When someone dies in their prime, in the light of public adoration and the height of worldly fame, it will almost always be the death that becomes the focal point. This is a sad fact of our media-dominated culture. Amelia Earhart is well known for disappearing, never to be seen again, while she was piloting a flight around the world at age 39. Somewhere in the Far East, she and her navigator Fred Noonan met their doom. Did her plane simply plunge into the sea? Were she and Fred attacked and tortured by hostile natives in New Guinea? Were they killed by the Japanese for spying? Did she live, find her way to New Jersey, and spend her last years as a banker? Was the skeleton found (and later lost) on Fiji that of a long-shanked woman (Amelia was tall and slender) or a stocky man? The legends are rife, in their own way keeping Amelia Earhart alive in the national consciousness
- but not necessarily creating the legacy she would have chosen.
Journalist Susan Butler writes on her website, “My mother was a pilot in the 1930s, when most people were still afraid to get in an airplane, so I had always known about Earhart, and admired her.” According to Butler, who worked for ten years on this detailed biography, Earhart was a combination girl genius, tomboy, and one-woman ambassador for feminism. She was quite photogenic, with a model’s long legs (though she liked to wear boots to hide her thick ankles) a shock of wavy dark blond hair, and vivacious grey eyes. She was comfortable in her skin and made those around her feel likewise. She was a first-rate writer who could have easily made her living at that had she not been such a risk-taking adventuress.
Earhart was attracted to flying from her (and its) earliest years. She was also a child “world traveler,” though only in imagination, drawing fanciful maps and taking her friends on complex “trips” in a stationary buggy. After being forbidden to ride the rollercoaster at the St Louis World’s Fair in 1906 (though she did have a spin on the newly invented Ferris Wheel), seven-year-old Amelia, known as
"Millie" to her friends and family, went home and built her own coaster. After a few painful spills, she got the angles right. Later, as a teenager with several progressive women in the family as un-self-conscious role models, Amelia wore bloomers, a shocking departure from the lady-like state that most of her peers affected. She also went to college, though the family, held down by her father’s alcoholism, was not able to afford the very best school. Still, Amelia, always trying to make the best of things and rise above barriers as readily as she vaulted over fences as a boyish, mischievous child, made good grades and found work in the field that was her lifelong passion – social action.
Ah, but those planes. They were up there whizzing about, and they were fascinating. She was not the only female with a proclivity for flight, and she had good teachers and co-pilots. But with her sense of derring-do and her determination to succeed, she took home all the prizes.
Making national and international headlines as an aviatrix, she was discovered by George Putnam of the publishing family.
Eventually he convinced her that she should marry, though it was she who laid down the law – she expected equality in all areas, including the right to extramarital liaisons if it suited either partner, and the right to enjoy and expand her highly successful public career, which included writing articles and books, lecturing, and extolling the proper virtue of women in flight.
She did not ever leave the world of social work, often living in “settlement houses” among the urban poor, for whom she evinced a special empathy, perhaps recalling the deprivations of her childhood when her father failed his family.
Nearly 500 pages long, Butler’s book will do much to bring the real Amelia back to the midst of busy her life and will make us all wish that, for every good reason, she could have lived longer. Yet we also have to recognize that she embraced the well-known risks of flying and would not have lived, or died, any differently. She did not want to live in a cage, and so she flew free.