Author Tags: Travel, Women
Slender and stunningly beautiful Idris Hall was a tall, bisexual explorer and film star, raised in North Vancouver, Duncan and Qualicum, who has been dubbed the first woman to travel around the world by car.
She faced a firing squad in Russia; drove across Africa and China; briefly lived with Amazon tribes; shook hands with Mussolini and flirted with Hollywood royalty. Her husband Walter Wanderwell, a WW I spy, was mysteriously murdered on their yacht. Now she’s the subject of Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer (Goose Lane $24.95), a long-delayed biography co-written by Randy Eustace-Walden with Christian Fink-Jensen.
After an elite education in Belgium and France, tomboyish Idris Hall was hired as a secretary and driver for around-the-world expeditions to headed by "Captain" Walter Wanderwell. Born in Poland, his real name was Valerian Johannes Pieczynski. He had no military rank; he just wanted a name that would appeal to Americans. He soon changed her name to Aloha Wanderwell.
In 1922, with his wife Nell (from Seattle), Walter had started to lead two motoring teams on global expeditions in Ford armoured cars, ostensibly to compete for most miles logged, likely supported by Henry Ford and Standard Oil. Initially Walter claimed Aloha (on his team) as his adopted sister, then abandoned Nell. They were feted with a ticker tape parade in Detroit.
The couple ran afoul of the Mann Act (transporting women across state lines in the U.S. for immoral purposes) and married in Los Angeles in 1925. He was 29; she was 18. He was 5’6”; she was 6’. They would have two children, Nile and Valri, born in Capetown and Miami respectively
It has been erroneously suggested that Aloha Wanderwell, masquerading as a man, was one of the few women to serve in the French Foreign Legion until she was unmasked; similarly there is little proof that she engaged in a fire-fight with Arabs in North Africa in the mid-1920s. She did, however, hang out with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. She also participated in the search for the lost Percy Fawcett Expedition in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil just prior to her husband's death when he was shot in the back. She also learned how to fly a float plane.
Relatives of Idris Hall have owned tracts of land in North Vancouver, Qualicum Beach and Merville, B.C. Her father Herbert Hall, a British Army reservist, was Vancouver Island rancher and developer who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914 and accepted a commission as lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry, based in Yorkshire where he grew up. Aloha's mother travelled with her younger daughter, Miki, to England to be closer to him, leaving Aloha in school on Vancouver Island, but Herbert was killed in action at Ypres in 1917. Idris eventually made it to Paris in 1924.
The biography draws from her diaries, family interviews and recently de-classified FBI material to reveal the ambiguities of a seemingly sensual and bold woman—and purports to re-open the book on Walter Wanderwell’s murder.
With a different title, this book was slated for publication from McClelland & Stewart until that distinctly Canadian company was acquired by Random House. The new parent company delayed publication to the point where the authors regained their publication rights. In 2015, their new agent, Carolyn Forde of Westwood Creative Artists, sold North American English and French language rights to Goose Lane Editions in New Brunswick.
Randy Eustace-Walden of Vancouver discovered the bizarre story of Aloha Wanderwell in October of 1998 while researching a documentary he wanted to make about driving around the world. While he looking up various Hawaii-based airlines for the last leg of that trip, the Google search terms ‘Aloha Airlines’ and ‘round the world’ produced a myriad results, including ‘Aloha Wanderwell.’
His manuscript was originally entitled Aloha Wanderwell: The Mysterious Life of the World's Youngest Explorer, then later The Girl Who Stole The World.
Hall was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in October, 1906. Her birth name was Idris Welsh, later Hall. Aloha, her baby sister Miki, and her parents, Herbert and Margaret, moved to North Vancouver in 1910, where Herbert took on the challenges of land speculator. Their large family-style dwelling was located near the juncture of Mahon Ave. and West 13th Street. The family home no longer exists.
Herbert Hall bought and developed a large parcel of waterfront land (approximately 40 acres) in Qualicum Beach bordering on what is now Judge’s Row - some of the most expensive real estate in Canada. The site eventually became the home to the Qualicum Beach Boy’s School (Qualicum College), and later a hotel complex. The family’s original land at Qualicum Beach, since parcelled into many properties, is bounded by three streets:
College Road, on which the old boy’s school building stands; Knight Terrace, named for the two brothers who purchased the largest parcel from Aloha’s mother in order to build the school; and Hall Road, named after Herbert the developer, which runs the length of Qualicum Beach.
