A “FIRST CLASS” STORY
One had dinner with President John F. Kennedy often. Another served Dean Martin a Dry Martini. It was a bit more glamorous to be a stewardess when Pan Am was at it's best.
THIS IS A STORY that sounds strange today. No presidents do what he did, says Kari-Mette Pigmans (71) on the phone from New York.
The former “russeprinsesse”, (eqv. to Home Coming Queen), started to fly for Pan Am in 1962, when she was 22 years old. One year later she was chosen along with six others to fly the Pan Am planes that carried the press corps that followed President Kennedy.
The Pan Am plane parked right next to Air Force One. The stewardesses and pilots stayed at the same hotel as the president and his men. Kennedy’s adviser, Dave Powers, often asked Kari-Mette and her colleagues to keep the president company. He said: ”You girls want to come and have drinks and dinner with us?” says Kari-Mette Pigmans.
Kennedy liked having people around him, she says.
The 23 year old from Bærum (just outside Oslo) accompanied the president on several official visits. One evening, she believes it was going to Hawaii, she and a gang were sitting in his suite when Kennedy started to talk about an upcoming visit to Berlin. Pigmans had lived in Berlin for a year and spoke fluent German.
He asked me, how can I say I am a Berliner. He would like to say that.
You taught him how to say “Ich bin ein Berliner”?
Yes, I did, says Kari-Mette Pigmans. But he could have found a thousand others to tell him.
THE EXPERIENCE. From the startup in 1927 and for the next sixty years Pan Am was the major airline in the USA. Pan Am was the pioneer during the years when air travel and mass tourism took off. The first to have scheduled flights across the Atlantic and the Pacific, the first to have the jumbo jet, and the first to serve food on board. Royals, heads of state, and The Beatles flew Pan Am. When James Bond asked Miss Moneypenny to book airline tickets, he insisted on Pan Am, as always.
“The World’s Most Experienced Airline” the ads said. Nobody challenged it. When the Americans landed on the moon in 1969, Pan Am started a waiting list for trips into space.
Pan Am did not fly domestic routes, only international routes. Long before crammed discount flights and endless security lines, when it was a luxury to fly and the job of a stewardess was highly sought after, Pan Am became synonymous with a glamorous, globetrotting lifestyle, which attracted many young Norwegian women.
In 1968 the Norwegian newspaper, VG, wrote: “ The appr. 500 young girls from all over the country who during the last ten years have worn the Pan Am uniform and made our business travelers and other airline passengers homesick when serving the most beautiful airline trays over the Pacific or the Bay of Bengal with a authentic”værsågod”, can without doubt be called our most beautiful articles of export”
Three weeks ago eleven million Americans watched the premier of the TV-series “Pan Am”. Sony Pictures Television has created a TV-drama about the lives of Pan Am stewardesses in the 1960’s. The series has been marketed heavily in the USA, and is along with “The Playboy Club” this fall’s retro-drama on TV, inspired by “Mad Men”’s success. The first episode will be on TV3 in Norway in October.
Until 1969 the hair could not be no longer than shoulder length.
Girdles were a must, and were checked on a regular basis.
The weight was checked before every flight.
BLUE EYES. - Oh, I had Charlton Heston on board. He was gorgeous. And his wife, she had the world’s most beautiful mini coat.
Brit Burns (72) talks while she leafs through piles of faded photos. There are pictures of stewardesses in blue uniforms at airports and in bikinis on distant beaches in the Pacific. Brit Burns was purser for Pan American from 1965 until 1977. Based in San Francisco, she flew west, to Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines etc., with long layovers in Hawaii, Fiji, Guam, and Samoa.
We were treated a hundred times better than flight attendants today. Not everybody could fly. I hardly ever had passengers who drank too much, -not even Frank Sinatra.
He had two martinis and did crossword puzzles. I can still remember where he was sitting, says Brit Burns.
BREAKING OUT. Sissel Graham (73) grew up with three brothers at Bislet in Oslo. In the 1950’s all three were urged by their parents to go abroad to study. There was never talk of her doing the same. You were not supposed to travel if you were a girl in those days, says Graham.
But, there was a way. In 1959 she worked in the office of the production company ABC Film in Oslo. The 21 year old noticed that one of her co-workers received colorful postcards from all over the world.
“I have a step-daughter who is a Pan Am stewardess. Why don’t you go?”
Sissel Graham applied and got the job. She flew for Pan Am from 1959 to 1963,- the most fun and rewarding years of her life, she feels now.
The Norwegian girls were popular at Pan Am. They spoke several languages, were in good health, and were not afraid of work. The requirements were specific: Minimum hight was 5’3”, maximum 5’9”. Weight 110 - 138 well proportioned pounds. At the time of hire women could not be married. A college degree was preferred. And, like one of the former stewardesses said: “You couldn’t be ugly if you applied for that job”.
