Wednesday, January 25, 2017

How Land Investment in Florida Helped Develop Pan Am Airways

Bebe's Girl, Clare Gunn Rebozo Babcock Gentry

As we explored in Part 1 of Bebe the Bagman, Bebe Rebozo and Clare Margaret Gunn were classmates at Miami High School before Bebe graduated in 1930. They  sneaked off to Fort Lauderdale during Clare’s senior year and were secretly married July 31, 1931. Writing in a style characteristic of Kitty Kelley, Clay Drewry Blair, Jr., disclosed this intriguing tidbit of information in his feature article called “Bebe Rebozo’s Life Story,” which was serialized in newspapers in 1970 (posted previously at QJ).

Clay Blair, who dealt routinely with subjects like atomic submarine warfare or the life of Admiral Rickover, even wrote a biography of James Earl Ray published only a year before  astounding readers with Rebozo's secret romance. Blair claimed that Clare wanted the marriage kept secret because her parents lived in "comfortable circumstances, many notches up the social ladder from Bebe." That conclusion on Blair's part was erroneous in several respects.

Gunn Family Circumstances Far from 'Comfortable'

The fact is that John and Nellie (Ellen) Gunn actually divorced around 1929, making Clare's living situation quite unstable. The real estate and construction boom had all but disappeared in the wake of Miami's 1926 hurricane, making it difficult for her father to find enough work to support his family. The depression further deepened with the 1929 stock market crash. These events took a heavy toll on the Gunns. Clare's older brother Donald, who was a friend of Bebe's, disappears from public records after 1932. 

It did not take Nellie long to marry for a second time. Cornelius William Scully, an Irish Catholic from New Jersey, was a fireman who lived at 104 NE 56th Street, about a mile from the home in which Clare had lived with her parents (145 NW 61st), since moving to Miami from St. Louis in 1924. With Donald and Clare almost out of high school when their parents divorced, it is possible Clare married Bebe in 1931 in order to stay in the house next-door to their uncle Hugh Gunn without adult supervision. From available data we can surmise that the divorce, remarriage and consequent living arrangement was by no means a "comfortable" situation for Clare or her siblings at the time she agreed to undergo a secret marriage with Bebe. If nothing else, the marriage would, however, have given her (still legally a minor) the legal capacity to enter into a lease agreement.

After the divorce their father lived in a room at 161 NW 52nd Street, a house rented by the Henry Semple family. Semple drove a truck for Gunn & Goll, a construction firm owned by Clare's uncle William in partnership with a war veteran named Otto H. Goll from Toledo. In 1933 her father  also went to work as Gunn & Goll's "caretaker." There was no other obvious relationship between John Gunn and Semple; however, John remained at this address for many years. Far from "comfortable," this situation was must have been downright embarrassing for young Clare.

What is most intriguing about this company (Gunn & Goll) is that in the midst of economic recession, Otto Goll could afford to travel constantly, flying frequently to Cuba by seaplane. His flights which began in the 1930's continued into the next decade via Pan American Airways. Pan Am was, of course, the airline for which Bebe and Clare's husband, James Norman Gentry, were at one time employed. Bebe Rebozo's real link America's first international airline, which was so much in the news throughout the 1930's depression years, will take some time to explain.

Clare worked as a steno in 1934.
While Clare was secretly married to Bebe, her name showed up in Miami's 1933 city directory, indicating that she was employed at Progressive Investment Corporation, an entity with no listing in the directory. The following year's listing, however, indicates she lived with her mother and stepfather at Scully's house on 56th Street, while working as a stenographer. Her youngest brother, William P. Gunn, who may not have gotten along with his new stepfather, lived with their father in his rented room in the Semple home. By 1937, however, Clare had moved out on her own to 244 NW 52nd, where William P. joined her. This new living arrangement could not have lasted long, as Clare also married again in 1937, as we will explore subsequently.

Clare's Employment

Excerpt from The Scroll, 1942
Though we find nothing to indicate who the principals were in Progressive Investment Corporation, it is easy to discern that her next job in 1934 for a statistical research firm called Ballinger & Taylor involved John Kenneth Ballinger, associate editor at the Miami Herald, and Frank O. Taylor, Jr., an accountant. 

After Ballinger wrote, but was unable to get his book published, he teamed up with Taylor to write Florida bonds: a summary of the funded public debt of December 31, 1934. In 1936 he self-published his first book with the title  Miami Millions, only a year or two after Harvey O'Conner's Mellon's Millions hit bookstores. He may have thought the catchy title alone would have made his chronicle of unconnected tidbits of factual data, without the analysis which had made O'Conner's book worthwhile, a bestseller. The news item announcing his service in WWII in his alumni magazine (upper left) unfortunately mentioned the wrong book. Boom in Paradise had been published by T. H. Weigall in 1932, and can be read at the Everglades website.

