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Authors: Susan Butler

East to the Dawn

BOOK: East to the Dawn
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Table of Contents
To my mother
• • • • Like many young girls looking for a role model, I became interested in Amelia Earhart at an early age. After all, she was so appealing: she was courageous, glamorous, and mysterious. She was that rare bird—an American woman who had achieved fame and fortune by virtue of her own natural talents.
She appealed to me for an additional personal reason as well. My mother was a pilot in the 1930s, when most people were still afraid to get into an airplane, much less fly one. Her parents bought an airplane and hired a pilot to fly them around. The pilot had a lot of downtime, and my mother, Grace Liebman, in her early twenties, wanted to fly. So he taught her. Before long she was a pilot, had her own plane—an open-cockpit Waco biplane, dark green with white trim—and was a member of the Ninety-Nines, the women's flying organization of which Amelia Earhart was the most illustrious member. Flying out of the airport, in Red Bank, New Jersey, my mother had a wonderful time doing what the early pilots did in those days—buzzing friends, flying under the bridges that link Manhattan with the rest of the world, and landing in cornfields, hay fields, and on beaches.
Those were the days when there was something magical about
flying. There was the incredible thrill of being in the air, the heady sense of accomplishing something people had been dreaming about at least since Icarus.
To women, though, flying was something more. Still hemmed in by all sorts of restrictions, still valued for looks and decorative skills, still steered toward passive accomplishments, for women it was the ultimate escape: total freedom, total mastery—no interference. Total liberation. Women who became pilots won something additional along the way: respect.
Amelia Earhart was the looming, absent genius of our household. When her name came up, it usually caused a reflective pause in the conversation—she was obviously so special. My mother had known her only slightly. I always wanted to know what kind of a person she was, why she was so famous, what kind of a life she really lived. I read Amelia's books, and the books about her. They didn't satisfy my curiosity. They just whetted my appetite. I decided to research her life, and I found out that not only was Amelia an amazing flier, easily the greatest female pilot of her time, but that she was a person of judgment and integrity with a strong sense of mission—that she had started out as a social worker and had gradually become as single-mindedly dedicated to improving the status of women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger.
Appearances are deceiving. Her contemporaries knew Amelia Earhart in all her permutations: as fashion plate, as lecturer, as educator, and of course as flier. But the passage of time has winnowed away everything except “pilot,” so that what comes down to us across the years is the image of a tousle-haired androgynous flier clad in shirt, silk scarf, leather jacket, and goggles. Those alive when she was saw much more—the famous Steichen photo that appeared in
Fair showing a chic, slender, contemplative woman; the news photos of her as she testified before congressional committees; and clips of her on the lecture circuit, where she spent the greater part of her time. Although it was her piloting skills that made her famous, Amelia was much more than just a pilot—that was why she was so much missed.
So I started on her trail. I spent days at the Schlesinger Library, where the Earhart papers are. I interviewed Fay Gillis Wells, one of the original members of the Ninety-Nines. I pored through the old newspapers she gave me. In one of them I found a reference to Amelia's beloved cousin, Kathryn (Katch) Challiss. It gave Katch's married name, and through that I tracked her down. I interviewed her for the first time ever, and when she died, her daughter Pat Antich gave me her diaries and the diaries of her sister Lucy, who lived with Amelia for several years. In the diaries were endless entries mentioning Amelia. Another cousin gave me the personal
history of Amelia's mother's family, which had been gathered into a book and never unearthed. I tracked down another branch of the family with the help of Amy Kleppner, whose mother Muriel, Amelia's sister, is still alive. The cousin that chase led me to was Nancy Balis Morse, who gave me the gut-wrenching correspondence between Amelia's mother, uncle, and brother: through those letters I learned how desperately poor the Earharts were in Amelia's growing-up years.
Gore Vidal, whose father was one of Amelia's closest friends, told me of an unpublished biography written by a journalist friend of Amelia's. He knew only that it had been submitted to Putnam's and been turned down. I pestered Putnam's for the names of old-timers. I went through Boston and suburban Boston telephone directories, for Janet Mabie wrote for
The Christian Science Monitor,
and I queried the newspaper as well. And then one day, as I was leaving the Schlesinger Library, in the information rack just inside the front door, Janet Mabie's name popped out at me—and I saw that the Schlesinger now had her papers. In the papers was Mabie's unpublished biography. It is full of gems.
Those were the big finds—there were many smaller ones. Flipping through the A's in one of the big black books that contain the New York Public Library's older, non-computerized holdings, I came upon a publication called
The Ace, The Aviation Magazine of the West.
I pulled it out and found it was a monthly covering Los Angeles in the early 1920s—and that Amelia flitted in and out of the pages. I found, in Boston newspapers, articles on her flying and on her feminist activities before her flight in the
I interviewed pilots who had known her. I went up to Newfoundland to see for myself what Trepassey was like, and to walk on that famous field in Harbor Grace built especially for the first transatlantic flights. I heard of someone who heard of a woman Amelia's navigator Fred Noonan wrote letters to while they were flying around the world; I tracked Helen Day Bible down.
I started wearing brown clothes, because Amelia did.
Peeling away the layers, the cobwebs the years had laid on her, I found a capable, caring, energetic woman who had succeeded in life beyond her wildest dreams. Yet she never lost sight of her beginnings, and took it as her mission in life to show other women how to climb the ladder as she had, rung by rung, so that they could have a piece of the good life, too. That didn't mean rejecting men, far from it. She was married to a bright, successful entrepreneur who adored her and gave up his career to manage hers. She wanted women to develop themselves to their fullest potential, as she had. Her fame came from her flying exploits, but she was one of the most successful businesswomen of her day. She made her living on the
lecture circuit, was one of the four founding stockholders and vice-president of the airline that became Northeast Airlines, was involved in various air-related businesses, was the author of two books and countless magazine articles, was under contract to the
New York Herald Tribune,
and was on the staff of Purdue University as consultant in careers for women. She gave her students positive reasons to succeed:
I advise them all to identify themselves with some form of economic activity. I believe that a girl should not do what she thinks she should do, but should find out through experience what she wants to do. For that reason I ask the girls to measure themselves against others who are earning their living. I endeavor to find out why girls select particular subjects for study, what other interests they have, and to let them see what other women are doing in these various fields.
I try to help them understand that it is just as important to give work to women as men, for they have an equal need for mental stimulus and feeling of accomplishment and economic independence.
She was a feminist who appealed to men as well as women because she used her position to promote not women's causes but women's self esteem.
At the same time she was a bit of a romantic, a bit of a dreamer. And she loved taking chances. There is an old English saying: all things are sweetened by risk. That was the way she felt.
Colonial Heritage
•••• Atchison, Kansas, situated on the banks of the Missouri River at the farthest point of a great lazy western bend in the river, was a small town with a population of some 15,000 in 1897. The earliest settlers, those who had arrived during the 1850s and 1860s, who had the taste and the means, had built their houses on the bluff overlooking the river, on a street then known as First Street, later as North Terrace.
BOOK: East to the Dawn
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