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Adventures in Flying: When the Going Was Good...
A Letter To the Editor  - The New York Times
Published December 7, 2009

Re “When Dreams Take Flight,” by Elizabeth Fuller (Op-Ed, Nov. 25):

I was a flight attendant for Pan American when it was at its peak as “the world’s most experienced airline.” One of its theme songs was “Pan Am Makes the Going Great.” Ms. Fuller’s experience with Northwest brought back a few memories.

Since we were the United States flag carrier, terrorists chased and bombed us all over the world, and it was perfectly normal to receive a telephone call for a request to fly off to a faraway land for evacuation of Americans who were stranded in a coup. Flying was a hoot in those days, and sometimes we worked 20 hours nonstop.

That wonderful company gave us a rich and deep perception of the entire world. We called ourselves “the cheap jet set” because some of our friends were kings, tycoons, socialites and presidents of countries. Off the aircraft we were treated like princesses.

Eleanor Abraham
New York, Dec. 2, 2009

Pan Am Reunion
A Letter To the Editor  - The New York Times
Published November 2, 2003

To the Editor: Corey Kilgannon's article notes that the former Pan Am flight attendants keep in touch via a philanthropic group called World Wings International and meet yearly to reminisce.

As vice president for charity of World Wingers, I'd like to add that we also use that meeting to report on chapter charities from around the world and to generate greater publicity and support for CARE, our international charity and partner since 1994.

Norma Boogaard Simon
Stamford, Conn.

When Flying was Caviar...

Published October 19, 2003


If you happened to be walking in Midtown Manhattan last weekend, you could be excused for having a flashback. A crew of blue-suited skygirls marched into the Roosevelt Hotel outfitted in the familiar Pan Am uniforms that exist now only as airline history. Some 600 women from all over the world had flocked there for a convention of former Pan American World Airways flight attendants, a gathering they have held each year since 1970. Roughly age 45 to their 70's, they reminisced about bygone days and wore bygone uniforms.

One of them, Marie Tango, wore a skirt suit, white gloves and stockings, and an elegant pillbox pinned to her hair. Another, Lea Sarlande, wore a powder blue jacket over a white Pan Am blouse she first wore in 1958. Pinned to her jacket was the heavy brass pin that identified her as a purser, or chief stewardess.

Other guests at the Roosevelt did double takes as the anachronistically outfitted airline alumnae milled about. One man asked if Pan Am was back in business; another began a blushing reminiscence about a Pan Am stewardess he once surreptitiously dated.

No, Pan Am, which went out of business in 1991, has not been revived, but its golden years -- the 1950's and 1960's -- remain vibrant in the memories of its former flight attendants, who make up World Wings International. This philanthropic group of former stewardesses all worked the skyways before stewardesses became flight attendants, before the women's movement, before airborne luxury was edged out by low fares and frequent flier miles. Then, flying commercial was elegant, elite. Passengers were well dressed and well coiffed and left their crying babies at home, and the stewardesses who pampered them were glamorous.

Before the 747 and the DC-10, long before the Concorde, Pan Am operated Clippers and Stratocruisers. The Clipper had dressing rooms, a bridal suite, overnight beds and a dining salon and lounge. The Stratocruiser, in operation from 1947 to 1960, offered spacious luxury. A spiral staircase led to a plush sit-down bar in the belly of the plane.

The deluxe first-class service, called the President's Special, offered seven-course meals with china and table linens, caviar and hors d'oeuvres. Lamb chops or Dover sole were prepared in galley ovens. Hot carts were wheeled down the aisle and stewardesses cut slices of prime rib at passengers' seats.

''I was a small-town girl from Massachusetts,'' recalled Anne Sweeney, who began working for Pan Am in 1964 on its 707's. ''I had never eaten a multicourse meal.'' Suddenly, she was getting a crash course in fine dining. Meals were prepared from recipes provided by Maxim's.

Mrs. Sweeney, who owns a public relations company in New Jersey and is working on a novel she calls ''Out of the Blue: The Memoirs of a Pan Am Flight Attendant,'' fondly recalled visiting countries like Cambodia, Iran and Lebanon before they were opened up to tourism.

Applicants came from small towns or cities in the United States, or Europe and Japan. Many of them had never flown. A college education was required, as was fluency in a language beside English. Stewardesses were expected to be young, beautiful and single. There were strict appearance requirements. Women had to be at least 5 foot 2. (The only exceptions were Hawaiian women, who were desirable for their exoticism and ability to speak Hawaiian.) A 20-year-old woman who was 5 feet 4 could weigh no more than 130 pounds. Stewardesses were allowed to gain a few pounds as they approached the mandatory retirement age: 32.

