2022 will be the eighty-fifth anniversary of Amelia Earhart‘s mysterious disappearance at the tail end of her around-the-world hop. Nowadays, this part of her life garners most, if not all the attention because we want to know what happened, and it’s totally understandable. Eighty-five years is a long time to be in suspense (I have my own opinions about that flight).
What people may not know is that next to George Gershwin, Amelia Earhart was one of the most-photographed celebrities of the 1930s, and not just because she was a pilot, a daring enough occupation on its own. She first came into the public consciousness in 1928, when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air, riding in a Fokker F.VII.b, called Friendship.
AE was completely casual and unpretentious about the flight, taking nothing with her but a toothbrush and a comb, but the public went wild. The plane hit fog and had to touch down in Wales before heading to its original destination in Southhampton, but no one cared, probably because they were relieved that the plane had made it at all.
Earhart was, by twenty-first century standards, an influencer. People wanted to know what she was doing, who she hung out with, what kind of luggage she carried, what she ate, and what she wore. She appeared in an ad campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes despite being a non-smoker. She even had her own clothing line.
It helped that AE had publisher and publicity giant George Putnam behind her, and in addition to all her other ventures she wrote books, one of which was 1932’s The Fun Of It. The book is part autobiography, part homage to fellow pilots, part sell-job for commercial aviation, and part travelogue, ending with Earhart’s solo Atlantic flight.
AE’s style is breezy, vivid and conversational–she must have been enjoyable to listen to. The book is structured on a stream-of-consciousnessness basis, although it is divided into chapters, and paying attention is kind of essential because she does jump from topic to topic pretty frequently.
Amelia Earhart was born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, and from the beginning she lived outside the box. She and her sister, Muriel, were tomboys who preferred sports to dolls. They even built a backyard roller coaster when AE was only seven years old.
Earhart was a voracious reader who soaked up learning like a sponge, and her book mentions her conquering whole shelves of books at the library. This must have served her well later when she became a nurse during the First World War because it would have allowed her to learn very quickly. Earhart found the realities of the war sobering, but it seemed to inspire her to live more intensely, looking for ways to make a difference in other peoples’ lives. She once wrote to her mother that she couldn’t bear to be “useless.”
One of AE’s biggest objectives when writing The Fun Of It was selling people on the idea of air travel being as completely normal and safe as taking a train. She gives the perks of flying, such as arriving at one’s destination sooner, the inherent luxury of air travel, and the delicious food to be had at thousands of feet in the air. She’s also quick to emphasize the lack of disorientation when in flight, that the mind adjusts to moving around an aircraft. Earhart even mentions how her mother often flew with her on commercial flights and was so used to it she would bury herself in a book from takeoff to landing.
There were a lot of people who were eager to experience commercial air travel, and even back then there were those who sneaked some rather unfortunate passengers on board, trying to pass them off as children in order to pay a half fare.
Hmmm. Yeah, no, these supposed passengers weren’t children. One woman brought her rather large dog, which had to be held on her lap for the entire flight, and another passenger lugged a pony on board, who took up a whole row of two seats with its hiney hanging out in the aisle. AE was highly amused, but it must have been crazy at the time. All those rules we now have about booking flights and what we can carry on exist because of stories like this.
Probably the biggest chunk of the book centers on what very early aviation was like and looks at some of Earhart’s fellow pioneers. I think this is one of its most valuable parts, not only because it shows the siblinghood and sportsmanship that has always dominated the flying world, but because a lot of these names would be completely forgotten otherwise, at least outside aviation.
Earhart had nothing but good things to say about her contemporaries, many of whom were her friends, such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Ruth Law, and Ruth Nichols. These women respected each other and cheered each other on because they understood how important their participation in aviation was. The book mentions the Ninety-Nines, an organization AE helped found and which still exists today.
Earhart also pays tribute to Harriet Quimby, the first woman in America to earn a pilot’s license and setter of altitude and distance records. She was also, sadly, the victim of the unfortunate physics of first-decade planes, which were light, narrow, and sometimes made out of woven wicker. It’s amazing these things even got into the air because there was barely any surface to them whatsoever. Ballast had to be added if not all the seats were filled, and anyone who flew in them had to keep very still or the results would be disastrous.
That’s what likely happened to Harriet Quimby. On July 1, 1912, she was performing in an airshow in Boston when she and her passenger, William Willard were thrown from Quimby’s Bleriot monoplane and hit the shallow water of the Neponset River. No, planes of that era did not have seatbelts.
Earhart’s book ends with her transatlantic flight, which took place on May 20, 1932, and once she touches down in Northern Ireland and scares a lot of cattle, things just gradually fade out. No words of wisdom, no “That’s All, Folks!” kind of wrap-up. It’s just over, probably because Earhart had more adventures to come. Little did she know.
The Fun Of It is literally a rare book today, but anyone who can find a copy will get a chance to spend time with an influential woman who lived life with zest and who is much more than her mysterious disappearance.
This is the last regular installment in the Reading Rarities series, but only because I’ve run out of weird books. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.
Got a new project on deck for 2022. Not going to spill too much right now, but here’s a tiny hint: It has to do with my favorite part of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Thanks, everyone, and see you tomorrow with a (mostly) spoiler-free review of Being the Ricardos…
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