Reporters Leo Kieran of the New York Times and Herbert Ekins of the World-Telegram were out to demonstrate that air travel was shrinking the world and that it was pretty much in the reach of most people. They would do this by means of a race around the globe using commercial transportation available to anyone with the price of a ticket. When the race started on the evening of September 30, 1936, they had been joined by a last-minute participant from the Evening Journal — a 23-year-old rookie crime reporter named Dorothy Kilgallen.
A fierce rainstorm kept the three contestants out of the air for the first leg of the race — a short hop to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to catch the airship Hindenburg. Kilgallen almost missed the flight, but the crew delayed departure until she boarded.
Ekins quickly proved to be the savviest traveler as well as the most competitive. Arriving late in Frankfurt, Germany, he quickly boarded a KLM DC-2, a plane that had finished second in an air race from London to Melbourne. Kilgallen and Kieran, on the other hand, headed to Brindisi, Italy, by train to catch a flight from there to Hong Kong on a British carrier, Imperial Airways. The train was excruciatingly slow, and the flight was delayed for seven hours because of wind.
When the two reporters arrived at a stopover in Bangkok, Siam, Kilgallen opted to hire a single-engine plane whose pilot lost his way in Indochina and made a frightening landing in the middle of a field before finding his way to Hong Kong.
Waiting to board a steamship headed from Hong Kong to Manila and the Pan Am China Clipper for the flight back to the States, Kieran and Kilgallen learned that Ekins was long gone. He had talked his way onto a Pan Am trial flight as a crew member. Although taking the no-passenger flight was cheating, Ekins was pronounced the winner, having completed his journey in 18 days.
With just the tiniest bit of grousing, the two defeated reporters acknowledged his victory in a cable from Manila while waiting for a typhoon to pass. They completed the journey in 24 days. In some ways, Kilgallen was the real winner, despite her second-place finish. Her accounts of the journey, cabled back to the Evening Journal each day, filled with descriptions of exotic lands, jungles full of dangerous beasts and shark-infested waters, made her a celebrity. It also launched her successful career which ended abruptly in 1965 with her mysterious death (a story for another day).
Kilgallen gathered her cabled columns into a book titled Girl Around the World, published in 1936. A few excerpts:
They tell me that 250 Nazi Storm Troops will wait at the airport until the Hindenburg heaves into sight at 9 o’clock this morning.
Some day I’m coming back and really get to know Athens. Making a mad dash around the world you see just enough of strange and interesting places to want to stay. It’s like ordering a seven-course meal and having the waiter say you can’t have anything but soup.
I spent exactly an hour and a half in the Holy Land, swinging down from Alexandria onto the Asiatic continent at 8:20 a.m. …and was off for Rutbah Wells, which I hope the pilot can find, at 9:50.
Seems Imperial Airways doesn’t go on a time table, but on an eat table, and one can almost hear the announcer bellowing: “The next plane for breakfast leaves at so-and-so…. Due in Rutbah Wells at lunch time!”
Bump! bump! splash! We thumped down jarringly in the middle of a rice field. The plane [a Puss Moth] was not damaged, but in a second I thought all my worst fears about Kwangsi province were realized. Appearing like gnomes from the ground, about 600 chattering natives, nearly naked, surrounded the plane. They spoke no English, of course, and could not understand Siamese. We waved our arms, made signs without fingers, played “handies,” and finally made them understand we were lost.