Lothar von Richthofen
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.
It'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 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.
For accounts of Fern Andra's life, see the
or this more detailed Iroquois County Genealogical Society site.
See the Wikipedia articles on
Manfred von Richthofen
and Lothar von Richthofen.
Here is a 43-minute version of Andra's movie Genuine.
More on the movie in this Wikipedia article:
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
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.