The Earhart Brand
Amelia Earhart’s Impact on Celebrity Culture
Katie E. Martin, Indiana University
Before leaving on her failed 1937 flight around the world, Amelia Earhart praised her husband and publicist, George Palmer Putnam, for his promotional abilities, saying, “I know I’m lucky to have him, for I never could do it without his help. He takes care of everything.”(1) The celebrity culture of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s was serious business. In the pioneering age, both record-breaking flight successes and failures resulted in good copy for newspapers. Mishaps and “firsts” further perpetuated the public’s obsession with flight and “the winged gospel.”(2) Media men like George Putnam jumped at the opportunity to involve themselves in the world of aviation. Putnam doggedly created an identifiable, enduring, and marketable trademark for Earhart. He cultivated the “Earhart Brand” as a heightened version of her true character; because without Earhart’s own work ethic, eloquence, and activism, there was nothing for him to market. Although her entrance onto the celebrity stage was at first circumstantial, and subsequently manufactured by Putnam himself, Earhart eventually transformed herself into a public personality in her own right. Earhart and Putnam worked in tandem to establish and maintain her place in the spotlight.(3)
Increased consumerism in the 1920s fueled an emerging celebrity culture of Hollywood film stars and sports heroes, including aviators like Charles Lindbergh, whose unmatched celebrity fit both of these categories. Previously, stately war heroes and inventors who had contributed to the advancement of society had served as media luminaries. New “personalities,” whose images required constant maintenance and perpetuation, now replaced those nineteenth-century models. Lindbergh’s successful non-stop, transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in May of 1927 resulted in his instantaneous celebrity and prosperity. His triumph over the Atlantic created a glamorous space for pilots in American popular culture and served as a challenge to other pilots seeking fortune, fame, and the promotion of aviation. As media in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, and newsreels became more accessible, captivating individuals caught the public’s attention and fed a demand for popular culture. Between 1890 and 1929, in response to the new celebrity features in the media, public relations men such as George Putnam adeptly “facilitated the movement and distribution of images, information, and money central to both economic and cultural formation.”(4)
George Palmer Putnam was born in 1887 to a family that thrived on the newfound interest in celebrities and the culture surrounding famous individuals. Although Putnam was guaranteed a position in the family publishing business, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, established by his grandfather and namesake, George Palmer Putnam, he felt the need to make his own way in the world. As a young man, he worked as a journalist in San Francisco; as a Sierra Club guide; as editor of the Bend, Oregon newspaper; as mayor of Bend; as member of the Oregon National Guard during World War I; as published author; and as an organizer of expeditions to Canada and Greenland for the American Geographical Society. After much deliberation, he returned to his family’s publishing house to serve as publicist, and later, editor. Putnam’s work in the business connected him with dynamic figures in politics and culture as well as adventurers, explorers, and naturalists and pushed him into the forefront of the American publishing industry. He often entertained such notable individuals as cartoonist Rube Goldberg, artist Rockwell Kent, and another famous female aviator, Ruth Nichols, at his own residence. As he explained, “the roster in any month might include aviator, actor, arctic explorer, big game hunter, balloonist, cowboy, correspondent – and so pretty well through the alphabet.”(5) His attraction to celebrity culture and his own desire to be famous drove him to seek out those whom he admired and wished to emulate.(6)
George Putnam’s experience in his family’s publishing business and his connections to prominent adventure heroes prepared him for his most lucrative client, Charles Lindbergh. Putnam shrewdly recognized the patriotic fervor which overtook New York City at the news of Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris and immediately reached out to contacts in The New York Times in order to work with Lindbergh on the publication of his book. It is estimated that 4 million people crowded the streets of New York City trying to catch a glimpse of the aviator during his welcome reception and ticker-tape parade. Putnam offered Lindbergh an advance of $100,000 for his autobiography, thus We was published in July, less than two months after Lindbergh made his famous flight. Even Putnam’s friends described him as overbearing, pushy, and brash, but his management style is “the reason the name Amelia Earhart is still remembered.”(7)
Putnam’s previous success with Lindbergh undoubtedly played into his determination to become involved in the quest to fly a woman across the Atlantic. Amy Phipps Guest, daughter of a prominent industrialist and wife of British politician Frederic Guest, purchased a Fokker F.VII Trimotor dubbed Friendship (in honor of the cordial relationship between the United States and Great Britain) to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger with experienced male pilots. Guest wished to reserve the glory of the first woman to fly the Atlantic for herself, but pressure from relatives led her to back out of the dangerous attempt. She still intended to fund the Friendship flight with a female on board, but stipulated that the woman must be “a lady, educated, and if possible a flyer.”(8) The Friendship flight team approached Amelia Earhart because she had previously established herself as a flyer throughout New England while teaching immigrant students at Denison House, a settlement house in Boston. Her modesty, Midwestern charm, good looks, interest in aviation, and careful manner of speaking appealed to Putnam, who approved of her as the replacement for Guest. At that moment, George Putnam effectively became “her agent, her manager, and her publicist.”(9)
