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Aloha Wanderwell Liked Living Dangerously. Aloha stands on top of her famous car as it is lifted onto a ship during her tour of Africa in the 1920s. 

Aloha Wanderwell

The first Woman to Drive around the World

Adventure, exploration, danger, and murder: this was the life of Aloha Wanderwall. Inspired by the fantastic tales she read in her father’s beloved collection of boyhood books, she dreamed of travel, and intrigue in far-flung corners of the globe. In 1922, when she was 16, she embarked on an ambitious around-the–world expedition led by “Captain” Wanderwell…

Wanderwell was an explorer, a vaudevillian and filmmaker, a female Indiana Jones, a wife and mother. She visited places no western man or woman had seen before. She was a figure of controversy, self-invention and marketing. The romance that informs her legend is both real and contrived.

When she was still a teenager, she hopped into a Model T Ford and drove through 80 countries in the 1920’s. They called her “The World’s Most Travelled Girl.” An early filmmaker, Aloha captured her husband and two children as they explored the world.  Did she have adventures? Stranded in Brazil, she lived with and documented the Bororo people.

Trying to find fuel (never mind roads) in the 1920’s, she used crushed bananas and animal fat for fuel.   Her husband was mysteriously murdered.  Apparently, she cut her hair and fought for the French Foreign Legion. She flew a seaplane.  In Indochina, she had to shoot her way out of a gauntlet of angry elephants. In India on their round-the-world trip oxen were frequently required to tow the Ford Model-T across mud flats and rivers. In China in 1924, when civil warfare made it impossible to purchase fuel, labourers pulled the car for eighty miles…

She died in obscurity, and you’ve probably never heard of her. Even with a name like Aloha Wanderwell.

Seamstress on the road.

Day one. 8:00 a.m. Decked out in riding breeches and Dad’s slightly altered tunic, boarding the extraordinary #2 was less formidable. Quickly a village crowd gathered outside our house to gape at the well-publicized World Tour automobile. Mum hugged me and gave the Captain a parting admonition.

The journalist Nellie Bly may be famous for having gone “around the world in 72 days” in the late 19th century, but she wasn’t alone. A few decades after the pseudonymous Bly made waves with her around-the-world trip, another woman with an assumed name made her name by driving through 80 countries in a Ford Model T.

Nowadays, backpacking around the world has almost become a rite of passage for a certain breed of teenager. But back in the day, the spectacle of a 16-year-old girl touring the globe was enough to turn her into a worldwide celebrity.

Aloha Wanderwell was an explorer, a vaudevillian and filmmaker, a female Indiana Jones. She was also a wife and mother. She went on to travel 380,000 miles over the course of the 1920s, visiting a total of 80 countries. During her travels, she made some of the earliest films of the Bororo people of Brazil, became the first woman to fly the country’s Mato Grosso state and filmed the first flight around the world.

She went to places no western man or woman had gone before. Her sensibility was patrician and even Victorian, but her actions were thoroughly modern. Aloha wrote Call to Adventure in 1939 at the age of thirty-three, a compendium of her groundbreaking forays into the unknown that sealed her status as the “Amelia Earhart of the automobile.” However by this time she had also been christened the “Rhinestone Widow” by the press, as her business partner and husband Walter Wanderwell was mysteriously shot and killed aboard their boat harboured in Long Beach in 1932. Aloha’s detached reaction to his death, as well as her subsequent marriage to cameraman Walter Baker (eight years her junior), were found suspect and a bit malevolent by media observers, and a pall hung around her carefully crafted image.

Aloha was emblematic of the 1920s, the decade she hit the world stage, but she was also a complete anomaly, making her story all the more fascinating and inscrutable.

Aloha came of age in the wake of WWI, the bloodiest war the earth had seen. Nine million people were killed. Trench warfare took military technology to new heights; tanks, poison gas, and machine guns forged unheard-of death tolls. Countless families lost fathers and sons. Survivors of the war returned to their families physically and psychologically brutalized. Europe and America were enveloped in a post-traumatic malaise that challenged assumptions about faith, the future, and daily life that shook a generation to its core.

