The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.
At A Glance:
Born: November 19, 1901, Tonopah, Nevada
Died: January 3, 1981, Las Vegas, Nevada
Maiden Name: Margaret Bartlett
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: Caucasian
Married: Richard W. Millar, William R. Thornton
Primary City and County of Residence and Work:
Reno, Washoe County; Las Vegas, Clark County; New York City.
Major Fields of Work: Poet, Editor, Aviation Enthusiast
Poet, editor promoted early aviation with travel record
Margaret Bartlett Thornton, daughter of a famous Nevada politician and judge, was known as much for her travel stunt in the early days of airplanes as she was for her published poetry.
In 1928, a year when the new aviators were America’s heroes, Margaret “Monte” Bartlett wanted to highlight the grueling work of America’s airmail pilots.
“Lindberg had just made his flight across the Atlantic alone in a single-engine plane, followed by Richard Byrd’s flight in a multi-engine plane with a crew. In contrast, the unsung heroes of the airmail flights from coast to coast for eight years concerned me,” she said in a 1977 interview.
Bartlett put on a huge pilot’s outfit (on her 5 ft. 2 in. frame) and climbed into a biplane in New York. The only stops were short to refuel, eat, and transfer mail.
“We’d be up in the stars where we couldn’t see the earth, then we’d go below the clouds and pick up ice, then we’d have to go back up again,” she recalled. The inclement weather in Salt Lake City caused a delay, as did a snowstorm near Elko. A 15-minute stop in Reno prompted a big welcome by everyone her father, District Judge George Bartlett, could assemble. She told reporters it was “wonderful, and not just a bit spectacular.”
What she didn’t tell the press was the reason for her first trip to New York from Nevada: “I’d run away from home to live in New York and save the world.” But she’d become homesick and wanted to get back to Reno. She called her brother Donald in Chicago, who was working for the Transcontinental Air Transport Company. She said her brother was so embarrassed that she had “disgraced the family by living in New York alone” that he got her a pass on one of his airline’s planes. The pass was good only from New York to Chicago, so she held a press conference about the airmail pilots’ plight, and one pilot agreed to fly her the rest of the way to Oakland.
She had wanted to become the first female to travel cross country on a non-stop commercial flight. As it turns out, she was the second. Candid I. Hall of New York, an ardent aviation fan, beat her to it by just a few days.
But her arrival was 48 hours from her departure time, a disappointment heartfelt enough to make her want to try again in the other direction. So she told the press she was going back.
In April, her return trip did indeed break the record, making the 2,661-mile flight in 29 hours and 56 minutes, giving Bartlett the transcontinental air mail passenger record between Oakland and New York. Her father joined her on the Oakland to Reno leg. The plane made record time transfers of mail at Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Omaha, and Des Moines. In Chicago, she transferred planes and landed in Hadley Field, New Jersey. The entire trip had an average flying speed of 88.7 miles per hour.
Margaret A. Bartlett was born November 19, 1901, in Tonopah, Nev., to George and Pearl Bartlett, who had moved there from Eureka, Nev., earlier that year. Her father had been district attorney for Eureka County for two years, and after a few years of getting settled in Tonopah, he was elected to the U.S. Congress for two terms. He brought his family, which now included four children, first to Carson City, and then to Reno, where he practiced law and was appointed and later elected as a Washoe County District Judge, a position he held from 1918 until 1930.
Because of her father’s prominence, the Bartlett family lived in the heart of town, in a house on Court Street originally built for the superintendent of the Western Pacific Railroad in 1901. Margaret recalled that she, her two sisters and one brother met many prominent people who visited them when they were in Reno for quickie divorces during the 1920s, including boxer Jack Dempsey, actors Tallulah Bankhead and Wallace Berry, and industrialists Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. and W. K. Kellogg.
In a letter to the editor later in life, she wrote that her family “quarreled a lot.” She said they “raised the roof so that George Wingfield, who lived across the street, used to call us ‘the cats.’”
