In early 1928, long before she would become the subject of the most enduring missing-persons case in history, Amelia Mary Earhart was a largely unknown social worker in Massachusetts, coaching girls’ basketball and organizing clubs for Boston’s growing immigrant population. Then, in April, she took a telephone call that would change her life.
Not a year earlier, Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight had transformed aviation from crackpot novelty to full-fledged international fever. Within months, G. P. Putnam’s Sons published We, Lucky Lindy’s account of the 33-hour crossing, under the guidance of company scion and publicity maestro George Palmer Putnam. The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies in no time flat. For a time, Lindbergh was arguably the most famous person on the planet.
In far-off England, headstrong socialite Amy Phipps Guest hatched a plan to become the first woman to cross the ocean by air, simply to prove that a woman could do it. But at 55 years of age, and with no flight experience, she was talked out of it by her aristocratic family.
She settled for the next best thing: underwriting a female stand-in, what she described as “an American girl of the right image,” to represent a new model of feminine hero, one that could dream and strive and soar as ably as the boys. And she enlisted Lindbergh’s P.R.-savvy publisher to find such a girl.
By that point, 34-year-old Earhart had more than 500 hours of solo flying under her belt. A tomboyish daredevil in childhood, she’d been smitten early by the aviation bug, gone to flight school in her early 20s, set an altitude record, and became the 16th woman in America to possess a pilot’s license. She’d owned her own open-cockpit airplane at one point, but had to off-load it during some family financial crisis.
Now, during her tenure as a social worker, she remained an enthusiast, flying demonstrations for Kinner Aircraft and, in what would undoubtedly prove a serendipitous move, publishing articles on aviation in which she envisioned an organization dedicated to women’s participation in the field.
Earhart was the embodiment of what Guest was looking for—a skilled female flier with both societal and personal convictions. She was fearless and she could write. She had the heart for adventure, but also a disarming, self-effacing graciousness. And she happened, with her lanky, semi-androgynous look, to bear a blurred-vision resemblance to man-of-the-hour Lindbergh. In sum, she owned just the “image” George Putnam knew how to promote.
A skilled female flier with both societal and personal convictions.
Earhart never did take the controls on that North Atlantic crossing—a professional pilot had been hired—but by the time Guest’s Fokker tri-motor touched down in Wales, Earhart had become known all over the world as the first woman to cross the ocean by air.
The rest, really, is history, even if it’s often eclipsed by her disappearance over another ocean in 1937, at age 41. In the interim between newfound fame and eventual fate, Earhart wrote a book on that first flight for Putnam’s publishing house, then married him in what appears to have been as much a mutually beneficial business partnership as an affair of the heart. He marketed her relentlessly as “Lady Lindy,” lining up speaking tours and writing assignments and product endorsements, and attaching her name to air-travel luggage and even a clothing line, purportedly of her own active-living designs.
All of this afforded Earhart the personal and financial freedom to follow her twin passions: flying, of course, in increasingly grandiose ways—such as the first solo flight by a woman across the same ocean she’d already traversed as a passenger—but also advocacy, for the future of aviation in general, and for women’s participation specifically.
In my novel Cloudmaker, one of the central characters is a Depression-era teenage girl who fixates on Earhart as an example of how to escape the stifling strictures of her own upbringing. I knew going in that Earhart had long ago become an icon of female empowerment, but I assumed this had more to do with the sheer anomaly of being a woman in a field almost exclusively available to men. Then I read her book, somewhat coyly titled The Fun of It.
Although the book was written as part of the Putnam publicity machine, Earhart’s words and ideas nonetheless show her to have been a pioneer in more ways than one. A bold flier, to be sure, but also a tireless champion of young women’s capabilities. She went on to publish articles with titles that addressed this somewhat more directly—“Shall You Let Your Daughter Fly?”—and took a new position at Purdue University, as a counselor in careers for women.
Perhaps most significantly, Earhart founded the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for women pilots. She’d had ambitions for something like it since her social-work days, and was voted the group’s first president by the other 98 charter members, who inspired the name. The Ninety-Nines remains a robust organization nearly a century later, with members around the world, providing scholarships and support for women who wish to fly.
Though Earhart became in her own day a celebrity of enormous stature, her ambitions were always more than personal, right up to her final, ill-fated flight.
Malcolm Brooks’s Cloudmaker is out now from Grove Press