Not long ago a single-engine Beech-craft Bonanza took off from M�rida, on the Yucatan peninsula, and headed across the Gulf of Mexico for the Florida Keys. Through an error, Mexican authorities did not file the plane's flight plan, and the Bonanza turned up on U.S. radar as an unidentified aircraft approaching Cuba. Military jets were dispatched to identify the plane and escort it to Key West. A cordon of police surrounded the plane even before it came to a stop. As its door opened, one officer turned to another and said, "Jeez, will you get a look at the pilot! She's a little old lady!"
Marion Rice Hart, the pilot, is indeed a little old lady, though at 83 the description makes her cringe almost as much as when she is called "Widow Hart" or a "flying grandmother." She is quick to point out that she is neither. While she has no objections to motherhood other than that it leads to grandmotherhood, she has never been a mother, and she was divorced, not widowed, from a fellow named Hart whom she did object to because he insisted on asking her why she could not act like other women.
"Now, instead of being asked why I don't act like other women," she says, "people are always asking why I don't act my age. What has age to do with the way people act? I have no idea what other people my age are doing. I don't know any."
The truth is that Marion Hart has never acted her age, or like other women, and she has no intention of changing the habits of a lifetime. She has been a geologist, physicist, chemical engineer, artist, author, sculptress, surveyor, sailor and short-wave operator. She has worked in a copper mine in Arizona, served as a radio operator on a B-17, run a locomotive on the Southern Pacific, captained a 72-foot ketch to the Indian Ocean and beyond and flown her single-engine aircraft across the Atlantic seven times. Admittedly her solo landings in such distant places as Ceylon, Nepal, Jordan and Kuwait during the 11 months she recently spent winging around the globe evoked almost as much astonishment as her unexpected appearance on military radar, but as far as she is concerned, the flight was very ordinary.
There is little ordinary about Marion Hart. Nothing about the strong, self-assured voice, the lean, athletic appearance, the penetrating, intent gaze, the carefully styled brunette hair suggests an octogenarian. Seeing her in her Washington, D.C. apartment before a map of her wanderings, bare legs propped up on a coffee table strewn with navigational charts, flight manuals and a dissertation on wake turbulence, one realizes that the idea of offering to help her across the street is as preposterous as offering to drive A. J. Foyt home. Marion Hart may be little, old and a lady—she even wears tennis shoes, often patched with pieces of discarded inner tubes—but there the comparisons end.
"I was brought up to believe what you did mattered, not what you didn't," she says. "I am doing today what I have always done, which is what I want to do. There's nothing unusual about that."
The fourth of six children of Julia Barnett and Isaac Leopold Rice, Marion came naturally by her talent to be different. Her father, who attended the Paris Conservatory of Music, was poor, reduced to giving music lessons, when he met her piano-playing mother. She was the daughter of wealth and position. So far, the story is classic. Isaac's solution to his problem was not. After polling his friends as to who were the richest people they knew, he concluded that lawyers not musicians earned the most money and promptly enrolled at Columbia Law School. While he studied law Julia studied medicine and was graduated in 1883, a rare accomplishment for a woman of her time. "Mother thought the knowledge would come in handy in having and raising children," Marion says.
Once out of law school, Rice's fortune grew even faster than his family. After teaching and then lending a hand in the founding of the School of Political Science at Columbia, he went on to become one of the most prominent railroad lawyers in the U.S. From railroads he moved into industry, acquiring, among other successful ventures, companies that produced the first electric automobile, the first submarine, the first electric refrigerators, the first dried-milk products and the first taxi service in New York. His Electric Boat Company is known today as General Dynamics.
The six Rice children grew up in a zany confusion of opulent hotels, transatlantic voyages, revolving tutors, harried servants and disbe ieving neighbors. Numbered among the family's friends were the King of Spain, the Czar of Russia, the King of Sweden, Madame Curie, President McKinley and Pope Pius X. On one occasion the family was invited to the private Vatican apartment of Cardinal Merry del Val, who bounced the younger ones on his knee and entertained them with stories. "We were so taken with him," said sister Dorothy, who with her husband Hal Sims later became one of the most famous bridge-playing couples in the world, "that we all wanted to become cardinals."
"One of the amazing things about that family," says Dr. Paul Perez, a second cousin and professor of psychology at Colby College, "is that at an early age every one of the kids chose a life-style. Each was enormously intelligent and curious, and the father was willing to underwrite just about any interest any of them came up with. One had a seven-day bicycle racer for a tutor; another a three-cushion billiard player. Every one of them, including the girls—who were nicknamed Polly, Dolly, Molly and Lolly—grew up on a daily diet of calculus and chess. They used to spend hours as kids challenging each other to complex mental contests."