Earhart, like Lindbergh before her, stood as a counterpoint to the excess of the jazz age of the 1920s. True, she embodied the “heady new ideals circulating in the culture” about the acceptability of women in masculine roles.(10) Yet, Earhart also stood in contrast to another young socialite, Mabel Boll, who had initially planned to be the first woman across the Atlantic. Often adorned in jewels, Boll, “the Queen of Diamonds,” embodied the extravagances of the “Roaring ‘20s.” Amy Guest was determined that Boll would not be the first to make the crossing due to what she considered her poor portrayal of the ideal American woman. As Captain Hilton H. Railey, newspaperman and publicist who assisted Putnam with Earhart’s promotion, put it, “Mrs. Guest had stipulated the person to whom she would yield must be ‘representative’ of American women. In Amelia Earhart I saw not only their norm but their sublimation.” Earhart’s image served as the embodiment of the ideal 1927 American woman. She was the “New Woman” of the twentieth century who ventured outside of the domestic sphere, was well-educated, and could even have a career. She left behind the tropes typified by the “True Woman” of the nineteenth century, whose piety, domesticity, and obedience were the ultimate ideal. Yet, Earhart maintained the purity associated with “True Womanhood,” as the media often referred to her as “young woman,” “miss,” or “girl” despite being almost thirty years old at the time of her flight on Friendship.(11)
Earhart’s appearance and behavior both challenged and reinforced America’s gendered construction of femininity and masculinity, all those acceptable behaviors, appearances, interests, and responsibilities assigned to men and women by a particular culture at a particular time. Earhart rose to fame as a professional aviator, entering a field dominated by men. Nevertheless, her friendly and outgoing public personality, combined with her effortless feminine beauty, softened this masculine edge. She navigated a man’s world but always returned to a woman’s place. In marketing Earhart, Putnam emphasized her masculine interests in driving, in aviation technology, and in adventure. This pushed the boundaries of acceptability in a novel way. In the 1920s and 1930s, stories and images of beautiful women with successful careers in film and sport filled the media. These women were popular with the general readership of such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, but also publications aimed at women like Women’s Home Companion and Vogue. Now Earhart’s agent, George Putnam was simply responding to the dual consumer demand for aviation stories and attractive, dynamic women. He wanted to present Earhart as a “New Woman,” someone who advocated for women’s advancement and discussed aviation technology; but did not wholly offend traditional gender norms. For example, the magazine Needlecraft, the Magazine of Home Arts, featured Earhart discussing “Needlecraft and Aircraft,” balancing feminine pastimes with masculine hobbies.(12)
Amelia Earhart’s association with Charles Lindbergh spotlighted the fuzzy demarcation between masculinity and femininity. From the beginning, Putnam marketed Earhart as the “Lady Lindy.” Putnam’s handling of Lindbergh provided a template for Amelia Earhart’s image. One of his contacts at Paramount Pictures, Jake Coolidge, took the first promotional images of Earhart, released after the successful Friendship flight, with the theme “Remember Lindbergh.” Coolidge modeled Earhart’s image after Lindbergh’s, dressing her in a leather jacket, white-edged helmet, brown broadcloth riding ‘breeks,’ high-laced brown riding boots, and goggles (see Figure 1 below). In a personal account of her flight, Earhart even remarked that her clothing was “nothing to excite feminine fashion leaders.”(13) Newspapers went as far to call her Lindbergh’s “feminine counterpart.”(14) Even as she became a record-breaking flier in her own right, Earhart found it difficult to shed this “Lady Lindy” image. Granted, in 1932, she echoed Lindbergh’s achievement when she became the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic, taking off exactly five years after Lindbergh’s record-breaking transatlantic flight.
Charles Lindbergh’s unparalleled celebrity, which extended well-beyond the world of aviation, undoubtedly created a space in the popular culture for Earhart and other record-breaking fliers. After the Friendship flight, Earhart complained about the comparison to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Lindbergh’s wife, saying, “I believe I have never apologized so widely for anything in my life, excepting possibly having been born…You understand my dislike of the title isn’t because I don’t appreciate being compared to one who has abilities such as Colonel Lindbergh has, but because the comparison is quite unjustified.”(15) Earhart’s comparison to Lindbergh extended beyond appearance. Newspapers emphasized that both Lindbergh and Earhart shared a modesty that should be standard for all future aviation heroes.(16) In comments to The New York Times, Earhart humbly reinforced this notion when she reassured readers, “There wasn’t any race with Miss Boll, but, of course, I’m glad to be the first woman across.”(17) Immediately after the Friendship took off, Putnam released this statement: “No money in the world could induce her to go upon a stage or in a film. She would shrink from that sort of exploitation. She might consider writing or a short and carefully selected lecture tour, but I know that she would not give a moment’s consideration to anything of a theatrical nature.”(18) Again, after the success of Friendship, he echoed his previous statement, “she honestly thinks that no one will pay attention to her after it is over. She is an extraordinary girl. She has captivated all who met her.”(19) Friendship’s safe landing in Southampton ensured Earhart’s fame, if in a rather hollow image sustained by Putnam’s publicizing. The world had not yet met the real Earhart.
In June 1928, newspaper articles referred to her as the “first woman across,” as “a remarkable and interesting person, new flying heroine, Boston social worker, practiced aviatrix,” and as “Miss Airheart.”(20) Despite the complimentary headlines, Earhart understood her new role as a celebrity of circumstance. In her memoir, 20 Hrs. 40 Min., she wrote, “I have tried to be entirely frank always. The credit belongs to the boys, to the ship and to its backer. I was a passenger.”(21) The media was not always favorable to Earhart. One article in The London Evening Standard argued, “her presence added no more to the achievement than if the passenger had been a sheep.”(22) Critics also wrote directly to Earhart and complained that the flight was over-hyped. One note signed “anonymous” called the flight a “publicity stunt” and included a postscript that reads, “Your resemblance to Lindy isn’t noticeable when you have your flight things off.”(23) Her supposedly undeserved place in the limelight did not inhibit her celebrity or Putnam’s insistence on manufacturing it. In order to maintain her newfound status after the Friendship flight, “She enthusiastically submitted to the lunches and dinners, teas and receptions George Putnam set up.”(24) Earhart typically spoke at women’s clubs and settlement houses where she could comfortably bring in her own experiences. Putnam offered advice on everything from her clothing (he disliked her hats), how to hide the gap in her teeth when she smiled, how to confidently answer questions, and how to most effectively use a microphone and notecards while speaking.(25) On his decision to work with the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, Putnam once said, “And here I had stumbled on an adventure-in-the-making which, once completed, certainly should provide a book.”(26) Immediately upon her return to the United States in July 1928, he invited Earhart to his home in Rye, New York. Earhart, with the assistance of Putnam and his secretary, completed her story, 20 Hours, 40 Min.: Our Flight in the Friendship, in three weeks. One Earhart biographer explains, “[Putnam] wanted to exploit adventure tales while they were hot, and his regimented approach to publishing them served his purposes.”(27) In Earhart’s own words, “Today, if you ever figure in any unusual exploit, be it a flight, a voyage in a small boat, or, a channel swim, paraphrasing Alice in Wonderland, ‘There’s a publisher close behind you who is treading on your heels.’ Writing a book seems inevitable. My ‘porpoise’ wanted his book in a hurry. They always do, and so the first weeks of ‘rest’ were devoted to completing a little volume called 20 hrs. 40 min.”(28) Images of Earhart’s exciting life after the Friendship flight fill the book, reinforcing the press coverage of the month before. She endured an extensive lecture tour from 1928-1929, to cities across the United States, which boosted book sales and kept her name in the headlines. This was representative of a perpetual cycle in Earhart’s career. She needed fame to fund flight, set aviation records to maintain fame, and receive endorsements and speaking opportunities to earn funds.(29)
Earhart’s new life certainly had its extravagances. While traveling in London after the landing of Friendship, Captain Railey secured the use of “a 5-passenger sedan” and a “7-passenger limousine” directly from Henry Ford.(30) Putnam obtained profitable endorsements from the likes of Chrysler, Modernaire Luggage, and Macy’s. Earhart reinforced her own modest image in her memoir, The Fun of It, by explaining her initial dread at coming home to receptions and award ceremonies. “We tried in vain to have him (Captain Harry Manning) alter the course of the Roosevelt and land in some pleasant country where no one knew us.”(31) Even if she disliked the flurry of activity that followed her from place to place, her fame provided a platform and monies to do as she wished.
Although Putnam skillfully managed the Earhart celebrity machine, he misjudged the effectiveness of his own creation when he encouraged an unenthusiastic Earhart to endorse Lucky Strike cigarettes. Though she did not smoke, the resulting advertisement featured a strangely masculine Earhart in a flight helmet with the byline, “Lucky Strikes were the cigarettes carried on the ‘Friendship’ when she crossed the Atlantic – Amelia M. Earhart, first woman to fly the Atlantic by aeroplane.” Earhart agreed to endorse the cigarettes as a gesture of gratitude to Commander Richard Byrd, the organizer and logistical advisor for the Friendship flight. Byrd was planning an expensive Arctic expedition and the money from the endorsement would go a long way toward funding the trip. So, Earhart contributed $1,500 to the Byrd expedition.(32) For all its good intentions, many fans were disturbed by Earhart’s endorsement. One reader sent it back with a scrawled note declaring, “Is this the face of a lady? What price glory!” (see Figure 2).
The advertisement was discordant with the image of the innocent adventurer from Kansas previously promoted by Putnam. In 20 Hrs. 40 Min., Earhart attempted to explain away the situation (undoubtedly with Putnam by her side), saying, “Cigarettes have nearly been my downfall…I wickedly ‘endorsed’ a certain cigarette which was carried by the boys on the Friendship. This I did to benefit three gallant gentlemen – Commander Byrd, to whose South Polar Expedition I turned over my own financial proceeds, and the companions on my flight who benefitted only if my name was used.”(33) The advertisement itself, targeted a female audience by insisting, “For a slender figure – Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Other women who endorsed Lucky Strike in 1928 included Olympic swimmer Helen Wainwright and actress Betty Compson. Smoking may have been permissible for other women but it certainly was not appropriate for Earhart, “America’s Sweetheart.” The scandalous ad even cost her an editorial position previously negotiated by Putnam at McCall’s magazine. Undeterred, he secured Earhart the job of Aviation Editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, which had no qualms with the provocative advertisement.(34)
Earhart presented her explanation for joining the editorial staff at Cosmopolitan thusly, “With ‘Cosmo’s’ enormous circulation I welcomed the opportunity to reach a great audience with my favorite subject.”(35) In the 1920s, it “was a magazine for forward-thinking ‘modern’ young women but it had a general audience as well.”(36) When trying to convince Anne Morrow Lindbergh to appear in a Cosmopolitan feature, Earhart listed the Prince of Wales, Calvin Coolidge, Andrew Mellon, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, and H. G. Wellsas previous contributors in order to stress the magazine’s respectability.(37) Earhart wrote articles about her experiences flying across the Atlantic and aimed them at women. In pieces like “Try Flying Yourself” from Cosmopolitan’s November 1928 issue, she encouraged others to follow her and break out of the traditional female roles of wife and mother.(38) Within the articles are glamorous pictures of Earhart in aviation gear, dresses, and stylish separates. She appears polished and chic in both feminine dresses and in her masculine flying clothes. Her long, tall frame reflected the slim, masculine body type promoted by the flapper-style and embodied what Ray Long, Cosmopolitan’s editor-in-chief, “wanted the Cosmo girl to become.”(39) This image differed dramatically from her presentation just after the Friendship flight, when she was described as “a tall, athletic girl weighing only 118 pounds in spite of her five feet nine inches. She has short blonde curly hair and level, direct gray eyes. She dresses in any clothes that come to hand, sans ensemble effects and sans cosmetics.”(40) In the pages of Cosmopolitan, now much more of a star, Earhart rarely looks directly at the camera. One of her articles features two images of Earhart staring dreamily into the distance.(41)
In September of 1928, rumors swirled that Amelia Earhart and George Putnam’s relationship extended beyond a simple business partnership. Putnam worried that the fallout from such reports could damage Earhart’s public image. He needed to maintain the “pure” personality he had created before the Friendship flight in order for her other transgressions into the male world of aviation and lecturing to remain acceptable. Putnam’s own marriage to Dorothy Binney Putnam was crumbling, yet when he went on trips with Earhart, he also invited his wife to serve “as a chaperone.”(42) In her diary, Dorothy complained, “Ah well, I’ll have to go on the West Indies trip just to save George from a nasty bit of ‘Earhart and Putnam’ gossip.”(43) In December 1929, Dorothy finally divorced George. Headlines from The New York Times read: “Mrs. Putnam Sues in Reno: Failure to Provide Is Set Forth in Her Plea to Divorce G.P. Putnam,” and “Decree for Mrs. Putnam: Joint Custody of Two Children Granted by Reno Court.” Subsequently, on February 7, 1931, Earhart and Putnam wed in Noank, Connecticut. A New York Times article reported, “Miss Earhart asked to have it known that she will retain her own name for business and writing purposes.”(44) In a letter written to Putnam prior to their marriage ceremony, Earhart implored, “Please let us not interfere with the others’ work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage.”(45) Even as Earhart wished to keep their private lives out of the public eye and retain her own independence, she had married the man to whom she owed her unique public image.
Even as Earhart wished to keep their private lives out of the public eye and retain her own independence, she had married the man to whom she owed her unique public image.(46) Marriage provided Earhart with a less threatening image in the media eye, but Putnam now endured criticisms from the press as he played the role of “dutiful wife” in their relationship, often waiting patiently for Earhart to come home from record-breaking flights. Media depictions feminized Putnam by calling him Mr. Earhart or simply “Husband” (see Figure 3). Each described their marriage as a “partnership.” Earhart referred to Putnam as “a practicing believer in wives doing what they do best, is an approving and helpful partner in all my projects.”(47)
As always, George Putnam, in his role as “The Flying Publisher,” arranged various public relations events to keep Earhart’s name in the headlines.(48) In July 1929, he organized a deep-sea dive off Block Island, Rhode Island for Earhart, now depicted in diving gear to promote her adventurous, more masculine side (see Figure 4).(49) In September 1929, she christened the first Goodyear airship to carry a sign that lit up at night, the Defender. On December 19, 1930, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo in an autogiro, a new kind of winged aircraft that used a propeller to move forward and rotating blades for extra lift. The Autogiro Company of America needed the photogenic Earhart to build public support for this novel aircraft. In a deal orchestrated by Putnam, Beech-Nut Packing Company, producer of chewing gum, offered Earhart its own bright green autogiro, complete with the company’s logo on the side, if she would participate in a coast-to-coast advertising tour. The cross-promotion benefited all three parties. By attaching the autogiro and Beech-Nut Packing Company to Earhart’s already world-famous image, the companies hoped to attract new consumers: women. In 1931, Earhart flew the “Flying Bill-board” at exhibitions across the country, further promoting a favorite American candy as well as her own involvement in forward-thinking, innovative aviation technology (see Figure 5).(50)
George Putnam also organized exhausting lecture circuits that took Earhart to a new city each day, actively promoting aviation as well as her true passion, women’s rights. She drove herself from city-to-city alone, following Putnam’s advice for how to speak and present herself. A speaking engagement in Rochester, New York, typified her grueling work schedule on this lecture tour. Her day “included breakfast with the committee meeting the train at eight o’clock; an inspection of the airport and two airplane plants before noon; a luncheon and speech for the Advertising Club; a trip to nearby LeRoy, New York, where Donald W. Woodward who had purchased the Friendship had put the plane on display; tea with a LeRoy couple and dinner with members of the Rochester Automobile Dealers Association. Her speech was followed by an auto show…She returned to New York on the ten o’clock train after fourteen hours of continuous public scrutiny.”(51) Earhart earned $250 a day from such public appearances.(52) As the Friendship flight began to fade from public memory, Putnam “realized that Amelia’s status and reputation as America’s best-known woman pilot would be jeopardized, or possibly lost forever, if any woman made the solo transatlantic flight first.”(53) In January 1932, Earhart announced to Putnam that she wished to fly the Atlantic solo and become the first woman to follow Lindbergh’s example. The pressure of her earlier circumstantial celebrity drove Earhart toward the endeavor, while Putnam was only too pleased to have his star embrace the limelight. In order to avoid the added pressure of focused media attention, Earhart and Putnam demanded extreme secrecy surrounding all preparations for the attempt. Reporters latched on to other American women aviators rumored to be looking across the ocean. The atmosphere of competition once more created a media buzz around a potential transatlantic flight. Putnam ordered modifications and improvements to Earhart’s Lockheed Vega 5B under the guise that the plane was being readied for another aviator. On May 20, 1932, a memorable five years to the day that Lindbergh completed his transatlantic flight, Earhart left Harbor Grace, Newfoundland bound for Paris. She did not make it to Paris, but landed in a field in Ireland fifteen hours after taking off, due to complications with her altimeter and tachometer as well as a cracked manifold.
