Sunday, March 31, 2019

Pierre "Wrongway" Beauregard Rides Again

I spend God only knows how many hours poring over old books, old city directories, and very old newspapers in search of clues about the forgotten French families of Old Los Angeles.

But, once in a blue moon, the Blogging Gods drop a story right into my lap.

Back in February, I found a vintage ceramic poodle in one of the antique malls just off the traffic circle in Old Towne Orange (I've been going there since I was old enough to walk). I have a vintage poodle made from an identical mold that I painted myself...but this one was better than mine. I snapped it up and posted pictures on Instagram.

Imagine my shock when I recently received an email from a Pasadena woman who recognized not only the poodle, but the name painted on the poodle's feet!

This entry is edited from a lengthy interview with the subject's daughter, Renée Levesque. That fateful poodle was painted in the 1960s by her brother, Pierre Beauregard Jr. Merci, Renée!

Pierre Beauregard Sr. was born in Normandy, France, in 1919 - the youngest child of hardworking farmers. From a young age, he was fascinated by aviation and held high hopes that space travel would someday be possible.

Pierre didn't much care for farming (and according to Renée, couldn't keep a plant alive). He lived for the rare occasion that a plane would fly anywhere he could see it (and in rural northern France, that just didn't happen very often).

In 1927, eight-year-old Pierre heard that Charles Lindbergh was flying into Paris on the first-ever nonstop solo flight from faraway New York. Pioneering aviators like Lindbergh were Pierre's heroes (Renée dryly noted that her father would never have idolized Lindbergh if he'd known about Lindy's secret second family, secret third family, and secret fourth family...and all with Germans at that!).

He wanted to go. Paris was a train ride away. But his family was poor.

Young Pierre was no fan of attending weekly Mass. It was boring, he couldn't understand Latin, the parish priest was a nasty old man, and he resented the weekly collection plate. The Beauregards were poor and struggled to break even; why should his parents contribute even a few of their hard-earned francs to a church that turned around and spent the money elsewhere? Pierre's homemade hand-me-down clothes were always threadbare and patched; his holey shoes had gone through several older brothers. As far as he was concerned, that collection plate was keeping him in rags.

Pierre sneaked out of the family's tiny farmhouse, slipped the bolt on the church door, squeezed in, and took enough money from the collection plate to buy a round-trip ticket to Paris.

Once he arrived in Paris, Pierre sneaked into a well-to-do aviation enthusiast's car, hiding in the back seat under a large picnic blanket. Lindy was landing at an airfield seven miles north of Paris proper; it would take too long to walk and Pierre didn't know how to get there anyway.

The tens of thousands of spectators who crowded the area around the airfield for miles didn't notice the unaccompanied eight-year-old in tattered, oversize clothes.

Lindy finally landed at 10:22 pm. Headlights from thousands of spectators' cars ensured that the Spirit of St. Louis was well within view. Pierre remembered that moment for the rest of his life.

Needless to say, he was in a LOT of trouble when he got home. The Beauregards had enough problems without their youngest child stealing from the parish church and running off. Pierre was shipped off to Quebec to live with his aunt and uncle.

Planes were a RARE sight in rural Canada in the 1920s. Reduced to watching flocks of geese flying overhead, he dreamed of the day when he could fly away too.

Pierre got his chance in 1935. With a few tweaks to his birth certificate, he ran away again, this time to Ontario, and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. (His family eventually forgave him.)

Pierre Beauregard, circa 1942
The RCAF taught Pierre how to fly and maintain military aircraft, and because he was surrounded by English speakers, he became fluent very quickly. Pierre did well in the RCAF...until The Incident.

Pierre had been given color-coded sets of instructions. Unfortunately, Pierre was mildly colorblind and mixed up the blue and purple sheets, resulting in him flying the wrong way.

The other airmen nicknamed him "Wrongway" while the top brass investigated the incident. Pierre honestly hadn't known he was colorblind, and was ultimately given a medical discharge.

The incident made the newspapers as far away as New York - where a producer was in town, searching for a stuntman who could fly a plane.

Pierre "Wrongway" Beauregard was on a train to Los Angeles by the end of the week.

He wasn't red-green colorblind, so he was still able to fly. Before long, Pierre was working as a stuntman (due to his short stature and very slight build, he often doubled for older child actors or young ingenues).

Los Angeles agreed with Pierre. It was warm and beautiful, there was always something to do, he loved his job, and he liked to drive to the Glendale airport to watch planes take off and land. Stunt performers weren't listed in the credits in those days, but Pierre didn't care. He was happy. More importantly, he wasn't stuck on the family farm growing wheat and brewing apple cider.

Pierre enlisted in the U.S. military after Pearl Harbor, in spite of both his partial colorblindness (the American military wouldn't let him fly a plane either) and the fact that he'd also suffered a partial hearing loss from an on-set explosion. After his discharge, he married Cécile Chevalier.

Pierre and Cécile's wedding day, 1946
Pierre had a close call in 1955 when the plane he was flying malfunctioned and crashed. He should have been killed instantly, but walked away with only a broken hand. By this time, he had two young children to support, and stunt work was becoming too unreliable to provide a steady income.

Pierre Jr., Renée, and Pierre Sr., 1956
Pierre hung up his goggles and helmet, taking a job at Douglas Aircraft as a safety inspector, moving his family to the Westside, and watching planes take off and land at LAX. From then on, he didn't fly planes - he worked for companies that made them.

Pierre being honored at work, 1977
Like the rest of the world, he watched the 1969 moon landing obsessively. Pierre retired in 1980 and quietly passed away in his sleep two years later - an understated exit for a former daredevil. He and Cécile are buried at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.

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