Decades after her disappearance, we still remember Amelia Earhart as the pioneering aviator who crusaded for women's equality. In this three-part essay series, I'd like to introduce you to another Amelia. She's a lot more approachable than the air-brushed Amelia you may have seen at the Smithsonian or in that anemic movie starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere.
I admit I'm a tad obsessed with Amelia Earhart, but I have a plausible excuse. Turns out, Amelia is my step grandmother-in-law. Simple version: Amelia married George Putnam, my husband's grandfather.
The lucky accident of marrying a Putnam has given me roaming privileges into family diaries, yellowed press clippings, photograph albums and kitchen-table memories. I've also tunneled my way through acres of biographies, Hollywood movies, documentaries and The New York Times archives.
The Amelia I discovered surprised me. For example, I had always assumed she was an idealistic do-gooder who just happened to possess a genius knack for flying planes.
Amelia was actually more skilled as a self-promoter and storyteller than as a pilot.
Sacrilege? Not at all. Even the most awestruck biographers admit Amelia had her moments. As a pilot, she tended to daydream and do dumb stuff, like landing on the wrong air strip or forgetting to check the fuel tank. She was not a natural stick, as they say in aviation.
Flying was risky business in the 1920s and '30s. More than a few of her cohort of pioneering female pilots lost their lives on perilous crossings. It took the courage of a superhero to fly one of those primitive planes. Whatever the risks, Amelia just got on with it. If anything, she had a fear of not flying.
She broke every aviation record worth breaking.
Nearly every time Amelia flew a plane, she made headlines. This was no accident. The way I see it, Amelia and her husband, the publisher-promoter-Arctic explorer George Putnam, made the perfect pair. She flew planes, bravely if not always skillfully, and he coached her on how to get famous and stay famous. George loved making people famous. Before Amelia, he had launched Lindbergh to international fame and many other cultural heroes of the day.
George was the undisputed master of the fame game. Which suited Amelia perfectly. Before she met him, she had spent three decades in obscurity, and often poverty. Theirs was an open, equal and symbiotic relationship such as I've never seen. Together they had that indefinable X-factor you sense in power couples.
Encouraged by George, Amelia designed a branded line of clothing, franchised Earhart luggage and flew all over the place getting paid to make speeches. Amelia loved making money. For her, making money was almost as exhilarating as flying. Money gave her the freedom she craved to live a life of her own design.
Amelia went to any length to avoid getting hemmed in by societal expectations. She dropped out of college, more than once. Refused to marry her handsome doting boyfriend. Splurged on a showy roadster. And had a thing for increasingly speedy planes she could barely afford or fly with confidence.
History idealizes Amelia and demonizes George. It's true he was prone to impatience, cussed a fair amount and looked stiff in photos standing next to Amelia. Amelia's biographers invariably make the case that George pressured Amelia to do things she didn't want to do, like forcing her to go ahead with her doomed round-the-world flight. Bollocks! Amelia was never one to bend to the will of someone else, whether her parents, her first flight instructor or the man she married.
When she mysteriously disappeared in 1937, Amelia was arguably the most famous woman in the world. Before she met George, she had been living a quiet life as an unmarried social worker in Boston. After she met George, Amelia ascended to iconic fame. There's lots to admire in her mythic and rapid rise. In the following two essays, you'll read about "my" Amelia, an amazing storyteller and role model. I've learned a lot from her, and hope you'll find inspiration, too.
Hey, what's with the Amelia Earhart fixation? It's a fair question. We've got Oprah and a zillion other cultural icons on tap, 24/7. Why bother with a quaint hero from a bygone era? Here's my super-condensed attempt to hit the highlights of why I believe Amelia Earhart is so cool and inspiring.
For starters, she’s dead. She’s not going to do something dumb that betrays our trust, like Lance Armstrong did with his doping. Second, she won't send us emails with tips on how to manifest our greatness, declutter our kitchen drawers or level up our game. As icons go, she's surprisingly relatable. She worried about bad hair days, wore pants to hide her shapeless legs and exhibited both workaholic and germaphobic tendencies.
Amelia is intriguing because she’s an antique, a classic like Grace Kelly. When we hang out with Amelia, we slow down and tune out our Twitter feed. We can step into a time machine and study her human-scale achievements. Her flaws and setbacks give us permission to beat ourselves up a little less. Heck, we may even sleep better at night.
Today, we can study the totality of her life achievements from a calming distance. No modern-day distractions need come between us and our discovery of Amelia. In an era of 24/7 bloggers and bloviators, Amelia stands out because she didn't just talk a big game. Every time she stepped into the cockpit, she put her life and ego on the line. She earned her fame. But she didn't always get it right. She botched landings, nose-dived into ditches and got hopelessly lost. She'd just powder her nose and smile for the photographers. This makes her, in my view, a badass mentor.
Amelia may have lived before the era of social media and TED Talks, but she was remarkably current in how she went about living her life. She marketed her own minimalist clothing line, promoted branded luggage and hugged babies on cross-country book tours. As an instructor at Purdue's engineering school, she urged women to pursue careers and delay marriage as long as possible. When people asked her why she didn't have children, she laughed and she said she preferred to stay "child free" so that she could focus on flying.
Her fame gave her a launch pad for promoting the cause she cared most about: equality and freedom for women and men. If a man wanted to bake cakes or a woman build engines, why not? Her views on gender equality were revolutionary in the 1930s.
