The two books I started and finished (#tinytriumph) during March were complementary companion reads. Both were published on March 2. This was certainly not accidental timing, kicking off Women’s History Month. They focused on roughly the same narrow timeframe–the mid-20th century. And both books explored that timeframe primarily through the perspectives of mostly young, mostly white women.
Off the Ground
Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am presents as a slice of the Mad Men era. That’s a time period that fascinates me. I was technically around during the 1960’s, but I definitely didn’t experience “The 60s.” I took my first airline flight I was three months old, from New York to Miami and back again. I don’t remember that June 1964 trip, but I almost remember when airline travel felt special.
In the 1960s Pan American World Airways was America’s only airline to exclusively fly international routes. The company set a glamourous image for air travel with its flight crews. Passengers were attentively served by attractive, unmarried, college-educated women. And until feminism’s second wave rolled up in the 1970s, all of those criteria were strict job requirements. Julia Cooke’s account filters Pan Am’s “jet-set” era through the experiences of several stewardesses during changing times. Come Fly the World devotes a significant amount of the narrative to Pan Am’s service as a military charter airline during the Vietnam War. This turn surprised me; I hadn’t known about the role these civilians played in the war or their involvement in (probably well-intentioned and undoubtedly problematic) Operation Babylift.
A “Soft Landing” Place
Back in the USA, in New York City, the Barbizon Hotel for Women was also being changed by the times. For close to half a century, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free provided a “soft landing” for young women getting a start in the city. Its single rooms and single-sex occupancy offered affordable and congenial accommodations. They housed office workers and writers, actresses and models, for a few weeks or for years. Some of them became notables later in life, and the hotel claimed them as part of its history.
Paulina Bren highlights some of those notables in her history of the hotel. She also connects it with two of the institutions that kept it going: the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial Schoo, which took two floors as a dorm, and Mademoiselle magazine. Mademoiselle housed its college-age Guest Editors at the Barbizon for six weeks every summer. The Mademoiselle contingent – the “Millies” – produced some of the Barbizon’s best-known residents. One of them fictionalized her time there in her only novel, and Bren brings that back around; her story of the Barbrizon is deeply linked with that of Sylvia Plath. I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate that terribly much, as I don’t especially appreciate Sylvia Plath.
Mid-20th-century historical accounts fascinate me. I feel that I just missed the buildup to what came to shape my worldview. I’m trying to catch up. (I know that’s part of what fascinated me about Mad Men .) These were great reads for Womens’ History Month, with their concentration on very specific slices of 20th-century American women’s lives. I preferred the airline story to the hotel one, personally, but I’m glad to have read them both.
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Come Fly the WorldCome Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am
Written by Julia Cooke
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 2, 2021
Genres: Nonfiction, History
Glamour, danger, liberation: in a Mad Men–era of commercial flight, Pan Am World Airways attracted the kind of young woman who wanted out, and wanted up
Required to have a college education, speak two languages, and possess the political savvy of a Foreign Service officer, a jet-age stewardess serving on iconic Pan Am between 1966 and 1975 also had to be between 5′3" and 5′9", between 105 and 140 pounds, and under 26 years of age at the time of hire.Cooke’s intimate storytelling weaves together the real-life stories of a memorable cast of characters, from small-town girl Lynne Totten, a science major who decided life in a lab was not for her, to Hazel Bowie, one of the relatively few Black stewardesses of the era, as they embraced the liberation of their new jet-set life. Cooke brings to light the story of Pan Am stewardesses’ role in the Vietnam War, as the airline added runs from Saigon to Hong Kong for planeloads of weary young soldiers straight from the battlefields, who were off for five days of R&R, and then flown back to war. Finally, with Operation Babylift—the dramatic evacuation of 2,000 children during the fall of Saigon—the book’s special cast of stewardesses unites to play an extraordinary role on the world stage.
Written by Paulina Bren
Published by Simon and Schuster on March 2, 2021
From award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the first history of New York’s most famous residential hotel—The Barbizon—and the remarkable women who lived there.
WELCOME TO NEW YORK’S LEGENDARY HOTEL FOR WOMEN
Liberated from home and hearth by World War I, politically enfranchised and ready to work, women arrived to take their place in the dazzling new skyscrapers of Manhattan. But they did not want to stay in uncomfortable boarding houses. They wanted what men already had—exclusive residential hotels with daily maid service, cultural programs, workout rooms, and private dining.
Built in 1927 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon Hotel was intended as a safe haven for the “Modern Woman” seeking a career in the arts. It became the place to stay for any ambitious young woman hoping for fame and fortune. Sylvia Plath fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, and, over the years, its almost 700 tiny rooms with matching floral curtains and bedspreads housed Titanic survivor Molly Brown; actresses Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Jaclyn Smith, Phylicia Rashad, and Cybill Shepherd; writers Joan Didion, Diane Johnson, Gael Greene, and Meg Wolitzer; and many more. Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, as did Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School its students and the Ford Modeling Agency its young models. Before the hotel’s residents were household names, they were young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase and a dream.
Not everyone who passed through the Barbizon’s doors was destined for success—for some it was a story of dashed hopes—but until 1981, when men were finally let in, the Barbizon offered its residents a room of their own and a life without family obligations or expectations. It gave women a chance to remake themselves however they pleased; it was the hotel that set them free. No place had existed like it before or has since.
Beautifully written and impeccably researched, The Barbizon weaves together a tale that has, until now, never been told. It is both a vivid portrait of the lives of these young women who came to New York looking for something more, and an epic history of women’s ambition.