Review: Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am

In the golden age of air travel, Pan Am stewardesses were a symbol of independence, glamour and sexual empowerment. They were beautiful, college-educated, skilled in diplomacy and crowd control (as well as navigating tight spaces, turbulence and even war zones). But they were also real women, with varied backgrounds and experiences both on the ground and in the air. In her second nonfiction book, Come Fly the World, journalist Julia Cooke explores the rise and fall of Pan Am against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and rapidly changing--if often inconsistent--attitudes toward women in the workplace.

Cooke (The Other Side of Paradise) conducted extensive interviews with former stewardesses, and she devotes large chunks of her narrative to their perspectives. A small-town girl from upstate New York, a young Norwegian woman who would eventually make her home in California, a woman who became one of Pan Am's first Black stewardesses--all of them came to the airline seeking adventure and a chance to make their own way. They went through rigorous training and dealt with sexism (covert and overt) in every area, from their uniforms' fit to the smiles they were expected to give passengers. More importantly, they learned valuable skills and embraced international adventures: swimming in multiple oceans, visiting cities they'd only dreamed about, even handling hijackings and other tense situations on board.

As the Vietnam War dragged on, many stewardesses helped ferry American GIs to or from combat zones. The experience affected them deeply and gave them a new perspective on both anti-war protests and hawkish government attitude back in the States. When President Gerald Ford ordered the evacuation of nearly 3,000 war "orphans" from Vietnam in 1975, Pan Am stewardesses were an integral part of what became known as Operation Babylift. They were simply doing their jobs, but they became a part of history by showing up to work.

Cooke's narrative examines the shifts in attitudes and regulations relating to women in the workplace, as well as the balancing act of standing up to sexism while keeping a job. She traces the careers of a few women who refused to quit flying when they got married, pursued managerial positions, or both. She also explores the decline of luxury air travel, the effects of various political events on the industry, and the enduring stereotypes surrounding flight attendants and their work.

Thoughtful, well-researched and utterly engaging, Come Fly the World is smart escapist journalism and a tribute to hundreds of women who were much more than just a crew of pretty faces. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Shelf Talker: Journalist Julia Cooke paints a riveting, complex portrait of the adventurous lives of Pan Am stewardesses during aviation's golden age.

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