It was every girl’s dream job but you could be fired for getting fat, married or turning 35. Such was the life of a Pan Am stewardess in the 1960s. Here’s the inside story of what it really took to rule the skies
Stewardess Wanted. Must Want the World’ – this was the promise of a recruitment advert for Pan Am in 1967.
In the 60s, America was in the midst of a golden age of travel – with flying at its heart. And the most glamorous carrier of them all was Pan American World Airways – Pan Am – the ‘truly international’ American airline, as it flew exclusively international routes.
For travellers the holiday began the moment they stepped on to the plane – ‘Our passengers are starting out on an adventure and we are helping them to get the feel of it immediately,’ Pan Am informed its crews – and there was a James Bond-style showmanship to the slick on-board experience. ‘Get out of the country, get into this world,’ went the airline’s radio jingle.
Pan Am exuded glamour, from its fleet of sleek modern aeroplanes emblazoned with its distinctive blue globe logo to its air stewardesses in their preppy-meets-Navy style uniforms. It was also an elite club to which many women aspired, but few gained entry: only three to five per cent of applicants were successful.
In the 60s, the cabin of an international aeroplane was a sought-after workplace for young, unmarried, mostly white women. A decade earlier, solitary international travel was rarely undertaken by a woman. Working as a stewardess gave a woman the ability and freedom to see different places and, for many, this was worth the price of having to be weighed regularly and working in a world where beauty standards were set by men.
The Pan Am criteria was strict. Applicants needed to speak a foreign language, and have a zest for travel, femininity and sophistication. A woman didn’t have to look like a model, but the job did require her to be born lucky, with symmetrical features, clear skin, height between five foot three inches and five foot nine, and be trim. She couldn’t change her hair style or colour without permission, and every six months stewardesses went to their local head office for weigh-ins. If they were over the range dictated for their height, they got a written warning and were told to get weighed monthly. For some, these were never an issue. Others ate hard-boiled eggs and tuna from a can for a month before each check.
A Pan Am stewardess’s youth and marital status were monitored by rules that allowed for dismissal on a woman’s 35th birthday or upon her marriage. A married woman, management feared, would miss work, gain weight or have a husband who often called to complain of her absence. But these women were no clichés. They were bright, educated and driven by adventure.
Lynne Totten remembers walking down Manhattan’s Park Avenue in 1966 to the Pan Am Building, an octagonal skyscraper, for her interview. In doing so, she was turning her back on a career in science: she’d spent four years in the university lab, the only female biology major in her year. Her parents were disappointed, but Lynne was convinced she could do more in the real world than in a lab.
When she arrived, the room was heaving with beautiful, immaculately coiffed and made-up women – but Lynne was the one to leave with a formal application form.
Norwegian Torild (Tori) Werner was at university and had set her sights on a foreign service career, but the Norwegian Foreign Service Academy had different entry requirements for men and women. The two previous jobs Tori had dreamed of – radio operator on a ship and archaeologist – both chosen for the travel they entailed, were vetoed by her parents. She initially rejected being a stewardess as not serious enough for her, but the travel it offered proved irresistible.
The select few who made it through the recruitment stage had a six-week training course at the airline’s Miami school. Seasoned traveller Karen Walker recalls turning up for the course in 1969 and thinking her fellow recruits resembled something like a Mickey Mouse Club for college students.
She soon changed her mind. While the grooming lessons took nearly as long as the first aid training, Karen also observed the organisation of her stewardess instructors, who delivered lessons in everything from deftly carving a rack of lamb, preparing fluffy scrambled eggs in a pressurised cabin and mixing the perfect cocktail: stewardesses circled answers on quizzes to prove that they knew what to put into a highball first (liquor, ice or mixer) and how to make a dry martini in flight. They were also instructed in asserting authority during emergency procedures. After they’d learnt how to ditch the plane in a water landing and slide from the fuselage into a pool constructed for the purpose, Karen thought that a plane crewed by these women could handle anything.
Each stewardess was measured so that the pale blue worsted-wool uniform fit her perfectly. Its tailored shoulders imitated the lines of executive suits on Madison Avenue. The skirt hung an inch below her knees, and the long white blouse fitted snugly round her waist and tucked into the skirt so that even when she reached into the compartments above, it would not pull out of the waistband. Blue pillbox hats with white piping pulled the look of the jacket and shirt together.
The training manual outlined how to apply lipstick to achieve a ‘more beautiful smile’. Red, rose red and coral were permitted on lips and nails; ‘lavender, purple, orange, insipid pink, iridescent or flesh colour’ were not. Girdles, white gloves and slips accessorised every uniform. But it also instructed them in dealing with hijackings: they were to ‘become a neutral friend’ and to try to lead the hijacker into asking to land the plane. And it urged them ‘to enjoy a travelling job… concentrate on people, places and ideas’. You’re an ambassador, they were told, and if you don’t want this job, a hundred women are waiting to take your place.
In capital letters, the last tip read, ‘WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES’.
Round-the-world flights either began heading west from Los Angeles or east from New York, so many stewardesses lived in one of these two places. They were housed together, sometimes so many to an apartment they didn’t have a bed each. Not that it mattered – they rarely spent more than a day or two at home every few weeks.