According to his 1980 obituary, Ballinger went into the Army Air Corps as a captain in 1942, coming out as a colonel before getting a law degree. While Clare worked for Ballinger a decade earlier, he and his wife lived at 637 Minorca Avenue in Coral Gables, only a few doors down from

Where Was Bebe in 1934?

Bebe's parents and working siblings, during his high school years, lived in Miami at 183 NW 34th Terrace, a mile to the south from the Gunns. Although Bebe was said by the book, Bebe the Bagman, to have quit his Pan Am job in 1931, Miami directory indicates in 1934 that he was still employed as a steward at Pan American Airways, only a few months after the airline's owner, Juan Trippe, had made the cover of Time magazine. The Rebozos moved in 1934 to 836 NW 33rd Avenue, still less than two miles from any of the homes where Clare lived, but in a sightly more upscale neighborhood than hers.

According to Blair's unsourced Bebe the Bagman, Bebe had been among the first stewards hired by Pan Am but quit the job in 1931 to pump gas for a year, before he
Page from 1934 Miami directory
"took a job chauffeuring tourists around the Gold Coast. Living frugally and saving his money, restless and always looking for a better chance, in 1935 he invested his savings in 'Rebozo's Service Station and Auto Supplies,' specializing in the sale of retreaded tires."  
Blair apparently borrowed that unattributed detail from a cover article, "President Nixon's Best Friend," in the July 31, 1970 issue of Life Magazine under the byline of Colin Leinster, a Life writer/photographer who, in the late 1960s had been assigned both to Life's Hong Kong and Vietnam bureaus before his promotion to Assistant Editor in 1969. Leinster's  promotion came less than a year before his feature on Bebe hit the Luce-owned magazine (Henry R. Luce, Yale 1920, Skull and Bones).

Were Blair and Leinster  unwittingly working for the same boss who was intent on pumping disinformation about Bebe's past into the mainstream media? A similar chronology of Bebe's life was, intriguingly, inserted into Anthony Summers' Arrogance of Power. We leave you to make your own conclusions after reading the following research with a questioning mind.

QJ is disinclined to buy either the Blair or Leinster account simply because the 1934 directory listing (inset, upper right) indicates Bebe was still a steward in 1934. The goal of the disinformation attempt  was to minimize Bebe's role at Pan Am and maximize his connection to Smathers. Why? The Pan Am Airport looms large in QJ's view. Possibly a windmill; more likely a giant!

Clare Gunn a/k/a Mrs. E. Vose Babcock, 1937-39

Bebe graduated from Miami High in 1930 and Clare two years later, though she had been on schedule to finish in 1931. (Note: Both of them would have known George Smathers, 1931 MHS senior class president, who was named Outstanding Athlete of Dade County that year. Smathers was attending college and law school in Gainesville from 1932-38, some of those years with Phil Graham and Paul Helliwell, as QJ has previously noted.)

While she worked for Kenneth Ballinger, Clare met E. Vose Babcock, Jr., the son of a lumber tycoon from Pittsburgh, who owned a large ranch in Charlotte and Lee Counties in western Florida, just to the south of Tampa. Today it is a three-hour drive from Miami along Interstate 75--but in the 1930's would possibly have taken much of the day. How and where Clare and Vose met may forever remain a mystery, along with the reason for their divorce two years later. We can only speculate about whether Bebe Rebozo had a hand in introducing them, possibly through his work at the Pan American airport based on Dinner Key. (Note: Other historic photographs can be viewed at Miami History website.

Vose Babcock at left with his wealthy family
We do know that Vose Babcock, Jr. had dropped out of Princeton after his second year and allegedly shunned his father's lumber business in 1932 in favor of raising cattle in the Fort Myers Beach area. He married Clare Gunn in 1937, three years after her marriage to Bebe was annulled. Mr. and Mrs. Babcock (Clare's name was misspelled as Claire) were listed in Fort Myers city directories for several years, and, although directories may have been slow to update details, something else seems amiss.

A cowboy, marrying a stenographer may not have sat well within the family, if they were aware of his marriage, but it appears not to have been enough of a departure from family decorum to have threatened the scion's enormous trust fund, which appears to have remained intact, as we shall later see. The Babcocks were close associates of the same Mellon family who were the subject of the scathing rebuke of the Secretary of the Treasury during Prohibition and early depression years. 

The title of the book, Mellon's Millions, likely served as a model for Ballinger's own book title, Miami Millions.

As members of Pittsburgh's Duquesne Club, Union Club, Country Club, as well as the Oakmont Country Club, the Babcock sons were sent to prestigious Ivy League schoolswith Vose Jr. prepping at Choate before attending Princeton in the class of 1927, while the parents enjoyed the same social circle as the Mellon family in Pittsburgh. In fact,

You can also read Part 2 of Bebe the Bagman, originally posted with the above research.