Canadian Aviatrix #50 – Mary Adams (1903-1949)

Born Annie Pearl Howard around 1903 in Columbus, Georgia, to Wesley Howard and Cora Jenkins.

In 1907, Cora got remarried to Henry Harwell Ivey (a barber) and they had two sons.

1910 census

1920 census

1930 census

Columbus GA

Atlanta GA

Atlanta GA

Henry

33

43

55

Cora

30

38

47

Annie

8

16

24

William

2

11

21

Richard

-

6

16

 

Annie, now going as Pearl Ivey, attended Girls High School in Atlanta. In 1918, she played the “freshman adorer” in the dramatic club’s production of ‘Captain Joe’ and the newspaper reviewer said there was promise of good work in the future.

In 1922, Pearl’s principal told her that she hadn’t achieved enough credits to move from sophomore to junior. She argued with her, but couldn’t change her mind, so Pearl left the school and moved to New York. She began her professional career as a model for illustrations – putting the little money she earned towards dancing lessons, to add to the training in music, voice and elocution her mother had given her.

Pearl adopted the stage name Mary Adams and made her debut in the 1923 edition of George White's ‘Scandals’ – a long-running string of Broadway revues that launched the careers of many entertainers, including Ethel Merman, Ann Miller, Louise Brooks, W.C. Fields, and the Three Stooges.

By 1925, she was performing in ‘No, No, Nanette’ in Philadelphia and “all but stopped the show” as Betty from Boston. By 1926, Mary was starring in ‘Big Boy’ with Al Jolson.

On 25 November 1927, Mary married Robert Allen Swalm (manager of the Schuylkill Motors Company – his family’s firm). The marriage only lasted a couple of hours – he wanted Mary to end her career and live with his parents, she did not.

In 1928-30, Mary was the leading lady in ‘A Connecticut Yankee’ and even appeared in advertisements for soap. She had tried acting in silent movies, but didn’t enjoy it. She appeared in one “talkie”, wanted to do more and said she didn’t believe they’d harm the theatre.

By 1930, the newspapers reported Mary was earning almost “the four figure mark per week” and used a proportion of her salary to help her two half-brothers – putting one through Georgia Tech and the other though Emory.

In September 1931, Mary gave up acting temporarily to learn how to fly. She flew to LA from New York with Bill Lancaster, who was to be her teacher. Bill’s partner, Jessie Keith-Miller, planned a promotional scheme where she flew Mary (and her dog) from LA to New York. Unfortunately, Jessie’s appendix burst and she had to undergo an operation, before recuperating in Mary’s “Spanish-style villa”.

On 11 May 1932, Mary got divorced from Robert – citing extreme and repeated cruelty and non-support. She left the court on the arm of John Canfield (amateur pilot, automobile racer, and son of the inventor of the spark plug). John had been divorced a month earlier, but the pair “laughed off questions as to whether they intended to marry”.

That evening, they had a party and announced that they intended to get married straight away, but wanted their friends to be the first to know. They wanted to get married in Windsor, Ontario, but Mary’s Michigan divorce was not recognized there, so they drove to Indiana instead.

In August 1932, Mary, John and two guests were marooned when their boat sprung a leak and had to be beached during a midnight cruise. The couple also attended many air shows and events.

In 1936, John was part of a company that took over the management of the Walker Airport. Mary appears to have been the airport’s good luck charm or, at least, their source of publicity photos – dropping off Easter bunnies, hosting special guests of the airport, duck hunting, and christening new planes with champagne bottles.

On 7 October 1936, Mary passed her flying test and received her PPL, making her the 50th female pilot in Canada. She was around 33 years old.

Canadian Aviatrix #50 – Mary Adams (1903-1949) 

Photo: The Windsor Star (April 6, 1936)

In 1939, the couple, together with John’s son from his first marriage, moved to Atlanta.

1940 census

Atlanta GA

John

45

Mary

40

Jack

17

 

By 1944, they were wintering in Miami Beach.

In 1949, the couple died – John of a heart attack in March and Mary after an operation in August, aged 46. The closeness of their deaths lead to a court case, as the beneficiaries from John’s will (his sister’s adopted children) contested the fact that everything was going to Mary’s half-brothers.

Note: Mary was listed with an asterisk in No Place for a Lady – meaning the author hadn’t been able to find her. I just had “Mary A. Canfield (Mrs)” and the date of her PPL.

The First 100 Canadian Women Pilots