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No. 2849:
Fern and Lothar

Today, Fern and Lothar. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and about the people whose ingenuity created them. 

A 1922 New York Times article announced that famed German actress Fern Andra had died in the crash of a Hamburg-Berlin Mail plane. Fern Andra was actually an American who'd made a career in early German movies. And, she hadn't been killed at all. But she was badly hurt and had to spend a year recovering.

The pilot, it turns out, was the Red Baron's brother, Lothar von Richthofen. Lothar was a great ace in the war, probably a better pilot than his famous brother. The Red Baron, Manfred, was a calculating tactician; but Lothar was better in a dog-fight. Now Lothar has died in the plane crash and Fern Andra is the sole survivor. So let us look at this odd confluence of life and death.

Fern Andra  Lothar von Richthofen

Fern Andra (left) and Lothar von Richthofen (right)

First, Fern Andra: She was born Vernal Edna Andrews in Watseka, Illinois, in 1893. Her father was a tight-rope performer and she began wire-walking when she was only four. 

Poster for the movie GenuineIt's hard to sift the truth of her life from her own edited versions of it. We know she became a big success with some sort of wire-walking act. She performed in Chicago, London, Berlin. Then WW-I stranded Fern in Germany. She'd already acted in a German movie. So she managed to wangle a movie contract -- and to marry one Baron Fredrich von Weichs. 

The Baron was almost immediately killed in the war. Fern, now a baroness, went on to star in Germany's expressionist silent movies. She specialized in seductress roles. I'll post a link to her movie Genuine, where she plays an evil priestess. It was directed by the same Robert Weine who made the classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But her movie was actually pretty silly stuff.

Lothar von Richthofen had, meanwhile, become a mail and passenger pilot. And, lest we forget how primitive air travel was, the airplane he died in was a WW-I biplane. It'd been converted to carry three passengers and he crashed when its engine failed.

Fern went on to serial marriages and intrigues -- typical movie star stuff, I suppose. She also turned from acting to producing movies. As a producer, she associated with a young German playwright named (get this) Josef Goebbels. But she cleared her name of collaboration by leaving Germany and doing Allied propaganda broadcasts into Germany during WW-II. She died in America in '74.

I find a last footnote to all this in a 1954 Stars and Stripes article. A photo shows Fern Andra and the 85-year-old mother of Manfried and Lothar von Richthofen -- two regal baronesses reminiscing. The article claims that Fern had worked as an allied courier during WW-I -- that she'd been suspected by the Germans, and only her personal acquaintance with the Kaiser had saved her. 

Kunegunde von Richthofen and Fern Andra
Kunegunde von Richthofen and Fern Andra in 1954

Well, maybe that's true. But now two wars are past, Fern Andra no longer walks the tightrope of her own life and the Red Baron is the stuff of legend. Just two women looking back on one terrible moment, long ago, when their lives intersected in a plane crash.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For accounts of Fern Andra's life, see the Wikipedia article or this more detailed Iroquois County Genealogical Society site.

See the Wikipedia articles on Manfred von Richthofen and Lothar von Richthofen.

Here is a 44-minute version of Andra's movie Genuine. More on the movie in this Wikipedia article:

This page describes the LVG C.VI scout in which Lothar von Richtofen died.

Read the Stars and Stripes article here

More on the von Richthofen family here.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This episode was first aired on December 18, 2012