Couple dared to cross Atlantic in helium balloon — and vanished into thin air
The crowds began to gather at dawn, although dozens of people had insisted upon camping out all night on a sprawling Hamptons meadow fearful of missing even a minute of the momentous event — the launch of the Free Life, the helium balloon poised to become the first ever to cross the Atlantic.
For four years, residents of the Springs hamlet in East Hampton, whose summer regulars included artist Willem de Kooning and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jean Stafford, had pitched in to help two unlikely adventurers prepare for the more than 3,000-mile journey. Local merchants donated meals and supplies, and one cafe owner housed the amateur aeronauts — actress Pamela Brown, 28, and her commodities-broker husband Rodney Anderson, 32 — for free.
Abercrombie & Fitch outfitted the crew with survival gear. A volunteer built shelves inside the balloon’s circular gondola, which measured 12 feet wide by four feet deep, and were lined with hundreds of ping pong balls for buoyancy. A case of champagne for the celebratory landing in France five days later was stowed inside.
British balloonist Malcolm Brighton, 32, signed on to pilot the giant 80-foot-tall orange and yellow Free Life just a month before the journey.
On the day of the launch — “a sparkling September Sunday” in 1970, noted Esquire magazine — the Springs fire department filled the balloon with gas from tanks stacked on trucks as the meadow filled with professional and amateur photographers eager to chronicle the historic take-off. There was a festive air as families lugging picnic baskets accompanied by excited children and dogs carved out their space on the grass — a scene the Easthampton Star described as “a beautiful, old-fashioned, surrealist pageant.” By the time the balloon lifted off in the early afternoon, more than 1,500 were gathered.
“The launch was so perfect,” said filmmaker Genie Chipps Henderson, 78, a member of the ground crew who recently produced a commemorative film about the event for the East Hampton LTV network. “There was not a cloud in the sky as this incredible eight-story balloon lifted off as if it was a ballet dancer.”
“We punched each other in the arm,” recalled poet Rosita Benson as she watched the balloon glide across Gardiners Bay and Long Island Sound. “History. We were part of history.”
But others were not so buoyant. Film producer Alfred Crown seemed to offer a more realistic assessment of the event when he told Esquire, “They’re sure in a hurry to die, aren’t they?”
Brown and Anderson were so sure of making history that they sold off their furniture and left their Upper East Side apartment to raise more than $100,000 for their grand adventure. “They called it feeding the monster in the backyard,” said Henderson.
When their money ran out, Brown turned to her successful Kentucky clan. Brown’s father, John Young Brown, was a powerful attorney and state legislator, who indulged his favorite daughter and helped finance the trip. Brown’s older brother had taken over Kentucky Fried Chicken six years before.
It was Anderson who became obsessed with the idea of the trans-Atlantic balloon trip, according to Henderson. A classical pianist and amateur navigator who had learned to use a sextant, he had recently worked as director of admissions at New York University and enlisted the school’s leading meteorological expert to help plan the journey.
It would be the fifth attempt at an Atlantic balloon crossing since 1873. The most recent, in 1968, ended when two Canadians crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia. The first, in 1873, saw the balloon travel just 45 miles. British adventurer Peter Elstob’s planned trip from the Canary Islands to Barbados met with failure in 1958.
Brown, a former Miss Lexington who was an actress in commercials and a regular on the daytime soap opera “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” was eager to participate. Brown would chronicle the flight for a book the crew planned to write after the journey.
As teenagers, she and Henderson had built a raft to sail down the Mississippi River like Huckleberry Finn. “We were going to have an adventure,” recalled Henderson, adding they only made it as far as a mile down the Kentucky River — far from the mighty Mississippi — before abandoning the plan. “Pam was just a full-of-life kind of person, eager to try anything.”
But the Free Life had deadly issues.
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