In the Roaring Twenties, self-promotion reached heights never seen before (until today, of course). People tried to get their names in the papers with stunts like flagpole sitting or “buildering” (climbing skyscrapers).
One of the most famous of these headline-grabbers was a scrappy Polish American kid from New York’s Lower East Side named Billy Gawronski. In 1928, the 17-year-old swam the Hudson to stowaway aboard explorer Richard Byrd’s ship as it was about to depart for the South Pole. (See what explorers found in the deepest dive ever underneath Antarctica.)
In The Stowaway, author Laurie Gwen Shapiro tells the story of Billy’s daring feat and how it turned him into a national hero and led to further adventures. She spoke to National Geographic from her apartment in New York City just a few blocks from where Billy grew up.
The hero of your book is described by a shipmate as a “blue-eyed, wise-cracking, flapper-chasing buttinsky sort of fellow.” Introduce us to Billy Gawronski and tell us how he came to be a stowaway on a ship bound for the Antarctic.
Richard Byrd was a household name for many Americans. High school student Billy Gawronski kept a scrapbook, like many people did. Byrd was his hero, his rock star. When it was announced Byrd was going to be leading the first American expedition to Antarctica, there was a flood of excitement. Over 60,000 people volunteered, including Vanderbilts and Rockefellers.
Billy was obsessed with the idea that maybe he could be taken on. But he wasn’t even 18. His father said, “Stop with this nonsense! When you’ve graduated, you’re going to go into the upholstery business, like me.” But Billy was talented at art and wanted to go to Cooper Union art school to study textile design. His birthday was in September and the expedition was leaving at the end of August. Not that he would have had a chance even if his father had signed his application. But in his teenager’s mind he did.
Billy was a Polish Catholic. A lot of Poles in America were fabulous swimmers. There was a movement to get Polish Americans strong so that if there were another war they would be ready. Billy was part of a group called the Polish Falcons, and even at the age of six he was an extraordinary swimmer.
It’s significant because the way he got to the ship was by swimming the Hudson River. Byrd’s flagship, The City of New York, was docked in Hoboken, New Jersey. So Billy swam out to it. He was caught and his face splashed over the New York Times and around the world.
He figured nobody would think he’d stowaway again, so he jumped in the water and got caught on the supply ship. [Laughs] Then, when the supply ship made its way to Hampton Roads, in Virginia, Billy hitchhiked south to try and join it.
Just as he was offered a spot, his parents had him arrested as a truant. But you could not stop this boy’s spirit! Byrd’s brother, the governor of Virginia, was having breakfast at the dock where the supply ship was reloading and said, “That Polish stowaway kid would be great publicity!” So Byrd went to Billy’s father and said, “Let us take him.” He was then splashed across papers around the world as “The Happiest Boy in the World.”
Byrd was the first person to take an airplane to Antarctica. Tell us a bit about him and his flights over the South Pole.
Richard Byrd was a member of a very famous American family. The Byrds of Virginia have roots that go back to England, and are supposedly descendants of Pocahontas and Captain Smith. He was very good looking, had been in the Navy, and never lost anyone on his expeditions.
But he had lost the Orteig Prize for the first solo transatlantic flight to Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh became an overnight sensation in 1927, with the grandest tickertape parade of all time. Byrd was bitterly disappointed and didn’t know what was left for him. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, said, “Why don’t you put Antarctica on the map for Americans?” Previously, Antarctica had been dominated by Norwegians and Britons, like Scott and Amundsen. But no one had ever flown over Antarctica. People at the time thought there might be dinosaurs or lost tribes down there. Nobody knew what they would find.
The planes were taken on the ships in bits and pieces to be assembled in Antarctica. A Jewish airplane mechanic, Benny Roth, became the pride of the Jewish press. The planes were put together on the Ross Ice Shelf. They also set up a little town on the ice called Little America and put American flags up. They had radio operators and reporters there, so America and the world were reading about the explorers and listening to the voices.
When they flew over the South Pole, Byrd dropped some rocks from the grave of Floyd Bennett, his best friend and copilot on the North Pole expedition, over what they thought was the site of the South Pole. They never actually landed. It was all by air. When they got back to the base, the expedition staff all cheered. This was very exciting for Americans.
The British press was pretty snooty about what they saw as Byrd’s vulgarization and commercialization of Antarctica. Was this just sour grapes?
