How David Mamet Became a Memorabilia Addict

The famed playwright reminisces about how he got hooked on collecting artifacts from the golden era of air travel

Aviation, curiously, is the same age as the motion picture business. (Brigitte Lacombe)
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He’d come to the United States, with his family, in the ’30s, poor Hungarian Jews.

Lou enlisted in the Marine Corps and, as a Marine rifleman, took a test for pilot training and placed first out of 4,000 applicants.

Lou not only flew for but founded the Israeli Air Force, which, in the country’s War of Independence, consisted of a flight of four planes, the flight led by Lou (his wingman was Ezer Weizman, future president of the State of Israel).

Lou is the man who stopped the Egyptian advance roughly 15 miles from Tel Aviv, at the bridge named “This Far and No Farther.” In the Kirk Douglas film Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), about the ’48 war, Lou was portrayed by Frank Sinatra.

During the Israeli War, Lou flew an Avia S-199 (an underpowered variant of Germany’s 109). He is, presumably, the only man to have flown both the American Corsair and the German Messerschmitt in combat.

He praises the Corsair (a vast, single-engine plane, whose wings had to be lowered into an inverted-gull shape so that its massive propeller would sit high enough to clear the ground) and excoriates the Messerschmitt as a hunk of junk. These 119 airframes were used by Czechoslovakia for remodeled Avia S-199s after V-E Day. The Czechs also acquired, as surplus, unflown superb British Spitfires. The Czechs were one of the only nations that would sell arms to the Jewish state, but they insisted Israel buy all the second-rate Avia S-199s before they would allow it to purchase the Spitfires.

After the war Lou flew as co-pilot on the first El Al transoceanic flights, in the three-tailed Lockheed Constellation. (My hangar has a 1950s Air France poster. It shows the Old City of Jerusalem, from the Vale of Gehenna. At the base of the Western Wall is a gorgeous young Sabra woman in work (or hot) pants; the Old City wall is surmounted by an Air France Constellation. Magnificent.)

I have been scouring aviation poster catalogs for a mention of my cousin. Julien Mamet was Louis Blériot’s mechanic. Blériot was the first aviator to fly over the English Channel, in 1909. Julien took to flying in air shows, along with Blériot, Santos-Dumont, Farnham and others, and the newspaper Paris-soir lists and pictures him in various Edwardian air shows. One shot particularly beloved by my fellow hangar bums is of a Blériot monoplane, nose down in a field, and the legend: “Rough Landing by the aviator, Mamet.” I also have various postcards of the period showing him in his Blériot. And I know that there were posters, and I am still looking for one. My son saw Julien’s photo on a period postcard and said, “Dad, that’s a picture of you.”

What great yichus, which in Yiddish means “pedigree.” To which I add the U.S. Navy I.D. photo of my grandfather Jack, stamped “Naval Aviation,” 1918. He was an airframe-and-powerplant mechanic on Navy seaplanes in France in World War I. And he never mentioned it. (I looked up his service records, and he got superb evaluations. He came back to the States, lost whatever money he had made in the financial crash, and served out his life as a traveling salesman, selling underwear throughout the Midwest.) My grandfather was that Willy Loman, or Low-Man, that Miller depicted but did not celebrate in Death of a Salesman. But here, in an I.D. photo, was the proof that my grandfather, a traveling salesman, the most prosaic of men, had had an adventure. And if he, why not I? So, in my mid-60s, I took up flying. I add to the list Andy Mamedoff, a Jew from Miami, who surely looks like family, and was one of the first three American fliers to fly for (and die for) Britain in World War II.

Perhaps this is an American story: my late discovery of American Jewish adventurers. I add to the list Paul Mantz, king of the precision fliers. (He would never use the term “stuntman.”) At the end of the silent era, Paul wanted to break into stunt-flying, but the union was tight and closed to Jews. He was offered, as a dare, a stunt (to those not of the profession, the beloved term of art in the movie biz is “gag”) flying a biplane through a hangar. That was early in his career (Air Mail [1932]). He flew the Beechcraft through the roadside sign in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). He flew all the aerial footage in (and, thus, rather invented) Cinerama shots, including circling inside an active volcano. He was Amelia Earhart’s revered instructor (many say “honey”), taught her to fly instruments and strongly advised her not to attempt the round-the-world flight in a plane and with equipment with which she was unfamiliar.

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