The Hustler’s Apprentice

In the fall of 1928 Charles LeBoutillier, who was living in New York City’s Greenwich Village, saw Amelia Earhart peering under the open hood of a car parked near Greenwich House on Barrow Street. “It was a beautiful car—looked like a Stutz Bearcat—and she took care of it herself,” he said.

“I knew who she was,” added LeBoutillier, a friend and former Harvard classmate of Boston NAA secretary Bernard Wiesman. “I’d seen her at the Boston airport after her Atlantic flight with her arms full of flowers. She was living in an apartment in the Village that fall, in that settlement house. I think most of the people in the neighborhood knew who she was but nobody took much notice. She ate in a cafe with a courtyard—one a lot of us went to—and someone said she liked to talk about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry. She didn’t seem different from us—just an ordinary person.” The relative anonymity Amelia was enjoying would not last much longer. George Palmer Putnam’s campaign to make her one of America’s most famous women was already in its fifth month.

On July 24—her thirty-first birthday—when Amelia returned to New York from her five-city homecoming tour, G. P. brought her directly from Grand Central to the Putnam house in Rye, where he put her to work on the book she had promised to write. Even before she left Boston on the Friendship, he had decided that, if she survived, Amelia’s story might prove as popular as Lindbergh’s and Byrd’s had been for G. P. Putnam’s Sons. While she was still at Trepassey he had wired: “For occupation might write skeleton thousand word story thus far Halifax Trepassey with names details to enlarge here after you underway.”

By Putnam employing all the names and details he had collected from Amelia, with a good deal of editorial direction on his part, the book was finished in three weeks—in time for the shrewd Putnam to take advantage of the free publicity generated by the flight and subsequent homecoming hoopla. Amelia worked in the library of the sixteen-room, six-bath, Spanish mission-style house, which had been designed by G. P. and built in 1925. She dedicated the book to her hostess Dorothy Binney Putnam, “under whose roof-tree this book was written.”

G. P.’s wife was an attractive, intelligent woman, the daughter of a Pittsburgh millionaire,* who had met her husband at a Sierra Club outing in New England soon after her graduation from Vassar College. They married in 1911 in Bend, Oregon. The twenty-four-year-old bridegroom, editor of the town’s newspaper, was elected mayor of Bend a year later. They remained in Oregon until G. P. was commissioned a lieutenant in the Army in 1917. After the war he joined the family firm and by 1925 had moved into the house in Rye with Dorothy and their two sons, David Binney and George Palmer, Jr.

Dorothy Putnam was a popular hostess whose guests included opera stars, authors, artists, and explorers. During their seventeen-year marriage, her wide-ranging interests were frequently not shared by G. P., who had been known to come home late and stomp upstairs to bed without speaking to her guests. However, G. P.’s latest protégée and his wife liked each other. Dorothy described Amelia as “an educated and cultivated person with a fine, healthy sense of humor.”

As soon as the book was finished, Amelia told G. P. she wanted to fly the Avro Avian she had purchased from Lady Heath to the West Coast and back. Although G. P. had paid for the plane and it was registered in his name, Amelia knew it was an investment made to convince the public and the press that she was a genuine aviator with a plane of her own. She also knew that he expected to decide when and where she flew it. She was asking him for permission to fly as she pleased and without any scheduled appearances en route. G. P. agreed because he had already learned that, although she followed his instructions most of the time, when she did set a goal of her own it was almost impossible to make her abandon it. He was also confident that by this time, wherever she went, she would be recognized and pursued by reporters. To make certain she was, two days before she left, he broke his promise to keep her trip a secret.

As secretive as always, Amelia wrote to Marian Stabler that she would be at the Putnams’ in Rye until the first of September, when she actually intended to leave a week earlier. During a brief visit to her mother in Boston, she said to Amy that she might fly to the West Coast but gave her no date. The vague announcement was made to save Amy from the embarrassment she had suffered over not knowing about the Atlantic flight until reporters told her. Amy immediately told Muriel. Amelia then scolded her mother for telling Muriel. “I don’t want her to spread the news,” she wrote, “and I fear she will.” In the same letter she suggested that Amy refer reporters to her or G. P., but added that Amy could tell them she knew her daughter’s plans but did not want to reveal them.

On August 29, the first day of her trip, Amelia cracked up the Avian at Pittsburgh. She was taxiing across Rogers Field when the wheels of the little biplane dropped into an unmarked ditch, throwing it on its side in a ground-loop, which damaged the propeller, lower wing, and landing gear. She reacted to this crackup just as she had all those in the past and those she would have in the future. She was annoyed when questioned about it, unimpressed that she had been spared injury or death, and acted as if the incident might be obliterated if people would stop talking about it. When one newsman asked her about it a week later she said that in her ten years of flying she had never been in an accident like the one he described: “All they had to do was pull mine [her plane] out and it was ready to take up,” she told him.

The plane was not ready to take up. G. P., who had accompanied her to Pittsburgh, returned to New York to make certain a second Avro Avian was flown to Pittsburgh to provide spare parts for the damaged machine. She was delayed for forty-eight hours.

By September 3, Amelia reached Scott Field near St. Louis, where she was recognized by a young woman who immediately commandeered her as a houseguest and insisted she attend a country club dance that night. Amelia, who had very little money and liked to dance, accepted. The local hotel cost more and offered even less privacy. Her next hostess was Mrs. John Hay, a young Army wife in Muskogee, Missouri, who thought herself “the luckiest woman in all the universe” to have Amelia for a guest. Mrs. Hay said that Amelia sent a wire to her mother and “to some man, too, but of course I didn’t listen to find out who he was.” Although G. P. had broken his promise to keep the trip a secret, Amelia kept hers to notify him of her whereabouts at every stop on the way.

Her hostess admired Amelia’s luggage, given her in England, and her clothes—all wrinkleproof and “just darling”—but she was ambiguous about Amelia’s appearance. “She was really sort of homely, but she was nice to look at and I imagine she’d be pretty if she weren’t so brown.” In midwestern America, suntans were not yet fashionable, being more an indication of life on the farm than a winter in Miami.

Misfortune dogged Amelia for the remainder of the flight. She was forced down at Lovington, New Mexico, and again at Pecos, Texas, where she made an emergency landing on the main street after the plane developed valve trouble. She waited five days in Pecos for spare parts, then was forced down at an isolated ranch outside Douglas, Arizona, after the climb over the mountains overheated the engine. At Yuma, eager volunteers who offered to push her plane to the end of the field for takeoff upended the aircraft, bending the propeller. Amelia removed it, hammered it back into shape, reinstalled it, and left for Glendale, California, where she arrived on September 13.

The National Air Exhibition at Mines Field in Los Angeles was in its fifth day when Amelia showed up after a night’s sleep at the Biltmore Hotel. This annual event was aviation’s “Barnum and Bailey Show of Shows” with crowds of fifty to seventy-five thousand attending daily to watch the world’s best aviators perform. When Amelia was introduced from the announcers’ stand, she received a standing ovation. Two days later, Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons wrote that a movie company filming the aviation show failed to attract the attention of spectators who were more interested in getting “a glimpse of Colonel Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.”

While she waited for the Avian to be overhauled in Los Angeles, Amelia called on Bert and Cora Kinner. Cora, who had never forgotten “how she treated that old man,” was still not impressed by Amelia. After Amelia told her she was tired of banquet hall chicken and longed for some of Cora’s delicious pork chops, Cora fixed them, but grumbled later, “I didn’t want to bother with her, but she had her pork chops all right.”

That same week Amelia flew as a passenger to San Francisco, where she paid a visit to the Army’s 381st Aero Squadron at Cressey Field. The squadron made her an honorary major and presented her with the silver pilot’s wings of the U.S. Air Service. She obviously prized this gift more than any other she had received and wore the wings frequently for the rest of her life—even on formal gowns.

On the return flight east the Avian’s motor died on her one hundred miles south of Salt Lake City. Making a dead-stick landing in a rutted field, she nosed the little plane over. This time, replacement parts required a ten-day wait in Salt Lake City. While she was there she gave speeches to the high school girls’ assembly and the directors of the Community Chest, was taken to see copper mines and canyons, and was entertained by more than a dozen eager hosts. In an interview at the home of her principal hosts, the P. C. Schramms, she said she would gladly break another propeller to lengthen her visit to Utah. Wherever she stopped, she assured the residents that their town or city was a wonderful place in which she would like to stay longer. If her compliments were good copy for the local paper, they were also basically truthful. Amelia was an inquisitive, undemanding, and tireless tourist.

At her next stop, in Omaha, after a play she went backstage to talk to the stars, Lou Tellegen and Eve Casanova. She asked Casanova how she kept such a beautiful complexion and said hers was so sunburned and weatherbeaten that she was ashamed of it. Although she soon stopped talking about it in public, Amelia did think her skin was unattractive and that her figure was ruined by thighs that were too heavy. Slacks or floor-length evening gowns would hide the latter defect, but flying left her no escape from exposure to sun and wind. Her face was frequently sunburned, freckled, and sometimes peeling.

In Omaha she gave her only display of temper on the trip, after she discovered that there were no attendants at the airfield, her plane had not been serviced, and someone had folded back the wings the wrong way. Instead of criticizing the airfield attendants, she turned her ire on souvenir hunters. “Why they even cut pieces of the fabric from the wings of your machine,” she complained, “and then ask you to autograph them! Some day a souvenir hound will carry off a vital part and there will be a crash,” she told a reporter.

The flying vacation ended on October 13 in New York when G. P. presented her with a schedule of future engagements designed to boost sales of her book, Twenty Hours Forty Minutes: Our Flight in the “Friendship,” released a month earlier. In spite of brisk sales and generally flattering reviews, the book was not very interesting. Other than entries from Amelia’s diary, it was a dull summary of the problems of commercial aviation and a plea for more support from the government and the public. The last chapter did show a flair for self-deprecating humor, a talent Amelia was already using to great advantage in speeches and interviews. In one account of her difficulties with photographers, she described a visit to Hyde Park High School where a cameraman, trying to include a group of students in the picture with her, asked her to step forward onto a grand piano that was level with the stage. In a note to her, a friend who saw the picture asked, “How did you get on the piano?” Amelia was certain her friend had pictured her making “scandalizing progress through the west, leaping from piano to piano.”

Amelia did not complain about the heavy schedule of engagements made for her by G. P. He had financed the Avian for her, her first plane since she was forced to sell the Kinner Airster four years earlier. She had already collected other rewards. For appearing on the NBC broadcast in an auto show at Madison Square Garden, she had been presented with a blue Chrysler roadster. For her endorsement of a fur-lined, leather “Amelia Earhart Flying Suit,” a Fifth Avenue department store gave her one. She had no intention of “wearing it up and down Fifth Avenue,” as the advertisement claimed, but she had learned from G. P. that there could be considerable gain in enduring such foolishness.

However, G. P. made a mistake in advising her to accept fifteen hundred dollars for endorsing a brand of cigarettes with Stultz and Gordon. McCall’s magazine, which had offered her a job, hastily withdrew the offer after an ominous number of former admirers, who believed that nice women did not smoke, wrote letters of protest. Amelia did not, in fact, smoke but Stultz and Gordon had needed the money and the tobacco company refused to use the advertisement without her name. Amelia countered by giving the entire sum to Byrd’s upcoming South Pole expedition. Soon after, William Randolph Hearst’s magazine, Cosmopolitan, came to her rescue with a job as aviation editor.

Her first article appeared in the November edition. Entitled “Try Flying,” it was a dull rehash of material from her book. More interesting was the introduction of the magazine’s newest columnist by O. O. McIntyre who called Amelia “a real American girl”—the answer to the problem of decadent, young American women indulging in everything from gin-guzzling to “harlotry.” McIntyre claimed Amelia had already become “a symbol of new womanhood” that would be emulated by thousands of young girls. In time, his effusive accolade would prove to be true.

Amelia liked answering her mail, but dreaded writing the column, and made at least one attempt to hire a ghostwriter. During a week spent taking membership pledges for the American Red Cross at a table in Arnold Constable’s Fifth Avenue store, Amelia metElla May Frazer, a young freelance writer who introduced herself after she saw that Amelia sat alone, unrecognized by the shoppers. “She was the most natural woman in the world,” Frazer said, “and didn’t try to draw attention to herself—even as a saleswoman for the Red Cross.” When Frazer returned several times during the week, Amelia told her that she dreaded the program proposed by Cosmopolitan in which she was to fly to a dozen cities in the next twelve months, writing an article on each flight and giving a lecture to a women’s club in each city. She said it was impossible to take notes while flying, and once she landed there was always a group waiting for her, then a speech to make that same day. If Frazer would come with her, Amelia said, to take notes and do the writing, then she could fly and give the lectures. But first she would have to give Frazer a test flight to make certain she liked flying.

Frazer had not told Amelia that she was four months pregnant, nor had she informed her husband about Amelia’s job offer. When she consulted her obstetrician he told her flying would be too dangerous in her condition and her husband absolutely forbade it. “Telling Amelia was terrible,” she said. “She was very disappointed but she did say that she liked me and felt that we could have been a wonderful pair to do this.” Eventually Amelia persuaded the magazine’s editor to abandon the plan.

To supplement her income from endorsements, book royalties, and the magazine column, Amelia gave lectures, work that would eventually bring in the greater part of her earnings. G. P. helped her to become an accomplished performer. After assessing herappearance, voice, and personality, he asked for changes where he thought they were needed. He approved of her “natural” hairstyle, so artfully bleached and curled, so carefully disarranged, and of her posture, her expressive hands, and her low-pitched, musical voice. He thought she had excellent taste in clothes but called her hats “a public menace” and told her to wear one only when necessary and then only one with a small brim.

He taught her how to talk into a microphone, to point at a screen without turning her back to the audience, and to avoid lowering her voice at the end of a sentence. He also advised her on posing for photographers. At first the flare of flashguns had caught her pigeon-toed, her hands frozen at her sides, her wide smile revealing a marked space between her two upper front teeth. G. P. told her to close her lips when she smiled. Although she never liked being photographed, she learned to pose like a professional model.

After she returned from her cross-country flight, Putnam dispatched her on a round of lectures, including one in New Haven at a college aeronautical club conference hosted by Yale University, and another in Detroit where five hundred members of the Detroit Adcraft and Women’s Advertising clubs packed the dining room of the Detroit-Leland Hotel to hear her speak. She was on her way to becoming a star of the nation’s lecture circuit, the principal means by which celebrities could be seen before the advent of television.

G. P. continued to notify the press of her every move. In December she attended the International Civil Aeronautics Conference in Washington, which was followed by a celebration at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight. Although she was not an official delegate she was one of two hundred guests invited to go by sea on the steamer, District of Columbia. Three thousand others had to find their own transportation. In a letter to her mother Amelia wrote: “I was considered important enough to be the guest of the government so I am riding and eating free.… It’s the kind of junket you’d like and had I any idea I was going I should have arranged for your coming.”

Amy was fortunate to have missed it. The celebration was plagued by fog, rain, and transportation breakdowns but when the monument at Kill Devil Hill was unveiled on December 17, Amelia was right where G. P. wanted her to be—standing between Orville Wright and Sen. Hiram Bingham, president of the NAA.

A week later Amy went to the apartment in Greenwich House to spend the Christmas holiday of 1928 with her daughter. When Amelia bought two tickets to take her mother on an air tour over the city, her purchase was reported in New York newspapers. Amelia Earhart was still “news.” In six months she had flown across the country and back, visited more than thirty cities, and given at least one hundred speeches and twice as many interviews. For the first time in her life she believed it might be possible to fly and earn a decent living.

* Her father, Edward Binney, was the manufacturer of Crayola crayons.

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