Amelia Earhart

mark seymour

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Mary Earhart, daughter of German American Samuel "Edwin" Stanton Earhart (1867-1930) [10] and Amelia "Amy" Otis Earhart (1869–1962),[11] was born in Atchison, Kansas, in the home of her maternal grandfather, Alfred Gideon Otis (1827–1912), a former federal judge, president of the Atchison Savings Bank and a leading citizen in the town. Amelia was the second child of the marriage, after an infant stillborn in August 1896.[12] Alfred Otis had not initially favored the marriage and was not satisfied with Edwin's progress as a lawyer.[13]

Earhart was named, according to family custom, after her two grandmothers (Amelia Josephine Harres and Mary Wells Patton).[12] From an early age Earhart, nicknamed "Meeley" (sometimes "Millie") was the ringleader while her younger sister (two years her junior), Grace Muriel Earhart (1899–1998), nicknamed "Pidge", acted the dutiful follower.[14] Both girls continued to answer to their childhood nicknames well into adulthood.[12] Their upbringing was unconventional since Amy Earhart did not believe in molding her children into "nice little girls."[15] Meanwhile their maternal grandmother disapproved of the "bloomers" worn by Amy's children and although Earhart liked the freedom they provided, she was aware other girls in the neighborhood did not wear them.

Early influence

A spirit of adventure seemed to abide in the Earhart children with the pair setting off daily to explore their neighborhood.[N 4] As a child, Earhart spent long hours playing with Pidge, climbing trees, hunting rats with a rifle and "belly-slamming" her sled downhill. Although this love of the outdoors and "rough-and-tumble" play was common to many youngsters, some biographers have characterized the young Earhart as a tomboy.[17] The girls kept "worms, moths, katydids and a tree toad"[18] in a growing collection gathered in their outings. In 1904, with the help of her uncle, she cobbled together a home-made ramp fashioned after a roller coaster she had seen on a trip to St. Louis and secured the ramp to the roof of the family toolshed. Earhart's well-documented first flight ended dramatically. She emerged from the broken wooden box that had served as a sled with a bruised lip, torn dress and a "sensation of exhilaration." She exclaimed, "Oh, Pidge, it's just like flying!"[13]

Although there had been some missteps in his career up to that point, in 1907 Edwin Earhart's job as a claims officer for the Rock Island Railroad led to a transfer to Des Moines, Iowa. The next year, at the age of 10,[19] Earhart saw her first aircraft at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.[20][21] Her father tried to interest her and her sister in taking a flight. One look at the rickety "flivver" was enough for Earhart, who promptly asked if they could go back to the merry-go-round.[22] She later described the biplane as "a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting."[23]

Education

The two sisters, Amelia and Muriel (she went by her middle name from her teens on), remained with their grandparents in Atchison, while their parents moved into new, smaller quarters in Des Moines. During this period, Earhart received a form of home-schooling together with her sister, from her mother and a governess. She later recounted that she was "exceedingly fond of reading"[24] and spent countless hours in the large family library. In 1909, when the family was finally reunited in Des Moines, the Earhart children were enrolled in public school for the first time with Amelia Earhart entering the seventh grade at the age of 12 years.

Family fortunes

While the family's finances seemingly improved with the acquisition of a new house and even the hiring of two servants, it soon became apparent Edwin was an alcoholic. Five years later (in 1914), he was forced to retire and although he attempted to rehabilitate himself through treatment, he was never reinstated at the Rock Island Railroad. At about this time, Earhart's grandmother Amelia Otis died suddenly, leaving a substantial estate that placed her daughter's share in trust, fearing that Edwin's drinking would drain the funds. The Otis house, and all of its contents, was auctioned; Earhart was heartbroken and later described it as the end of her childhood.[25]

