Lawrence, Harding Luther (1920–2002)


By: Cynthia Marshall Devlin

Type: Biography

Published: March 29, 2022

Updated: March 30, 2022


Harding Luther Lawrence, aviation titan, marketing innovator, and chairman of Braniff International Airways, son of Moncey Luther Lawrence and Helen Beatrice (Langley) Lawrence, was born on July 15, 1920, in Perkins, Oklahoma. Sometime after 1930 his parents moved the family to Gladewater, Texas, where he grew up and went to Gladewater High School. His father worked as a salesman, and his mother was “Proprietress” of the Lawrence Hotel. He later attended Kilgore College and, after receiving his associate degree, enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin to study business administration. He graduated with a bachelor’s in business administration in spring 1942. On January 2, 1942, Harding Luther Lawrence married Jimmie George Bland. The couple later divorced about 1966. During World War II Lawrence joined the United States Army Air Forces where he excelled, and a flight school in Terrell, Texas, hired him to assist in the training of British pilots until 1944. 

Lawrence began his aviation career in 1946 when he worked in Houston for Essair Airways (that later merged with Pioneer Airlines). By 1949 he had obtained a law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston while he worked at Pioneer. In April 1955 aviation icon Robert F. Six acquired Pioneer and integrated it into Continental Airlines. Lawrence came aboard, and, under the tutelage of Six, he gained an enormous knowledge base necessary to successfully run a larger airline. Initially he served as vice president of traffic, and in 1958 he rose to executive vice president. He stayed with Continental until becoming the president of Braniff Airways in 1965. 

At that time Dallas-based Greatamerica Corporation was a majority owner of Braniff, and chairman Troy Post hired Lawrence to run the airline. Though Braniff was acquired by Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) in 1968 and later sold by LTV in 1970, Lawrence remained in charge. Harding Lawrence, sometimes described as a “dashing” figure, summarized his business observations, “The airline industry is the most consumer-oriented business I know.” He spent fifteen years transforming Braniff into the eighth largest airline in North America while almost doubling its share of the market and leading the industry in the rate of traffic growth.  

Braniff reflected Lawrence’s view that airlines were to assist with the national defense, and the company did so during the Vietnam War by participating in the Military Airlift Transport Command (MAC) beginning in 1966. At de-escalation the airline brought 356 remaining U. S. troops home on March 28, 1973. The airline later participated in numerous charters to the Panama Canal Zone and across the Atlantic to various military bases.

Early in his tenure, Lawrence hired the New York City firm of Jack Tinker and Partners to transform Braniff’s public image. A senior partner at that firm, Mary Wells (born Mary Georgene Berg) was instrumental in launching a total makeover for Braniff. She later formed her own company, Wells, Rich, Greene, Inc. (WRG). Lawrence and Wells married in 1967. He remained in Dallas and operated the airline. She successfully worked, and later ran her own agency, in New York. The couple joined forces in shaking up the conservative aviation paradigm with the “End of the Plain Plane” advertising launch. Because aviation had been so closely aligned with the U. S. war effort, the industry had projected a traditional military focus from the interior of the aircraft to the uniforms worn by all staff. Under the direction of the dynamic couple, every aspect of Braniff—aircraft, terminals, advertising, service, hostess uniforms—underwent a complete overhaul and represented a momentous change that gave impetus to overall modifications later implemented by other major carriers.

For the airline hostesses, the couple hired designer Emilio Pucci to provide uniforms in vividly bright color schemes with numerous outfits that could be changed inflight, a process of peeling off top layers that Lawrence referred to as the “air strip” that proved to be a popular promotional took for the business. Lawrence focused his fleet on the Boeing 727s and bucked the trend of the wide-body aircraft movement popular at the time. Furnished with luxurious leather seats, the newly-multicolored 727s appealed to the business passengers. By 1971 he did purchase one Boeing 747 and painted it bright orange. Passengers came aboard “The Great Pumpkin” in January 1971 for their journey from Dallas to Honolulu. Near the end of the 1970s Braniff garnered 70 percent of business passenger traffic.

