Sex. Lies. Murder. Infidelity. An adventurous socialite and a lovesick aviator.
For 18 days in 1932, those details enthralled readers of the Miami Herald. The murder trial of Royal Air Force Capt. Bill Lancaster was front-page news not only in Miami but also around the world. A salacious love triangle, exposed by lawyers in the Dade County Courthouse, titillated tourists and locals alike as the pilot claimed his innocence in the shooting of his rival, Haden Clarke.
Though Bill Lancaster eventually walked free, the trial cast a long shadow over his life and that of his family — a shadow substantial enough to stretch eight decades into the future and inspire a grand-nephew to spend four years making a documentary about the Miami murder and the fascinating exploits of his aviator ancestor.
The 90-minute The Lost Aviator, directed by Australian filmmaker Andrew Lancaster, is making its North American premiere at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival on Saturday and Sunday.
“I’ve heard stories about my great-uncle all my life,” said Lancaster, whose grandfather Jack was Bill’s brother. “We definitely talked about it in the family, but it was along the lines that he wasn’t guilty. He was more of a hero who didn’t get his hero’s due.”
Intrigued, Lancaster and producer Nonie Couell spent two weeks in 2012 in Miami, interviewing and researching the trial that nearly ended his great-uncle’s career. For years, he had thought that the dashing aviator had, quite literally, gotten away with murder.
“But doing the docu, I realized it was a little more complicated than that,” he added. “The story told in the courtroom wasn’t the real story. “
Not that Lancaster gives his great-uncle a pass. In fact, he believes the aviator’s “rockstar status” during the Golden Age of Aviation actually overshadowed some of the evidence that pointed an accusing finger at him. The forensic facts presented at trial were primitive and confusing — one of the cops put the murder weapon in his pocket, for example — and the tale the pilot’s love interest Jessie “Chubbie” Miller told was taken at face value by the jury.
“The idea that Chubbie was asleep and didn’t hear the shot in this tiny apartment is preposterous,” Lancaster said. “If the trial were held today, the outcome would be very different.”
The Lost Aviator, however, is about more than an ill-fated love triangle. Lancaster, a composer who has also directed several short films, followed the footsteps of his great-uncle to understand how the storied career of a dashing pilot could have ended tragically and somewhat ignominiously.
Initially his family objected to the film.
“My parents were upset about the idea,” Lancaster conceded. “They were very protective of Nina,” the aviator’s surviving daughter who is interviewed in the film. “And I felt some responsibility to her, too.”
His family eventually saw the documentary in its world premiere in London this past fall. “They disagreed with my theory [of the murder] but ultimately they saw it as a quality version of his story.”
Aside from the high-drama of the Miami murder trial, Bill Lancaster’s story is both compelling and heroic, even as his reputation was nearly ruined by his obsessive love for the wrong woman. Bill emigrated to Australia before World War I but returned to England to serve in the Royal Air Force. He married and had two daughters, but, by all accounts, was not happy with a life of domesticity.
Wanting to make a name for himself, he decided to become the first man to fly to Australia. Looking for funds, the captain met Chubbie Miller at a jazz party in London. She agreed to help bankroll his flight if she could come, too. She wanted to be the first woman to make the trip.
In 1928, after taking off from London, they endured jungle crashes, sandstorms, even a venomous snake in the cockpit. When they were forced to stop for repairs, another aviator beat them to Australia — a small footnote that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the adoring crowds that greeted them when they landed down under. By then, Captain Lancaster and socialite Miller, each married to others, had become very much a public couple.
Desperate to make money in the depths of the Depression, the couple made their way to Miami, then a big aviation hub. Lancaster tried to form a new airline and Chubbie Miller hired a young ghostwriter, Haden Clarke, to write a book about her life. Neither plan worked out, however, and when Lancaster returned to Miami, he discovered that Miller had taken up with Clarke.
An argument ensued and the fateful April shooting would later be described as a suicide by both Bill and Miller. The jury believed them. “He had that English charm that helped him,” Lancaster said, “and the defense used that to its advantage.” After being acquitted, Bill, with Miller in tow, returned to England. A year later, in 1933, Lancaster was desperate to revive his career and reputation, so he began making plans to break the speed-flying record from London to Cape Town.
It was not to be. His flimsy biplane crashed in Algeria, in a remote area known as “The Land of Thirst.” The 35-year-old would survive eight days, passing the time by writing to Miller, and it wouldn’t be until 1962 that his mummified body and possessions would be recovered. In the diary he kept in the dessert before his death, he wrote not one word about the Hayden Clarke.
Lancaster is mum about what this means, but he does note an awful irony about April 20: “He died exactly a year to the day that Haden Clarke died.”
If you go
What: ‘The Lost Aviator’
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Coral Gables Art Cinema, 6:45 p.m. Sunday at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater, Little Havana. Filmmaker Andrew Lancaster will lead a master class, On the Art of Film Music Composing, at 4 p.m. Monday at Tower Theater.