The iconic Jet Age airline Pan Am needs no introduction, but the front-line people who powered its success have been less known — until now. A new book by the journalist Julia Cooke, Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), explores the history of the famed airline through the stories of many women who made the airline a success during its 1960s heyday.
These stewardesses — as they were known then — came from diverse backgrounds but shared an interest in seeing the world and charting their own future. Through their work, these forward-thinking flight attendants bore witnesses to an era of significant societal upheaval in the United States and around the world, as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and the war in Vietnam raged. Some were even there for Operation Babylift, during which Pan Am jets ferried thousands of children out of Saigon in 1975, and on flights into and out of active war zones during the conflict.
To tell the story, Cooke knits together interviews, documents, and news accounts to describe the experiences of stewardesses such as Hazel Bowie, one of Pan Am's first African-American flight attendants, and Clare Christiansen, who advanced from her cabin-service position to corporate management. Other stewardesses went on to post-Pan Am aviation careers — or to become diplomats, political activists, adventurers, or authors.
The book comes at a particularly opportune time, as many travelers are planning their first post-vaccination flights and begin to think again about the marvels of international travel. And while women remain underrepresented in the ranks of airline pilots, that's finally beginning to change thanks to aviation-industry efforts to expand opportunities to anyone considering a career in the sky.
Here, author Julia Cooke shares more about her latest book, Come Fly the World, in an email interview with Travel + Leisure.
Travel + Leisure: Who were some of the most fascinating former flight attendants you had the chance to meet while writing the book?
Julia Cooke: "Tori Werner, Lynne Totten, Karen Walker, Bowie, and Christiansen — the central women in the book — are amazing women. They all had in common the tendency to throw themselves into the opportunities of the job in different ways: taking daring trips, or chasing down promotions, or volunteering for really dangerous Vietnam War charters. Or, you know, hopping aboard a square-rigger in Tahiti or throwing an incredible party in Monrovia — just a normal Tuesday or Friday in their lives."
All that said, would it be too much of a stretch to call Pan Am a feminist airline?
"I wouldn't say that any Jet Age airline was feminist per se, but the jobs they offered empowered a lot of women. Stewardesses on all airlines took [jobs] that openly objectified women and used [them] to blow past societal expectations that they either settle down immediately after high school or college or that they work in acceptable feminine roles like teacher or secretary. And among the lot of them, Pan Am was the least bad as far as sexualizing women. In the late '60s and early '70s, many other airlines asked their stewardesses to wear hot pants, minidresses, or pins that said 'Fly Me,' but Pan Am's uniforms remained professional, since they would be flying into countries with hugely different cultural mores around women's dress. [Pan Am] hired couture designers but kept hemlines pretty respectable."
In what ways, if any, did Pan Am specifically improve the lives and careers of people of color?
"Like all airlines of the era, Pan Am only began to hire women of color in larger numbers when compelled [to do so by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] after 1965. But working on an exclusively international airline put the relatively few women of color who flew back then in situations that impacted them profoundly. Many of the women I interviewed credit the job with pushing them to go after career opportunities and chase down experiences they otherwise wouldn't have. Bowie had the most incredible experiences around the globe, including repeat visits to Cold War Moscow when few in the U.S. dared to visit the Soviet Union. She flew for 40 years and accrued huge seniority. Another woman, Alice Dear, who was later appointed executive director of the African Development Bank in the 1990s, told me explicitly that Pan Am, not her MBA, was what 'really made a difference' to her career."
Can you talk a bit more about Pan Am's role in the Vietnam War?
"Pan Am, along with a number of other U.S. airlines, was contracted by the government to fly troops to and from Vietnam at the start of the war in the mid-1960s. It also established the R&R program: flying soldiers from various army bases out for five days of vacation and back to combat. And the airline also had twice-weekly regular flights into Saigon, which the many contractors in the country used. It was a huge endeavor — at one point in the 1960s, Vietnam was the airline's largest operation. Which meant that tons of women were flying soldiers and civilians in and out of an active war zone, with all of the hazards that entails."
Why do you think travelers remain so enchanted by Pan Am?
"There are a few answers to this question. One, the sheer internationalism was glamorous: every time anyone set foot on a Pan Am plane, they'd be deplaning in a foreign country. Two, the brand cultivated tremendous sophistication: Pan Am was associated with the era's best architects and designers — Walter Gropius, Neal Prince, Don Loper, Edith Head — with the celebrities and politicians and royalty who flew it, and with its smart, beautiful, elusive stewardesses. And three, Pan Am flew troops around the world in various global conflicts, carried soldiers home from harrowing tours of duty, and brought a great many refugees and immigrants — from Southeast Asia, the former U.S.S.R., and other regions — for the first time to their new homes in the United States.
For some veterans, refugees, immigrants, and others with international backgrounds, Pan Am became a powerful symbol of freedom and change. Add it all up and it's an airline so enduring that celebrities host birthday parties in a plane that goes nowhere. Which, to be honest, doesn't sound as crazy today as it may have a year ago!"
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