart of the automobile spent seven years [sic] traveling the globe… when the world was hostile to cars and women alike. She grew up a tomboy with wanderlust and grit – her father was killed in World War I – and she was tall, blonde, and beautiful, as well as an unabashed feminist, who flaunted her men’s attire as a necessity. She deserves to be rediscovered.”
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QUILL & QUIRE
“If there weren’t films, photos, and classified government documents hanging around as evidence, it would be easy to assume Aloha Wanderwell was a Hollywood concoction.”
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
The largest library in the world, and the main research arm of the U.S. Congress
“Aloha was a true independent filmmaker… she created and distributed her own films, presenting them on the lecture circuit, continually re-editing them throughout her career.”
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ACADEMY FILM ARCHIVE
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archives
“The Aloha Wanderwell Film Collection at the Academy Film Archive is a unique assortment of 16mm and 35mm films, revealing the story of Aloha’s around-the-globe adventures that captured the people, cultures and historical landmarks of five continents from the 1920s and 1930s.”
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