Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am by Julia Cooke

Once upon a time, a stewardess could speak two languages, mix a perfect martini, correctly address a prime minister, and prepare a Passover meal in flight. She was svelte, she was single, and she knew how to evacuate a jet in the dark, upside down, underwater. A Pan Am stewardess, that is. In Come Fly the World, Julia Cooke traces the careers of a group of women who flew with Pan Am from the launch of the jet age in 1958 to the crash of the company in 1991.

Getting the job was the first hurdle, and Pan Am set a high bar. With airfares regulated by the government, the quality of in-flight service was a major selling point; the airline accepted no more than 5 percent of applicants. Height, weight, and age requirements were industry standards (with a special emphasis on hip measurement, since the hips were constantly in the seated passengers’ eyeline), but Pan Am searched for women who projected a sophisticated poise that matched its role as America’s only airline dedicated exclusively to international flights.

The term “jet set” was coined in the early 1960s, and Pan Am stewardesses were chosen and trained to cater to that image, serving seven-course meals with after-dinner cigars for the gentlemen and orchids for the ladies. A Beverly Hills couturier designed their uniforms. Cooke follows every inch of hemline rise and jacket tuck through the decades, but Pan Am never delivers anything as startling as her description of the Braniff Airlines uniform: “Braniff sent its stewardesses into the air wearing yellow coats; after two outfit changes, the women concluded flight service in leopard-print leotards with a sheer overlay.”

Height, weight, and age requirements were industry standards, with a special emphasis on hip measurement, since the hips were constantly in the seated passengers’ eyeline.

We follow the hopeful candidates’ aspirations and doubts, their families’ attitudes, and the lure of international travel, which the airline quickly molded to its ideal of airborne ambassadors projecting American values and Pan Am’s corporate identity. After six weeks of training that ranged from makeup and packing lessons to technical grounding in the engineering and physics of flight, the newly fledged stewardesses boarded jets that linked the continents.

They accepted futures that included regular weigh-ins, checks by “grooming monitors,” and management pre-approval of any change in hair color or style. They also agreed to retire upon marriage or at a set age. The average stewardess career lasted only about 32 months. These policies kept the faces young and fresh while also preventing the accrual of pension benefits and excessive insurance costs.

Corporate regimentation was accompanied by unsupervised fun during layovers around the world. All-night parties with crews from many airlines often included other expats—diplomats, businessmen—on the loose in exotic locales. The young women developed a tribal knowledge of foreign shopping: shoes in Milan, pearls in Hong Kong, stockings in Paris. From Bangkok to Berlin, they knew the best restaurants. The flying life offered plenty of opportunity for pleasures of all sorts, although the drooling accounts of stewardess (“stew”) sex life—the books Coffee, Tea, or Me? and Girl on a Wing, the Tony Curtis movie Boeing, Boeing—were all written by men.

Cooke scatters bits of Pan Am’s corporate story throughout the book, explaining the airline’s rise from a supporting role in F.D.R.’s Lend-Lease program to leadership of the world’s aero industry with a fleet of ever larger, faster jets, as well as the grand InterContinental Hotels at their destinations. A more sustained, detailed account would have been welcome. She does, however, describe a fascinating intersection of U.S. and Pan Am history in a chapter titled “Pan Am Goes to War.”

She was svelte, she was single, and she knew how to evacuate a jet in the dark, upside down, underwater.

Government military charters were a rich revenue stream for the airline, an arrangement which, by the mid-60s, brought our clutch of stewardesses to Vietnam. For years, they served passengers far from the jet set: soldiers en route to and from the battlefield. Some were terrified new draftees, others dead-eyed veterans going home, or to Hong Kong or Tokyo for a few days of R&R. The stewardesses gave what they could of compassion and comfort even as their jets became targets of enemy fire. As the war wound down, they served on harrowing flights evacuating Saigon. Finally, they flew in Operation Babylift, a frantic effort to bring some 2,000 children to orphanages in the States.

Female roles were transformed over the Pan Am decades, but stewardesses remained in a strange no-woman’s land—smiling, servile symbols of male fantasy but also working women traveling the globe in challenging jobs when most of their peers were at home with families. Come Fly the World opens an intimate porthole into the life they chose aboard Pan American.

Robin Olson is a Los Angeles–based writer and editor