The Viscount, Revisited

Readers remember the airliner crash of 1964

Researching the story of the United Airlines flight 823, I had a hard time finding people who'd heard of it. The Viscount turboprop was on its way from Washington to Knoxville when it went down with 39 aboard in Trentham's Hollow, Cocke County, in July 1964; it remains the worst aviation disaster in East Tennessee history, but the fact that people don't remember it wasn't too surprising. According to the census, most Knoxvillians alive today weren't even born then. And memories are selective.

On the other hand, it shouldn't be too surprising that a lot of people remember it very well. Few of these columns elicit as much of a personal response as that one did.

I heard from the widow of English professor Durant Da Ponte, who was also killed in the same crash. A retired professor, she's now better known as Martha Lee Osborne. She and Da Ponte's son, David, live in town again after some years away. Their daughter, Graham (we knew her as Dolly) Da Ponte, is a prominent defense attorney in New Orleans, her father's hometown.

I got a call from M.T. "Tee" Bellah, the prominent city councilman of the '70s and early '80s. It turns out that, in 1964, Bellah was a district sales manager for United and was on the scene in Cocke County helping coordinate the cleanup.

He remembers a few details, that there was a family request for a Mrs. Harper and her 4-year-old son Ricky to be buried in the same casket, which they honored. That Dr. Da Ponte's wallet, with a significant amount of money in it, was found and eventually returned to the family.

The only victim that he knew personally was Sam Orleans, the rotund, eccentric, and personable documentary filmmaker who apparently knew nearly everybody in those days. It was a horrific scene, but Orleans was such an unusual looking fellow that Bellah says he recognized his remains right away.

Hardly anyone remembers Orleans better than U.J. Hale. Then a UT student, Hale worked for Orleans as a gofer at Orleans' Cumberland Avenue studio. The place near State Street was torn down soon after Orleans' death for an expansion of the News Sentinel building. Mr. O's place was a fairly elaborate walkup: a lobby with three secretaries, a projection room, a film-cleaning room, a dark room, a room full of enlarging equipment, a storage area, and Mr. O's office.

Hale told me several things I didn't know, including the fact that Orleans, an eccentric who lived in a cobbled-together shack near Island Home, served as Thomas Dewey's photographer during the Republican's 1948 presidential campaign. Judging by the framed photos that hung in the office, Orleans was also apparently friendly with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

He remembers Orleans' 1953 Pontiac station wagon, fitted with extensions to allow the short-legged filmmaker to drive it, and a cushion that allowed him to see over the dashboard. On his death, the Knoxville papers claimed Orleans was born in Helena, Mon.; but Mr. O once told Hale that he was raised in New York and had been on the streets from the age of 11. Hale says Mr. O was generous to street people whom others ignored—one wino named "Tommy" in particular. "There but for the grace of God goes me," he told Hale.

Orleans apparently did all sorts of odd film jobs, working for years for the Atomic Energy Commission, both in Oak Ridge and on shoots as far away as Puerto Rico. In 1961, he made a film about automobile safety for Knoxville's city government called The Sixth Wheel; it won some sort of national award. Hale recalls that Orleans always celebrated the end of a shoot with a late dinner at the Andrew Johnson.

The cause of the crash is still officially a mystery, and there were at the time dark insinuations of sabotage, complicated by the detail that one passenger jumped out of the plane before it went down.

I also heard that there was a "mystery" of some sort involving a suitcase full of cash.

Rick Wood told me he grew up in Sweetwater hearing rumors about a local man who was killed on that flight. Harry Hall was regarded as a mysterious and exotic character in early 1960s Sweetwater. Wood says Hall married a wealthy local woman, Florene Jones, but it was long unclear what he did for a living and why he was out of town so much. It finally got around that he was a—and Wood says locals whispered the word—lobbyist. Wood says, "Judging by the obvious reluctance of any older person to discuss the matter any further, whatever a lobbyist was, it must have been the kind of thing nice people don't say when describing others in polite company."

Wood says they kept hearing tales. "Locals near the crash site up there in Cocke County, searching for remains of crash victims and plane parts, had begun to come upon widely scattered bills of large denominations. The talk around Sweetwater was that the local searchers there reasoned that the bills had nothing to do with resolving the mystery of why the plane crashed...." He says they didn't want to trouble the authorities. "Supposedly, a briefcase broken open but still containing some large-denomination bills was found some distance from the main crash site. There was nothing in or on the briefcase to connect it with its rightful owner."

Wood says he got a lot of the story from a well-connected uncle. "Many people in Sweetwater believed that the only passenger on the plane that would have had such a large wad of cash would have been Harry Hall."

Bellah, for his part, says he doesn't remember anything about a suitcase full of cash.

Knoxvillian David Kieffer says a friend of his, Sam Newman, had a ticket to be on that flight but didn't make it to the Washington airport in time. Newman was an advertising man who did a lot of work for the Republicans—he was later involved in Howard Baker's early campaigns for the Senate. He was co-founder of the firm Lavidge, Davis, and Newman, which survives as Lavidge today.

In the Great Society summer of ’64, the Republicans had their work cut out for them, and Newman probably had cause to work late. "Sam had a habit of being late for everything he ever did," Kieffer recalls. "He called his secretary and said, 'Call the airport and tell them to hold the plane for me, I'm on my way.'" They didn't, and he missed it. Kieffer's not swearing by the story; he says Newman was known to embroider for effect. Newman has since died.

Kieffer dabbled in show business, often working as a production assistant. He worked on the Knoxville-filmed movie, All the Way Home, on which he says Orleans did some peripheral work, too. Soon afterward, around 1963, Kieffer worked with Orleans on a project for Allen Funt on Market Square. He says it was sort of an offshoot of Candid Camera, in which people were interviewed to tell local stories. He says Orleans shot interviews with passers-by in a trailer set up on the square. Kieffer doesn't think the shoot was ever broadcast.

Working for government agencies like TVA and the AEC, Orleans made mostly prosaic-sounding documentaries, but he reportedly did them very well. Some of them are still available. Film historian Bradley Reeves, who's organizing the current KMA Sunday film series, looks serious when he mentions the possibility of a Sam Orleans Film Festival.

© 2004 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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