Nutter, Zoe Dell | Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections
Growing up in Medford, Ohio, Zoe Dell received dance lessons from a teacher who lived next door to her family in exchange for around the-house-chores. Once she had saved up $100 from ushering at a local theater, Dell headed for San Francisco, applying for positions at three major theaters and receiving offers from each. Continuing her dance lessons, Dell became a member of the San Francisco ballet in 1937 until 1940.
While performing in a show at St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, she was recruited to promote the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition as its theme girl. This position required extensive travel, and her responsibilities largely included promoting the fair as well as being a spokeswoman for air travel at a time when it was generally considered unsafe. She was featured in the February 7, 1938 issue of Life magazine, and was dubbed “Most Photographed Girl in the World” by the National Clipping Service.
Zoe Dell married Dr. Richard S. West, a dentist, and moved to Southern California with him. Shortly afterwards, Dell needed back surgery that would ultimately end her dancing career. Her friends, “Bucky” and Grayce McGeoghegan, were active in aeronautical pursuits and encouraged her to take up flying. She did, and joined a flying club in northern California, where she and her husband had relocated. Since road transportation was still dangerous at the time, Dell often flew there to San Francisco to go shopping. She and West divorced in 1958, and in that same year she became the official ambassador to the World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium, a position which required much travel and allowed her to continue to promote aviation.
In the 1960s, she accepted a position offered by William Piper, of Monarch Aviation, in which she would market aviation and flight courses as well as demonstrate airplanes. It was at this time that she joined the Ninety Nines with three other women in Monterey, California, where she lived.
She met her second husband, Ervin “Erv” J. Nutter, while on a business in Dayton, Ohio, where she was to purchase a Bede-1 aircraft for training purposes at Monarch.
Ervin had begun his career at Wright Field, where he oversaw the environmental testing of military aircraft. He also was part of the Manhattan Project, in building and testing the trigger for the atomic bomb. He became president and CEO of the Elano Corporation in 1950, which became a successful manufacturer of materials used in the aviation industry.
Subsequent to her betrothal to Ervin, Zoe Dell continued her flying lessons and encouraged her husband to do the same so they could fly together. Zoe Dell was step-mother to three sons and she lived with Ervin in Dayton, Ohio where she fought tirelessly to ensure that the Wright family received recognition for their contributions to aviation. In continuing her aeronautical education, she obtained instrument training at Midway in Chicago because “it was known as the toughest school in American.” Among her aviation related accomplishments, she was instrumental in developing the Elano manifold, designed to assist her in flying over mountain ranges. It is now considered OEM standard equipment on my piston aircraft.
Zoe Dell became active in the National Aviation Hall of Fame beginning in 1966, after attending her first enshrinement ceremony. She was instrumental in helping build this organization, and worked tirelessly to ensure that the achievements of women were recognized by this predominately male group of aviation aficionados. After serving twelve years on the board of directors, Zoe Dell was elected first president and chairwoman of the Congressional NAHF. She also serves on the boards of the Treasure Island Museum and the San Francisco Aeronautical Society, and is a member of the Ninety-Nines and the International Organization of Licensed Women Pilots.