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Come Fly the World

The women of Pan Am in war and peace

 

Julia Cooke

 

Icon, March 2021

A narrative of the era when air travel was special, and stewardesses were held in the high regard. It broadens from a focus on the hosties of the US flag carrier to a review of Fifties/Sixties mores, sexism, and other aspects of US society. Julia Cooke makes few concessions for the international reader, and they will be expected to know the outlines of the US education system.

 

Cooke gives plenty of examples of the evolving power axis between the sexes, and many of the anecdotes are redolent of a truly different era. Draconian conditions of employment (resignation on pregnancy or marriage being key), meant that in the mid-Sixties the average length of employment of US stewardesses was less than three years! Cooke chronicles the increasing activism amongst the cabin crew sorority, and its interaction with the Women’s Lib movement.

 

The author has based the book around extensive interviews with a handful of stewardesses, such that the book is a little like a series of mini-biogs (or at least of working careers). Cooke is a good storyteller. The Vietnam War is central to much of the book, and Pan Am cabin crew became important morale boosters as they transported troops in and out of the country. These episodes, particularly those involving the airlift out of Saigon at the time of the US withdrawal, are very moving – and resonate in the context of the current unfolding disaster in Kabul. As ever, it was the children and the elderly that suffered the most in the chaos. Towards the end, Pan Am crews journeyed in and out of combat zones to a degree unthinkable today.

 

The book has an uplifting conclusion in that it reinforces that, in a cloistered Fifties society,  cabin crew roles offered the opportunity for a rapid broadening of horizons, exposure to foreign communities (albeit sometimes transient, though layover regulations were more generous than now), and encouraged an independence of thought.

 

Weaknesses? The book gives a scant explanation of why the US flag carrier ended in bankruptcy (but then that is not its aim). More cogently, why is there no discussion of whether, and in what numbers, Pan Am stewardesses married pilots? I know many BA pilots who married hosties, and cannot believe it didn’t happen on some scale in the US. This flaw I think derives from Cooke’s approach of basing the book around interviews of a relatively small number of (admittedly loquacious) cabin crew – few of whom appear to have married jet jockeys. One or two statements seem very odd to a British reader: “He’d been born in Yorkshire after the German attack on the British coast” (presumably in WW2) – but the Yorkshire coast suffered many attacks during the course of the war!