In the late 1930s, Aloha and her sister, Miki, acquired land up the coast near the town of Merville. This land parcel ran to over 70 acres. Miki had squatted on waterfront land there, at one point owned by the E&N Railway, in a canvas tent. In the early 1960’s she helped build a wooden structure at Merville she called ‘Windsong,’ still standing at time of publication of the biography.
Randy Eustace-Walden has been an entrepreneur since high school, at the age of fifteen, when he received his first pay cheque as a film critic. His regular film review column in a local entertainment magazine was syndicated and led to him writing, producing, and hosting his own movie-based television series. Over the ensuing 40+ years, his diverse media-based career crossed and intersected various disciplines including publishing, television, film, radio, and online as writer, author, journalist, editor, forensic researcher, critic, television producer, director, documentarian, web developer and teacher.
His travel and food book, Entreé To Asia: A Culinary Adventure, was simultaneously published in Canada (Raincoast), the United States (Tuttle), and across Asia (Periplus). The book was a hardcover companion to his eponymous twice Emmy-nominated television series, which he wrote and produced for PBS. He is also the recipient of two Gemini Award nominations, several Leo award and Remi award wins and nominations, and a past winner of the Nissan Journalism Award, sponsored by Ryerson School of Journalism.
From kindergarten to grade nine, Randy Eustace-Walden attended ten different schools in two different cities. By 2016, he had moved fifty-two times in his life, having recently spent a year living and working in one of his very favourite cities, Singapore.
Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer (Goose Lane 2016) 9780864928955 $24.95
Alan Twigg [BCBW 2016]
Canadian Encyclopedia entry
Aloha Wanderwell, adventurer (b Idris Hall at Winnipeg 13 October 1906; d at Newport Beach, California 4 June 1996). Aloha Wanderwell was the daughter of British Army reservist Herbert Hall, an extremely prosperous Vancouver Island rancher and developer. Aloha spent much of her childhood in Parksville and Duncan. Her father joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914, and in England accepted a commission as lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry, a unit raised not far from Tickhill, Yorkshire, where he grew up.
Her mother, Margaret Headley Hall, took Idris and her younger daughter, Margaret, to England and later to Belgium and France, where they lived in comfort behind the lines to be closer to Herbert. Idris was tall for her age and was something of a scamp. She devoured boys' books and dreamed of travel and adventure in contrast to most other young girls of her generation. She admitted years later that had she been born a boy, she might have joined the navy.
After Herbert was killed in action at Ypres in June 1917, Margaret (presumably to curb her elder daughter's "tomboy" tendencies) enrolled Idris in the Benedictine Soeurs du Saint-Sacrement school in Courtrai, Belgium, and later at the Chateau Neuf in Nice, a private school run by two elderly ladies with, as she described them, "ardent royalist sentiments." Idris bided her time there, enduring the harsh, character-building discipline until 1924 when she fled to Paris to seek new opportunities for a young woman with ambition. As a result of a recruitment campaign, she was hired as secretary and driver for an around-the-world expedition headed by "Captain" Walter Wanderwell, who immediately changed the name of his new employee from Idris Hall to Aloha Wanderwell. The captain (b Valerian Johannes Pieczynski at Thurn, Poland in 1897) had no military rank and had changed his own name to one that Americans could more easily spell and pronounce.
Walter Wanderwell had started out as a seafarer before becoming a world-class hiker and traveller, and later was jailed as a spy during the war. On his release he married Nell Miller, born near Seattle, and began to develop a new international organization called the Work Around the World Educational Club for International Police (WAWEC), designed to promote the survival of the shaky, fledgling League of Nations through "Law, not war." In effect, it was a burgeoning private army (and potential subversive front outfit) with extremely strict discipline, which by the time Aloha joined it, had the full attention of the ambitious J. Edgar Hoover of the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI).
