To plenty of young women growing up in New Zealand, Jean Batten is the stuff of legend.
The 1930s images of her standing proudly before her plane in her flying cap and goggles are iconic, and her solo flights are now part of Kiwi folklore.
At her birthplace of Rotorua Jean was honoured by local Māori, as she had been after the 1934 journey. She was given a chief’s feather cloak and given the title Hine-o-te-Rangi – 'Daughter of the Skies'.
Because of her striking looks, her glamorous appearance at receptions (she always took a white silk dress with her on her record-breaking flights, and repaired her lipstick before exiting her aircraft), and her later reclusive ways, Jean became known as 'the Garbo of the skies'.
But what many may not know about the daring New Zealand pilot is that away from the dizzying heights of her dashing flying feats, she led an incredibly sad and ultimately lonely life.
It was underpinned by an all-consuming, co-dependent and, some say, controlling, relationship with her mother Ellen, whose death in her arms after months of caring for her, sent Jean into a tailspin.
“The forces that drove her to fulfil her destiny were controlled from behind the scenes by the shadowy figure of her mother, with whom she had become emotionally fused in a symbiotic relationship of astonishing psychological intensity,” Ian Mackersey writes in the prologue of his 1992 biography, The Garbo of the Skies.
The book uses Batten’s own memoirs, and interviews with a wide range of people who encountered her throughout her life, to piece together a portrait of the national hero. The picture Mackersey paints is of a young woman driven by an intense will for greatness: someone who refused to give up and who went through endless challenges to succeed. There is also a darker side – Jean is portrayed as someone who ‘used’ men to fund her flying and left a trail of debt and broken hearts, who obsessively craved adulation and easily put on a show for the adoring public, but who could be haughty, rude and demanding in private.
And her forceful relationship with her mother is widely remarked upon.
“I’ve never known such an intense mother/daughter relationship,” friend and fellow aviator Nancy Bird told Mackersey. “It was quite obsessional. And so was their need for privacy and secrecy.”
Beth Jacobs, whose doctor husband tried to help Batten when she came to him with psychological issues during her time in Jamaica, also tried to lend a hand by befriending her.
“I was left with a strong impression of a very overbearing mother dominating her life,” Jacobs recalled to Mackersey, and added “I have to use the word awesome when I describe her, for she was undoubtedly a great woman. But perhaps a sad human being.”
From her own somewhat simple accounts, Jean simply loved her mother deeply. Her success was all down to her mother and she loved her greatly. She wrote that she valued Ellen “more than life itself”.
“She made sacrifices that I might achieve my ambition, urged me on to success when I had failed, and was always at hand to cheer and help me during those dark hours …” she wrote in her early book, Solo Flight.
Jean said her mother’s greatest attribute was that she made her laugh.
“We knew each other so well we could be sitting in a restaurant knowing we were the only English-speaking people present. Something would be going on in a foreign language which we didn’t understand. Mother had only to turn to me, raise an eyebrow, wink, blink, or drop a simple word in English that would be a perfect commentary on the scene – and we would both be in instant paroxysms of laughter.”
By all accounts, Jean was a broken figure after her mother’s death. It was something she simply could not get over.
After the end of her flying career, she and her mother had done their best to exclude the world from their lives.
They spent some time living in Jamaica, and had lengthy travels through Europe, before settling in Spain, where they ultimately isolated themselves completely in an apartment while living on the island of Tenerife. It was here, in July 1966 when, just months before her 90th birthday, Ellen died in her daughter’s arms.
The apartment’s owner told Mackersey that Ellen had seemed quite unwell from the time they arrived early in the year. He said the pair rarely left the apartment and he wasn’t surprised when he heard she had passed away.
Jean appears to have cared solely for her ailing mother, mostly locked away in their apartment for months. It would have been a drastic switch in roles for the pair.
As they were basically recluses at this time, little that has been published about what went on in their apartment. However, in Dame Fiona Kidman’s 2013 novel The Infinite Air, which is the author’s interpretation of Jean Batten’s life, Kidman evokes a sense of Jean caring for Ellen – dressing her, trying to convince her to eat, and remaining in denial about her health, until it was clear something was seriously wrong.
Kidman suggests Jean Batten then wanted to get a doctor, but Ellen pleaded with her not to leave her, and ultimately collapsed in her arms and died.
In his biography, Mackersey writes that Jean was paralysed by her grief when her mother passed and never quite recovered. She wrote in her memoirs that she struggled through each day “in a sea of numbing misery and despair”.
Local resident Annette Reid tried to befriend Jean after her mother’s death, saying the grieving woman was “enveloped in tremendous sadness” and had clearly received a knock-out blow to her whole psyche. Jean told Annette her mother had been the only person who had ever understood her, and she owed her absolutely everything.
She perhaps sums the sad aviator up best with her assessment: “I always thought of her as a wonderful star that had shot itself across the firmament and burnt itself out. There was nothing left.”
Through she popped back onto the world stage at times, and visited family and friends now and then, Jean again became a recluse in the 1980s in Spain, before she mysteriously disappeared.
It took years of persistent and hardnosed investigative journalism to establish what had happened.
The biggest roadblocks were severe failings by New Zealand authorities – our Police refused time and again to simply ask Interpol to investigate, something which would have quickly unravelled the sad mystery.
It was eventually uncovered that heartbreakingly, as happens so often, the woman who had cared so deeply for her mother failed in caring for herself.
In November 1982, living in Majorca, she had died from an infection from a dog bite. It could have easily been treated. But her mother had always warned her off modern medicine in favour of natural therapies. Jean had repeatedly refused the persistent offers by hotel staff to call a doctor. Jean died alone in her room and was found by a chambermaid.
Due to an apparent diplomatic stuff-up, news of her death was not passed on.
Jean was buried in a mass paupers’ grave - and nobody knew her fate for another five years.
An inglorious end for the woman who soared.