The first assignment for the Norwegian stewardesses could be Rio De Janeiro, for instance. Or Hawaii. At SAS, who competed for the young ladies, the new hires had to fly domestic for several years before they got a chance to experience international travel.
It was wonderful to get away from Norway. There was nothing happening in Oslo, says Siri Hauge Jacobson (67). But, we could only fly until we got married. It was not a lifelong career, she says.
Siri Hauge Jacobson flew from 1966 till 1968, before she married an American, had children and settled in the USA, like so many other Norwegian Pan Am stewardesses.
FIRST CLASS. The caviar came from Iran. The champagne from France. The were oysters on the half shell. The seven course menu was put together by Maxim’s in Paris. There were white, starched table clothes, silver cutlery, fresh flowers, and heavy porcelain. The prime rib was boarded raw so the stewardesses had to roast it on board.
Pan Am’s First Class had style. So did the guests. They traveled wearing suits. The overhead racks were for hats. A wedding suite was available for honeymooners. Wealthy celebrities did not yet have private jets, and many flew Pan Am’s First Class.
He with the beautiful eyes. Warren Beatty! He was on board from Frankfurt to London. He asked for my phone number says Liv Andersen (71). Unfortunately, he did not call.
Brit Burns remembers the king and queen of Rarotonga. They were so large they needed two seats each. And Zsa Zsa Gabor who had a very messy make-up bag. On a vacation trip traveling as a passenger to South Africa, Burns sat in first class with only one other passenger, Chubby Checker, who sang “The Twist”, one of the 60’s most popular songs and dances. They sat and talked half the night. Chubby Checker disembarked in Nigeria. The country’s president came to greet him, on a red carpet.
“Come and meet the President”, Chubby Checker said. And I did, says Brit Burns.
GIRDLE CHECK. The first thing we learned was to mix drinks, says Susan Elind (65). She laughs and shows me a framed class picture from 1969. In the late 60’s young ladies from all over the world were trained at Pan Am’s International Stewardess College in Miami. It was six weeks of training. In row after row they sat in the class rooms with cigarettes in their well manicured hands and ash trays in front of them. They learned about safety, first aid, elementary flying techniques, cooking, and last, but not least, grooming.
Estee Lauder and other make up companies made sure the stewardesses looked good in the air. Until 1969 the hair could not be longer than shoulder length. Girdles were a must and were checked regularly. If you looked too heavy you were warned before you were grounded and told to lose weight.
The work days were often long and tiring. But, what a life it was!
We were so lucky! We were picked up by limousines at the airport and stayed in the hotels where the movie stars stayed. It was like a dreamworld, says Mette Langfeldt Sinding (63). At the check-in counter the envelopes were ready with our per diem in the local currency, and more money than we would normally spend.
We were always invited out. There were cocktail parties everywhere, says Inger Brandvold (70).
You see it on “Mad Men”: It was very common to flirt with sweet, young girls in those days, says Siri Hauge Jacobson.
If you had a wife and children in the suburb, that was not a problem. And one more thing: The Scandinavian stewardesses were often gorgeous, or at least cute and outgoing and enthusiastic. But, at that time America was very puritanical. And then came Ingmar Bergman with those movies. The Americans got us mixed up with the Swedes, and rumors had it we were available. It was prestigious for many business men to have a Pan Am stewardess by his arm, she says.
I TRAVEL ALONE. Pan Am’s relationship with the government was very tight. During World War II the government used Pan Am airplanes. From the days of Roosevelt (President of the USA from 1933 till 1945) until the 1970’s, the White House Press Corps flew Pan Am when they followed the president on his travels. Pan Am planes were chartered by the American government to fly in and out of West Berlin, and to transport soldiers to Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf. Even Vietnamese orphans flew Pan Am, on chartered planes filled with tears, baby bottles, and motherly care.
It was terrible. They didn’t want to go. They were so young. They read Donald Duck and shook with fear.
FLY ME. “We really move our tails for you”, Continental promised in 1974. “Hi, I’m Cheryl - Fly Me”, read National Airlines ads. Angry stewardesses answered with buttons stating: “Go fly yourself”.
During the 70’s the airline ads became more and more about sexy stewardesses.
Up till then their personalities had been enough of a selling point. The uniforms, especially of the smaller, less established airlines, became more daring. There were mini skirts, hot pants, and boots.
Society viewed stewardesses as pretty, pliable, young women. “But the airlines had not expected that among the glamour girls there were some militant labor union organizers and feminists”, writes Kathleen M. Barry in the book “Femininity in Flight”.
“In less than ten years their court cases and labor unions did away with age- and marriage restrictions, and they later gave them the right to fly as mothers”, writes Barry.
In 1972 a group of stewardesses organized as Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (SFWR). The organization claimed that the airlines’ sexy image of the stewardesses prohibited their ability to act as important safety personnel. Some feminists viewed the organization as contradictory and found it difficult to take it seriously. But heavy weights like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan became important supportive players.
Tulle Kamfjord (66) had to quit flying when she became pregnant in 1970. After a big court case in the US some years later she received a letter with an offer to come back to work. But first she would have to go through training in Hawaii.
There I was with two children hanging on to my legs and with a house at Lilleaker, says Kamfjord and laughs. No new career materialized for Kamfjord, but those who chose to go back were called “Flying Mothers”.
DOWNTURN. The first flight with the Boeing 747, from New York to London in 1970, was news world wide. But Pan Am borrowed 600 million dollars to buy 25 jumbo jets. It turned out to be difficult to fill all the seats. The price of fuel hit the ceiling during the oil crisis in 1973.
Pan Am tried to enter the US domestic market with the purchase of National Airlines in 1980, but the purchase did not help the situation. Deregulation happened around that time. Pan Am employees had expensive benefits and strong unions, while start up airlines could operate with much lower costs.
Liv Andersen started flying for Pan Am in 1962, and stayed almost to the end, until she went to United as a result of the sale of the London routes in 1991. She remembers how it became more and more difficult to get the job done on the Pan Am flights those last years.
We lacked everything. No wine. No breakfast, she says.
The Lockerbie catastrophy in 1988 made it even more difficult to sell seats. After the terrorist attack Pan Am was charges with security infractions, which frightened many passengers. In 1991 the company went bankrupt.
“Pan Am seems to have fallen deeper than any other American airline, because it had further to fall, it had been at the top”, wrote the magazine Conde Nast Traveller later.
FAMILY. 40 years after most of them quit their jobs as Pan Am stewardesses they still stay in touch. The Norwegian division of World Wings International, the world wide charity organization for ex Pan Am stewardesses, has about 20 members who meet once a month. In the past they have arranged fashion shows and Christmas boutiques with proceeds going to charity. For many years they participated in “Ridderrennet” (a cross country ski race for the blind). But now the ladies are are in their 60’s and older.
We have found that what’s most important now is to take care of each other, says Tulle Kamfjord with a smile.
They talk about “The Pan Am Family”. The former employees still feel a strong bond with the bankrupt company.
I have not heard of another bankrupt airline where the former employees still get together 20 years later. But we flew during the heydays, says Elise Tingulstad Nore (63), who flew from 1969 to 1971.
It was difficult to explain to those at home what you were experiencing out there in the world. About the apartments in Manhattan or San Francisco. About the fabulous gold jewelry from the golden streets in Beirut and manicures and pedicures in Bangkok.
We have a bond. We have worked for an American airline and experienced things that are difficult to share with others, says Brit Burns.
34 years have passed since her last flight as a stewardess. She has not flown much since she moved back home in 1977. But there are so many wonderful memories. The best ones are not about celebrities or fine jewelry.
To walk through the jungle in Guam, Burns says quietly. In the middle of the night with a full moon. We were guided by a native who had a machete. Then we came to a bay. The only other way to get there was by boat. We caught lobster. That’s one of the best experiences I have ever had. Walking through the jungle in the middle of the night.
SHAKEN. In the morning of November 22, 1963, Kari-Mette Pigmans arrived at Love Field Airport in Dallas on a plane with members of the press. Shortly after, John F. Kennedy and his entourage arrived on Air Force One. It was scheduled to be a short stay. The Pan Am crew was to get a bite to eat, while the President went to the Dallas Trade Mart for lunch with local politicians and business people. While they were eating the crew were told they had to go back to the airport immediately.
We were there and saw everything. That they left the airport in limousines and that he returned in a coffin. It was hoisted into the back of the plane. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, arrived, and Jackie, in the beautiful Chanel coat that was full of blood. Then Johnson took the oath of office before they could take off.
Nobody took pictures. We were totally shaken. This was a man the press loved, and so did everybody who came in contact with him. He loved people, says Pigmans.
She later married a Pan Am purser from Holland, and flew for Pan Am until the bankruptcy in 1991. She settled in the US, and continued with Delta until she retired after September 11, 2001. For almost 50 years she has kept quiet about her close relationship with John F. Kennedy. Later this month a book will be released about the memories of the Pan Am employees, in which Pigmans talks about the last day in Dallas.
I’m still a Norwegian citizen. I was afraid that if a said something I would be deported. These have been my memories, she says.