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.