HE WAS, IN HIS DAY, A STORIED figure—Olympic medalist, renowned aviation pioneer and World War II combat hero. Frank Kurtz was blessed with that rare combination: remarkable gifts and unquenchable drive. “The essence of the man was his setting these incredible goals for himself to reach and never looking back,” says his daughter, actress Swoosie Kurtz. “He never sat on his laurels even for a second.” At his death on Oct. 31, at 85, of a head injury suffered a year before in a fall, time had reduced him to little more than a historical footnote. But in that footnote reside the details of an amazing—and instructive—life.
Kurtz’s childhood provided some lessons in raw self-reliance that, while painful, would in many ways serve him well. He was born in Davenport, Iowa, the third child of Frank Kurtz Sr., an insurance salesman, and his wife, Dora. As a boy, Frank Jr. moved to Kansas City, Mo., where his parents divorced. At 12, he left home, mostly to escape beatings by his stepfather. To make a living, he sold newspapers. “From an early age, Frank had a formula,” his widow, Margo, 81, recalls. “If he was going to do something, he was going to be the best.”
He rarely failed. Soon the brash youngster was being featured in the Kansas City Star as one of its top newsboys. But his enthusiasms reached beyond business. As a small boy he had once visited a swimming pool and decided to try the diving board. The fact that he didn’t know how to swim didn’t deter him. By his teens he had grown so accomplished that he impressed Olympic champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. The future Tarzan encouraged Kurtz to head to Los Angeles to train with famous diving coach Clyde Swendsen.
Kurtz promptly hitchhiked to L.A. and met Swendsen, who took such a liking to the boy that he virtually adopted him. After finishing Hollywood High School, Kurtz went on to join the diving team at USC. At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, he won a bronze medal. Shortly after the Games, though, he won something more precious: his future wife, Margo Rogers, a fellow student at USC. Courtship was the one thing in his life that gave the usually audacious Kurtz second thoughts, perhaps because it was the one thing that could put his sense of independence in jeopardy. “We fell in and out of being engaged for four or five years,” says Margo. “But we got rid of all our problems before we were married.”
Kurtz went on to be a member of the Olympic diving team in 1936 and 1940 (though the Games were canceled that year because of World War II). But his new passion had become flying, which he’d taken up at 16. By his 20s, he was busy setting speed records, vying with such aviation legends as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Flying an open-cockpit plane in 1935, he set a record from Los Angeles to Mexico City to Washington and back to L.A.
Far from being a daredevil, Kurtz prided himself on being almost obsessive about preparation and safety. That attention to detail served him especially well at the outbreak of the war. Stationed at Clark Field in the Philippines, Kurtz, who had taken the trouble to dig himself a foxhole, was one of the handful of American pilots who survived the devastating Japanese attack on the base two days following Pearl Harbor. After helping rescue scores of men from Java, he made his way to Australia, where he rebuilt his B-17 bomber out of parts salvaged from planes destroyed in the Philippines. The jury-rigged aircraft, dubbed the Swoose (as in part swan, part goose), provided a handy symbol of American determination in the war, not to mention an exotic name for Kurtz’s future daughter. During his service in Australia, Kurtz brushed up against several future notables, among them a young junketing congressman from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who reportedly became panic-stricken during an emergency landing in the Outback aboard the Swoose, and a 10-year-old named Rupert Murdoch, on whom Kurtz bestowed his pilot’s wings during a chance meeting.
In 1944, Kurtz volunteered for service in Italy, where the young colonel flew 60 bombing missions and impressed men in his squadron with both his flying skills and his perfect sangfroid. (He liked to sit in the cockpit of his B-17 devouring biographies and works of history while en route to targets.) One who particularly admired the dashing officer was a 20-year-old radio operator and gunner named Norman Lear, who would later find his own fame in Hollywood. “He was a charismatic leader,” says Lear. “He had an enormous reputation, and we knew we were led by the best.”
Within months his superiors transferred the highly decorated Kurtz stateside. He was put in charge of Kirtland Air Base in Albuquerque, and the planes under his command were used for air support on the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. After the war, Kurtz returned to L.A. and worked for two companies, including General Electric. But he was a restless, driven man who had trouble adjusting to a relatively mundane existence. “The little things in life were hard for him,” says Swoosie, 52. “Going to the grocery store was hard for him.” He did, however, find enormous joy in his family, especially his only child, who was born in 1944. “That’s rare of heroes,” says Lear, who became friends with Kurtz in Hollywood. “They usually succeed as heroes at the expense of their families.”
Yet for all his accomplishments, and the pride he took in his daughter’s success as an actress, Kurtz never entirely lost the dark streak that had marked him since childhood. “I wouldn’t say he was a happy man, no,” says Swoosie. “I think because of the way he grew up, he felt like the world was his enemy in some ways. He was always fighting his own war.”
A year ago, while taking his customary 5:30 a.m. walk in his Toluca Lake neighborhood in L.A., Kurtz slipped and hit his head on the pavement. Despite operations and physical therapy, he never fully recovered. On Halloween, while sitting in his favorite chair in his living room, he finally found peace. “He just turned his head,” says Margo. “It looked like he decided to take a nap, and he was gone. It was like he wanted to make this trip.”
LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles