Julia Cooke’s Come Fly the World gives readers a bird’s-eye view of the gritty, global history of Pan Am and its iconic flight attendants. Here she shares her thoughts on air travel, past and present, and offers some suggestions for making your own glamour when you take to the skies.
As an avid traveler and travel writer, how did you get interested in writing this particular story?
I met a few former stewardesses at a Pan Am Historical Foundation event at the Eero Saarinen TWA terminal at JFK Airport (before it became a hotel). I just loved talking to them. They seemed to have lived life elbow-deep in adventure; they talked about geopolitical events as if they'd had martinis with prime ministers the night before; they were sophisticated and smart and funny. One 70-something woman told me she rarely bought a return ticket when she traveled because “you never know.” I loved their attitudes and the way it felt like they owned the whole world, and I wanted to know everything about them.
Your father worked for Pan Am. Can you tell us about your flying experiences as a kid and how they shaped you as a person and a writer? Do you remember your first flight?
My father was an attorney for Pan Am, but it was really my mom who was determined to make the most of his flight benefits. She used to pack us for both hot and cold weather, and we’d head to the airport to take whatever empty seats were heading somewhere interesting. We flew to Australia when I was around 3, before Pan Am sold its Pacific routes, and it took something like six different flights to get there!
I don’t remember my first flight (my mother tells me I was 4 months old), but I remember being in so many places with her. She is Italian American, so we went to Italy a fair amount, and I have vivid memories of going to the store to buy tomatoes in a small town we once stayed in when I was 4 or 5.
The independence and flexibility of travel absolutely shaped me as a person. It made me accustomed to and curious about different kinds of people and languages from the start—and those same traits, I think, led me to be a writer. Now I read a lot in transit and like to eavesdrop.
Did your family help your research at all? Did you pick their brains for memories, and have they read your book?
They have. My father was a great resource for talking through the history. On a more personal level, it was revelatory to see events from my childhood gain context within the airline’s corporate history—that trip to Australia, which is one of my first memories, for example, wouldn’t have happened had Pan Am not sold its Pacific division to United.
When you started this project, did you realize that it would contain such rich cultural and political history? What were some of your most interesting or surprising research discoveries?
I had no idea where the project would lead me, really, and I certainly did not think it would lead me toward the Vietnam War. I was so drawn to the contrast between the public image these women were asked to promote—beautiful, effortless, glamorous—and the really quite dangerous work they performed. I got outraged on their behalf at first; stewardesses were often stereotyped as being insubstantial when really their work contained grave stakes.
That said, it was still fun to peruse the detritus of the jet age—old dishes, uniforms, press photos and other ephemera. One surprise was the amount of fashion PR Pan Am engaged in; the airline hosted fashion shows in various countries and did shoots in custom clothing that I’d sincerely love to wear today. It’s hardly new or unusual for the grittier lived experiences of beautiful or fashionable women to be dismissed, but in this instance, the more I learned about both the projected stewardess ideal and their true-life experiences, the more I found it galling. What they’d done, en masse, was so evidently groundbreaking.
How did you find the women you profiled? Were they eager to share their stories, or did they voice any hesitations?
I found them mostly via Pan Am’s incredible network of former employees, as well as through one particular organization, World Wings International, which hosts events for former flight crew. I attended many luncheons and reunions in various places around the country and world (Savannah, New York, Bangkok, Berlin). Stewardesses’ social bonds, by the way, are a real inspiration for a younger woman to observe. They prioritize their friendships and take trips together and generally have a grand time. For the most part, they were very eager to share their stories. I did come across a few women who had experienced trauma on board and did not want to revisit their time with the airline, or who were hesitant to be interviewed by an outsider when so many actual Pan Am women are also working toward getting their own words into print.
The mother and sister of one of the women you profiled cried when they found out she was taking her job as a flight attendant because they believed stewardesses were “loose and immoral.” Were the women you interviewed constantly fighting against this stereotype—which the airlines seemed to promote?
