Sarah Ruth Elder was born on September 8, 1902, in Anniston, Alabama. She was one of three daughters and five sons born to James Oscar Elder, a pattern-maker at Alabama Pipe, and Sarah J McClellan (no direct relation to General McClellan).
In February 1922, Elder married PFC Claude E. Moody, a WWI veteran, and a local schoolteacher. They were divorced a few years later, and not much is known about their short marriage.
A few years later, Elder worked briefly at a department store in Birmingham. During this time, she met Lyle Womack, a Pennsylvania native and lion tamer, who would later become part of the Byrd South Pole Expedition. They married in September 1925 and moved to Lakeland, Florida, where Elder took a job in a dental office.
After Charles Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris in 1927, America was swept up in an aviation fever. Elder, who already dabbled in aviation with her husband, immediately swore she would be the first woman to fly the Atlantic.
Just five months later, Elder and her instructor George Haldeman boarded a yellow Stinson Detroiter named The American Girl, and set out from Lakeland, Florida toward Portugal. The pair flew somewhere between 2,574 and 2,625 miles across the Atlantic in stormy weather, in 28-36 hours, with Ruth at the controls for about nine hours. Due to an oil leak, The American Girl was ditched in the water about 300-360 miles short of the Azores. They were rescued by a passing Dutch tanker “Barendrecht.”
Despite not finishing the trek, Elder became the first woman to fly most of the Atlantic. And America noticed. A ticker-tape parade in New York greeted her and her copilot upon their return. Elder was then invited to lunch at the White House by President Calvin Coolidge.
Elder soon became known as the “Miss America of Aviation” and as “the Flying Florida Flapper” for her beauty, flamboyancy, and exploits as an aviatrix. After her flights, Elder cashed in on her worldwide fame and popularity, earning a quarter-million-dollar contract to go on a vaudeville tour and many other personal appearances.
1928 brought many changes for Elder. She became a film star, earning the female lead in the silent comedy, Moran of the Marines. Meanwhile, her marriage to Womack fell apart. He charged her with cruelty, claiming his “weight has been reduced, efficiency for work lessened and health and reason endangered.” Her short official response was, “Don’t be a fool.” They were divorced that year.
The following year, Elder stared in the silent western The Winged Horseman. She competed in the first Women’s Air Derby, a nine-day race from Santa Monica to Cleveland. Louise Thaden, an Arkansas native, won the race, but Elder was one of the top five finishers, including Amelia Earhart. A little over a week later, Elder married Walter C. Camp, a manager of Madison Square Garden.
Shortly after the Derby, Elder and her fellow female aviatrixes formed a group for the mutual support and advancement of women pilots called the Ninety-Nines, named for the 99 recruits of the 117 license women fliers in America.
In 1932, Elder divorced Camp and married Albert Gillespie, art director and head of MGM’s special effects department, the following year. Together, the couple had Elder’s only child, William, in 1940.
In the following decade, Elder divorced Gillespie and married her fifth husband, San Diego artist and art dealer, George K Thackeray. During this time, she worked as an executive secretary in the aviation industry, hired by business magnate and pilot Howard Hughes.
In 1956, Elder married her last husband, Ralph P. King, a retired Hollywood cameraman, but not for the last time. She later divorced him in 1959 but remarried him in 1962. At her death, King stated, “We were married about three years when she divorced me. One day she rang me. She says ‘Daddy, are you married again?’ I says no, and she says, ‘Can I come home?’ I says yeah, and there it was. We got married again. A real love story.”
On October 9, 1977, Elder died in her sleep in San Francisco. She was 73 years old and had struggled with emphysema for years. The following year, Ralph King died. Per Elder’s wishes, her ashes were combined with King’s and scattered from an Air Force plane over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ruth Elder did achieve the longest flight for a woman at the time in 1927. “In the half-century that followed the flight…Miss Elder made movies, met a president, hobnobbed with royalty, married six times, made a lot of money – and spent it all.” Overall, she was a character to be remembered for both her aviation feats and her moxie in the public eye. And all of it started in Anniston.
The Ninety-Nines still exist today, and as of 2018, there are 155 Ninety-Nines chapters across the globe.