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No Ordinary Being: W. Starling Burgess (1878 – 1947)
A Biography by Llewellyn Howland III
David R. Godine Publishers – Fall 2014
Few 20th century Americans led more creative, daring, eventful, and sometimes troubled lives than that of the inventor, poet, aviation pioneer, naval architect, automotive engineer, and America’s Cup yacht designer W. Starling Burgess.
Born into a Boston family of wealth and privilege on Christmas Day 1878, he was orphaned at the age of 12, received his first patent (for a recoil-operated machine gun) at the age of 19, and published his first (and only) book of poetry at the age of 24, following the suicide of his first (of five) wives in 1902. By his second wife, Burgess had three children, among them the celebrated creator of books for young readers, Tasha Tudor.
After beginning his professional career as a successful yacht designer, Starling Burgess was the first to build and fly an airplane in New England (in 1910) and the only one ever licensed to manufacture aircraft under Wright Brothers patents. He received the prestigious Collier Trophy “for the greatest progress in aviation” in 1915. His factories in Marblehead employed up to 800 men and built scores of military warplanes in World War I (before the main factory burned to the ground in November 1918).
Returning to yacht design in 1921, Burgess devised a novel new rig for the sloop Vanitie—and very nearly beat the favored sloop Resolute in the America’s Cup trials. He then designed three fishing schooners in succession to compete against Canadian boats for the International Fishermen’s Trophy—and in 1924 introduced a revolutionary new staysail rig on the all but unbeatable schooner yacht Advance.
Married for a third time and the father of two young daughters, he designed the J Class sloop Enterprise, winner of the America’s Cup in 1930. His J Class sloop Rainbow won the Cup in 1934, as did Ranger in 1937. In 1932 and 1933, Burgess and R. Buckminster Fuller were partners in the design and construction of the path-breaking Dymaxion automobile.
Afflicted by gastric ulcers and addicted to morphine for much of his adult life, Burgess finally found medical relief on the eve of World War II, and while working under military contract enjoyed some of his happiest and most productive years as a naval architect and inventor. He died of a heart attack at his home at Stephens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, in March 1947 at the age of 69.
A man of enormous charm, physical courage, and energy, Burgess was also, as his son Frederick lamented, “a child who will not face hard facts, but will hide from them and will love the person who shields him from them….” This tension in his personal and professional life had consequences both disturbing and tragic. But it was his genius as an artist and designer that makes this biography of Starling Burgess so fascinating to read—and such a lively and exciting contribution to American sporting, entrepreneurial, and technological history.
Deeply researched, richly illustrated, and beautifully produced, No Ordinary Being will have a particular appeal to recreational sailors, students of early aviation, and lovers of the New England coast, Newport, Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, the waters of Florida and the West Indies.