Mental illness, alcoholism and possible out-of-wedlock pregnancy
I always imagined Amelia as having a sane and sensible Midwestern childhood. That's what she suggests in her books and her articles in Cosmopolitan magazine. But the reality clashes with this view. Her father was an alcoholic dreamer who couldn't provide for his family. Her mother was mentally ill, spending money like a royal even when the family could barely pay for food. For years, the Earhart family vagabonded from place to place, dodging creditors and trying desperately to keep up appearances. They lived in big houses they couldn't afford to heat.
The family's nomadic existence made Amelia's teenage years particularly isolating. Her high-school yearbook tags her as the "girl in brown who walks alone." As a young adult, she dropped in and out of colleges and never graduated. One rarely published photo shows her in a nurse's aid uniform, looking wary and several months pregnant. Biographers are mum on the topic of a possible out-of-wedlock pregnancy. We'll never know the truth.
A late bloomer motivated to make a name for herself
Amelia was 23 when she discovered her love for flying at a local airshow. Most women her age were already married and having kids. She was still finding her way, apparently unconcerned by her lack of direction. She had scraped together pocket change for the thrill of a short flight over the hills of Los Angeles. The feeling of weightlessness exhilarated her. Where others saw risk and financial ruin (it was extremely expensive to fly), she latched onto aviation as the way to make a name for herself. And make good money. Money was always a driving motivation for Amelia. Her desire for financial independence would serve her well as an entrepreneur and builder of a lucrative brand franchise. But it took years before she converted her passion for flying into a viable career. To make ends meet, she drove trucks, dabbled as a photographer and did menial tasks in the back office of the phone company. She just kept zigzagging along.
Intensely private, gritty, receptive to feedback
Amelia gives us hope because of how much and how long she struggled. She was a 31-year-old social worker, a "spinster," when she soared to international fame as the first woman to fly the Atlantic. Grit, not raw talent, got her there. One day she was a nobody, and the next the French press ran zinger headlines like "American aviatrix flew the Atlantic, but can she bake a cake?" As an introvert and intensely private person, Amelia handled her overnight fame with seeming ease. In fact, she got copious coaching from her business manager, George Putnam. She was a receptive student. Before the cross-Atlantic flight, she rehearsed how to present herself, tell her story and promote women's roles in early aviation. She was humble enough to realize she didn't have all the answers.
Master of the soundbite
Hers was a tricky story to tell, so she mastered the soundbites that would play well to an international audience. On that perilous cross-Atlantic flight, she did nothing but sit at the back of the plane like a "sack of potatoes." Those were the exact words she kept repeating, over and over. The more she tried to deflect attention to the pilots who did the actual flying, the more people loved her. From a storytelling standpoint, her modesty and truth-telling were absolute genius. Her fame spread like a prairie fire.
Enough with the celebrity worship
In these times of idealizing our celebrities, we may downplay our own achievements and convince ourselves our lives are a boring version of the story of the truly great. Not so fast, Amelia tells us. Don’t let the icons get you down. Expressing our stories, genuinely and gracefully, is one of the most important gifts we can give each other. But we need to honor that story. When we master the stories we tell, we can change our destiny. In the next blog, we'll explore the secrets of how Amelia developed her storytelling skills and did just that.
We may have more ways to promote ourselves than in any other time in history, but it's harder than ever to get anybody's attention. Social media is partly at fault. We can click a button and shoot a message to hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. We crave comments, shares, love and respect. But too often, it's silence we hear. It's a lonely feeling.
Even face to face, mingling at a party or networking conference, we deal with attention deficit. Everybody's rushing to get the next word in, but who's listening? If you Google "how to get people to pay attention," you'll open up a bottomless box of books, blogs, seminars, online courses and personal coaches standing at the ready. I went down that rabbit hole myself while doing research on Amelia Earhart's iconic career.
You might assume, as I once did, Amelia achieved ultimate fame because she was 1) a great pilot, 2) the only female pilot of her day, and 3) comfortable in the limelight. The weird thing is, not one of these assumptions is true. Amelia may have been heroic, but she wasn't a great pilot. Many other female pilots, before and during her time, exhibited equal daring and greater skill. We don't remember Amelia's talented rivals (they called themselves the Devil Breed). We only remember Amelia. Why?
What did she have that no other female pilot did? My answer: an iconic personal brand that was way ahead of its time.
Amelia may have appeared shy and retiring, but she was one of the original and best marketers of all time. She and her husband, George Putnam, created the brand persona we still remember, decades after her mysterious disappearance. When Amelia vanished on her last round-the-world flight, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, she was a household name.
She had a phobia about strangers touching her, but she coped as best she could. When she talked, crowds of eager fans strained to hear her words. (She had a flat Midwestern delivery.) They soaked up her stories. And they devoured her books like candy. Basically, her fans felt less lonely because she was out there, flying around the globe, giving speeches and winning aviation awards. Oh, I can't forget this: It helped that she looked great in helmets, googles and breeks (trousers).
Rather than boasting about her prowess, though, she made flying an airplane seem as fun and effortless as driving a car. She didn't make it all about her: her daring, her aviation records, her beauty, her style. Instead, she made her fans feel hopeful, more brave and free. She showed them possibilities they'd never dreamed of, and she invited them to join her in her aviation adventures. This was her superpower (one of them, anyway): She made her personal story, everyone's story: You're a lot braver than you think. Love that!