This deep collective despair found its relief in the expansiveness and almost over-the-top optimism of the twenties. The United States, Canada and Europe became cultures populated by what Joseph Campbell called “fatherless heroes”: men and women who, without the love and safety of a paternal figure, re-imagined themselves as “citizens of the world”. Not unlike the genesis of the super hero, an entire generation was robbed of its traditional familial roots, engendering a sensibility of deep ennui and loss, but also a limitless possibility and a drive to break old paradigms. This new generation was going to make sure the worst would never happen again—the twenties would be their revenge and redemption.

Smashing of limitations could be seen in the huge strides made in technology and infrastructure. Electricity became commonplace in American homes. Skyscrapers began to loom upon the American skyline. Politics took on a globalist tinge. Madison Avenue and commercial marketing brought to you by way of radio urged the consumer to live the dream. The availability of credit and the “buy now pay later” philosophy touted on the airwaves gave way to a sense of power and instant gratification that was to become a distinct part of the American character.

It was also the Decade of the Car. The horse and buggy were made obsolete by paved roads and the Model T Ford, the first vehicle common folk could afford. Adventure and leisure were not just possessions of the elite; now even the middle class could get a piece of the action.

In Call to Adventure, Aloha depicts a laughter- and love-filled childhood set in a log-compound that inhabited forty acres of lush Vancouver wilderness at the water’s edge. The Halls’ lifestyle was decidedly unorthodox: They had a chauffeur and a cook, and their own yacht, but the family also swam together in shallows, climbed trees, and lived off the fat of the land. As Aloha tells it, their life was a wilderness vacation for wealthy folk.

PLANET NEWS ARCHIVE/SSPL/GETTY IMAGES

Japan loved Aloha and the Captain and gave them parades while crowds always gathered. Captain and Aloha giving a salute which, a modified boy scout salute of good tidings.

Aloha was drawn to adventure and the thrill of travelling across uncharted roads in far away lands very early in life. Aloha was also inordinately tall, making her something of an alien. She grew to be six feet in stature when the median height for women at the time was 5’2”. The difficulty in finding clothes, shoes, and a feeling of physical normalcy amongst her peers must have been extremely daunting. With her rare movie star visage, blonde hair and robust stature, she had to have been a target, even on a subconscious level, by those around her—a veritable freak. Aloha never mentioned any such phenomenon, and never made any issue of it. Her height may have aided a feeling of deep difference or insecurity that could have spurred her to achieve more than the women around her. It certainly enabled her to be the absolutely formidable presence she was in situations on the road that would have toppled most women.

In 1922, with her mother’s permission, the precocious 14-year-old left school in the south of France to answer a newspaper ad seeking a secretary for a round-the-world expedition. She joined the Work Around the World Educational Club (WAWEC), created by self-proclaimed “Captain” Walter Wanderwell in 1919, which served to promote the newly formed League of Nations.

Paris, 1922 — Pen in hand, sixteen-year-old Idris Hall stepped from the crowd and away from her past. At six feet tall, she stood head and shoulders above the dapper little man in the Boy Scouts uniform, the one they called Captain Wanderwell. She asked for his autograph, then petitioned him for a place in his band of merry nomads, the Work Around The World Expeditionary Force. Ten years and thirty-five-thousand miles later, the first woman to drive around the world by car was in Hollywood, pitching a film, when her husband was shot dead aboard their yacht. Adventure, exploration, danger, and murder: this is the life of Aloha Wanderwall.

Aloha Wanderwell was born Idris Galcia Hall on October 13, 1906, in Winnipeg, the daughter of British Army reservist Herbert Hall and Margaret Headley Hall.

When the first World War broke out, her Yorkshire-born father, Herbert Hall, answered the call made to the colonies, and voluntarily joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. A lieutenant, he was killed in action at the battle of Ypres in 1917.

After her father was killed, her mother moved Idris and her younger sister to Europe.

Getting her papers checked. Aloha sits astride an Indian motorcycle as crowds gather around her during an early visit to Europe. 

Aloha Wanderwell checks on her auto in the cargo area, aboard Ile de France. look at all those badges of courage!