There was nothing on that ship that was not sponsored! From typewriters to candy, paper to Byrd’s desk. Everything was also calculated for maximum press coverage. Russell Owen, a reporter for the New York Times, followed the entire expedition, and his reports were immediately printed back home.
Byrd also had a Paramount film crew with him, who went on to win an Oscar for best documentary. The movie came out at the beginning of the Depression, in 1929. The snarkiest reactions were from England. But Americans gave it good reviews and the film did well.
How was Billy treated in the United States as a result of his exploits?
He was used as a radio hook and gave a speech that millions of people listened to in New York. He also gave many lectures with other members of the expedition, but people would show up just to hear the stowaway. People loved him. As the youngest member of the expedition, he became a youth hero.
One publicity expert framed him as the scrappy kid, a “buttinsky,” not sophisticated but shaped up at sea. Whether shoveling coal, acting as a fire fighter or helping build Little America, he never complained. Byrd loved that about him. Later, he toured America by train with a whale encased in a glass tank. [Laughs]
He wanted to be an explorer himself. His idea was to contact Byrd and say, “Can you get me into Colombia University?” He probably had the best resume of all time, with a summer job in the Antarctica exploration with Admiral Byrd. Byrd wrote his recommendation and, when he got in, the story of how the stowaway had made it to the Ivy League was published all around New York. Due to the Depression, Billy had to drop out but his experience at sea saved him, when no one else could get a job.
We know that he was on the same ship as Jesse Owens—the SS Manhattan, which features in Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken—when the U.S. Olympic team crosses the Atlantic to Germany.
One of the reasons Billy started to rise in the ranks is because a lot of the passengers [fleeing the Nazis] loved him and were amazed that a Christian boy could speak Yiddish. Although he was Polish Catholic, Billy grew up on the Lower East Side and often got work in his neighborhood as what they called a Shabbat goy, someone non-Jewish who would light your oven or extinguish lamps on the Sabbath.
The Jewish passengers told the captains how phenomenal he was, so he had a very early rise. He became one of the youngest captains in World War II, sailing Liberty Ships as part of the British and American convoys all the way to Murmansk, in Russia. It was very dangerous, he was not even 40, but he’d been at sea since the age of 17, so had a tremendous amount of experience. No one was hurt on his ship.
I was fascinated to discover that you actually met Billy’s wife, Gizela. Tell us how you found her—and what memories she preserved of her famous stowaway husband.
I made an Excel chart and called people with his last name, Gawronski. Someone would answer and I’d ask, “Are you a descendent of a young teen who swam across the Hudson River and went to Antarctica?” Click. [Laughs]
Around the 19th person, I decided to go outside of the New York area and found someone in Maine. She answered, I did my spiel, and instead of hanging up, there was a silence. Then, in a very frail voice, she said, “That was my husband! If you want to come up here I have been waiting, hoping somebody would call! I have everything.”
He met her when he was a sea captain. He had a first wife and two kids, but it was not a good marriage. He divorced and, during his time in the Merchant Marine, Billy sailed to Poland. She was 20 years younger, very beautiful and lovely, though she thought nobody would ever love her because she had part of her arm missing from shrapnel as a little girl in the war.
She had his scrapbook, before he left to stowaway with Byrd, his mother Francesca’s scrapbook, and lots of articles. She was an artist herself, so there were portraits of him and hundreds of photos. The kitchen had been designed by Billy to look like a ship’s galley, and there were pictures of him everywhere.
What was the historical legacy of Byrd’s expedition? And how did it shape the rest of Billy’s life?
Byrd found fame in Antarctica and helped establish a significant American presence in Antarctica. The McMurdo Base can be directly traced back to his achievement. The experience also shaped Billy deeply. Today, he’d probably be the kind of kid that you’d say had ADD. But he was a big reader, and he willed himself to become the kind of hero he found in books.
He didn’t become an explorer in the end but a sea captain. He told his second wife, Gizela, that the most significant moments of his life were leading Liberty Ships across the Atlantic in World War II. I interviewed some of his surviving Merchant Marine shipmates and they were shocked about the Byrd connection. It wasn’t something he ever talked about.
He became a lover of poetry, classical music, art and antiques, which he collected during his trips in the Merchant Marine. I’ve seen his magnificent library. He became this erudite captain, who had not just book smarts but the smarts that you can only learn at sea. In 1971, he moved to Maine to be near the ocean and that’s where he died.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.