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Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky, by Frank Marrero, Scotwall Associates, San Francisco, 1997, $14.95

Carl Sandburg wrote a poem about him. Curtis LeMay, Jimmy Doolittle and Charles A. Lindbergh watched him fly as boys. Orville Wright and Glenn Curtiss said he was the best they had ever seen. Lincoln Beachey basked in the adulation but remained cynical about it, saying, “They come to see me die.”

Frank Marrero has done a first-rate job of telling the story of America’s greatest first-decade exhibition flyer. Besides delving deeply into printed sources, he used creative research techniques, such as visiting reunions of San Francisco earthquake survivors, to find people who had seen Beachey fly. He found that they could help him capture the detail and flavor of Beachey’s time and place.

Marrero admits that he had difficulty mixing four “voices” for the book—himself as historian, himself as storyteller, Beachey in his own words and histrionic contemporary newspaper accounts. Some of the transitions are awkward, but overall it works well. Marrero states that he verified each statement with at least two sources, but in fact he has taken the liberty of constructing a number of scenes, such as the breathtaking first chapter on Beachey’s boyhood. Readers would have been better served if Marrero had identified such conjectural reconstructions.

Marrero clearly admires Beachey, who flew dirigibles, pushed past the limits of airplane design and performance, packed in gigantic crowds, and badgered the government about safety standards. But he makes no effort to hide the womanizing or other less admirable features of the man. Marrero’s lively writing style makes Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky useful to students as young as junior high. Early aviation aficionados may find it essential.