And if the lives of Coleman and Markham were complex and shot through with moral ambiguities, even more was the life of the most famous woman flier of them all — Amelia Earhart. Earhart was practically made for her role. She and Lindbergh were two peas from the same pod. Both were lean and shy. They had the same mouth, same eyes, same short hair.
And so, in 1928, the year after Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, Philadelphia socialite Amy Guest had asked publisher George Putnam to organize a transatlantic flight in her own Fokker Trimotor. Putnam found a pilot to fly it.
Then he interviewed women to find, and I quote, “[a] girl who would measure up to adequate standards of American womanhood.” She would keep the flight log.
Earhart did her homework. Don’t be too appealing; that might cause Putnam to be protective. Don’t make a big deal of the fact you’re also a pilot; they want only a second banana. She showed up looking just like Charles Lindbergh, kept her mouth shut, and got the job. She became the first woman to make the flight. She stepped out of the plane into a media maelstrom that never ended for her.
Earhart was the hottest item in the papers, even if she had been only a passenger. Putnam became her publicist. He booked high-pressure speaking tours and fed stories to the press. Putnam made it hard on other women pilots. It was an odd symbiosis. He manufactured her fame, and she rode the wave — until she began drowning in it.
Idealism drove Earhart. She started out to be a poet. She’d learned to fly from a rare woman instructor named Neta Snook in California. By the time she rode across the Atlantic, she was a seasoned pilot making her living as a social worker in Boston.
Then she married Putnam in 1930. It began as a marriage of convenience between two workaholics. She made Putnam sign an agreement so she could dissolve the marriage after a year if she chose to. Still, the marriage seems to’ve gained in meaning as the mad whirl went on.
For nine years Putnam managed Earhart — pushing an able pilot into the limelight over better fliers. Earhart finally flew the Atlantic solo in 1932. All the while she wished she had the mind-space to write poetry, but she never had time to meet her own standards. Instead, she used her bully pulpit to push things she believed in: women’s rights, pacifism, and flight. And, make no mistake, she was absolutely dedicated to all three causes.
Then she set out to fly around the world. If she’d made it, the flight might’ve been forgotten. But she vanished at sea, and we’ve spent the last 62 years wondering what became of her. Was it cover for naval spying on the Japanese? One theory says Earhart used it to vanish from the public eye and lived under another identity for years after. It was surely just bungled navigation. Still, the dropping-out-of-sight theory reflects the sad truth of her plight. For she was shy, bright, and caught in the web of dubious success. And we’re left to wonder what she might’ve said in her book of poetry.
In 1996, Jane Mendelsohn came out with a marvelous little book. “Bring a light volume of your favorite author,” said the Contessa. Well, this one qualifies. The title is, I was Amelia Earhart. I’ll read the first three perplexing paragraphs for you:
The sky is flesh.
The great blue belly arches up above the water and bends down behind the line of the horizon. It’s a sight that has exhausted its magnificence for me over the years, but now I seem to be seeing it for the first time.
More and more now, I remember things. Images, my life, the sky. Sometimes I remember the life I used to live, and it feels impossibly far away. It’s always there, a part of me, in the back of my mind, but it doesn’t seem real. Whether life is more real than death, I don’t know. What I know is that the life I’ve lived since I died feels more real to me than the one I lived before.
Perhaps I’m attracted to Mendelsohn’s book because she voices my own question: “What did all that heroism mean?” Historian David McCollough offers a clue. He identifies two odd attributes of early fliers. They looked good and they wrote. I go back to a photo of my father in a WW-I flier’s uniform — a handsome young man who went on to become a writer. I go back and look at photos of Harriet Quimby, Bessie Coleman, Beryl Markham, Amelia Earhart. They’re all beautiful.
An odd selection process is running here. Take Lindbergh: He wrote books, and his lovely wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (who also flew), created a body of literature quite apart from flight. The flier St. Exupéry wrote many books, including The Little Prince — a masterpiece of the children’s literature. He and the Lindberghs were close friends, drawn together by words as much as by flight.
And listen to these words from Beryl Markham’s masterpiece, West with the Night. She tells about leaving an African airport:
We began at the first hour of morning. We began when the sky was clean and ready for the sun and you could see your breath and smell traces of the night. We began every morning at that same hour, using what we were pleased to call the Nairobi Aerodrome, climbing away from it with derisive clamour, while the burghers of the town twitched in their beds and dreamed perhaps of all unpleasant things that drone — of wings and stings, and corridors of bedlam.
Was that prose borne out of literary genius or out of the experience of flight? My images of flight were powerfully formed by my father’s story-telling. I lay in bed while he made up stories laced with images of turning and wheeling among pillars of clouds, of danger, fear, walking away from crashed airplanes, of the sounds and smells of flight.
And so they wrote. Nevile Shute wrote and Ernie Gann wrote. Amelia Earhart wrote prose when she wanted to write poetry. St. Exupéry wrote, “I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup.” Lindbergh said the airplane plunged him into the heart of the mystery of existence.
I think the airplane created the prose. And the attractiveness? Maybe that ties into Abe Lincoln’s remark that after a certain age we bear responsibility for our face. Maybe these people accepted that responsibility.
Perhaps St. Exupéry catches a wink of the meaning of it all when he describes a pilot on a night flight “falling into the deeply meditative mood of flight, mellow with inexplicable hopes.”
All this is inconclusive, I know. I offer a picture of flight that’s terribly complex and unresolved. At first it looks like a simple tension among exploiters and exploitees. Men exploiting women for thrills — women exploiting opportunity to gain liberation.
But when you read the prose it generates, all this exploitation becomes embedded in another theme entirely. For early flight offered a transcendent sensate experience. And that experience seems to have overpowered all else.
That’s the part that finally seems to become clear in the writing. Nothing as base as mere exploitation could’ve created all those haunting words — or that moral force — or such a sheer cry of pleasure.