When Margaret was 13 and living in Carson City, she visited her grandmother in San Francisco and came down with diphtheria. She was not expected to survive, but turned a corner and recovered, an event that was noted in the Reno newspapers. She attended Dominican College in San Rafael, Calif. for two years.
Upon her triumphant return to Reno from her 1928 flight, she received a letter from U.S. Commerce Secretary Clarence Young, thanking her for all she’d done for aviation. Well-known Reno banker George Wingfield, a neighbor of her family’s, whom she would later tussle with over the area near the Truckee River now known as Wingfield Park, gave her a check for $1,000 to take flying lessons.
“I learned to fly, soloing in one of those old jennies; those big old crates,” she later told a Reno Evening Gazette reporter. “I soloed at Mitchell Field on Long Island. I remember sitting in a pile of grease in the hanger when Howard Hughes came in. He just said hello, but I’ve never forgotten it.”
She got her pilot’s license, one of the first women in the country to do so, “but tragically enough, it was taken away because it was found that my heart was bad.”
Since she couldn’t fly, she took advantage of her publicity and took a job “traveling around the west coast talking to people about flying; trying to get them interested in passenger flight.” Her counterpart on the East Coast? A young flyer named Amelia Earhart.
“People were afraid to fly. Amelia and I would go to luncheons and civic meetings and tell them about the joy of getting from one place to another through the air instead of on the ground. It was all so beautiful.”
Bartlett remembered Earhart as a very fragile person, gentle and gracious, but with a mean streak. She remembered a time when she bought a bag full of beetles in Chinatown as a joke and giving them to a cook at a restaurant where she and several friends were dining.
“The beetles were brought out for dessert on a silver tray. Amelia very calmly took one, opened it up, and passed it to Charles (Lindberg). He took one and passed it on to Ann and then to me.” She laughed remembering that no one would admit to the joke, but very calmly ate the beetles.
Bartlett said Lindberg was a sensitive soul like Earhart. She found it difficult to talk about Lindberg since his death, since she considered the family dear friends, but said she was the only one to see them off to London after the kidnap-murder of their son Charles and the subsequent trial. And about Earhart’s disappearance, she said, “I don’t really know what happened to her. But she stayed overnight with me in my home in Beverly Hills the night before she took off for Hawaii. She’d just made a record flight from the east coast,” commenting about some flying difficulties she’d had. “She said when things start going wrong, they add up and you know you can’t make it.”
In an op-ed piece in the Nevada State Journal in 1938, Bartlett wrote about aviators: “They never know what it’s going to be like up there. Sometimes it is disagreeable, sometimes they don’t come back. But when they do, they say the worst of it was never more than ‘a little rough’ or ‘not bad.’ And so it is from such people that we learn how to live and how to die. Both at the same time.”
In 1930, in Las Vegas, she was working for T.A.T.-Maddux Airlines as a promotions/traffic advisor when she married Richard W. Millar, a vice president of the Bancamerica-Blair Corporation. Her father presided over the ceremony in Nevada, allowing them to side-step the three-day license law in California. She was a homemaker, traveler, and poet, living in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York and once traveling by ship to England, until the marriage ended in divorce.
She dropped the Millar from her name and became renowned for her writing. As Margaret Bartlett, she had several poems published in poetry magazines, and one in the Saturday Review of Literature.
She married William Robert Thornton, and as Margaret Bartlett Thornton, received a three-month study grant from the Huntington-Hartford Foundation at Pacific Palisades, Calif., for work in creative writing. Her marriage to Thornton was over by 1962.
Her father’s time on the bench included the granting of more than 20,000 divorces, earning him the sobriquet “the divorce judge.” This experience lead to him writing a book called Men, Women and Conflict, which Margaret edited. It was published in 1931, but re-issued in 1947 as Is Marriage Necessary? After her father died in 1951, she and her sister undertook the heavy task of organizing his voluminous papers for the University of Nevada Library.
In 1970, the stately old family home on Court St. was sold by Margaret and her sister Dorothy (who died two years later) and was demolished, an event noted in the local newspapers, and was replaced by a legal office.
Later in life, Margaret continued to write letters to the editor when things interested or annoyed her. A pet peeve was the way the land around Wingfield Park was treated. She was pleased her former neighbor George Wingfield donated the land to the city for the park, but was incensed by the deal the city made with him to let him build a high-rise apartment building across the street. She was also angry about the way the park took shape, writing, “May I be privileged to suggest to the Reno City Council – now that you have ruined our beautiful little Wingfield Park by the Truckee River, where we used to sit on the grass to feed the ducks – that you also cut down all the trees, so the birds won’t dirty your concrete – or, better yet, tear up your concrete and give us back our park. Parks are for people and wildlife – concrete is for machines.”
A year after that letter was printed, Margaret Bartlett Thornton had her book Winter of Noon, a collection of her poetry spanning 40 years, published. She had a book signing at the old Unique Book Store on N. Virginia Street in December 1977.
She returned to Las Vegas, where she died at Sunrise Hospital on Saturday, January 3, 1981, at the age of 79.
Researched by Patti Bernard and written by Catharina E. Falcone, October 2018. Posted to website November 2018.
Sources of Information:
- “Air Mail Plane-Who Did It First?” Plainfield Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey) February 28, 1928, p.13:1.
- “Back to College”, Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), January 7, 1921, p. 2:3. Sec. Society.
- “Bartlett Family Returns to Home In Mississippi”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), August 24, 1944, p.7.5.
- Bartlett, Margaret. “For No Reason–”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), March 5, 1938, p. 9:7.
- Bartlett, Margaret “For No Reason–”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), March 9, 1938, p. 3.7.
- Bartlett, Margaret “For No Reason–”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), March 13, 1938, p3:5.
- “Bartlett on Trip; Flies Across U.S.”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), August 7, 1929, p. 1:3.
- “Bartlett Tickled With His Flight Across Mountains.”, Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), April 12, 1928, p8:2.
- “Coast to Coast In Plane”, Modesto News-Herald (Modesto, California), February 23, 1928, p. 2:5.
- George A. Bartlett papers, NC1253, Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Reno
- “Margaret B. Thornton”, Gazette-Journal (Reno, Nevada), January 6, 1981, p. 18:1.
- “Margaret Bartlett Married Today to Los Angeles Man”, Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), January 24, 1930, p. 14.2.
- “Margaret Bartlett Story Published”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), May 29, 1943, p. 5:4.
- “Margaret Bartlett Wed Army Flier”. Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), August 19, 1943, p11:4.
- “Margaret Bartlett Thornton vs William Robert Thornton”, Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), March 1, 1954, p12:5. Sec. Vital Statistics-Actions Filed.
- “Mrs. Lucy Gates of Eureka Dies”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), January 5, 1933. P. 6:1.
- “Reno Author Wins Award in California”, Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), July 20, 1955, p6:2.
- “Reno Author Wins Grant From Foundation”, Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), August 29, 1956, p11:3.
- “Reno Girl Sets Record on Cross-Country Air Journey”, Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California), April 28, 1914, p13.
- “Reno Girl to Fly Back to New York She Says When Ship Lands Today”, Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), February 23, 1928, p6:2.
- “Reno landmark home Razed”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), September 11, 1970, p1:1
- Richardson, Guy. “hangin’ out”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), December 16, 1977, p. 53:2.
- “Saturday Review Features Poem By Reno Author”, Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), September 4, 1954, p. 5:8.
- Schaff, Susan. “Focus: People”, Gazette-Journal (Reno, Nevada), March 27, 1977, p. 2A:1.
- Thornton, Margaret Bartlett. “Along the River”, Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), March 26, 1955, p. 5:4.
- Thornton, Margaret Bartlett. “The Judge’s Gift”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), November 9, 1970, p. 18:4.
- Thornton, Margaret Bartlett. “Give it Back”, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), May 4, 1977. P4B4.