Books: “Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon”

March 3, 2011


Somewhere in this home office there is a 78 rpm recording of Jack Kaufman singing “Lucky Lindy” and “Lindbergh, the Eagle of the USA.” The record was part of the hype that followed Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927. If a female aviator were going to be cast as Lindbergh’s counterpart, there was only one thing about Amelia Earhart that qualified her: She vaguely resembled the pilot. Where flying acumen was concerned, there were numerous women whose experience, skills, and breadth of knowledge far exceeded Earhart’s. As it turned out, that didn’t matter. Earhart had “the look” — or, at least, enough people thought so to make her marketable as “Lady Lindy,” and so, she became the legend and the other women are forgotten by all but students of aviation history. Some things never change.

I read about that in “Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon,” by Kathleen C. Winters.

Amelia Earhart and George Putnam

Winters, who died last August, was an aviation historian, biographer of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and a licensed pilot. In short, she knew a lot about flying and her knowledge gives this book important context. I think it was because of her respect for flying that she took an unfiltered look at Earhart and presented her in what for many readers, including me, is a new light. Not that Winters went after Earhart; on the contrary, she seems to have recognized Earhart’s basic decency and approved of Earhart’s sense of adventure and her independence, her part in the campaign to promote commercial air travel, and especially her insistence and practical demonstrations that women were capable of undertakings once thought the sole province of men.

But Winters shows in some detail that Earhart was undisciplined, sometimes even careless, and that she wouldn’t take responsibility for her mistakes. But although there could have been no Amelia Earhart legend without Amelia Earhart’s cooperation, the magician who created the phantom heroine was Earhart’s husband, George Putnam.

1928 advertisement

Putnam, an opportunistic book publisher at the time, played a critical role in booking Earhart as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean — a year after Lindbergh’s solo flight. Earhart flew, all right, but she never took the controls, because she was incapable of handling the sea plane that made the flight and because she hadn’t learned to fly by instruments alone — something that could, and did, become necessary over the ocean. A two-man male crew handled the flight and Earhart was “baggage,” as she herself said. But Putnam created so much publicity — much of it exaggerated or just plain false — that Earhart became permanently larger than life, certainly larger than reality. Putnam, who eventually left his wife and married Earhart, also managed the rest of her career, encouraging her in a series of risky and often pointless performances and booking her in never-ending schedule of public appearances that financed the couple’s flamboyant lifestyle.

Amelia Earhart after her own solo transatlantic flight in 1932 - 1700 miles shorter than Lindy's.

It’s symbolic of Putnam’s whole approach to Earhart’s career that he signed her, over her objections, to appear in a print ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, although Earhart did not smoke. The ad didn’t say she smoked, but the implication was clear. What Putnam didn’t anticipate was a strong negative push-back from a public — particularly a female public — that didn’t approve of women smoking.

Earhart was charming, and she did set some speed and distance records, but her indelible place in the public consciousness was based on Putnam’s manufactured image — and on her disappearance in 1937 while she and navigator Fred Noonan were over the Pacific Ocean during an attempt to fly around the world along the equator — a feat that would have had virtually no significance in aviation by that time. Winters points out that Earhart still had limited understanding of radio operation and that neither she nor Noonan knew Morse code. A naval vessel — in a typically improper use of public resources to support Earhart’s private escapades — was trying to monitor Earhart’s approach to tiny Howland Island where a landing strip had been constructed for her at public expense. The crew couldn’t keep contact with the flyer, and all indications are that she and Noonan couldn’t spot the minuscule island or wandered off course and wound up in the ocean. Bone fragments discovered late last year on a Pacific island are being examined for any connection to Earhart. Winters notes a melancholy detail: An experienced flyer encouraged Earhart to have the rudders and wing strips of her Lockheed painted red so that it would be easier to spot if it went down. Earhart liked the plane’s paint job fine just as it was.

Hilary Swank and Richard Gere as Amelia Earhart and George Putnam in the 2009 film "Amelia"


5 Responses to “Books: “Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    There are several astonishing things about this post, including that little detail about Earhart not knowing Morse Code. I learned Morse Code for my HAM license, for heaven’s sake. That’s just astonishing. Granted, it was just coming into its own at the time, but in the 1930s it was required of both civilian and military pilots, and you’d think Earhart would have wanted to be ahead of the curve. Or perhaps not…

    I recently encountered some references to Earhart in a commercial pilot’s blog, and he also pointed to Putnam’s role in the “creation” of Earhart as a heroine, and her lack of discipline when it came to flying.

