Bermuda Airline Disaster Inspired Spy Novel

June 5, 2013

MasonFVanWyckPartially set on the island, Bermuda resident F. Van Wyck Mason’s 1958 spy novel “The Gracious Lily Affair” was inspired by the worst aviation disaster in local history.

On December 6, 1952 when “Star of the East” — a Douglas DC-4 operated by Pan American World Airways’ Cuban affiliate Cubana de Aviación — plunged into the ocean a few miles northeast of the island following a refuelling stop at Kindley Air Force Base.

En route from Madrid to Havana, there were 33 passengers and eight crew on board the Cuban aircraft.

The flight arrived at Kindley at 3:30 a.m, and after an hour’s stopover spent refuelling, the aircraft departed; at 4:45 a.m., during its initial climb out of Bermuda, the aircraft stalled, lost height and crashed tail first into the ocean.

The accident killed 37 passengers and crew; three passengers and a crew member survived the crash and were rescued.

“I was just going to run to the front of the cabin and warn the passengers when we hit the water,” steward Orlando Lopez Suarez later recalled. “The tail broke off … I found a rubber dinghy, but it was punctured and would not inflate …”

Bermuda’s then Director of Civil Aviation, E. M. Ware said at the time that the take-off apparently had been normal.

The four survivors were taken to the Kindley base hospital. One was identified as Alice Ebanks, who had lived in Bermuda two years and was on her way to vacation in Cuba.

This Cubana de Aviación DC-4 crashed off Bermuda in 1952, killing 37 people

cuban air crash

The cause of the accident was never determined.

Six years later Mr. Mason [1901–1978] used as semi-fictionalised account of the crash as the inciting incident of his novel “The Gracious Lily Affair.”

Featuring Colonel Hugh North of US Army Intelligence — the suave but deadly hero of more than 20 of Mr. Mason’s espionage novels published between 1930 and 1968 — “The Gracious Lily Affair” starts with a bang. Quite literally.

“Colonel North was vacationing in Bermuda, trying to make the most of the sun, sea and his lovely hostess Susan Stanhope, trying to forget he was an intelligence agent,” reads the jacket copy of an early edition of the book. “But the daily agenda wouldn’t let him.

Bermuda Gombey dancers feature on the cover art of this edition of “The Gracious Lily Affair” [1958]

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“First there was the Portuguese plane that blew up just miles away from Susan’s glamorous villa. Then there was the spearfishing expedition that turned up a corpse [of a courier travelling on the plane] and a water-logged ‘top secret’ brief case. Then there was a mysterious late night visit from the Oriental seductress Nina — a ‘friend of Susan’s …”

Soon Colonel North detects the scent of danger and embarks on a chase which leads him from Bermuda half-way around the world to Macao.

Mr. Mason was an American historian and novelist long resident in Bermuda. He had a long and prolific career as a writer spanning 50 years and including 78 published novels, many of which were best sellers and well received critically.

Other Bermuda-themed novels he wrote include the murder mystery “The Castle Island Case” [1937] and the historical novels “Three Harbours” [1938] and “Sea ‘Venture” [1961].

He drowned while swimming near his Riddell’s Bay home in 1978 shortly after completing his final novel, “Armored Giants”, about the US Civil War naval battle between the ironclads “Monitor” and “Merrimack.”

The book was published posthumously in 1980.

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