The National Air and Space Museum Archives hold biographical information on many people related to aviation, but it is still surprising to find articles about one Antonie Strassmann, a famous German actress of the 1920s. The few clippings indicate a fascinating story – a woman pilot who had performed on stage and in silent movies, who flew in balloons, held a world record in cycling for women, and loved to box. But was Antonie really one of these aviatrixes of the 1920s who were often accused of donning a flight suit and goggles for the sake of publicity only?
Born in 1901 as the daughter of a renowned German obstetrician, flamboyant teenager Antonie shocked her parents with an early announcement of her intent to become an actress. “My parents said I was insane,” she later admitted. Her father commented: “I don’t rate the occupation of acting as dignified.” But he was powerless against the strong-willed Antonie, and soon she was performing on stage in Germany and abroad with the leading German actors of the 1920s. Critics praised her for the dramatic quality she brought to her heroines. Antonie also developed a passion for athletics where she performed extremely well: In 1927, for instance, she ran 100 meters in 15 seconds, and swam 200 meters in 4.58 minutes. She loved cycling, and set a world speed record for the 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles) distance. In boxing, one of her sparring partners was Marlene Dietrich – at that time still an unknown actress at the beginning of her career. Antonie also loved racy cars, and usually sped along the streets of her Berlin hometown. Berlin policemen, it is said, saluted the fancy, fast driver, and never ticketed her. Attractive and outgoing, Antonie became friends with influential German celebrities, and, over time, was romantically linked with the former Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm, the renowned German actor Rudolf Forster, and the famous World War I fighter ace and aerobatic pilot Ernst Udet.
In September 1927, Antonie started to take flying lessons, inspired by her brother Erwin, who for years had taken her ballooning. After obtaining her sport pilot’s license in 1928, she advanced to aerobatic flying. A pilot, she declared, should be able to handle an aircraft in all kinds of situations.
Antonie was thrilled by flying, and compared it to acting: “One is a physical high, and the other a mental one, and both make me happy beyond description.” Yet, despite both her unusual careers as actress and pilot, Antonie was not an advocate of emancipation for women. In a 1929 German newspaper article in, she wrote: “If I were a guy! … Starting in May, I would impatiently wait for the weather report from the Tempelhof airport [in Berlin], and at the first favorable minute: Start towards America! Lindbergh on my mind, and courage and trust in my heart! Yeah, if … […] But since I am not [a guy], I’ll do all these things just for myself, with no ambition – just idealism, to enjoy the great privilege, to be a woman! I am content as it is.”
There was clearly frustration in her statement: Antonie had discovered that, in flying, women could not achieve equal rights with men. International regulations did not allow women to be pilots of commercial planes, virtually excluding them from careers in the booming technology. Air shows still attracted crowds, but the income was sporadic and the competition among aerobatic pilots enormous. Instead of competing with men in these areas, Antonie argued, women should find their niches by relying on traditional “feminine” qualities. They could work as ground personnel at airports, and in marketing positions with airlines, airports, and airplane companies.
Antonie was the first one to follow her own advice. With her typical mix of passion and pragmatism, and relying on her charm and popularity, she made an offer to the German Foreign Office in 1930. In collaboration with the Airplane Model League of America, she would sponsor, organize, and manage an exhibition of about 30 German airplane models, gliders, balloons, and kites, as well as two airplanes, through the United States. With the Gimbel Company providing space in their stores, the exhibition would tour more than a dozen cities for a year. In a letter to the Foreign Office, Antonie explained her motivation: “It seems to me that this opportunity would provide a great chance to put Germany in a favorable light, while advertising German business and the idea of flight. This matter appears so important to me that I committed my personal funds and signed a contract with the Gimbel Company. … Enthusiasm for aviation in the United States, and their present friendly attitude toward Germany is extraordinary. In my opinion, we should do everything to nourish these feelings.”