Earhart broke two records as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and the first person to make it across twice in a “heavier-than-air craft.”(54) In her own words, “Some of my friends have suggested that I made very little preparation for my recent Atlantic flight. I took with me only what I wore – jodhpurs, silk shirt, windbreaker, and a leather flying suit – no dresses for the other side. I sent ahead no agents to greet me and attend to my affairs on my arrival in Europe. I made no advance announcements to the newspapers…my concern was simply to fly alone to Europe…I wanted to fly because I wanted to; not because advance publicity compelled me to.”(55) In this moment, Earhart secured her own celebrity and became more of an equal partner in her promotional efforts. Putnam acknowledged this shift in comments to reporters: “This is her stunt. She’s doing it under her own name, Amelia Earhart. That’s the name she made for herself.”(56) A later magazine article echoed these earlier sentiments, quoting Putman, “I always introduce her as ‘Miss Earhart.’ That’s her own name. She made it mean something and stand for something. It’s a business asset to her, if you will. I’m all for it.”(57)
In the whirlwind European publicity tour after the “hop” across the Atlantic, Earhart managed her own affairs until Putnam joined her on June 3 in Cherbourg, France. Crowds met Earhart wherever she went, and the press focused on her meetings with celebrated dignitaries and award receptions. In England, she met and danced with the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, talked with British aviation heroine Amy Johnson, and stayed at the home of Lady Astor, the first female member of Parliament. In France, Earhart was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor (bestowed upon Lindbergh five years previously), was made an honorary member of the Lafayette Escadrille (a largely American unit of the French Air Service during World War I), and was presented a medal from the Aero Club of France. In Italy, Earhart met with Benito Mussolini upon his request. From Rome, Earhart and Putnam went to Brussels where they dined with the king and queen, who honored her with the Cross of the Order of Leopold. Upon her return to the United States, she was given a gold medal by the National Geographic Society (presented earlier to Lindbergh for his transatlantic flight) and honored at the reception by President Herbert Hoover. The American Woman’s Association chose Earhart as the second ever recipient of their annual award. In speeches at each of these events, she emphasized that she was not dramatically contributing to the advancement of the field of aviation but hoped that she inspired women to pursue their interests in this field. She also took advantage of the fame she achieved from her flight over the Atlantic as a chance to prove that aviation was a safe form of transportation.(58)
Earhart highlighted these sentiments in The Fun of It, a memoir released within weeks of her homecoming, and which she had actually researched and written before her flight across the Atlantic. It provides an account of the Friendship flight, profiles of other female aviators, and explanations of some of her professional experiences, including her editorial position with Cosmopolitan, her work with Transcontinental Air Transport, and the writing of 20 Hrs. 40 Min. She finished the last nine pages in the summer of 1932 and the book was published within the month.(59) Putnam’s promotional announcement advertised the book as being particularly “interesting for American girls.”(60)
Flying simply “for the fun of it” did not tell the whole story. The book helped to inaugurate a new endorsement campaign, portraying a rather endearing image of Earhart, her hair curled and neatly in place, replete with pearls, the ultimate statement of femininity (see Figure 6). Yet in rather masculine tones, she also now christened one of the first Essex Terraplane cars, breaking a bottle of gasoline over the vehicle, later presented to another famous aviator, Orville Wright.(61) Earhart explained her own past experience with gas engines in automobiles as a stepping-stone for her work with airplanes. “It is with pleasure that I christen the Essex Terraplane today,” she wrote, “in the hope that this new automobile may bring driving for multitudes of people a step closer to flying, just as we in aviation hope that flying will become as commonplace as automobiling. – Amelia Earhart, Detroit – July 21, 1932.”(62) She was also given an Essex Terraplane for her endorsement and attended its “driveaway debut,” where she was photographed with the president of the Hudson Motor Car Company. Although Putnam presented Earhart as a fun-loving career pilot, her true profits came from such endorsements. When reporters asked about them, she politely answered that she should benefit “in any legitimate way that comes to hand. Any woman who wishes to should be able to do so without stigma.”(63)
Upon her successful transatlantic flight, newspapers across the United States heralded Earhart as, “Woman Ocean Flier,” “Noted Aviatrix,” “The World’s Premier Lady Bird,” “America’s Leading Aviatrix,” and “Woman Who Conquered the Atlantic.”(64) Reporters described her as, “smiling and confident,” a “blonde-haired, slim young woman,” and “gay, frequently laughing or smiling, always natural.”(65) These articles recognized the achievement itself by presenting a down-to-earth woman flying for “the fun of it.” The grandiose titles and flattering descriptions commended the already-famous Earhart. Even in news articles, journalists often referred to her as “Amelia,” creating an aura of accessibility and familiarity. Yet not all Earhart features were so positive. The New York Post criticized Earhart’s effort by saying, “We think it an almost entirely silly and useless performance. About all she has proved is that well-known phenomenon of nature that a girl can’t jump quite as far as a boy can.”(66)
Newspapers and magazines also focused on Putnam and his role as dutiful husband in light of Earhart’s latest masculine achievement. The New York Daily News from May 28, 1932 described Putnam as a hindrance to his wife at various award receptions. Under the headline “Poor Mr. Putnam,” the article explains, “At times he attempted to assist a little by steering Amelia toward the reception group of famous women fliers or prompting her when she was talking with reporters but even these efforts fell rather flat…It may not be quite fair to say that he envies his wife’s success but it is quite certain that he does not wish to become submerged in her personality and completely lost in the stage settings of her triumphs.”(67) After the completion of Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic, Putnam was interviewed by Red Book, a women’s magazine, and answered questions about his wife. He immediately addressed Earhart’s simultaneous adherence to and defiance of established gender norms. “My wife, Amelia Earhart, flies. Also she writes and is an independent business woman. And, I may add, she is an equally successful wife and home-keeper.”(68) Then, he concluded, “it’s the notion of at least one husband that the abilities which make for feminine accomplishment in the workaday world equally insure pretty well-run homes – and even contented spouses!”(69) In an interview with Indiana’s Huntington Herald Press, Earhart reinforced her husband’s assessment, “However, flying does not require all of my time. I have a husband, a home, and I like to read and sew.”(70)
Looking for new promotional opportunities, Putnam and Earhart focused their efforts on the world of women’s fashion. This was quite a departure from an earlier trend, when Earhart’s clothing consisted of practical flying gear, apparel designed to invoke the established popularity of Charles Lindbergh. In 1928, the New York Sun even reported, “fashions – either of air or earth – have no appeal for Amelia Earhart.”(71) Yet Putnam disliked some of Earhart’s original style choices, particularly the hats that hid her signature curly, tousled hair. He called them “a public menace” and encouraged her to stop wearing them.(72) In 1934, despite Earhart’s seeming disinterest in fashion, Putnam brokered a deal with department stores in thirty cities, including Macy’s in New York and Marshall Field’s in Chicago, for a line of clothing designed by Amelia Earhart, a name now recognized “with new importance.” The venture into women’s fashion was meant to combine her passion for aviation, women’s advancement, and sewing (see Figure 7).
The Earhart name elicited both adventure and excitement. The United States Rubber Company jumped at the chance to sponsor two raincoats in the clothing line. Earhart and Putnam also marketed the sporty clothing as an appeal to women performing typical masculine activities (such as driving) who felt constrained by current fashion. The line was advertised and sold through Women’s Home Companion in 1934, which highlighted the “simple, comfortable clothes, free of all extraneous hangings even in the evening” (see Figure 8).(73) According to Susan Butler, the clothing line featured “wearable sports dresses, separates, and coats, as well as flying clothes.” Butler believes Earhart “passed on every detail…pored over swatches of material and, working with seamstresses, created outfits using her old sewing machine.”(74) More likely, Putnam perpetuated the idea that she was highly involved. Earhart’s true contribution was clothing designed for female aviators. Previously, women had to wear ill-fitting flight suits made for men or wear dresses that were not conducive to flying at high speeds and altitudes. In the end, Earhart’s dalliance with fashion was short-lived; her clothing line folded after only one season in stores. In the downturn of the Great Depression, it seems, middle class women were not so concerned with the latest trends.
Following this diversion, Earhart became freer to follow her true interests: speaking to groups about her experiences around the world, and advising women to expand their horizons beyond the worlds of wives and mothers. In 1935, Earhart appeared before 136 different groups, reaching out to more than 80,000 people across the country.(75) Although her image had been created through the pursuit of record-breaking flights, she was no longer recognized simply as an aviator. In 1934, Earhart spoke at The New York Herald Tribune’s Conference on Current Problems, bringing representatives from universities, government officials, and businesspeople together to look for ways to combat the Depression. Edward C. Elliott, president of Purdue University and one of the participants, was duly impressed. He soon invited Earhart to Purdue, not to teach aeronautics or engineering courses, but to inspire young women to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated fields. Her fame achieved through record-breaking flights now earned her the opportunity to pursue her true passion: women’s rights. At Purdue, there was no need for Putnam to market her; Earhart connected with female students all on her own. With Putnam home in New York, she could now fully speak for herself.
Although Earhart focused primarily on the counseling of young coeds, President Elliott’s Purdue Research Foundation also funded a “Flying Laboratory,” an aircraft for her flight around the world. The Foundation contributed $20,000 from illustrious Purdue alumni, and another $33,000 for equipment secured from companies such as the Bendix Corporation, Western Electric, Goodrich, and Goodyear. G. Stanley Meikle, the Foundation’s research director, defined the scientific objectives of the “A.E. World Flight” as “to collect scientific and engineering” data “during the flight itself as well as during its preparation;” and “to focus wide public attention upon the possibility of using” Purdue as “an aeronautical proving ground where education and scientific research may be pursued impartially without limit.”(76) Earhart’s own reasons for pursuing the flight were quite different. When asked why she was “attempting this around-the-world flight,” she simply replied: “Because I want to.” She defended her simple answer, explaining, “that was as near a complete reply as I could devise. Here was shining adventure, beckoning with new experiences, added new knowledge of flying, of peoples – of myself. I felt that with the flight behind me I would be more useful to me and to the program we had planned at Purdue.”(77)
In 1937, before her ill-fated world flight, Major Al Williams, “one of America’s foremost flyers,” denounced Earhart and other aviators who broke records instead of advancing aviation as a science. He went so far as to say, “Daring, courageous individuals, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, have used and are using aviation merely as a means toward quick fame and fortune.”(78) He showed disdain for the branding of Earhart’s airplane, commenting that “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 found on board every major airline transport.” Finally, he criticized the Earhart fame machine by saying, “Nothing is said about the thousands of dollars which she and her manager-husband expected to get for thousands of stamp catchets, designs or inscriptions other than the official cancellation to mark a postal or philatelic event, carried in the ‘Flying Laboratory.’ Nothing at all was hinted of the fat lecture contracts, the magazine and book rights for stories of the flight…No, the whole affair was labelled ‘Purely Scientific’ for public consumption.”(79) Williams had a point, as both Putnam and Purdue were set to profit from the flight. For Earhart herself, the flight was a final chance to prove that she had progressed from a helpless passenger to an authentic, skilled pilot, worthy of her position as an advocate for women’s education at Purdue.
Amelia Earhart fell short of her ultimate goal. Departing Miami on June 1, 1937, she disappeared during the final stages of her world-circling journey. By July 2, 1937, the U.S. Coast Guard declared Earhart’s Lockheed Electra, Purdue’s “Flying Laboratory,” missing. In the month spent abroad prior to her disappearance, she periodically sent Putnam chapters describing her experiences. Upon Earhart’s return, Putnam planned to publish the book as World Flight. But even Earhart’s death did not prevent him from making a perceptive business decision. He collected and polished the materials into Last Flight, which came out later that year, and served as a capstone to both Earhart’s career and their enduring relationship. As he explained in the Forward, “It is almost entirely written by Amelia Earhart herself…. To all that is added some material from others, who knew her and wrote about her… I have sought to make a simple record of A.E.’s last adventure for myself and for the many who loved and found cheer in her gallant, friendly life.”(80) Last Flight was the final opportunity for Earhart and Putnam to speak together on her career and accomplishments. Earhart had finally transformed from a celebrity of circumstance into a public personality of her own making. At the start, Putnam had helped to manufacture her image. By the end, she was actively preserving her own deserved legacy.
1. Susan Ware, “It’s Hard Work Being a Popular Heroine,” in Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, ed. Kristen Lubben and Erin Barnett (Göttingen: Steidl; New York: International Center of Photography, 2007), 33.
2. Joseph J. Corn, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), xiii.
3. Ibid., 9. For context, see David T. Courtwright, Sky as Frontier: Adventure, Aviation, and Empire (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005); Robert Wohl, The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
4. Amy Henderson, “Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture,” OAH Magazine of History 6, no. 4 (Spring 1992): 51; Corn, The Winged Gospel, 18.
5. Susan Butler, East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1997).
6. Butler, East to the Dawn, 262; Corn, The Winged Gospel, 18.
7. Ware, “It’s Hard Work Being a Popular Heroine,” 33; Corn, The Winged Gospel, 17.
8. Butler, East to the Dawn, 151.
9. Ibid., 245.
10. Earhart, like Lindbergh before her, stood as a counterpoint to the excess of the jazz age of the 1920s. True, she embodied the “heady new ideals circulating in the culture” about the acceptability of women in masculine roles.
11. Ibid., 10. Also see Anne Herrmann, “On Amelia Earhart: The Aviatrix as American Dandy,” Michigan Quarterly Review 39, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 85-86; and Sidonie Smith, Moving Lives: Twentieth-Century Women’s Travel Writing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 93, 118.
12. “Amelia Earhart on Aircraft and Needlecraft,” Needlecraft: The Magazine of Home Arts (May 1930), Item Identification Number: AEOS040, The George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers [Hereafter The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers], Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, Resource Available Online
13. Amelia Earhart, personal account of preparations for the flight, 1928, page 1, Item Identification Number: b1f3i1, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
14. “She did it!” Daily Mirror, June 1928, Item Identification Number: B1f11i17, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
15. Earhart to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 8 May 1929, Item Identification Number: b7f164i1, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
16. “She did it!” The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
17. Allen Raymond, “Amelia Earhart Flies Atlantic, First Woman To Do It; Tells Her Own Story of Perilous 21-Hour Trip to Wales; Radio Quit and They Flew Blind Over Invisible Ocean,” New York Times, June 19, 1928, 1.
18. Butler, East to the Dawn, 215.
20. “The First Woman Across,” Morning World, June 19, 1928, Item Identification Number: b1f11i18, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online; “She did it!” The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online; “Fay King Suggests ‘Miss Airheart’ as Name for ‘Lady Lindy,’” Daily Mirror, June 20,1928, Item Identification Number: b1f11i13, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
21. Amelia Earhart, 20 hrs. 40 min. (New York: Arno Press, 1980), 290.
22. Ibid., 292.
23. Anonymous to Miss Earhart, 7 July 1928, Item Identification Number: b1f7i105, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
24. Butler, East to the Dawn, 203.
25. Kathleen C. Winters, Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 90.
26. Butler, East to the Dawn, 151.
27. Winters, Amelia Earhart, 80.
28. Amelia Earhart, The Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation (New York: Brewer, Warren & Putnam, 1932), 87.
29. Herrmann, “On Amelia Earhart,” 103.
30. W.P. Powell to H.H. Railey, 20 June 1928, London, Item Identification Number: b1f7i80, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
31. Earhart, The Fun of It, 86.
32. “Receipt for $1500 contributed by Amelia Earhart,” July 30, 1928, Item Identification Number: b1f9i2, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
33. Earhart, 20 Hrs. 40 Mins., 284-285.
34. Earhart, The Fun of It, 86.
35. Ibid., 99.
36. Butler, East to the Dawn, 219.
37. Earhart to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 30 January 1930, Item Identification Number: b8f184i1, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
38. Amelia Earhart, “Try Flying Yourself,” Cosmopolitan, November, 1928, 32-35, 158, Scrapbook 1, page 168-169, Item Identification Number: AESB001, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
39. Butler, East to the Dawn, 220.
40. “Miss Earhart Spurns Fashions,” New York Sun, June 20, 1928, Item Identification Number: b1f11i25, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
41. Amelia Earhart, “What Miss Earhart Thinks When She’s Flying,” Cosmopolitan, December 1928, 28-35, 158, reprinted in Lubben and Barnett, Amelia Earhart, 64-67.
42. Sally Putnam Chapman and Stephanie Mansfield, Whistled like a Bird: The Untold Story of Dorothy Putnam, George Putnam, and Amelia Earhart (New York: Warner Books, 1997), 127.
43. Ibid., 134.
44. “Amelia Earhart Weds G. P. Putnam,” New York Times, February 8, 1931, 3.
45. Amelia Earhart to George Palmer Putnam, 7 February 1931, Noank, Connecticut, Item Identification Number: b7f150i1, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
46. Butler, East to the Dawn, 254.
47. Amelia Earhart and George Putnam, Last Flight (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937), 49.
48. “Earhart Backer Sued for Decree before Reno Bar,” Evening Graphic, November 29, 1929, Item Identification Number: b9f297i2, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
49. “Amelia Earhart Dressed for Deep Sea Diving,” 1929, Item Identification Number: b13f11i25, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
50. Earhart, The Fun of It, 128; Butler, East to the Dawn, 247.
51. Doris L. Rich, Amelia Earhart: A Biography (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 81.
52. Karla Jay, “No Bumps, No Excrescences: Amelia Earhart’s Failed Flight into Fashions,” in On Fashion, ed. Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss (New Brunswick: Rutgers State University, 1994), 90.
53. Winters, Amelia Earhart, 120.
54. Rich, Amelia Earhart, 129.
55. Amelia Earhart, “The Employment of Women in Aviation,” June 4, 1932, Scrapbook 8, page 6, Item Identification Number: AESB008, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
56. Rich, Amelia Earhart, 151.
57. George Palmer Putnam, “The Forgotten,” Pictorial Review, September, 1932, 12, Scrapbook 8, page 40, Item Identification Number: AESB008, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
58. “Amelia Earhart Declares Aviators are not Thrill Seekers,” Huntington Herald Press, 1930, Item Identification Number: b9f297i7, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online; Rich, Amelia Earhart, 133-137.
59. Rich, Amelia Earhart, 114.
60. “Amelia Earhart Off on Solo Ocean Hop with Paris Her Goal,” May 21, 1932, Scrapbook 7, page 75, Item Identification Number: AESB007, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
61. “High Power-Weight Ratio, Essex Feature,” Detroit Sunday Times, July 24, 1932, Scrapbook 7, page 91, Item Identification Number: AESB007, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
62. Earhart and Putnam, Last Flight, front matter.
63. Rich, Amelia Earhart, 146.
64. “High Power-Weight Ratio, Essex Feature,” Scrapbook 7, page 91, Item Identification Number: AESB007, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
66. “About All She Has Proved,” New York Post, May 21, 1932, Item Identification Number: III.G.21, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
67. “Arranges Solo Flight from So Low to So High,” May 28, 1932, Scrapbook 7, page 65, Item Identification Number: AESB007, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
68. George Putnam Palmer, “My Wife,” Red Book, circa 1932-1933, Scrapbook 8, page 16, Item Identification Number: AESB008, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
70. “Amelia Earhart Declares Aviators are not Thrill Seekers,”The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
71. “Miss Earhart Spurns Fashions,” The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
72. Jay, “No Bumps, No Excrescences,” 77.
73. “Designed by Amelia Earhart,” Woman’s Home Companion, August 1934, 33.
74. Butler, East to the Dawn, 300.
75. Ibid., 305.
76. “General Notes Pertaining to the A.E. World Flight,” February 27, 1936, Item Identification Number: AEPb1f8i28, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
77. Earhart and Putnam, Last Flight, 55.
78. “Al Williams Rips Earhart ‘Stunt’ Flight,” Cleveland Press, March 31, 1937, Item Identification Number: b4f53i9, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
80. Earhart and Putnam, Last Flight, x.