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


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

I was all of four-and-a-half years old when I experienced my first airplane trip. And what a trip it was --- flying the iconic North Atlantic Circle route that cut a transcontinental arc between Canada and Europe. I was traveling with my birth father back to his home in southern England, and it took three different turbo-prop aircraft with picturesque names like Electra, Constellation and Stratocruiser to do it; Toronto to Gander, Gander to Prestwick, Prestwick to Heathrow. Truth to tell, I remember more details about the flights there and back than about a very pleasant stay with my English grandparents while dad, a British Overseas Airways agent, took a company course.

After reading Julia Cooke's COME FLY THE WORLD, it dawned on me that I recall so much today, more than six decades later, because a patient, caring and efficient succession of uniformed women called "stewardesses" made the experience so memorable. As Cooke, also from a travel-business family (her father is a former Pan Am executive), so vividly recounts in her book, there was much more going on behind the aura of glamour and excitement that thrilled me as a child and continued to impress me as an adult on later air trips.

"Julia Cooke has given her readers a bona fide social history of a profession that's been misunderstood and trivialized for far too long."

I didn't know that the lovely professional lady who calmed my fears during a turbulent thunderstorm over the mid-Atlantic had to meet rigorous standards of appearance, weight, coiffure, social status, race, age, behavior and so on. Pan Am stewardesses --- the historical and cultural focus of COME FLY THE WORLD --- were as restricted and supervised back then as those of any major international air carrier. But that was just part of the package, as Cooke points out in myriad contexts. And until the end of the 20th century, being a stewardess, or a flight attendant in today's more generic usage, was still a dream job for numerous young women.

As world economies, politics, social trends, technologies and transportation options changed over the decades, airlines and the equipment and personnel they relied on changed as well, although sometimes not rapidly enough. Aircraft got bigger and faster, flight crews had less time to interact with passengers, fewer and fewer "extras" made flights less personal despite increased safety factors. Many smaller airlines disappeared or were assimilated into bigger travel empires. And even iconic pillars of the industry like Pan Am itself would eventually fail before the turn of the 21st century.

All of this evolution, and more, is seen not only through Cooke's diligent and meticulous factual research, but also through the unique perspective of a number of real-life stewardesses who candidly and generously shared their career memories with her. Some recalled harrowing hijackings, wartime evacuations, bad landings, racial and sexual discrimination in the air and on the ground. Others remembered for decades having to reluctantly leave their airborne working world too early due to once-forbidden marriage and motherhood.

There is certainly abundant nostalgia throughout COME FLY THE WORLD, but it's tempered with a thoughtful reality and no small measure of optimism for a profession that has slowly but inexorably transitioned into a more inclusive and flexible environment. On more recent flights, I've enjoyed the positive and enjoyable presence of flight attendants who look more like me, and nothing like me --- people whose ages, bodies, ethnicities, genders and personalities speak of wholesome diversity. Today there seems to be fewer of them, serving more and more travelers, wedged into smaller and smaller seats. But they are still doing the kind of magic in the air that inspired Cooke to document their stories so powerfully.

There's nothing ephemeral or "airy" about COME FLY THE WORLD, even though it reads with the colour and verve of a good novel. Julia Cooke has given her readers a bona fide social history of a profession that's been misunderstood and trivialized for far too long.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on June 11, 2021

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

  • Publication Date: April 26, 2022
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0358699185
  • ISBN-13: 9780358699187