In 1915, after a long search, Earhart's father found work as a clerk at the Great Northern Railway in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Earhart entered Central High School as a junior. Edwin applied for a transfer to Springfield, Missouri, in 1915 but the current claims officer reconsidered his retirement and demanded his job back, leaving the elder Earhart with nowhere to go. Facing another calamitous move, Amy Earhart took her children to Chicago where they lived with friends. Earhart made an unusual condition in the choice of her next schooling; she canvassed nearby high schools in Chicago to find the best science program. She rejected the high school nearest her home when she complained that the chemistry lab was "just like a kitchen sink."[26] She eventually was enrolled in Hyde Park High School but spent a miserable semester where a yearbook caption captured the essence of her unhappiness, "A.E. – the girl in brown who walks alone."[27]

Earhart graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1916.[28] Throughout her troubled childhood, she had continued to aspire to a future career; she kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about successful women in predominantly male-oriented fields, including film direction and production, law, advertising, management and mechanical engineering.[19] She began junior college at Ogontz School in Rydal, Pennsylvania but did not complete her program.[29][N 5]

During Christmas vacation in 1917, Earhart visited her sister in Toronto. World War I had been raging and Earhart saw the returning wounded soldiers. After receiving training as a nurse's aide from the Red Cross, she began work with the Volunteer Aid Detachment at Spadina Military Hospital. Her duties included preparing food in the kitchen for patients with special diets and handing out prescribed medication in the hospital's dispensary.[30][31]

1918 Spanish flu pandemic

When the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic reached Toronto, Earhart was engaged in arduous nursing duties including night shifts at the Spadina Military Hospital.[32][33] She became a patient herself, suffering from pneumonia and maxillary sinusitis.[32] She was hospitalized in early November 1918 owing to pneumonia and discharged in December 1918, about two months after the illness had started.[32] Her sinus-related symptoms were pain and pressure around one eye and copious mucus drainage via the nostrils and throat.[34] In the hospital, in the pre-antibiotic era, she had painful minor operations to wash out the affected maxillary sinus,[32][33][34] but these procedures were not successful and Earhart subsequently suffered from worsening headache attacks. Her convalescence lasted nearly a year, which she spent at her sister's home in Northampton, Massachusetts.[33] She passed the time by reading poetry, learning to play the banjo and studying mechanics.[32] Chronic sinusitis was to significantly affect Earhart's flying and activities in later life,[34] and sometimes even on the airfield she was forced to wear a bandage on her cheek to cover a small drainage tube

Amelia Earhart

Trading on her physical resemblance to Lindbergh,[55] whom the press had dubbed "Lucky Lindy," some newspapers and magazines began referring to Earhart as "Lady Lindy."[56][N 6] The United Press was more grandiloquent; to them, Earhart was the reigning "Queen of the Air."[57] Immediately after her return to the United States, she undertook an exhausting lecture tour (1928–1929). Meanwhile, Putnam had undertaken to heavily promote her in a campaign including publishing a book she authored, a series of new lecture tours and using pictures of her in mass market endorsements for products including luggage, Lucky Strike cigarettes (this caused image problems for her, with McCall's magazine retracting an offer)[58] and women's clothing and sportswear. The money that she made with "Lucky Strike" had been earmarked for a $1,500 donation to Commander Richard Byrd's imminent South Pole expedition.[58]

The marketing campaign by both Earhart and Putnam was successful in establishing the Earhart mystique in the public psyche.[59] Rather than simply endorsing the products, Earhart actively became involved in the promotions, especially in women's fashions. For a number of years she had sewn her own clothes, but the "active living" lines that were sold in 50 stores such as Macy's in metropolitan areas were an expression of a new Earhart image. Her concept of simple, natural lines matched with wrinkle-proof, washable materials was the embodiment of a sleek, purposeful but feminine "A.E." (the familiar name she went by with family and friends).[57][60] The luggage line that she promoted (marketed as Modernaire Earhart Luggage) also bore her unmistakable stamp.

A wide range of promotional items would appear bearing the Earhart name.

Promoting aviation

Studio portrait of Amelia Earhart, c. 1932. Putnam specifically instructed Earhart to disguise a "gap-toothed" smile by keeping her mouth closed in formal photographs.