The exhibition kicked off in spring 1930 with Antonie and her friend, renowned sport pilot Koenig-von Warthausen, lecturing about German aviation, and performing aerobatic flights. Antonie visited aviation companies, and participated in air shows, such as the National Air Races in Chicago in 1930, where she was allowed to test 28 different types of airplanes. Her charismatic personality captured audiences at lectures and in interviews. Even the German Foreign Office, which closely supervised Antonie’s efforts, was full of praise. The German Consul in Chicago reported to Berlin that her efforts “were absolutely a success” and that she made “the best possible impression.” Antonie spent a year and a half in the States, and when back in Germany, she educated the leading circles of German industry and politics about her encounters. Slowly, but steadily she was expanding her reputation as a major expert on questions of aviation. She built close friendships with German aviation industrialists, among them Ernst Heinkel, Claude Dornier, Hugo Junkers, and Hugo Eckener. On board Eckener’s Zeppelins, Antonie crossed the Atlantic Ocean multiple times. In May 1932, she participated in the transatlantic flight of the 8,000 horsepower Dornier Do-X, the largest, heaviest, and most powerful flying boat of its time. Built to carry more than 150 passengers, it was on its trial flight to the US and back. “Kids, I was overjoyed! ” she wrote on a postcard to friends, after she was granted permission to join the crew of 12 men for the trip back to Berlin as “assistant pilot and assistant paymaster.” She thus became the first European woman to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean aboard a plane. Over the ocean, Do-X captain Friedrich Christiansen even handed her the controls. The Do-X left from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, on May 19, 1932. One day later, Amelia Earhart would take off from there on her solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
In fall 1932, Antonie piloted her last big flight. She left Germany onboard a Zeppelin, with a dismantled German Klemm sports plane L 25c in the cargo hold. The destination was Pernambuco in Brazil. There, she was to start a marketing tour for the little Klemm sports aircraft, flying it through South America, with stops and flight performances in Recife, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires.
There were other exploits in Antonie Strassmann’s life in 1932. In January, she immigrated to the United States: She loved the stimulation, and the many chances America held. “I have more ideas here in an hour than I ever had in Germany in a week,” she told an American reporter. With typical frankness, she declared: “Germany is not only broken financially but spiritually too. …My people have known no let-up since 1914. They have gone through the meat grinder again and again.” To secure her career in America, Antonie studied business administration. Living in the luxurious St. Regis Hotel on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, she began to work as a business consultant for German aviation companies. She was a sought after contact for firms like Junkers, Bavarian Aircraft Co. [BFW], Heinkel, Stinnes, Hapag, Focke-Wulf, Klemm, Lufthansa, and many others. In this role, she initiated business with U.S. companies Bendix, Budd, Glenn L. Martin, General Tire, Goodyear, and others, negotiating patent and sales contracts. As part of her work, she sailed to Europe two to three times a year. Antonie also developed important personal relationships as a result of her business efforts. One such was US Senator Robert R. Reynolds (1884-1963), D-NC, who in 1941 became chair of the Committee on Military Affairs. He admired Antonie deeply. Another was Robert L. Hague (1880-1939), senior vice president of Standard Oil Co. He and Antonie were in a committed relationship until his death in 1939.
Antonie’s letters to friends and family reveal fascinating insight into her breathless activities. In early 1937, for instance, she was traveling with Junkers manager Richard Thiedemann: “Tuesday last week I drove to a factory in Bristol, Penns[ylvania], with Thiedemann and his entourage, back in the evening, to take the others to the [ocean liner] Europa. Next morning, at 8 am, again with the two gentlemen to a giant plant in Philadelphia. […] Th[iedemann] then didn’t let me leave, and so I continued in the evening to Baltimore, without one single piece of luggage! Thus, in the morning I took my gentlemen to Glenn Martin’s plant, translated whatever was necessary, and then immediately travelled with the company’s president, in the dining car, to Washington where I went straight away to the Senate! […] Now I have to go with Th[iedemann] to the West Coast, and I definitely want to do it, since [...] I am very interested in the success of this trip.” And a few days later: “Tonight, Thiedemann is going home aboard the Bremen! … All in all, the five weeks with him were indeed quite exhausting, but due to the overall success and since we got along so well, it was richly rewarding and really nice! Now let’s hope for results! … Last week was very busy, since we currently have an aviation exhibition here. On Thursday, I gave a speech on the radio at the lunch meeting, as the only woman among five hundred men, right after the chief commander of the US Army Air Force. Friday night, I gave a talk at the Association of Former German Students.”