Devastated by the death of her father, young Idris displayed a restless spirit and was constantly at odds with her superiors at the convent school, who tried in vain to transform the 6-foot tall self-described “tomboy” into a proper young lady. Instead, inspired by the fantastic tales she read in her father’s beloved collection of boyhood books, Idris dreamed of travel, adventure, and intrigue in far-flung corners of the globe.

The eleven-year-old Idris seems to have inherited her father’s courage and conviction. Exasperated with trying to manage her fierce, tomboyish daughter, Idris’s mother sent her to France, to a boarding school in a convent. It only seems to have made her more determined to escape, and she fled the place a few years later, to Paris, where she had her fateful meeting with Captain Walter Wanderwell.

Like Aloha, Walter Wanderwell was a paradoxical and enigmatic figure. His yearning was vast, perhaps excessive, and his stamina seemingly endless to achieve his goals, but like Aloha, he eschewed the customary partying and carousing of the period. He was a mystic and deeply spiritual. In terms of lifestyle, he was Spartan and ascetic, but not in his predilection for women.

A most Empowering, Incredible woman, certified as “First Woman to Drive Around the World” 1922-1928 by Auto using only Fords.

Captain Walter Wanderwell

In 1922, when she was 16, an advertisement in the Riviera edition of the Paris Herald caught her eye:

“Brains, Beauty & Breeches – World Tour Offer For Lucky Young Woman… Wanted to join an expedition… Asia, Africa…”

Without realizing it, Hall had run across another restless soul.

Young Idris could not resist this stirring call to adventure, and she applied for the position as secretary and driver for an ambitious around-the–world expedition led by the self-styled “Captain” Walter Wanderwell, in actuality a Polish national named Valerian Johannes Piecynski.

A former seafarer, world class hiker and traveller who had been briefly jailed in the US as a spy during the war, Wanderwell (known to compatriots as “Cap”), had begun the expedition in 1919 as an effort to promote world peace and the League of Nations.

Founding an organization he called the Work Around the World Educational Club (WAWEC), Walter and his then-wife Nell set out on what was billed as a “million dollar wager endurance race.” Nell and Walter led competing teams on world tour expeditions, ostensibly to see which team could log the most miles, funding their travels through the sale of souvenir pamphlets, speaking engagements, and screenings of motion picture films they shot and edited on the road.

By 1922, when Idris answered the ad in the Paris Herald, Walter and Nell had long gone their separate ways. Nell’s team was still touring in the US, and Walter, winding his way through Europe in a customized Model T Ford, was desperately in need of a new crew member fluent in French.

Sixteen-year-old Hall was intrigued—and when Wanderwell met her, the feeling was mutual. He immediately invited her to work as his secretary. Her job would be to support the Work Around the World Educational Club for International Police during an around-the-world tour.

Neither the club nor Wanderwell were what they seemed. Though WAWEC, as it as called, was billed as a kind of support group for the newly founded League of Nations, it was suspected by the FBI of being a kind of private army. And though Wanderwell styled himself as a brave outdoorsmen and traveller extraordinaire, he was, in fact, a smooth talker and a soldier of fortune with a knack for extracting money and favours out of anyone and everyone.

The ambitious around-the-world WAWEC tour was supposedly aimed at ad hoc international peacekeeping in a world ravaged by war, but its real purpose was to make money from a group of volunteer cadets whose dues financed the publicity-laden trip. Wanderwell also secured funding for the journey from the Ford Motor Company, which donated Model Ts for the voyage.

Hall’s mother didn’t want her underage daughter’s reputation to be damaged by the world tour, so she arranged for Wanderwell to declare her his ward and for her daughter to take on his last name. While he was at it, he rechristened her Aloha, and they set out on a trip called “The Million Dollar Wager.”

Aloha & Walter in Rio de Janeiro on their way to a party. Rio has the second biggest populous in Brazil.

