James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart meets Pancho Barnes, March 1936

In early 1936 James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart was a young rising star of the silver screen and had landed his first starring role in the MGM film “Speed.”  In the movie, Stewart plays a gifted mechanic and race car driver who struggles to prove that his newly developed carburetor provides the best performance by entering cars in the Indy 500 and speed trials at California’s Muroc Dry Lake.

In March 1936 Stewart was filming race car scenes on the Muroc Dry Lake. Stewart, who was somewhat of a speed demon, actually drove the race car that was filmed during those scenes and did not use a stunt driver. 

As he wrapped up another grueling yet exhilarating day of filming race car scenes on the Muroc Dry Lake, Stewart was eager to unwind and share some laughs with his colleagues. Lester White, who was the cinematographer on the film, had a brilliant idea for that evening’s entertainment. White decided to introduce Stewart to his friend Pancho Barnes who had recently moved nearby to her Rancho Oro Verde.  He figured the two would hit if off since James Stewart was a licensed pilot, having attained his pilot license in 1935. Stewart had of course heard of Pancho, because she had been featured in the news and newsreels since the late 1920s documenting her many achievements in aviation. Although they had many mutual friends in Hollywood, the two had never previously met. 

As the sun dipped below the horizon, White drove Stewart to Pancho’s Rancho Oro Verde. Stewart couldn’t help but feel a mix of excitement and nervousness at the prospect of meeting such an iconic figure. As White drove through the entrance of Rancho Oro Verde with Stewart by his side, he couldn’t help but feel a pang of surprise at the sight of Pancho’s new surroundings and home. He had known her during her days of grand estates in Pasadena and Laguna Beach, and the contrast between those luxurious properties and the ranch was quite striking. The Great Depression, now in its fifth year, had taken a toll on nearly everyone, and Pancho was no exception. Despite her many achievements, she too had been affected by the economic downturn, forcing her to downsize and adapt to the new reality. White, however, was quick to see past the initial shock, as he found a certain charm in the rustic simplicity of the ranch, a place where Pancho could fully immerse herself in her love of animals, aviation, and racing. 

Upon arriving at her humble ranch house, they were greeted by the unmistakable figure of Pancho Barnes herself. Dressed in jeans with a tooled leather belt and silver buckle, Western-style shirt and boots, and wearing a large tan cowboy hat, and with a warm, confident grin on her face, she welcomed the two men with open arms.  As the night wore on, Stewart and Pancho found themselves sharing stories of their daring exploits and their mutual love for the skies. Stewart spoke passionately about the freedom and thrill of flying, and how it paralleled the exhilaration he felt behind the wheel of the race car he had been driving for the film. Pancho, in turn, regaled her guests with tales of her record-breaking flights and her daring stunts as one of the pioneering women in aviation. The conversation eventually turned to Hollywood and the film industry. Pancho expressed her admiration for Stewart’s work. Stewart, humbled by her praise shared some of his own experiences working on the movie ‘Speed” and his aspiration for future roles.

As the evening progressed Stewart and White soon discovered another side to their daring hostess. Not only was Pancho an aviation legend, but she also had a keen interest in hot rods, racing, and speed in general, thanks to her friendship with Blackie Gold, a well-known and respected young hot rodder from Pasadena.

Pancho regaled her guests with stories of the numerous hours she had spent with Blackie, watching him race and test his car on the Dry Lake near her ranch. She spoke fondly of the thrill she felt when witnessing the raw power and speed of these machines as they tore across the dusty landscape.

Stewart, his interest peaked, listened intently as Pancho recounted the lessons she had learned from Blackie about engine tuning, and the art of racing. The tales of her experiences with Blackie and the Dry Lake hot rod community resonated deeply with Stewart, as they echoed his own passion for speed and adventure, both on the ground and in the air.  

As the night wore on at Rancho Oro Verde, Pancho led Stewart and White to a cozy sitting area under the stars, where she served them drinks and continued to share stories of her incredible life, and of course peppered with some her legendary off-color jokes. While sipping on their beverages, the conversation shifted to Pancho’s plans for the future, particularly her vision for the ranch. Having only moved to Rancho Oro Verde in January 1935, Pancho was full of enthusiasm and ideas for developing the property. She explained to her guests that she saw the ranch as more than just a home, but rather a sanctuary for like-minded adventurers, pilots, lovers of animals, and racing enthusiasts who shared her passion for the thrill of speed and the freedom of the open skies.

As she spoke, Stewart and White found themselves captivated by Pancho’s infectious energy and her ambitious plans for the ranch. They listened intently as she described her vision of transforming the property into a bustling hub for aviators and hot rodders alike, complete with air strip, workshops, and perhaps even a racetrack. She also hoped to build accommodations and recreational facilities to provide a welcoming and comfortable environment for her guests, as well as a place where they could share their stories, experiences, and knowledge with one another.

Pancho’s dream resonated deeply with Stewart and White, who were both drawn to her unbridled passion and tenacity. They found themselves eager to support her vision by spreading the word among their Hollywood connections.  White couldn’t help but feel a sense of admiration for his friend. Pancho had faced adversity head-on and emerged stronger, with a renewed sense of purpose and an unwavering determination to pursue her passions.  The two men agreed that there was something truly special about this woman and her ability to adapt to life challenges while maintaining her adventurous spirit and her enthusiasm for pushing boundaries. 

Throughout the night, as they toasted to their newfound friendship and the adventures that lay ahead, it became increasingly clear that the true essence of Pancho Barnes was not in her surroundings or material possessions, but rather in her indomitable spirit, her unyielding determination, and her unwavering commitment to living life to the fullest, no matter the circumstances. And it was in the company of friends like Jimmy Stewart and Lester White that she would continue to thrive, inspiring all those who crossed her path with her zest for life and her infectious love of adventure. As the evening came to a close, the three toasted to the future of Rancho Oro Verde, and to the many thrilling adventures that surely lay ahead for them all.

On the lot at MGM, with cast and crew, filming the 1936 movie “Speed.”  
L-R: Ted Healy, James Stewart, Wendy Barrie, Weldon Heyburn, Edwin Marin (Director, seated), Lester White (Cinematographer, seated by camera with scarf).

NOTE: James Stewart became the first major American movie star to enlist to fight in World War II. He continued to play a role in the reserve US Air Force after the war. In July 1959 he was promoted to Brigadier General of the US Air Force, becoming the highest-ranking actor in American military service history. Upon his retirement from the US Air Force he was awarded the US Air Force Distinguished Service Medal for his service to the country. Pancho Barnes and James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart remained life-long friends, partied together at the Cleveland Air Races and he attended Pancho’s ‘welcome back to Edwards’ party.

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Dr. Louis F. D'Elia is the custodian of the Estate of Pancho Barnes and a Trustee of the Flight Test Museum Foundation at Edwards Air Force Base.