“Sometimes it’s hard to tell fact from fiction.”
So begins Candace Fleming’s Amelia Lost, in her foreword called “Navigating History.” Fleming wants her reader to know–up front, right from the start–that there was much she unearthed in her research that she had to leave out. Many a “telling incident or charming anecdote” turned out to be untrue: myth.
The “oft-repeated story” of Earhart seeing her first plane at the Iowa State Fair, 1908, could not have been true. There were no barnstormers just four-and-a-half years after Kitty Hawk, Fleming reminds us. Earhart mis-remembered.
Thus does Candace Fleming set the tone for her captivating biography of the iconic aviator. Reader beware, she says: expect no hero-worship; myths may be shattered.
One truth: Three alcoholic men played important roles in Earhart’s life and career. (And we wonder why women worked so hard to bring Prohibition into being.) As her father’s career in the railroad took off, life for the family was good. For a while. Then the perks turned corrosive. Fleming explains: “Soon he was drinking at lunchtime…then all afternoon…then staggering home from work two or three times a week.” “Dad’s Sickness,” as one of Fleming’s headings put it, brings Earhart’s on-the-upper-end-of-middle-class family to hard times. The parents separate yet Dad reappears in a later chapter, as good-naturedly supportive of Earhart in her teens as he was before alcoholism. To her credit, Fleming neither elides this episode nor passes judgment on the father.
Two heavy drinkers accompanied her on milestone flights, too: the Atlantic in 1928 and the ill-fated around-the-world attempt in 1937. Bill Stutz piloted in the first: “There is a madness to Bill,” wrote Amelia when Stutz went on a bender while fogged in at Halifax, “which is not in keeping with a pilot who has to fly.” Fred Noonan navigated on the second: “She knew he was a drinker,” Muriel Earhart said of her sister, “but she forgave him for it. She felt she had a particular understanding of the problem.” I would say so.
Another truth: aviation record-setting costs money. Fleming dedicates a large sidebar to “Earhart Enterprises,” the business and marketing side of Amelia Earhart. “I make a record [flight] and then I lecture on it. That’s where the money comes from. Until it’s time to make another record.” Image was as important as achievement, Fleming tells us. Her publishing-world eventually-to-be-husband worked behind the scenes to stir up ballyhoo and keep her name before the public. She endorsed products, as had become in the 1920s: Kodak film, Stanavo engine oil, Hudson automobiles, and, though she never smoked, Lucky Strike cigarettes. [The ones my grandmother started smoking at that time and which would kill her forty-five years later.] A “donation” of $10,000 from the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association helped underwrite her record-setting flight from Hawaii to California.
News of this kind drew criticism. Aviation writer Alford Williams took her to task over another of her efforts: “Amelia Earhart’s ‘Flying Laboratory’ is the latest and most distressing racket that has been given to a trusting and enthusiastic public. There’s nothing in that ‘Flying Laboratory’ beyond duplicates of the controls and apparatus found on board every major airline transport….”
Hard truth: On at least one occasion Earhart and her lover-publicist George Putnam were, “Not Very Nice.” When British aviator Lady Mary Heath was scheduled to give lectures in the United States, Putnam convinced theater owners to cancel their contracts and hire Earhart instead. The friendship between the two aviators was a casualty of this underhandedness.
Fact: Amelia brushed off attempts to bring her up to speed on her plane’s radio communication system. Fleming reports that her radio instructor, Joseph Gurr, was “stunned” that she kept putting him off and ultimately gave him only an hour of her time. Her negligence was costly in the extreme. Nothing was more important in her final hours than establishing radio contact with the Itasca off Howland Island.
Another fact: An airfield on the spit of land that was Howland Island in the Pacific was funded by taxpayers (without their knowledge) on the authority of President Roosevelt (whose wife was one of the aviator’s biggest fans). The two-week search that followed Earhart’s disappearance cost taxpayers an additional $4.9 million (about $60 million today). This in the height of the Depression. It crossed my mind more than once that Amelia Earhart was both foolish and selfish.
Three-quarters of the way through the book, I read the following words: “Women, [Earhart] believed, should be encouraged to take chances. They should look beyond the comfort and security of marriage and instead ‘dare to live.'” On the next page, these about Earhart and her students at Purdue University: “Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Amelia led the discussions. ‘They centered around Miss Earhart’s belief that women…really did have choices about what we could do with our lives,’ recalled one student. ‘Study whatever you want,’ she counseled us girls. ‘Don’t let the world push you around.'” In another context these words might have sounded hackneyed to my ears. In the context of Fleming’s narrative, they carried a power that moved me. Was $5 million spent merely on one woman’s quest, or was it, rather, an investment in the cause of millions of Americans? Of course, it was the latter. Earhart inspired untold numbers of women to do what they had been told they couldn’t–to the immense benefit of the nation as a whole.
After completing the book, I flipped back the foreword with a deeper understanding of, and a new appreciation for, Fleming’s initial admonition about the —- of truth. These sentences stuck out:
- “She was a celebrity with an image to maintain and almost everything she told the public was meant to enhance her image.”
- “So Amelia Earhart (along with her husband George Putnam) took an active role in mythologizing her own life. She led the public to believe that her famous tousled hair was naturally curly, when in fact she took a curling iron to it each day.”
- “Amelia Earhart was so much more than a pilot. She was a savvy businesswoman (and cutthroat competitor when necessary);…” And Fleming enumerates the professional accomplishments I had just finished reading about
But she ends, of course, with Earhart’s most enduring achievement, captured by the words of Eleanor Roosevelt. They come at the end of the foreword and, more important, of my experience with this important book: “She helped the cause of women by giving them a feeling that there was nothing they could not do.”
Fleming, Candace. Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011: viii, 19, 54, 100, 59, 79, 85, 68, 92, 90, 105, 83-84, viii-ix.