But while Antonie was building a career in the States, political events in Germany began to reshape her fate, and that of her family. In January 1933, Hitler had taken power. His rise posed an immediate threat to Antonie and her family who were of Jewish descent, though her ancestors had converted to Christianity in 1895. In 1935, her father felt forced to sell his renowned hospital; he died three years later. Antonie’s brother Erwin, a well-respected physician himself, and his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1936/37, finding a new home with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Erwin’s father, Paul, had been very supportive of the Mayo brothers during their visits to Germany, and now the favor was returned to Erwin and his family. Antonie’s mother arrived in the U.S. from Germany in mid-August 1939, two weeks before the German invasion of Poland that started World War II.
Antonie used her German income and her influential US connections to enable her family to leave Nazi Germany and find new homes abroad. But Nazi doctrine impacted Antonie also directly: The rulers of the “Third Reich,” who did not want a “Jewess” involved in the preparation of important patent and trade deals, did not see her employment by German aviation companies favorably. Yet her valuable contacts, her piloting experience and her managerial skills, her captivating charm, and sparkling personality made her an irreplaceable asset for the German companies who relied on her. In 1936, before one of her departures from Germany, the secret German state police, the Gestapo, searched her ship cabin for hours. Very likely, the police were searching for proof that Antonie was attempting to give away German business secrets to foreign powers. The intention was to send a clear warning to her and her business contacts. In 1938 the plot thickened when the FBI discovered a group of German spies operating on the US-East Coast. The investigation uncovered that, among other tasks, the group had been ordered to plan and execute Antonie’s abduction from the U.S.
Yet despite all these political events around her, Antonie barely held political opinions. Although she thoroughly hated “that swine Hitler and his cronies,” she did not see her work with leading German aviation companies in the larger context of furthering Germany’s aggressive politics. In March 1937, when she received her American citizenship, Antonie threw a lavish party for 26 guests and wrote to her brother Erwin that working for German aviation companies was nothing but a means of living for her: “Stars [on the America flag] are closer to me than the swastika! … ‘They can kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon!’ is the very common expression for these feelings in this country.” She never planned to permanently return to Germany. To her friend, the airplane designer and manufacturer Ernst Heinkel, she confided that she put Europe behind her when she immigrated to the U.S., once the Nazis had cut her roots from the past.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 decreased business contacts between Germany and the United States; and the entry of the United States in 1941 ended Antonie’s activities as aviation consultant. She moved with her mother to Westchester County, New York, and worked for the American Red Cross as a driver and an instructor in first-aid courses. Later she found employment with the Delahanty Institute where she taught prospective workers (most of them women) how to interpret blueprints and operate metalworking equipment.
In 1943, an old friend of hers, Eugene F. McDonald, whom she had known since her first days in America, offered a job with the Hearing Aid Division of Zenith Radio Corporation. With her usual enthusiasm, Antonie tackled the new task, soon managing forty employees from her office in the Empire State Building, serving 500 dealers from Maine to Florida. Among her famous clients were Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Edison’s son Charles, and the playwright/ composer Rupert Hughes.
After the war, Antonie converted to Catholicism. In 1950, she traveled with a friend to Italy for the Holy Year. Yet she did not use this opportunity for a visit to Germany. Antonie died of cancer in January 1952 in New York City, and was buried at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
Antonie’s death meant the end of one of the most charming, cosmopolitan and exciting careers of a woman pilot. Her life truly reflects the “golden era” of aviation in its adventurousness, passions, energy, and contradictions. As pilot, PR-expert, and businesswoman, Antonie’s contributions to German and US aviation in the interwar-era were as profound as they were unique. Clearly, Antonie was more than a flying actress who donned flight goggles for publicity. Sadly, her life and work are mostly forgotten today. But they can be rediscovered in the amazing biography written by her nephew, W. Paul Strassmann, in 2008. In The Strassmanns. Science, Politics, and Migration in Turbulent Time, 1793-1993 [New York: Berghahn Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-84545-416-6], Paul Strassmann covers many generations of his family, portraying Antonie and her relatives — merchants, physicians, scientists, scholars, lawyers, and pilots. Most Antonie quotations in this blog post are taken from this book; all images are published with the permission of the author and copyright-owner, Paul Strassmann. Antonie’s experiences and life were also part of a scholarly study on German women pilots between 1918 and 1945, published (in German) as ‘Schneidige deutsche Mädel.’ Deutsche Sportfliegerinnen 1918 – 1945, Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag 2007.
Evelyn Crellin is a curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum.