A Mirage III jet plane whirled over Istres Airfield near Marseilles a fortnight ago, guided by voice radio over a 100-kilometer closed course. Leveling off from its steep bank, the French army fighter glided down and braked to a stop on the Istres runway. Out of the cockpit clambered chic, handsome Jacqueline, daughter-in-law of the former President of France, Vincent Auriol. A well-wisher who had been clocking the flight rushed to the plane. "You flew 2,030 kilometers an hour!" he shouted. "You've pulverized Cochran's record! Bravo, Jacqueline!"
Jacqueline Auriol had just become the first woman to fly faster than 2,000 kilometers an hour (1,243 mph). More important to the dedicated aviatrix, she had recaptured the world's airspeed record for women, a mark she has been trading for 12 years of intense personal rivalry with tough, skillful Jackie Cochran, a cosmetics executive who lives in Indio, Calif.
As she eased out of her flight helmet, however, Jacqueline met the news of victory with a gentle melancholia. "When I realized I had reconquered the women's world speed record," she said later, "I had an odd feeling of letdown. As if there was nothing left for me to do."
On the day her women's speed record fell, Jackie Cochran was close at hand, visiting the Aeronautical Salon at Le Bourget Airfield, near Paris. "Well, I guess I didn't keep my record very long this time," she said offhandedly. Jackie's record, set in May with a Lockheed TF-104G Super Starfighter, was 1,203.94 mph. Eleven months before that Jacqueline had set a record with 1,149.65 mph. This, in turn, had beaten Jackie's record of 784.34 mph set in April 1961 in a Northrop T-38 Talon jet trainer. In all, the women's 100-kilometer closed-circuit speed record has passed back and forth seven times between these two, and despite her cozy smiles at the aeronautical salon, Jackie Cochran was going to waste no time trying to snatch back the title of world's fastest woman. "I'd love to take a crack at Jacqueline's new record," asserts Jackie. "I'm just waiting for Lockheed to furnish the plane."
Besides the Starfighter TF-104G, Lockheed has furnished Jackie with a Jet-Star transport for assaults on long distance records. It is fine publicity for Lockheed to have Jackie break records in its aircraft. By the same token, the French military are delighted whenever the French Jacqueline beats one of the American Jacqueline's speed records.
Though the two women have been very close in their rivalry since 1951, they could not have started farther apart. Jackie was born Bessie Lee Pittman, on the wrong side of the tracks in a Florida sawmill town. As a child, she lived in shacks and slept on the floor. At 8, she tried to improve her lot—grits, bare feet and flour-sack dresses—by running away and working 12 hours a night, for 6¢ an hour, in a Georgia cotton mill. Three years later she was making $1.50 a day in a beauty shop in Columbus, Ga. and at 13 was a full-fledged beauty operator.
"I honestly don't know my real age," she says today. "Some people claim I'm 57—but could a woman of 57 pilot a TF-104?"
Blonde, blue-eyed Jacqueline Auriol was born 45 years ago in the town of Challans in west central France. The daughter of a wealthy importer of timber, Jacqueline spent her early years under the doting supervision of her parents. While Jackie never got beyond the third grade, Jacqueline received her baccalaureate from the university in Nantes and then attended the Ecole du Louvre in Paris to study art.
Jackie first climbed into a plane in 1932, when she went to Roosevelt Field, on Long Island, to take flying lessons. She has a vivid memory of her first solo—after a 30-minute lesson. "I was getting ready to land," she recalls, "when suddenly the motor quit. I can remember thinking how considerate it was of my teacher to have arranged for the motor to stop while I was up there so I wouldn't have any trouble landing."
Her first solo convinced Jackie she should be a flyer. "You'd have to search for the reason in my childhood. I was born in a hovel, but I was determined to soar up among the stars. What I love about flying is being up there all alone with nobody to help you but yourself."
Two years later, Jackie was one of the best women flyers in the U.S.—and, incidentally, head of her own cosmetics business. In 1934 she was the first woman to enter the Bendix Transcontinental Trophy Race. In 1938 she was the first woman to win it. In 1937 she established a women's speed record of 203 miles an hour. When World War II broke out, she became the director of the WASPs and was the first woman to ferry a bomber across the Atlantic. She was the first woman to break the sound barrier.
Along the way, Jackie married Floyd B. Odium, chairman of the Federal Resources Corp., a uranium-mining firm. Odium, who cannot pilot a plane and hates to fly, nevertheless has always encouraged Jackie in her pursuit of records.
Meanwhile, Jacqueline in 1938 had married Paul Auriol. When the Germans came, she refused to leave France; and Jacqueline remembers constant flights from the Gestapo, climbing over the hilly Vendee countryside with one infant son in a rucksack and the other fastened to her like a dog on a leash. After the war, when her father-in-law was elected President of France, Jacqueline became the Second Lady of the country. Charming and cheerful, she lived in the Elysée Palace, oversaw the endless round of diplomatic parties and dazzled Paris with gowns loaned to her by haute couture houses.
Jacqueline first flew with Commander Raymond Guillaume, a renowned French aviator, and shortly after the liberation of Paris made her first solo. By 1949 she was a crack stunt pilot.
But in July of that year a plane in which she and some friends were passengers crashed into the Seine. She almost literally lost her face. There was a hole in place of her nose. Every tooth was broken. She had a double skull fracture and her jaw was broken. "I was a monster," she says. Her doctors sent her to the gueules cassées ("broken mugs") section of the Foch Hospital in Paris where the bone structure of her face—or a face—was restored. Later she traveled to New York, where a new face was fashioned for her in the course of 22 operations. "It was a long time before I looked in the mirror," she says.
But she did not hesitate to get back to flying—and into competition with Jackie Cochran. Two years after her accident she made her first assault on the women's world speed record, held, of course, by Jackie. Flying a British Vampire jet, she beat Jackie's record which had been set in 1947 in a propeller-driven plane. They have been at it ever since. And today the two women, from such different backgrounds, seem to share a good deal more than a passion for speed.
They agree that women make as good flyers as men, though Jacqueline is much more enthusiastic about the space flight of Valentina Tereshkova, Russia's lady astronaut, than is Jackie. Jackie is dubious about Russian claims, but Jacqueline sent a warm message to Valentina, saying, "Your flight serves the cause of women throughout the world."
By plunging into the man's world of flying, they have both encountered hostility, Jackie far less in the U.S. than Jacqueline in France. "It is important to act modestly with men while infiltrating one of their special provinces," Jacqueline notes. "Patience and humility permitted me to succeed. Only occasionally now do airmen notice that I am a woman." This last remark, of course, is modestly and patently untrue. Jacqueline is completely a woman—whether she appears in her beautifully cut dresses and suits or her flying costumes. Jackie has the same feminine awareness of fashion. Her clothes are made by Nina Ricci. Both are famous enough to have their life stories in book form. Jackie has published an autobiography. Jacqueline's story is told in a forthcoming biography by Newsman Bernard Valéry.
As to their celebrated rivalry, the two will admit no personal feelings. "It is not a question of my own prestige," says Jacqueline. "The purpose was to demonstrate the superiority of a French plane over the American TF-104G." For her part, Jackie credits Jacqueline with helping her get the red ribbon of the Legion d'Honneur. And it was Jackie who presented Jacqueline to President Truman to receive America's highest aviation award, the Harmon Trophy, in 1952. Nevertheless, no two people this determined, this competitive—and this feminine—are constituted to share anything like a world record in total harmony. As a friend of both women put it, "I sat between them one day during a luncheon. No, they didn't claw each other over my body. They were so sweet to each other for half an hour that I thought the place would explode!"