In 1922 Nell and Walter led 2 competing 4-person teams on world-girdling expeditions in Ford armoured cars, ostensibly to see which team would log the most miles. The expeditions were funded by the sale of leaflets and souvenir cards, paid speaking engagements and the showing of films they shot and developed en route. Correspondence in various sources indicates they may also have had substantial financial and logistical support from Henry Ford, the Vacuum Oil Company (later Mobil Oil, part of the Standard Oil group), and other agencies eager to capitalize on the expeditions' advertising potential. At some point, Walter claimed Aloha (who was on his team) as his adopted sister, then abandoned and divorced Nell. US authorities entered the picture owing to possible Mann Act (transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes) infractions. On 7 April 1925, Walter and Aloha, age 29 and 18 respectively, were married in Los Angeles. They made a curious couple. Walter was 1.7 m (5'6") in height, and Aloha a full 1.8 m (6') tall with honey-blonde hair.
Tales of Aloha's exploits accumulated. Cartoonist and author Ben Dave "Stookie" Allen maintained that at one point Aloha cut her hair and, masquerading as a man, became one of the few women to serve successfully in the French Foreign Legion in its bloody Riffian campaign of the mid-1920s. Legonnaires are not easily fooled, and she was soon unmasked. In any case she was in at least one fire-fight with Arab irregulars during a crossing of the Sahara. Rachel Crowdy, a noted internationalist, reported seeing Aloha, dressed as a cowgirl, driving through Geneva perched on an armoured car and waving to the crowds. Aloha and Walter had two children, Nile and Valerie, born respectively in Capetown and Miami, the latter being WAWEC Headquarters.
Aloha and Walter carried on with their travels, making movies, selling various publications and getting into and out of all manner of scrapes. In China, captured by bandits, Aloha was only released when she taught them to set up and fire machine guns. She met Frank ("One-Arm") Sutton, the British soldier of fortune who ran the arsenal of the old warlord Marshall Chang Tso-Lin. In Hollywood, Aloha and Walter socialized with, among others, filmmaker and actor Douglas Fairbanks and his Canadian-born wife and fellow film legend Mary Pickford (Gladys Smith), who along with D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin founded United Artists. Walter was nonetheless something of a nuisance to local authorities with his habit of impersonating military officers and his history of upsetting missionaries through his alleged communist subversive activities during the couple's travels. There were also accusations of fraud and perjury, not to mention Walter's constant misadventures involving other women.
In 1932 Walter acquired a questionably seaworthy decommissioned rum runner, the Carma, at auction in order that he and Aloha could take a group to the South Seas to make motion pictures. On the night of 5 Dec 1932, when the Carma lay at anchor in Long Beach Harbour being outfitted while Aloha made last-minute film deals up in Hollywood, someone crept into Walter's cabin and shot him in the back. Although two individuals were apprehended, no one was ever convicted of the crime. The suspects were Edward Eugene Fernando Montagu, remittance-man and second son of the Duke of Manchester, and William James ("Curly") Guy, a Welsh soldier of fortune who later flew for Haile Selassie against the Italians. Aloha was reported as being rather too friendly to Guy during the trial, given that he was her husband's accused murderer. Both men were under the close scrutiny of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI investigators, and Guy was later deported.
Aloha carried on with various expeditions following Walter's death, learned to fly a float plane and participated in the search for the lost Percy Fawcett Expedition in Brazil, but never found the intrepid Fawcett nor his two companions. Her plane went down in the jungle near the Rio des Mortes, the River of Death, and she lived with a native tribe for several months until a rescue operation could be mounted. On 26 Dec 1933 she married Walter Baker, a former cameraman with WAWEC, 8 years her junior, in a simple ceremony in Gretna, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi delta from New Orleans. On one further adventure, the Carma, assigned by the courts to her young daughter, Valerie, and with Aloha's sister, Margaret aboard, went aground in Mexico and was abandoned.
Aloha carried on for a few years promoting hers and the late Walter's internationalist views, making several visits to Canada, and she and the second Walter settled in Cincinnati, where she took on various jobs in print and broadcast journalism.
Aloha and Walter finally moved to a gated community in California, where they both died. Upon her death, Aloha's ashes were buried at sea by the Neptune Society under the direction of her son, Nile.
Author ALLAN E LEVINE