    Ironically, Anne Morrow Lindbergh might have been as well or better qualified to play the role in aviation history that fell to Earhart. I’ve read and re-read “Gift From the Sea” over the years, but never realized that “the other Lindbergh” obtained a glider pilot’s license in 1930 (the first American woman to do so), or that she served as Lindbergh’s navigator, radio operator, and copilot on trips that included the one on which he broke the transatlantic speed record.

    This is just a great review. I believe I’ll give the book to my mom for her birthday, especially since she remembers Lindbergh’s and Earhart’s flights!

  2. charlespaolino Says:

    The memory of Charles and Anne Lindbergh is alive around here for another reason. They lived in this county when their baby boy was kidnapped and killed, and the trial of Bruno Hauptmann was held a few miles from here in Flemington. The old Court House and the Union Hotel, both of which figured in the trial, are still standing. I was friendly with the lawyer who prosecuted Hauptmann — David Wilentz — who was a Democratic leader and the head of a prominent law firm in his later life. His son Robert, whom I was also friendly with, eventually became chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. I have always been uncomfortable with a couple of aspects of that case. Hauptmann was never placed at the scene of the crime; in fact, it was well established that he was in New York City when the baby was kidnapped. Also, he was offered a plea deal, but he refused to say that he had killed that baby, even though the alternative was execution. From all I’ve read, I suspect that he was involved at least knew something about the crime, but I don’t think he committed it.

  3. Michele Cervone Says:

    As a person who has avidly studied Amelia’s life since the 60’s, I find it very difficult to understand how people can continue to mislead readers into believing that she was nothing more than George Putnam’s creation. Amelia was a pilot for 6 years prior to her even meeting George Putnam, and she was known and respected in the aviation community, and recommended by Adrmiral Belnap. Amelia was the person who was flying in the cockpit in May 1932 under extremely difficult conditions to become only the 2nd person EVER to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo. As to another of the misconceptions which persist – the number of accidents she was involved in were suprising small for the length of her flying career and the types of planes she had to fly…afterall, she never had to bail from a plane, as Lindbergh had – 4 times in his career. She never had a serious injury for either herself or any passengers she was carrying – even though some of the aircraft she flew were experimental, like the autogiro, the pre-cursor of the helicopter. In a single day in Buffalo in 1929 she flew 4 different aircraft that she had never flown before and landed them all safely, proving she was not a creation of someones imagination, she was the real deal. BTW, there were other well known female pilots of Amelia’s time: Jackie Cochran (founder of the WASP’s) who also admired her ability to fly; Ruth Nichols, Louise Thaden, Elinor Smith to name a few. Lastly, a comment from General Leigh Wade, who flew in an experimental plane from Consolidated Aircraft with Amelia in 1929. This plane which was designed with neutral stability, (requiring the need of a skilled pilot) was flown perfectly, and he commented: “She was a born flier, with a delicate touch on the stick.” To say she is known primarily for her disappearance does not do her any justice. I gave a speech to the Ocean County Historical Society, and asked if they wanted to hear about her or the disappearance – 100% were for Amelia’s life

  4. Alex V Mandel Says:

    The idea about Earhart being not actually a good pilot is quite popular but is in fact it is just untrue. Too many people forgot that
    Earhart’s aviation career started much earlier then 1928 or 1931 (when she married G P Putnam). She flew since 1921 and in 1922 already set her 1st world record (altitude, for women) and was known and respected in aviation communities of both West coast and East one (when she moved there in 1924). Many contemporary top class pilots and other aviation professionals who really knew Earhart and flew with her expressed high respect to her skills and professionalism. Some examples were Jackie Cochran, General Leigh Wade (who wrote that Earhart “was a born flier with a delicate touch on the stick” after flying with her in 1929), Kelley Johnson, Paul Collins and others. So it doesn’t matter how good G P Putnam was as a promoter: there should be a real person in the cockpit to do the real job, sometimes at extreme conditions; and all that job was really done by Amelia Earhart.

  5. […] Books: “Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon” ( […]

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