The celebrity endorsements would help Earhart finance her flying.[61] Accepting a position as associate editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, she turned this forum into an opportunity to campaign for greater public acceptance of aviation, especially focusing on the role of women entering the field.[62] In 1929, Earhart was among the first aviators to promote commercial air travel through the development of a passenger airline service; along with Charles Lindbergh, she represented Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) and invested time and money in setting up the first regional shuttle service between New York and Washington, DC. (TAT later became TWA). She was a Vice President of National Airways, which conducted the flying operations of the Boston-Maine Airways and several other airlines in the northeast.[63] By 1940, it had become Northeast Airlines.

Competitive flying

Although Earhart had gained fame for her transatlantic flight, she endeavored to set an "untarnished" record of her own.[64] Shortly after her return, piloting Avian 7083, she set off on her first long solo flight which occurred just as her name was coming into the national spotlight. By making the trip in August 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the North American continent and back.[65] Gradually her piloting skills and professionalism grew, as acknowledged by experienced professional pilots who flew with her. General Leigh Wade flew with Earhart in 1929: "She was a born flier, with a delicate touch on the stick."[66]

Earhart subsequently made her first attempt at competitive air racing in 1929 during the first Santa Monica-to-Cleveland Women's Air Derby (later nicknamed the "Powder Puff Derby" by Will Rogers). During the race, at the last intermediate stop before the finish in Cleveland, Earhart and her friend Ruth Nichols were tied for first place. Nichols was to take off right before Earhart, but her aircraft hit a tractor at the end of the runway and flipped over. Instead of taking off, Earhart ran to the wrecked aircraft and dragged her friend out. Only when she was sure that Nichols was uninjured did Earhart take off for Cleveland but due to the time lost, she finished third. Her courageous act was symbolic of Earhart's selflessness; typically, she rarely referred to the incident in later years.[67]

In 1930, Earhart became an official of the National Aeronautic Association where she actively promoted the establishment of separate women's records and was instrumental in the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) accepting a similar international standard.[62] In 1931, flying a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro, she set a world altitude record of 18,415 feet (5,613 m) in a borrowed company machine.[68] While to a reader today it might seem that Earhart was engaged in flying "stunts," she was, with other female flyers, crucial to making the American public "air minded" and convincing them that "aviation was no longer just for daredevils and supermen."[69]

During this period, Earhart became involved with The Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots providing moral support and advancing the cause of women in aviation. She had called a meeting of female pilots in 1929 following the Women's Air Derby. She suggested the name based on the number of the charter members; she later became the organization's first president in 1930.[6] Earhart was a vigorous advocate for female pilots and when the 1934 Bendix Trophy Race banned women, she openly refused to fly screen actress Mary Pickford to Cleveland to open the races.[70]

Marriage

For a while Earhart was engaged to Samuel Chapman, a chemical engineer from Boston, breaking off her engagement on November 23, 1928.[71] During the same period, Earhart and Putnam had spent a great deal of time together, leading to intimacy. George P. Putnam, who was known as GP, was divorced in 1929 and sought out Earhart, proposing to her six times before she finally agreed.[N 7] After substantial hesitation on her part, they married on February 7, 1931, in Putnam's mother's house in Noank, Connecticut. Earhart referred to her marriage as a "partnership" with "dual control." In a letter written to Putnam and hand delivered to him on the day of the wedding, she wrote, "I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil [sic] code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly."[N 8][74][75]

Earhart's ideas on marriage were liberal for the time as she believed in equal responsibilities for both "breadwinners" and pointedly kept her own name rather than being referred to as Mrs. Putnam. When The New York Times, per the rules of its stylebook, insisted on referring to her as Mrs. Putnam, she laughed it off. GP also learned quite soon that he would be called "Mr. Earhart."[76] There was no honeymoon for the newlyweds as Earhart was involved in a nine-day cross-country tour promoting autogyros and the tour sponsor, Beech-Nut chewing gum. Although Earhart and Putnam had no children, he had two sons by his previous marriage to Dorothy Binney (1888–1982),[77] a chemical heiress whose father's company, Binney & Smith, invented Crayola crayons:[78] the explorer and writer David Binney Putnam (1913–1992) and George Palmer Putnam, Jr. (born 1921).[79] Earhart was especially fond of David who frequently visited his father at their family home in Rye, New York. George had contracted polio shortly after his parents' separation and was unable to visit as often.