The Captain was a fascinating character. Born Valerian Johannes Piecynski in Poland in 1897, he was a former Navy man. Endlessly charming and utterly restless, he was jailed as a spy during WWII and married a chorus girl in Seattle upon his release. His motorized expedition, which would spend four years wandering the globe, was ostensibly to drum up publicity for a police force intended to patrol the globe in support of the newly formed League of Nations. (Herbert Hoover thought he was trying to recruit a private army and had him shadowed by agents.) He had a string of affairs, and it must have been with little surprise that his then-wife, Nell, found herself abandoned for a statuesque blonde her husband had dubbed “Aloha.”

Aloha quickly became the focal point, the star of the Wanderwell Expedition.

Adapting easily to the rigours of life on the road, Aloha found herself filling a dizzying array of job descriptions: actress, photographer, cinematographer, driver, seamstress, laundress, film editor, vaudeville performer, salesperson, interpreter, negotiator, mechanic… and any other chores that might be assigned by the often tyrannical Captain Wanderwell.

The premise was simple: Wanderwell would compete against his wife, Nell, in a race around the world with two Model T teams. Part endurance race, part expedition, part public relations stunt, the journey took Aloha and her boss from Asia to Africa and beyond. They financed their tour by making films of the sights they encountered, speaking in public and signing up volunteers for the WAWEC. Armed with a new name, plenty of attention and freedom she had never dreamed of at school, Aloha soon realized she had star power on par with her charming boss. She had been hired as a translator and Girl Friday, but soon was driving Wanderwell’s Model T from Paris to Peking and beyond.

Together, the Wanderwells covered dangerous terrain, from places ravaged by civil war to terrain where automotive fuel could not be located. They encountered indigenous cultures, wild animals and swaying bridges right out of an Indiana Jones movie. Aloha often found herself behind a camera, documenting her amazing and often dangerous journey.

Rare pic of the Model T Fords, which are driving Around the World, at the Giza Pyramids and The Great Sphinx. Aloha was always inspired here.

The Work Around The World Expeditionary Force was a mix of endurance racers, wealthy and bored socialites, and soldiers of fortune. The money came from everywhere: private coffers, paid public speaking engagements, theatrical showings of the films made by the crew as they toured the world. There is even some evidence to suggest that corporations were involved, money coming from the likes of Ford and Standard Oil, at a time long before sponsorship as we now know it existed.

The team used a pair of Fort Model Ts, heavily modified for the journey. The bodies were constructed of riveted plate steel, fitted with exterior rifle scabbards, and solid steel discs took the place of the wooden-spoked wheels. With Rucksteel four-speed rear transmissions supporting the standard Model T planetary gearbox to give a greater range of ratios to handle rough terrain, the two machines looked like armoured cars.

The Wanderwell team, a kind of travelling circus about travel itself, would go to somewhere in the Amazon or Africa, for instance, making silent films and snapping photos. They traipsed through many countries. At important stops along the way and in major world cities they filled theatres to capacity before moving on. Aloha was the organizer, publicist, photographer, and, when necessary, mechanic. She became a pilot as well and, in the Depression years, quite famous—but also somewhat notorious.

Young Aloha Wanderwell, standing there on the on the bank of Ganges River in India She would have the perseverance to drive around the world.

Aloha Wanderwell was no mere pretty sidekick for the Captain’s wandering eye. She must have been paying some attention during her convent education, because she could speak French, Spanish, and Italian, and also picked up Russian, Chinese, and Japanese during her travels. She drove the second of the two Model Ts, ran the camera and appeared in the films, helped drum up business in the towns they visited, and put her shoulder to the wheel when the situation required.

It was a most gruelling adventure, carrying the wide-eyed Aloha through 43 countries on four continents.

The expedition journeyed through France and its battlefields… swept through Italy just as Mussolini and the Fascisti were consolidating their power… braved food riots and hostile mobs in Germany, a country then reeling from the harsh reparations demanded by the victorious allies of World War I… camped at the foot of the Great Sphinx in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings… drove into Palestine, where the Jews were attempting to build a new nation… across the arid lands of India, towing the Model Ts across rivers by water buffalo…

Aloha traversed the highlands of Portuguese East Africa, and nearly died of thirst in the Sudanese desert… disguised herself as a man and prayed in Mecca… hunted elephants in Indo-China became a confidante of Chinese bandits and was even granted the title of “Honorary Colonel” in the Red Army of Siberia… and hob-nobbed with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks during a visit to Hollywood.

