By Jean P. Moore
What could be more appropriate for Women’s History Month than to celebrate two female aviation pioneers who achieved many of their flying feats right here in Greenwich in the 1930s?
The two remarkable women are Molly Cummings Minot Cook and her mother, Marian Engle Cummings, who died in 1984 at the age of 93. Together with Molly’s brother, Wilbur (“Billy”) Love Cummings, Jr., also a pilot, they won the nickname, “The Flying Family of Greenwich.” Molly was interviewed by Oral History Project volunteer Suzanne Seton in 2012. She died at the age of 102 in April 2020.
In her youth, Marian Cummings was a force of nature. She proved such a challenge to her parents that she was sent east from her home in Seattle to be made a “lady”- a not entirely successful venture. From sliding down spiral staircases at her finishing school in Middlebury, Connecticut, to illegally harboring kittens in her room, she was a handful for the headmistress, who nevertheless appreciated her spunk.
After graduating with honors and returning to Seattle, Marian met Wilbur Love Cummings, a young lawyer out west on assignment. Young and in love, their romance culminated in marriage on the eve of World War I. Subsequently, they traveled to New York, where Mr. Cummings would resume his work. This trip occurred at the height of the Spanish flu epidemic. Marian, Wilbur, and their two young children, Billy and Molly, wore facemasks and stayed in their cabin.
The family settled in Greenwich and bought an old farmhouse on John Street. However, life in Greenwich may have been too uneventful for Marian Cummings. To feed her love for adventure, she began taking flying lessons at North Beach, now LaGuardia airport, earning her pilot’s license in 1932 at the age of 40. Mr. Cummings congratulated his wife on her accomplishments and asked if she would like an airplane. And so Marian Cummings acquired her first Stinson Reliant. Before long, Marian and her son and daughter were all flying at Armonk Airport. According to her daughter, Molly Cook, Armonk was not a proper airport. It was called the Westchester Pasture for Select Flying Machines and was actually a potato field off Route 22 just long enough for landing small planes.
While Molly and Billy were earning their wings, their mother Marian was busy racking up firsts and awards. She was the first woman to make a parachute jump and the first woman to hold a commercial license. She then proceeded to put her training to use by flying her husband to various destinations where he had legal dealings, traveling around the States and in Central America.
Marian Cummings was a powerful influence on her two children. Following in their mother’s footsteps, they were accomplished and daring pilots. Daughter Molly Cummings Minot Cook, born in 1917, was also a flying marvel, earning her pilot’s license in 1935 when she turned 18. Soon thereafter, Molly and her brother Billy bought a small plane, a Luscombe, and began competing in meets. While still in college, they became popular at “stunting” meets at airfields in Armonk, Hartford, and Long Island, among others. Molly Cook describes one maneuver in which a roll of toilet paper would be thrown out of the plane at three or four thousand feet creating a streamer effect. “The trick was how long it took you to cut that strip twice, with your plane.”
During World War II, Molly and her mother joined the Civil Air Patrol. While her mother ferried pilots between destinations stateside, Molly taught Morse code and aerial navigation. Her brother Billy joined the Navy Air Corps as a transport pilot, flying new planes from factories in the U.S. to England, where they were deployed in the war. Tragically, it was on one of those trips that young Billy Cummings crashed on takeoff, killing this cherished son and brother.
In time, Molly Cook went on to marry and have a family of her own. She continued flying and engaging in many other interests, from teaching art, to ranching, and to conservation, making substantial donations to the Land Trust. However, flying was never far from her heart.
As she relates, “I loved stunting. In the summer…I would be in my white flying suit and helmet and goggles – oh, I was just the big cheese – and get into my little Fleet plane. All these people on Sunday, that was the thing to do in those days, that people would drive to Armonk to watch the planes, sort of a – what would you call it – a bullfight feeling. Is the matador going to make it or – I’d go up and do a spin or a loop and a something, and then come down. Then we’d sit, and then somebody said, ‘Well, I think I’ll go up and amuse them a little bit.’ It was fun on a Sunday.”
This blog was written by OHP volunteer Jean Moore from the interview, “Mother and Daughter Flyers.” The transcript of the interview may be read at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The OHP is sponsored by Friends of Greenwich Library. Visit the website at glohistory.org. Mary A. Jacobson, OHP blog editor.