Mrs. Sweeney recalls being exactly 5 foot 4 and weighing 112 pounds when she applied. She earned $7,000 her first year, she said, more than any member of her college class.

Stewardesses could not be married or have children. Sylvia Farrington of Manhattan, began at Pan Am in 1951. She married in 1957, she said, ''and that was the end for me. They gave me six months' notice and told me I couldn't wear my wedding ring while I was working.''

Pan Am uniforms were made by top designers, including Pucci, Adolfo and even Edith Head. Rita Kaiser, who began working for Pan Am in 1963, arrived at the convention in a uniform from the 1980's designed by Adolfo, down to the red, white and blue scarf.

"They had to make them loose enough to reach to the overhead compartments, " she said, and she much preferred the suit to the uniforms of the early 70's: knee boots and short skirts or hot pants.  No stewardess could wear more then one ring.  The uniform had to be crisp, lipstick the specified hue of red and hair cropped above the shoulders.  Girdles were required.  "When you fly, the air pressure could make your belly swell," Mrs. Kaiser explained.  "They didn't want that." 

The uniforms and other Pan Am memorabilia -- china, flatware, glasses, menus, photos and flight bags -- form a popular genre for collectors.  One such collector, Kelly Cusack of New York, a former Pan Am employee, gave a presentation at the convention, showing off his silver tea sets and other items.  A porcelain demitasse from Pan Am's flying boats is worth $550, he said.  "If you need one piece with a particular pattern to complete a dinner set it can cost $1,000" he said.  Suddenly spotting a group of women handling his rare commemorative plates, he dashed off to protect them.

For all of Pan Am's stringent rules in their day, the women at the convention were overjoyed to have the job, they said.  Suddenly they had the prestige and cachet approaching that of a model or actress today.  "We were the original uber-models," Ms. Sweeney said.  "There was this image that, on every important man's arm was a beautiful stewardess.  When you got the job, you got your picture on the front of the papers.  You'd spend a week in Africa, a week in India.  When you told somebody you were a Pan Am flight attendant, they were all like, 'Wow!'"

Sheila Riley recalled serving the Beatles and Winston Churchill.  "I remember once when Danny Kaye was flying with us, he got up with us and was cooking meals in the galley," she said.  Mrs. Sarlande who was hired from Paris in 1958 and worked until 1965, said she regularly served Charles Lindbergh.  "I'd bring him breakfast and put a blanket on him," she said.  "He didn't drink and he didn't smoke and he didn't talk to anyone."

Many of the attendants used their connections and experience to start second careers after Pan Am.  Mrs. Sweeney and others said they preferred the good old sexist days to more modern flying when aisles meant hawking headsets and minibottles of liquor and keeping the peanuts-per-passenger ratio as low as possible.  The days before the concerns were shoe bombs and stun guns.

While most of the job was luxury travel, it could have a more serious side.  Pan Am occasionally volunteered planes and crews for government missions, including evacuation flights and relief and outreach programs.

"In those days, things weren't all automated; they gave you a hug and a kiss and said, 'Just get the plane back safe,'" recalled Kerstin Parlander, a native of Sweden who began working for Pan Am in 1965.  "You were on your own, and it was a huge adventure all the time."

Beyond the Call of Duty: Those Pan Am Women: For Them Memories Were Not Enough

Published May 2002


The Incarnation Children's Center glimpses its share of blue sky from among the tenements in Washington Heights.  Run by Catholic nuns and volunteers, it shelters up to twenty children who were born with AIDS.  Five years ago one of the volunteers was Bronwen Roberts, whose favorite patient was Natalie.  At twelve years old, Natalie was the eldest of the children at the center and she was critically ill.

One Day she told Bronwen that she had never seen a real horse.  Bronwen had a friend in the New York Police Department who put her in touch with an officer in the mounted police.  Together they worked out a surprise.

On a clear bright morning, a big van drew up outside the Children's Center and from it stepped two beautiful horses ridden by a man and a woman, both police officers.  They spent the whole morning giving rides to the delighted kids.  All but one: Natalie was too sick to leave her bed.  But the officers hadn't forgotten her.  They returned a couple of days later with a large stuffed model of a horse which the put beside Natalie's bed.  It had a lovely black silken mane that she would stroke periodically every day until she died three weeks later.  It was Bronwen's final gift to the brave child she had come to love.