She was like an earthbound Amelia Earhart, if not even more daring. In one memorable excerpt from her memoirs, she finds herself captured by Chinese Bandits sometime after the expedition drove their Fords along the Great Wall. Her escape is made thanks to the goodwill of the bandits, who are charmed by her instructing them on how to properly set up a machine-gun nest and field-strip a belt-fed automatic weapon.

The Wanderwell’s are camped out on the Sphinx.

Aloha Wanderwell is caught in the Jungle. Pushing her way out she sets the camera & proceeds to gather her courage.

Over the course of a decade, Aloha Wanderwell travelled through forty-three different countries. She was present when King Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened. She is rumoured to have joined the French Foreign Legion in disguise and certainly engaged in combat with Arab irregulars in desert warfare. She was made an honorary Colonel in the Siberian Army and witnessed food riots in Weimar Germany. She met movie stars like Douglas Fairbanks, appeared in dozens of hand-cranked 35mm films, spent years in the jungle. She was a sort of mix of Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, and Greta Garbo.

Along the way Aloha fell in love with Captain Wanderwell – who was not yet divorced from his first wife, Nell; in fact, upon their arrival in the United States, Walter himself was brought in for questioning on charges of “white slavery,” which turned out to be a ploy by Nell to force a more favorable divorce settlement.

By the time the Wanderwells finished their trip, they were famous—not least because of Aloha’s new reputation as the world’s most well-traveled girl. That fame nearly backfired; apparently American agents wanted to arrest the Captain for trafficking Aloha, who was still under age. They took preemptive action once they got into the United States. The Captain obtained a divorce, Walter and Aloha married, and they both walked free. They had two children, Nile and Valri.

The wager portion of the trip was complete, but the Wanderwells continued to wander. They kept touring the world and Aloha kept making movies, including groundbreaking films of the Bororo people of Brazil and footage documenting daily life in 43 countries.

When Aloha’s adventures began, there were other female explorers in the public eye, but none had the sheer scope of hands-on achievement and the downright earthiness that Aloha possessed. Amelia Earhart flew high in the sky and was supported by an advertising team and corporate funding. Aloha was a creature of the celebrated automobile, and she extrapolated wildly on the adventure it offered. With pet monkey Chango in tow, the Wanderwells drove through dust, mud, and rain, and the fate of their journeys often lay in the hands of the people they encountered on the road. They were creatures of the moment, and though they were often feted by noblemen and royalty, they also slept in vermin-ridden huts and fought off starvation and illness. All of this, for Walter, was done in the name of world peace. For Aloha, it was the “ravishing thrill”.

By 1929, when they had concluded their initial trek across the globe and released their documentary WITH CAR AND CAMERA AROUND THE WORLD, the Wanderwells had become internationally acclaimed explorers.

Their initial expedition was followed by an even more extraordinary adventure deep in the Mata Grosso region of the Amazon basin, when their plane went down in the uncharted jungle and Aloha had to remain behind with an indigenous tribe while Walter slowly made his way back to civilization to secure replacement parts, a trek that took several months.

The ever-resourceful Aloha charmed the natives, continued filming, and carefully documented their lives. Her film, FLIGHT TO THE STONE AGE BOROROS, was the earliest filmed record of the Bororo tribe and stands today as an important anthropological resource within the Smithsonian Institute’s Human Studies Archive.

Adored and scrutinized by the press, Aloha became intoxicated early on by the attention and fascination complete strangers held for her. She was an extremely adept and entertaining storyteller, and her legend drew big crowds to their presentations. This admiration became part of her “ravishing thrill”, and another source of adrenaline and sensation, which Aloha needed and craved, and enabled for the rest of her life.

Even in motherhood, Aloha could not summon the will to curb her wanderlust. She describes giving birth to both of her babies, honestly expresses her perplexity at motherhood, and unapologetically leaves them in the hands of caretakers to continue her adventures on the road.

Aloha & Walter Wanderwell on an Indian Scout from the Expedition in France. Walter loved his motorcycle, looks like a polish flag on the front.