Wherever the flights started, the job inevitably moved the crew far from where they lived. The twice-weekly letters and postcards delivered to Lynne’s family featured images of hotels that all looked alike. Flight service was demanding, she wrote; she had never seen so many eggs in her life and had prepared lamb chops for 122 passengers. ‘Only wish we could stop flying long enough to enjoy places,’ she put on the first of three postcards from one trip.
Layovers provided respite and opportunity to explore. Some stewardesses plotted their layovers around shopping (Italy for leather shoes, Beirut for jewellery), but others requested their routes around Elvis Presley’s tour schedule, or graduate-school coursework, or adventurous exploration, landing near Mexico’s pyramids or as close to Timbuktu as possible for their two weeks off.
Hotels were a relief. The Phoenicia InterContinental in Beirut, where guests included Frank Sinatra and Brigitte Bardot, was Lynne’s favourite; she loved the grand marble lobby and watched boats bobbing in the Mediterranean from her balcony.
All of the New York stewardesses knew about Liberia’s capital city Monrovia – a route limited to the most senior stewardesses. The airports consisted of little more than a sandy strip, surrounded by jungles with worms as big as snakes and snakes as big as tree trunks. Africa trips were long and pay-checks were calculated on a per-hour basis when stewardesses were away from their stations. The high pay, along with safaris and jazz bands at the Equator Club in Nairobi, the boisterous parties and the vivid local markets, made Africa competitive. Once Tori sat in a rented bus in Nairobi National Park, watching the sunrise around a watering hole, still wearing the dress she had put on to go dancing hours earlier at the Equator Club.
It wasn’t all parties and glamour. During the Vietnam War, Pan Am’s military charters flew GIs from battlefields for five days of R&R during their 12-month tour of duty. (They flew 1,800 from Vietnam to Hong Kong and back, along with 1,200 to Tokyo and back for $1 a month.) The GIs climbed on to planes directly from the field; the contrast with the stewardesses’ prim uniforms was marked.
During these flights it could be difficult to keep order. On one especially loud trip, Tori stood in the front of the plane: ‘Everybody stay in your seats,’ she said. ‘If you all behave, coffee service will be performed topless.’ Tori and the other women smiled at the mute and expectant men as they served dinner. Then Tori and her crew waited in the galley, grinning, as the coffee car began to rattle. This flight had an extra engineer: he and the second pilot served coffee shirtless to hoots and boos.
Increasingly, orphanage and adoption agency staff took seats on certain flights. In 1971, the US embassy urged the State Department to consider the plight of thousands of children fathered by American GIs while stationed abroad and orphaned or abandoned when their father returned home to the US. The mothers were women who worked on the army bases, the ‘temporary wives’ of the GIs, or prostitutes. Many of the children were cared for by their families, but others – those whose mothers had died, whose servicemen fathers had left, or whose families had grown too large to manage – began to fill the country’s orphanages.
Estimates of these children’s numbers varied wildly. Between 300 and 400, the US government said, spread across 100-odd orphanages. The South Vietnamese Ministry of Social Welfare estimated there were 10,000 to 15,000 children fathered by US servicemen, but an American expert put the figure at 200,000, using the number of bars near military bases and averaging how many bar girls, prostitutes and ‘temporary wives’ were in each.
As public awareness of the orphans’ plight grew, on 3 April 1975 President Gerald Ford announced an orphan airlift, code-named Operation Babylift, to bring the children to the USA where they could be legally adopted. The Red Cross offices in San Francisco reported switchboards alight with calls from prospective adoptive parents.
On 4 April, Karen, Lynne and Tori arrived in Hong Kong, but as they boarded the crew bus, a telegram was delivered: ‘Depart 5 April for Saigon to pick up orphan charter: 295 infants, 100 children between two and 12 years, 60 escorts – five doctors and ten nurses.’
Adult arms formed a firemen’s chain on the tarmac. Doctors, nurses, ground staff and escorts passed the babies from one set of arms to the next.
The youngest babies went into first class, where the escort-to-infant ratio was highest. In the main cabin, older babies went two to a bassinet. Children who could sit up were in the middle of the plane, with bassinets under their short legs, and the oldest were in the rear. The ill or injured (there were cases of hepatitis, meningitis and chickenpox) went upstairs to a makeshift sick bay in the lounge.
Lynne leaned over seats, holding a bottle in each hand, trying to feed two squalling infants at once. When they each latched on, she leaned the bottles against the bassinet, grabbed more bottles from the galley and moved on to the next set of babies. With nowhere near enough seats, Tori now sat on the floor in front of the seats in which she had strapped children. A few of the older kids with whom she had been speaking French sat next to her. She wrapped her arms around all the children she could. Lynne can still vividly recall the gratitude and respect for the competence of the women with whom she worked.
By many accounts, it was the 747 – its huge passenger load and investment – that signalled the end for Pan Am. Between 1969 and 1976, the airline lost $364 million (£263 million) as its debt rose to $1 billion (£723 million). Pan Am’s last flight landed in Miami on 4 December 1991.
As individuals, stewardesses shared an instinct to roam that propelled them. As a group, they forever shifted the American woman’s place in her country and the world.
‘I’ve always thought it was ironic that we have this docile image,’ said one of the founders of Stewardesses for Women’s Rights [the equivalent of a union for air stewardesses]. ‘Most of the women I know began to fly because they were just too independent and curious about the world to sit around in a nine-to-five job.’
Come Fly the World by Julia Cooke is published by Icon Books, price £16.99.