From 1978 to 1980 the airline expanded with thirty-one new destinations, including flights to Europe, the Pacific, and the Far East, and became the first U. S. carrier to fly the famous Concorde to Paris in 1979. By 1979, in addition to its fleet of 727s, the airline operated nine 747s. Service was renowned for the attention to detail, the comfort of the aircraft, the service by the hostesses, and the overall performance of the operation. As president of Braniff, Lawrence grew the company from $100 million in 1965 to $1.5 billion in 1980. Throughout the 1970s, however, Lawrence fought competitively against rivals Frank Lorenzo at Texas International Airlines and Lamar Muse at start-up Southwest Airlines. These aviation titans fought to captivate as many passengers as possible by whatever business model they individually believed would garner the most profit. 

After much heralded success and unprecedented growth for the airline, the Braniff business plan began to unravel by 1980 due to various factors, including the exorbitant cost of aviation fuel, the intense competition generated from the deregulation of the industry, the acquisition of too many expensive 747s, the debilitating higher interest rates, along with the competition spawned by new low-cost carriers. In December 1980 the board asked Lawrence to step down. He had already begun the process of streamlining the airline, and whether the efforts were too little or too late no longer mattered. By 1982 the airline ceased operations. Several attempts to reinvent and revive the airline by returning to the “military” brand failed. Lawrence knew how to operate an airline during pre-regulation days, but his “hands on” management style seldom allowed middle management the comfort of decision making. While trying to rid the industry of the burgeoning low-cost carriers, he expanded quickly without proper infrastructure to sustain the airline during intrinsic pitfalls that plague the aviation industry during economic downturns. Lawrence built and operated an airline that business and wealthy passengers enjoyed flying, however, he did not adapt to the democratization of aviation whereby many more people could take to the skies for leisure travel at an affordable price. He misjudged the strength and scale of deregulation repercussions in an industry that had been a creature of government control and strict regulation from inception. 

During the 1980s Lawrence served as a consultant for Pan American World Airways and then worked with his wife at Wells, Rich, Greene, Inc. After the sale of her firm in 1990, the couple enjoyed retirement[T11] . Lawrence received many awards during his life, including a 1965 Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement. South Texas Law College, where Lawrence earned his LL.B. (bachelor of laws) in 1949, issued its first juris doctorate (J.D.) in 1965 and presented Lawrence with the J.D. in 1972 following a keynote speech he gave at the fiftieth anniversary alumni luncheon. He was honored with induction into the Oklahoma Aviation and Space Hall of Fame on September 16, 2001.

Harding Luther Lawrence died of pancreatic cancer on January 16, 2002, at his estate on the Caribbean Island of Mustique. He was survived by wife Mary Wells Lawrence, two sons, and three daughters[T12] . He was preceded in death by son Harding L. Lawrence, Jr., in 1945.

Braniff Airlines Bankruptcy Case Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. “Braniff A Legacy of Service,” Vietnam Veteran Agent Orange Initiative, Braniff Airways Foundation (https://www.braniffinternational.com/vietnam-veteran-agent-orange), accessed March 14, 2022. Richard Benjamin Cass, “From Oklahoma Acorn to Texas Oak: The Story of Braniff Airways,” Braniff Boutique (https://braniffboutique.com/pages/the-story-of-braniff-airways), accessed March 14, 2022. James Fallows, “The Great Airline War: Flying the Not-So-Friendly Skies of Texas,” Texas Monthly, December 1975. “Harding Luther Lawrence,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/113397591/harding-luther-lawrence), accessed March 14, 2022. Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2002. New York Times, January 19, 2002. Richard Stretton, “Big Orange: Braniff 747s,” YESTERDAY’S AIRLINES (https://www.yesterdaysairlines.com/airline-history-blog/big-orange-braniff-747s), accessed March 14, 2022.

Categories:
  • Aviation and Aerospace
  • Business
  • Education
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Transportation and Railroads
Time Periods:
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Cynthia Marshall Devlin, “Lawrence, Harding Luther,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/lawrence-harding-luther.

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March 29, 2022
March 30, 2022

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