Constantly. And even more broadly than the “loose and immoral” stereotyping, many 1960s parents thought it was a job for less serious women. So many of the parents of these bright, well-educated, ambitious young women were disappointed at the idea that their daughters would serve businessmen and tourists in the sky; the fashion- and beauty-oriented PR machine had convinced them that there wasn’t much substance to the work. The disappointment often turned around when a stewardess was assigned to a prestigious military or presidential charter, however, or when they began to attend diplomatic events in West Africa, or more generally as their daughters learned to engage with so many different kinds of people. It was a crash course in being confident and authoritative anywhere they landed. The generous family travel benefits helped, too!
"I think it’s up to us to make our own glamour now."
Your book almost made me want to become a flight attendant—at least if I had been a young woman searching for a job in the 1960s. Do you lament the loss of glamour in the way we typically travel now?
That’s a complicated question. I’d absolutely love to have been able to sip a cocktail with the jet-setters in the upstairs lounge of a 747 in 1972, but I also value the workers’ rights now enjoyed by flight crews, the lower cost of travel and other, broader changes that have rendered the glamour so hard for airlines to capture. I think it’s up to us to make our own glamour now. For me it’s my window seat and my favorite scarf, the specific meals I look forward to in particular airports, meandering hallways with my powder-blue suitcase, a cup of tea or glass of wine at a café, people-watching from a quiet place.
Of the many scenes you write about in Come Fly the World, which would you most like to have witnessed?For me it was the quotidian things in different global cities that my primary subjects mentioned—the travel routines they loved to slip into and the metropolises they loved. I heard about these scenes, like random Wednesdays spent exploring, over and over. I’d want to walk through Hong Kong with Karen Walker, eating at street stalls along the way and popping into galleries and shops, or to explore the souk in Beirut with Lynne Rawling before a daytrip to Byblos, or to play “shake the KGB” in Moscow with Hazel Bowie. And I would give a lot to be dancing to the Kiko Kids at the Equator Club in Nairobi on a Saturday night with Tori Werner and her friends.
Your passages about the charter flights to Vietnam are particularly vivid and often heartbreaking. How did it feel to record such intense first-person accounts of this chapter of history?
It felt incredibly rewarding, a real honor to be told these accounts with such candor. A few of the women had never spoken in depth about their wartime experiences to anyone before—the stereotypes around stewardessing meant that most people didn’t ask them about these flights or even listen when a pretty woman tried to interject her first-person experiences of the war into a broader conversation. Some of the women just clammed up. A few had been carrying these memories and feelings around with them silently for decades. It was incredible, too, to speak with Vietnam veterans who told me about these flights from their perspectives, and to women who had served in the armed forces, too, to understand these flights from various angles. The sheer youth of the people going to war—the average age on one of those flights would have been around 20—staggered me.
"As one feminist stewardess put it in the 1970s, they're 'too independent and curious about the world to sit around in a nine-to-five job getting cramps in their shoulders.'"
As you researched, did you collect any Pan Am artifacts? Do you have any favorites?
I did and do—one stewardess with whom I became good friends gave me a vintage Burberry silk scarf with a watercolor Pan Am flying boat on it. I cherish it.
Has writing this book changed your experiences as an airline passenger?
I look at flight crew very differently. They’re frontline workers, safety personnel, people who are still, as one feminist stewardess put it in the 1970s, “too independent and curious about the world to sit around in a nine-to-five job getting cramps in their shoulders.” And I’ve found that being curious about them and their stories (and being a generally courteous passenger) has improved my flight experience many, many times.
How and where have you spent your time during the pandemic? Where do you hope to fly next?
I have been at home in Vermont, isolating and working toward my next book (which will involve lots of travel). It has been so long since I’ve been on a plane—I had a baby, then was working on this book, then the pandemic—that my brain fizzles a bit when I think too hard about where I hope to go next. Favorite places I love and miss: Havana, Lisbon and the Portuguese coast, New York. And places a little farther off that I’d hoped or planned to visit for a long time: Nairobi, to visit a friend who moved back home there, for one. Everywhere, is the easy and difficult answer.
Author photo credit: Patrick Proctor