The Private Amelia Earhart
Just Winging It
Feb 09, 2010
Amelia Earhart never had a plan.
She didn’t have a career path, a list of things she had to accomplish in life—to be famous, a mother or a hero.
She just wanted to fly, because it thrilled her, and she did what she needed to do to make sure she could. She aimed high—setting record after record in aviation—but she never had her head in the clouds. Amelia firmly charted her own course. She was at the controls.
Seventy-three years after she vanished, women have more choices than ever, but Amelia—who cherished her freedom and loved to do just as she pleased—seems a rare bird. With so many options, life is complex and exhausting. Struggling to make sane, long-term decisions, balancing expectations and hopes, women, we learn, are unhappier than they’ve been in decades. For many, life seems sadly out of whack—and the question to ask, perhaps, isn’t “where’s the outrage?” but “where’s the joy?"
Charting her own course
Amelia, early on, clearly wanted to do things her own way. In her teens, she started a scrapbook, clipping and pasting a random collection of articles about female veterinary surgeons, credit managers, trade union leaders, upholsterers and game wardens. To Amelia, their particular jobs didn’t seem to matter. The women she chose all had one thing in common—they broke barriers. They were singular people, pioneers, expressing their unique passions and talents.
If Amelia had a life goal, it was to be who she was and do what she wanted to do. She loved men, but she hated the thought of losing control of her own life. There were “lots of things worse than never getting married,” she said in her twenties, and one of the worst, she declared, was marrying someone “who tied you down.”
When Amelia did marry, at age thirty-three, she wrote her own rules. Just before the casual ceremony, she gave her husband-to-be, George Palmer Putnam, known as G. P., a note that she’d written in pencil that very morning. It was brutally clear: “I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself so bound to you. If we can be honest about affections for others which may come to either of us,” she explained frankly, “the difficulties of such situations may be avoided.”
G. P. was shocked, but he smiled, took Amelia’s hand, and married her anyway. As her manager, he had carefully crafted her image as an androgynous hero, but he knew, perhaps better than anyone, that Amelia’s fierce independence and attraction to risk were no fabrications.
Marrying G. P., Amelia realized, wasn’t playing it safe. Ten years older than she was, he was abrasive—explosive and moody, with an ungenerous streak—while she was quiet and dreaded drama and confrontation. But Amelia knew G. P. would manage her public career and make sure she could earn enough money to fund her passion for flying. She also knew that G. P. respected her need for autonomy and independence; he was “the one person,” she decided, “who could put up with me.”
They were already partners, in romance and the high-flying “hero business.” Tall, good-looking, and relentless, G. P. had made a career of publishing first-hand accounts by pilot-adventurers Charles Lindbergh and Commander Richard Byrd. He met Amelia in 1928, when he stage-managed a project sponsored by a rich society woman. Amy Guest, a millionairess from Pittsburgh, wanted an American girl to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, and she would pay for the exploit. G. P., through his contacts, found a good candidate, Amelia Earhart, who was a social worker and part-time pilot living in Boston.
A risky business
Crossing the Atlantic by airplane, just a year after Lindbergh’s historic flight, was a deadly business. Three women had recently died trying, but the danger of the adventure, Amelia admitted, thrilled her beyond words; she couldn’t say no. G. P., she confided, was thrilling, too. In Boston, before she left on the transatlantic flight, he was glued to her side—“romancing a property,” as a friend put it. To play up her striking resemblance to Lindbergh, a lure for the press, he staged photos of his fetching “girl flyer” in breeches, leather coat, high laced boots, helmet and goggles.
G.P. was even more smitten by his “Lady Lindy” weeks later, when she successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean, as a passenger in a plane flown by Wilmer Stultz and crewed by mechanic Lou Gordon. When they landed in Wales, Amelia was an instant sensation, and G. P. wasted no time getting her story into print. To make sure she wrote a book about her experience at breakneck speed, he brought her back to his sprawling home in Rye, New York, where he lived with his wife, Dorothy.
G. P. was used to strong women. Dorothy Binney Putnam, the Crayola crayon heiress, was tall and athletic, a champion swimmer, fearless and “addicted to risk.” Their domestic arrangements, moreover, were hardly conventional. When Amelia moved into the Putnams’ home, Dorothy was having an affair with a young college student, and within weeks, G. P. and Amelia, too, had become a couple. With G. P.’s guidance, Amelia’s book was published in less than two months, and she was a full-fledged sensation. She now had a new career, as a national hero, and G. P. organized a full schedule of commitments to keep her profitably in the public eye.
Amelia’s goal was never international stardom. But aviation was an expensive passion, and the rule, she knew, was “no job, no pay, no fly.” Amelia had to make money, and “the Lady Lindy thing” was the job at hand. That meant nearly nonstop tours of paid lectures, appearances, receptions, and “chicken and peas” dinners at clubs, colleges and organizations across the country. Amelia did what she had to do, to do what she loved—and marrying G. P. in 1931, after his divorce, was in a sense part of the job. Though their passion had cooled by then, they understood and needed each other. They were a team.
But Amelia’s heart was in flying, in pushing her limits. Before she flew across the Atlantic the first time, she wrote what she called “popping off letters” to her parents in case she died. To her father, she wrote, “Hooray for the last grand adventure! I wish I had won, but it was worthwhile anyway.”
But Amelia did win. She crossed the Atlantic by plane, the first woman in history to do it. Still, it galled her that she wasn’t the pilot; she was only a passenger, like a “sack of potatoes.”
So four years later, Amelia did it again, this time piloting her own plane solo across the Atlantic Ocean, the only person besides Lindbergh who’d been able to do it.
People said it was madness and suicide for a woman to try, but Amelia got a rush from the risk, the thrill of doing “first-time things.”
She never thought about crackups or dying. Amelia knew she would go when her number was up and not before, so there was no use worrying about it. In the meantime, she had records to make.
In 1932, she was the first woman and second person to solo across the Atlantic Ocean and the only person in the world who had flown it twice. That same year, she was the first person to fly solo, nonstop, from coast to coast. And in 1935, she was the first person to fly solo across the Pacific, from Hawaii to California.
In 1937, Amelia wanted to be the first person to circle the world at the equator, the longest route. It was the ultimate challenge. Many of her friends worried about the trip. One of them, Louise Thaden—a pilot famous for setting speed, altitude and endurance records—urged Amelia to cancel the flight, saying she had everything to lose and nothing to gain by going. But Amelia wouldn’t change her mind. If she died, she explained, it would be doing what she most wanted to do. She wasn’t afraid.
Even so, before she left on that last flight around the world, on June 1, 1937, Amelia had a strange feeling that she might not make it. The only thing she really feared, however, was getting old, so she wouldn’t feel completely cheated, she said, if she didn’t come back.
A month later, Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared flying over the Pacific Ocean. They had almost circled the entire world. They had nearly made it.
In one of the last letters she sent home, Amelia said it had been “a grand trip.” It was a joy, an adventure she had always dreamed of. She never felt better. She was flying forward, toward a destiny of her own making. It was her choice, and she was happy to live—or die—with the consequences.
We still don’t know how her story ended. She may have run out of gas and crashed into the Pacific, sinking 17,000 feet down to the silty bottom. Or she may have landed on a coral island and survived as a castaway for a short time.
But Amelia lived on her own terms. She followed her joy. It wasn’t a safe choice, but it was a rich life. As long as it lasted, it was a thrill.
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