1924 one of the pictures of the Dynamic Duo “Chango” the monkey & Model T Ford she drove! Incredible Woman Awesome Filmed World Journey.

Great picture of Aloha & Walter,”Cap” Wanderwell with the 2 famous Fords you can tell have been around the world. Taken in China.

After returning to the United States in 1931, the Wanderwells made plans for future expeditions, future films… but their ambitions were cut short by tragedy and scandal. Over the course of their joint career, the Wanderwells graduated from Model Ts to a hundred-foot Nova Scotia–built schooner called the Carma. During one of its voyages, Walter had to defuse an attempted mutiny.

In December 1932, the Captain was shot and killed by an unknown assailant on the couple’s 110’ yacht, “The Carma,” in Long Beach, California. A long, heavily sensationalized trial in Los Angeles put Aloha in the headlines all over again. Under intense media scrutiny, a suspect was tried and acquitted… and Wanderwell’s murder remains one of the most famous unsolved crimes on the West Coast.

The murder has never been solved, and Aloha wasn’t above suspicion despite a watertight alibi… Perhaps Captain Wanderwell’s appetites caught up with him; the ship’s name, after all, was the Carma.

After the scandal died down, Aloha married Walter Baker in 1933, a former cameraman with WAWEC and the media had a field day just over a year later. Aloha kept her fictitious first name but took on the more staid “Baker” when she remarried a year later. She continued to travel, make movies, write memoirs, and give lectures about her adventures. As Aloha Baker, working closely with her new husband, she continued her travels and went on to have a long and distinguished career as an explorer, documentary filmmaker, and lecturer – with her notoriety as “Aloha Wanderwell, The World’s Most Traveled Girl” a compelling echo from a not-too-distant past when a woman could scarcely dream of a life without borders.

Aloha Wanderwell. 1922-1937 driving 500k miles 80 Countries 6 Continents.

Aloha Wanderwell with her children.

Miss Wanderwell reaches Barcelona during her attempt to set an endurance record by driving a motor car around the world. She set off from Atlanta in September 1919. Vidal / Getty Images

Whatever the case, the mysterious death of her former co-adventurer didn’t slow the adventuress down at all. Now Aloha Wanderwell Baker, she continued touring with her new husband, making films and ensuring that her legacy would live on in museums. A movie she made while living among a tribe in the Amazonian basin is considered one of the oldest visual recordings of Stone Age peoples. It resides in the Smithsonian. The couple later settled in Cincinnati, where Aloha became a radio and print journalist.

Sadly, the Model T that took her so far around the world does not survive today. It was donated to the Ford museum as a historical artefact, but it later emerged that the occasionally callous Henry Ford consigned it to the crusher in 1942, as scrap metal for the war effort. Aloha didn’t find out until 1979, and she was heartbroken by the news.

“That Wanderwell II was scrapped for war metal is an ironical waste indeed,” she wrote to the Ford Museum’s curator, John Conde. “For 1942 and all through that war, I gave orientation film programs in colleges and art institutes, and was in and out of Detroit, constantly in touch with the Ford Public Relations for it. I can never have the satisfaction of seeing again the object that had dominated the very best years of my life.”

Aloha, Idris that was, died in June of 1996, her story long faded from public memory.

PLANET NEWS ARCHIVE/SSPL/GETTY IMAGES

Achievements

  • First woman to drive around the globe. (Wikipedia)
  • Drove 43 countries in a Ford Model-T at age 16.
  • Earliest films of the Bororo people of Brazil.
  • Traveled 380,000 miles to 80 countries in the 1920s.
  • First across India and Cape Town to the Nile.
  • First woman to fly Brazil’s, Mato Grosso.
  • Filmed the first flight around the world.
  • Member of the French Foreign Legion.
  • Films at The Smithsonian & The Library of Congress.
  • Women’s International Association of Aviators.
  • Started Work Around the World Educational Club.

Today, the historic footage she gathered is considered to be groundbreaking, and her movies can be found in both the Smithsonian and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ film archive.

The girl with a taste for adventure was also a woman who proved what an intrepid traveler with a Model T and a camera could accomplish—even if her name has faded into relative obscurity today.

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