Early Aviators Needed Nine Lives. No Wonder They Invited Cats Along for Luck

By all accounts, Paree-Londres loved to fly, which would be unremarkable if Paree was a bird, or a bat, or even a dog, but Paree was a cat, a brave little tabby who helped make aviation history. Paree’s story is tied with that of early aviator John Moisant. Moisant was born in Chicago in 1868, one of nine children in a French-Canadian immigrant family. All the Moisant children were bold and innovative; they built fortunes in Central America, lost them, and rebuilt them. John in particular was a wild man, once leading a rebel army against his brother’s enemies in the El Salvadorian government. It was not a success, but it did make the headlines.

Three years later, Moisant made headlines again, this time for an assault on the law of gravity itself. Obsessed with the burgeoning science of flying, he headed to France — known at the time for its support of early aviators — and set to work designing an airplane. That he had never flown or formally studied engineering was no barrier to his ambitions, and he did assemble a working plane, which he promptly crashed. As repairs commenced, he decided to get a little experience under the famous pilot and plane-designer, Louis Blériot.

A little experience was all it took. Moisant started lessons in July, 1910, and by the end of the month, he became the thirteenth American to claim a pilot’s license. He promptly told Blériot that he planned to be the first person to fly from Paris to London with a passenger. Blériot reportedly told him that there were easier ways to commit suicide, but Moisant, like the cat he’d soon adopt, was fearless.

On August 16th, Moisant and his mechanic, Albert Fileux, took to the air. Flying an hour at a time, with numerous crashes and repairs along the way, it would take the two men until September 6th to reach London. It was an incredible achievement for someone who had only had a license for two weeks before setting off. During the journey, a local fan in Kent gave Moisant a small, gray-striped kitten. Moisant named her Paree-Londres in honor of the journey, and she rode in a bag on Fileux’s lap through all the cold, wet, crash-filled days it took to get to London. The flight made both European and American papers, and all the articles took note of the third passenger.

When asked why he had brought the cat along, Moisant told a Memphis paper, “I just thought I’d do it, so I did, “which pretty well sums up his entire life philosophy. Paree enjoyed flying, purring happily while in the air. “You ought to have seen this kitten,” Moisant told local papers. “He [Paree was later discovered to be a female] enjoyed himself immensely and wasn’t a bit afraid. He was still curled up in the bag, his bright eyes peeping up at me when the crash came, and even the noise of breaking wood did not disturb him.”

Back in the states, Moisant and Paree-Londres were celebrities, appearing all over the country for air shows and regularly giving media interviews, where Moisant’s combo of derring-do and soft-hearted love of Paree won him fans in both aviation magazines and on the women’s social pages. His next few months were busy ones. He took second in an endurance air race, and narrowly beat his arch-rival, English aviator Claude Grahame-White, in a dangerous timed loop over the rooftops of Brooklyn and around the Statue of Liberty. Paree rode along for the victory. So bitter was the two fliers’ rivalry that during their stay in New York, when Paree briefly went missing, there were rumors that Grahame-White had kidnapped her. A reward was offered for Paree’s return, and when she was eventually discovered in a laundry room, a relieved Moisant gave the laundry girl $25 (nearly $800 in today’s money). The laundry girl wasn’t the only one who made some cash from Paree’s misadventure. Several papers told the story of a newsboy named Stubby, who took advantage of the fame surrounding Moisant to sell stray gray cats to wealthy flight fans, claiming them to be the famed Paree.

While Moisant battled Grahame-White in the sky, Paree had her own rivals on the ground and in the air. She earned a newspaper paragraph all to herself after attacking a French bulldog belonging to socialite Mrs. Harry Harkness near the hangars before one of the flight demonstrations. Moisant explained she was grouchy, and missed being up in the plane. Her fellow flying cat, a large striped boy named Kiddo (later changed to Trent, perhaps to grant him some dignity), would have gladly offered Paree his seat. Kiddo went up in a dirigible in October, 1910, and was so displeased by the journey that he became the topic of the first in-flight radio transmission, when his pilot called back to land, “…Come get this goddamn cat!” Kiddo was safely returned to solid ground.

The adventures of Kiddo and Paree were so well-known they inspired satires and fashion trends. The Times Dispatch ran a story from the point of view of a shop cat named Giuseppe, who was obsessed with flying and wouldn’t stop leaping from high corners and knocking over produce. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle declared cats such a trend that cat-related collectibles were displacing other animals on the shelves of department stores. “Teddy bears are forgotten,” read the article. “Stuffed cats in all shapes and sizes have won the affection of the youngsters.”

Of course, air flight itself was Moisant’s focus more than pet fads. He correctly predicted that mono-wing planes would eventually replace biplanes, that aluminum was a better material for building planes than wood, and that military use of planes would change warfare forever. He didn’t live to see any of it come true, though. On December 31, 1910, flying above an airfield in New Orleans, Louisiana, Moisant nose-dived. He was killed upon impact, just five months after starting his career as an airborne daredevil. While his family and fans were heartbroken, none were surprised. “He was daring, too imprudent,” said his former copilot, Fileux. “He was awfully reckless … He was flirting with death,” said Wright Brothers pilot, Arch Hoxsey, who would himself be killed in a plane crash the following month. It was a common story for the pioneers of the sky, the ever-present danger thought to be worth the risk for the moments of airborne ecstasy.

Of all Moisant’s mourners, though, the most inconsolable was Paree-Londres, who had not been aboard for the fateful flight. “What became of Moisant’s cat?” The women’s page of the Evening Sun of Baltimore asked, along with a story of how the cat searched high and low for John, and could not be comforted when he did not return. The question was answered in another article. “Moisant’s Kitten Will Be Well Cared For,“” read the headline, which went on to reassure readers that Moisant’s sister Matilde had adopted Paree. What the story didn’t say, but which we choose to believe, is that Paree continued to fly, with Matilde. John’s sister was the second woman in the U.S. to get a license, and like her brother, was deeply in love with flight, and with cats.



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