The Renaissance Woman of Danger—That's Tiny Kitty O'Neil
Each morning for six days, 28-year-old Kitty O’Neil had strapped herself into the cockpit of the rocketlike, 48,000-horsepower SMI Motivator and hurtled across the Oregon desert. After smashing the land speed record for women by more than 200 miles per hour—hitting a top average speed of 513 mph over a 5/8th-mile straightaway—the attractive movie stunt woman was closing in on the 627.287-mph record for men. She had already reached an unofficial 618 mph when she was ordered to stop her efforts. A representative of the Marvin Glass toy company of Chicago, which had rights to the car, was quoted as saying, “It would be unbecoming and degrading for a woman to break this record.” Although Marvin Glass & Associates now denies such a statement, the company acknowledges it wanted a driver named Hal Needham to break the record because it had a contract to produce a Hal Needham doll.
O’Neil was furious. Tearfully suspending her quest, she began to reexamine her entire future in sports. An independent, fiercely competitive woman, she had never encountered sex discrimination before. “Now,” says her husband, Duffy Hambleton, “she is beginning to think women have been held back all along but she didn’t realize it.” Even the land speed record isn’t enough for Kitty. She hopes eventually to become the first driver to break the sound barrier (about 740 mph). “I have God’s help,” says Kitty, “and I’m not giving up.”
Of all the obstacles O’Neil has had to overcome, in fact, the latest may well be the least. Born in Corpus Christi, Texas to an Irish oil-wildcatting father and a full-blooded Cherokee mother, Kitty has been totally deaf since infancy, when she was stricken simultaneously with mumps, measles and chicken pox. Mrs. O’Neil, determined that Kitty would lead a life as normal as possible, refused to let her learn the sign language of the deaf. Instead, holding the child’s hand to her mother’s throat to feel the vibrations of speech, Mrs. O’Neil painstakingly taught Kitty to talk, then to read lips. (Kitty’s speech today is guttural and accented, but understandable.) By third grade the child was able to attend public school and develop her great skill in sports. She later graduated from high school in Anaheim, Calif., where she had been sent to train as a diver under Olympic champion Dr. Sammy Lee. Her dreams of a gold medal were ended by a broken wrist and a bout with spinal meningitis during the 1964 Olympic trials. Doctors told her then she might never walk again, but two weeks later she was back on her feet.
Courting danger at every turn (“Having fear is negative,” she explains), Kitty took up high-speed waterskiing (104 mph), and met her husband while both were racing motorcycles in Valencia, Calif. “She hit a bad spot in the terrain, and I tried to help her,” Hambleton recalls. “She thought I was trying to pass her. Then she hit a rut and the cycle crashed. When she got up, she took off her gloves and found parts of two of her fingers inside.” Doctors were able to sew them back on, but Kitty no longer has use of the fingers.
Undeterred by such brushes with disaster, Kitty in just six months has become one of Hollywood’s busiest and most daring stunt women and expects to earn close to $100,000 this year. She recently tumbled from the top of a six-story building in Baretta, flipped a dune buggy for The Bionic Woman and allowed herself to be engulfed in flames for 9-30-55, a soon-to-be-released film about the death of James Dean (the title is the date of his fatal car accident). “I’m a liberated woman,” she explains, “but I’m not trying to compete against men. I’m just trying to do my own thing.”
That also includes being wife to Hambleton, a bank ex-vice-president turned stunt promoter, and mother to his two children by a previous marriage—De-bra, 14, and Daryl, 13. The four of them share a 40-acre ranch in Fillmore, Calif., where Kitty stays in shape by running four miles a day in the orange groves. Restless by nature, she is already contemplating future challenges—trying for a new water speed record or competing in the professional high-diving championships from the cliffs at Acapulco. Why does she take such risks? “My mother pushed me to read lips,” Kitty explains, “but she didn’t push me in sports—I did that myself. Because I was deaf I had a very positive mental attitude. You have to show people you can do anything.”