Bronwen Roberts belongs to a remarkable group of 2,000 good Samaritans.  These women once flew with Pan Am as flight attendants and now devote themselves to helping poor women in twenty-three countries.  Among them are Norma Simon and Diana Cable of Greenwich, Gail Ahern of New Canaan and Siri Jacobson of Rye, New York.

The story of their involvement in this humanitarian work had its beginnings in the mid-1950s when two former Pan Am stewardesses in New York and two in California formed their own alumnae society that would enable them to keep in touch with old associates.  They called in World Wings International (WWI).  It would prove to be a far-flung society.  Though an American corporation, Pan American Airlines had no domestic routes.  An an international airline, it had to have cabin crews that could relate to passengers of all nationalities, so nearly half of Pan Am's flight attendants were recruited overseas, particularly in Europe, where high school graduates who could speak two or three languages were unremarkable.

Norma Simon was one of the early bilingual attendants.  Originally from the Netherlands, she now live in the backcountry between Greenwich and Stamford.  She flew with Pan Am for fifteen years.  Today she is a member of the board of directors of WWI and its vice president of charities, linked by her computer to every corner of the world where her members dwell.

"From its earliest days," she says, "World Wings was a charitable society as well as a social one.  After all, there is a limit on how long you can continue getting together and reminiscing about the good old days.  You really have to have some reason for being, some sense of accomplishment.  Or is it that women more than men feel a need to be needed?  I don't know. 

"As a group we had probably seen more of the world than most other people had and we knew how badly women in underdeveloped countries needed help.  We decided that we would operate as a worldwide charitable organization and would split our dues between local and overseas charities.  In that way each of our thirty-seven chapters throughout the world could pay attention not only to the problems at home but also to those in far away countries that we had all flown to and where we knew the poor were very poor.

"But," she says, and it is a emphatic but, "we don't just pay our money and sit back.  Not by a long shot."

That these women are far from passive do-gooders is borne out by Bronwen Roberts and her co-workers in the Manhattan Chapter.  They were there, year after year, helping care for the children and fundraising at a time when the Incarnation Children's Center was struggling for existence.  When they weren't at the Center, they were at HELP I, a homeless shelter in East New York that was in dire need of toys and clothes and love and affection.  "Now," says Bronwen, "neither needs us anymore.  Both got publicity on TV programs and the money started coming in and they are thriving.  We are looking for new charities that really need us."

This hands-on approach runs throughout World Wings.  The Oslo Chapter conducts a program called Ski For Lights in which members teach blind children how to ski.   In Marin County, California, members go to the senior centers to work with Alzheimer's patients.  In New Canaan Gail Ahern remembers when the Connecticut Chapter was supporting AmeriCares, an organization that, among other charitable services, rallies its supporters to rebuild or renovate houses for ;the poor.

"We were beginning to feel our age with the kind of heavy lifting that is required," she says, "and we blessed the day when the Connecticut Chapter switched to Kids in Crisis that gives round-the-clock help to children whose problems are more than they or their families can handle."

Jocelyn Tufts also blessed the day.  She flew with Pan Am in and out of Saigon during the Vietnam War. She readily admits to her addiction problem:  "I think I am what you would call addicted to children.  I have two of my own now grown up."

"Jocelyn is a warm and loving person," says Shari Shapiro, the executive director of the Cos Cob Kids in Crisis home, "and wonderful with the young children in the nursery.  Every week, rain or shine, she is there with them.  She loves them and they look forward to her coming."

Dianne White and other members of the Princeton/Philadelphia Chapter started the Cherry Tree Club seven years ago as a one-day-a-week preschool program for children of homeless families living in the motels along Route 1.  Today it thrives five days a week, with its own bus and its own graduation ceremony complete with caps and gowns.  A little farther south, the Annapolis Chapter supports the Severna Park Assistance Network with food and clothes for families and single parents who have fallen on hard times.  And even farther south, in Florida, Tracy Maxwell explains one of her projects.  "Having spent a good part of my career in foreign countries, I found myself wanting to help the critters as well as the people, so I volunteer at a local wildlife hospital."

Besides its work in the United States, World Wings has spread its largesse in other countries as well.  Ten years ago it chose CARE to handle its overseas charity work.  Anyone old enough to remember the years immediately after World War II will think of CARE as the organization through which Americans sent food parcels to friends and relatives in famished Europe.  Since then CARE has grown into a worldwide aid and development organization concentrating on Third World countries.  If CARE thought it was signing on with a nice, quiescent bunch of ladies who would pay and be quiet, it thought wrong.  The international World Wingers were just as much hands-on philanthropists as their stateside sisters.  Initially WWI financed programs in Togo, Tanzania and Bolivia to improve the reproductive health of women and the general health of children -- not a surprising choice for two thousand worldly women.  As Norma Simon puts it, "We soon realized that the stumbling block in the developing world was the unreceptive attitude of the men and the desperately subordinate role they imposed on women.  So we switched to another CARE program, Women's Initiative, where the emphasis was on helping and encouraging women to take the lead in health and child care, in education and in developing small businesses -- or, as they are sometimes called, cottage industries."