1932 transatlantic solo flight

Amelia Earhart Museum, Derry

Lockheed Vega 5B flown by Amelia Earhart as seen on display at the National Air and Space Museum

Monument in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland and Labrador

At the age of 34, on the morning of May 20, 1932, Earhart set off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland with the latest copy of a local newspaper (the dated copy was intended to confirm the date of the flight). She intended to fly to Paris in her single engine Lockheed Vega 5B to emulate Charles Lindbergh's solo flight.[80][N 9] Her technical advisor for the flight was famed Norwegian American aviator Bernt Balchen who helped prepare her aircraft. He also played the role of "decoy" for the press as he was ostensibly preparing Earhart's Vega for his own Arctic flight.[N 10] After a flight lasting 14 hours, 56 minutes during which she contended with strong northerly winds, icy conditions and mechanical problems, Earhart landed in a pasture at Culmore, north of Derry, Northern Ireland. The landing was witnessed by Cecil King and T. Sawyer. When a farm hand asked, "Have you flown far?" Earhart replied, "From America."[83] The site now is the home of a small museum, the Amelia Earhart Centre.[84]

As the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, Earhart received the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress, the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French Government and the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society from President Herbert Hoover. As her fame grew, she developed friendships with many people in high offices, most notably Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady from 1933 to 1945. Roosevelt shared many of Earhart's interests and passions, especially women's causes. After flying with Earhart, Roosevelt obtained a student permit but did not pursue her plans to learn to fly. The two friends communicated frequently throughout their lives.[N 11] Another famous flyer, Jacqueline Cochran, considered Earhart's greatest rival by both media and the public, also became a confidante and friend during this period.[86]

Other solo flights

On January 11, 1935, Earhart became the first person to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California. Although this transoceanic flight had been attempted by many others, most notably by the unfortunate participants in the 1927 Dole Air Race which had reversed the route, her trailblazing[87] flight had been mainly routine, with no mechanical breakdowns. In her final hours, she even relaxed and listened to "the broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera from New York."[87]

Earhart and "old Bessie" Vega 5b c. 1935

That year, once more flying her faithful Vega which Earhart had tagged "old Bessie, the fire horse,"[N 12] she soloed from Los Angeles to Mexico City on April 19. The next record attempt was a nonstop flight from Mexico City to New York. Setting off on May 8, her flight was uneventful although the large crowds that greeted her at Newark, New Jersey, were a concern[89] as she had to be careful not to taxi into the throng.

Earhart again participated in long-distance air racing, placing fifth in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race, the best result she could manage considering that her stock Lockheed Vega topping out at 195 mph (314 km/h) was outclassed by purpose-built air racers which reached more than 300 mph (480 km/h).[90] The race had been a particularly difficult one as one competitor, Cecil Allen, died in a fiery takeoff mishap and rival Jacqueline Cochran was forced to retire due to mechanical problems, the "blinding fog",[91] and violent thunderstorms that plagued the race.

Between 1930 and 1935, Earhart had set seven women's speed and distance aviation records in a variety of aircraft including the Kinner Airster, Lockheed Vega, and Pitcairn Autogiro. By 1935, recognizing the limitations of her "lovely red Vega" in long, transoceanic flights, Earhart contemplated, in her own words, a new "prize... one flight which I most wanted to attempt – a circumnavigation of the globe as near its waistline as could be."[92] For the new venture, she would need a new aircraft