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'Brains, beauty and breeches’: How Aloha Wanderwell was first woman to drive the globe

Young explorer embarked on an epic adventure that saw her covering 380,000 miles and 80 countries before the age of 30.

Contributed

With her blond ringlets, Kewpie-doll lips and statuesque height, Aloha Wanderwell could be a Hollywood invention, leaning against a Ford Model-T, all sass and swagger.

But what her 1920s publicity photo doesn’t reveal — and what has, for the most part, been buried in history — is that at the age of 16, Wanderwell embarked on an adventure that, among her many records, would make her the first woman to drive around the world, covering 380,000 miles and 80 countries before the age of 30.

Back in 1998, Vancouver television producer Randolph Eustace-Wallace, co-author of the book Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer, was using the brand-new Google search engine to research his own adventure when he stumbled onto her story.

Eustace-Wallace was looking for information on driving around the world when his cousin called from Ontario needing help with travel plans to Hawaii. He entered “Aloha Airlines” into Google, which mixed with his online search for driving, and up popped a story about Wanderwell. Intrigued, he saved the link, but it wasn’t until a couple years later, when he partnered with journalist Christian Fink-Jensen, his co-author on Aloha Wanderwell, did their decade of detective work begin in earnest.

At this point, the duo didn’t know that Wanderwell was originally named Idris Hall, born in Winnipeg in 1906, or that her husband had been jailed as a German spy (and later murdered). None of that is mentioned in her 1939 ghostwritten autobiography, Call To Adventure.

“The ghostwriter tarted it up, and added a lot of fiction, made it more melodramatic,” says Eustace-Wallace. “When we first read it, we thought, ‘It’s too bad she’s such a terrible writer,’ but as it turns out, she was incredible.”

Wanderwell’s story is so incredible it doesn’t require embellishment. In 1922, while the bored teenager was attending school, she answered an ad looking for women with “Brains, Beauty & Breeches” to accompany Captain Ralph Wanderwell — whom she would eventually marry — as a driver and secretary on his international expeditions. 

“For 10 years, their escapades were front-page news,” says Eustace-Wallace. And yet, he and Fink-Jensen found plenty of conflicting information during their arduous research process, mainly because Wanderwell had reinvented her own personal history. “It’s difficult to tell a non-fiction story about someone who tried to keep their life under wraps,” he says.

As it turns out, the key to unlocking Aloha’s mystery was Wanderwell’s children. In order to gain access to films produced by Wanderwell that had been bequeathed to the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, Eustace-Wallace and Fink-Jensen needed permission from her two offspring. When Valri, who lived in Honolulu at the time, discovered that the two writers were Canadian, she embraced their request. As it turns out, she and her brother Nile, now in their 80s, had been raised on Vancouver Island, and still had fond memories of their early years. 

The writers and children became close. During one trip to Honolulu, Valri appeared with a dusty tin box she had recently discovered that was labelled with her mother’s initials. Eustace-Wallace picked the lock and discovered the “Rosetta Stone”: Wanderwell’s original passport containing every border crossing (many of which were contrary to other reports), her logbooks and a draft of an unpublished memoir. They had all the details needed to shed light on one of Canada’s most incredible adventurers.

As Eustace-Wallace concludes, “It’s the story of someone who was lost to history, and shouldn’t be.”

Sue Carter is the editor at Quill & Quire magazine.

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