In June 2000 Norma and three of her compatriots went to Guatemala to see firsthand how the new program was working and how their money was being used.  Although she was encouraged by what she saw, Siri Jacobson admits that she carries heavy emotional baggage on such trips.  "How do I express it?" she asks.  "I am frustrated.  I have seen so much of the world, I think I am what you would call a one-worlder, if there is such a word.  I can't stand all the violence and waste of lives you see."  But she found hope in Guatemala.  The women there, few of whom had seen the inside of a school, were earning money with their small businesses backed by loans from CARE and were using that money to help pay for a school that CARE had started for their children, and which had not been a high priority among the fathers.

CARE welcomed the grassroots surveillance by its donors, frankly admitting that if WWI understood the problems, it would be far more likely to appreciate how CARE was handling situations and would spread the word.  So in February 2001 twenty World Wingers took off for India.  Among them were Siri Jacobson, Norma Simon and Diana Cable, who is co-president of the Connecticut Chapter.

CARE allowed the visitors no delusions.  It took them to Uttar Pradesh, a state in the northeast close to Nepal.  With its 166 million people, Uttar Pradesh ranks as the sixth most populous area in the world and one of the poorest.  It has a sky-high infant mortality rate and a negligible literacy rate among its women.  Its most reliable crop, according to the Economist, is political graft.

"I should not have been surprised," says Diana, "but I was.  I was born in India and lived there until I was seven and I've been back on visits.  But on visits you stay with friends or in reasonably good hotels and as a child you really don't have a very wide horizon.  If anyone thinks that the India trip we took was some kind of a garden tour, I can assure her it was anything but.  You can't find any pleasure in emaciated babies or babies with AIDS or with open sewers in dusty villages where no tourists ever go.

"The CARE staff there has to tackle not only the physical problems of dirt and disease and too many children with inadequate food, but also age-old prejudices and superstitions that die slowly.  For instance, there's the tradition that a newborn's first food should be honey given by an aunt to assure the child a sweet disposition.  But if the aunt lived far away, death by starvation often beat the aunt to the baby.  And again, in the backward villages, the husband's mother is the dominant influence in the marriage and full of antiquated and disastrous advice about the care and nutrition of newborn children and constantly pregnant mothers.  When the CARE staff holds classes on nutrition for the women, they insist that their mothers-in-law attend in the hope they will also get the message."

While tourists gawked at the splendor of the Taj Mahal in Agra, the World Wingers were introduced to a village in its shadow where virtually every variety of sexually transmitted diseases was flourishing and where CARE labored to convince the population -- primarily its men -- that high birth and infant mortality rates were not a mere coincidence.  From there the group moved east to a village near Jaipur where CARE had established a community school for girls between the ages of three and fourteen.  Most of the children were laborers in the mining and carpet weaving industries.  Since the village had less than a thousand inhabitants, it was not entitled to a government school, and, in any event, school was a mixed blessing as it meant less time for the children to work and earn.

For Siri Jacobson it was another heart-wrencher.  "you see these women, the mothers of the girls, who themselves were born in a country where girls weren't wanted and still aren't wanted, and who probably had three or four children by the time they were twenty.  They never went to school themselves.  The cold statistics are that only two percent of them are literate.  They are so grateful for the school and behave with such natural dignity and grace; just for you, they will be wearing a beautiful sari, probably the only one they've got.  They are sweet people.  Do you wonder why I am so frustrated at being unable to do more for them?"

What drives the women of Pan Am? 

"I absolutely think that our line of work inspired social activism," says Norma Simon.  "You can't possibly see the miserable conditions existing in so many parts of the world and remain unchanged by them.  And let's be frank, women flight attendants can't help responding to the desperately unequal position of women in the developing world."

Rita Orland of San Diego, who flew into Vietnam to bring out orphans, thinks much the same way.  "The work we did attracted a certain type of personality.  We are the kind that wants to be part of what is happening in the world and not just sit on the sidelines.  We want to continue the worldwide connection throughout our lives, whether we are still in uniform or not."

Margaret Thatcher, who did not fly for Pan Am, perhaps hinted at another explanation.  If you want anything said, ask a man.  If you want anything done, ask a woman."