To commemorate March as Women’s History Month, the AHC would like to feature the life of adventurer Idris Galcia Hall (1906-1996) who christened herself “Aloha Wanderwell.” In 1922 at age 16, she answered an ad calling for “a good-looking brainy young woman” willing to “forswear skirts” and “rough it” in an expedition traveling around the world by 1917 Model-T Fords. “Be prepared,” it added, “to learn to work before and behind a movie camera.”
A restless tomboy shuttered away in a French convent school, Idris couldn’t resist the opportunity. One the most amazing things is that her mother actually approved! But then she had seen her daughter travel unaccompanied by rail and ocean liner at age 12 to be with her when her husband (Aloha’s stepfather) Herbert Hall was killed in World War I.
In preparation for the Model T expedition, Idris took on her childhood nickname, Aloha, and tacked it onto the expedition leader’s surname. Aloha Wanderwell was her name from that time on. At 6 feet tall, blond and attractive, she became the face of the expedition, which captured her adventures in a series of movie travelogues. Newspapers began calling her “the Amelia Earhart of the open road.”
The trip was led by “Captain” Walter Wanderwell (born Valerian Johannes Pieczynski in Poland). During the five year expedition, he and Aloha fell in love, although Walter was still married. Upon returning to the United States, Walter divorced his wife. Walter was a controversial figure who had been arrested under suspicion of being a German Spy during World War I. Marrying Aloha in 1926 foiled an FBI plan to arrest him under the Mann Act which prohibits transporting women across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
The couple created a career out of leading competing teams on world tours, where the team that traveled the most miles would win a cash prize. The couple would film their adventures and became known for screening them to audiences in the U.S. while describing the events of the journey.
In 1930, the couple’s plane crashed in the Amazon, According to Aloha, she was left with the Bororo tribe while Walter hiked back through the jungle to buy replacement parts and lived with the tribe for several months. She documented the Bororo’s on camera, and the resulting film became an important anthropological resource.
By 1932 Aloha had become estranged from the Captain, who had proved to be a philanderer. They lived separately, Aloha in Los Angeles and her husband on his schooner in Long Beach. On December 5, 1932, Walter Wanderwell was aboard the schooner when he was fatally shot in the back by an unknown assailant, a crime that remains unsolved. Aloha’s detached reaction to his death and her marriage the next year to another Walter–Walter Nicholas Baker (eight years her junior)–were found suspect by media observers who christened her the “Rhinestone Widow.”
Her new husband Walter Baker (1915-1995) was born in Jireh, Wyoming. He was an 18-year-old gas station attendant in 1933 when he met Aloha in Laramie during one of her lecture tours. Walter joined her crew as a driver and mechanic, and the two married two months later. Together, they toured the world and filmed their experiences.
One of their film collaborations was Explorers of the Purple Sage (1945) which features the flora and fauna of Wyoming with sequences of ranching, horseback riding, and a wild horse round up. In the horse round up, they captured the only known footage of the stallion known as “Desert Dust.”
In the post-war period, Aloha and Walter continued filmmaking and touring. Aloha lectured alongside their films while wearing her complete expedition costume. She died in 1996 not long after the death of her second husband. Her life and career endure as a remarkable, if complex, example of the power of a woman who defied the limitations of her era.
The American Heritage Center holds the papers of Aloha’s second husband Walter N. Baker which includes biographical information and photographs as well as the couple’s 1945 silent movie Explorers of the Purple Sage.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.