“Come Fly With Me”

August 05, 2020


Over the years, the airline industry has experienced many twists and turns – and one of the most remarkable has been the evolution of the stewardess or airline hostess. That said I was stopped in my tracks by an article in Travel & Leisure, April 2020 titled “Taking Wing.” It featured a photo of a flight attendant’s dress from 1965 and was skillfully written by Ann Hood who has delivered a detailed on-the-scene report.

A flight attendant’s dress from 1965 – all photos are courtesy of Travel & Leisure, April 2020

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: She starts by relating her first day on the job. “There I stood in the TWA terminal at JFK: hair sprayed and my lips painted magenta to match the stripe in my Ralph Lauren-designed uniform. Overhead the ceiling soared. The building itself looked like a bird about to take flight.”

SHE GREW UP IN A SMALL RHODE ISLAND town and says, “I wanted a better life. I wanted to drink champagne and dance at Manhattan nightclubs with men that looked like Cary Grant. I wanted to dine on caviar in the Eiffel Tower and throw coins in the Trevi Fountain. But how could I have this magical life?

HER GUIDANCE COUNSELOR gave her this advice after she told him she wanted to be a writer. His reply was, “Smart girls become teachers or nurses.” Later, when she was fresh out of college she applied for a stewardess position with these requirements: 21 to 26 years old, 100 to 120 lbs., a pleasant personality and a willingness to conform (subtle language for “pretty” and “petite.”)

Ann Hood in her TWA uniform in 1985

SHE WAS HIRED AND BEGAN working for TWA. But then she says, “I didn’t anticipate how lonely it is to be thousands of miles from everyone and everything you love. Or how jet lag would wring me out, turn me into a vampire who stalked all-night diners and sleep all day with the blinds pulled tight. Or how, after a long flight, when my uniform stank of smoke and my feet ached from walking in heels, a supervisor would be waiting to weigh me or check the freshness of my lipstick.

THERE WAS ALSO RELENTLESS SEXISM in the form of “the men who pulled me onto their laps as I walked past or the sexual comments delivered with a smile.” (Ads appeared saying, “Fly me, I’m Cheryl” in those days so the assumption was that anyone who did this job wasn’t very smart.) Or, as Hood relates, “Once, I paused to tell a passenger how much I had enjoyed a book he was reading. He looked at me, stunned and asked, “You read?”

Wait! It gets worse. You won’t believe this remark. “When I told a writer in first class that I had just sold my first novel, he said, “You look too dumb to be a writer.” Can you imagine any human being on the face of the earth making such a cruel, vicious remark? May he rot in hell!

IN 1986 SHE HUNG UP HER UNIFORM for good. “By the time I stopped flying,” she writes, “I had flown over a million miles, much of it on 747s that took me to Paris, Athens and Cairo. The job gave me things I could never have imagined: the ability to talk in front of a couple hundred people and navigate the subways and streets of foreign cities with ease.”

“I still get a thrill every time I get on an airplane,” says the novelist and former TWA flight attendant.

She goes on to note that, “There are misogynists (a person who is strongly prejudiced against women) in the world, sure, but most people are pretty wonderful. I learned to laugh at human foibles and therefore laugh at myself. We lose our passports and our wallets. We even spill coffee on our white pants and red wine on our suits.

TWA FLEW ITS LAST FLIGHT IN 2001 and Hood reports that she “felt a deep sadness that they were gone. I still do. TWA made my dreams come true. Last May, that beautiful Eero Saarinen-designed terminal, a shining example of space-age architecture, reopened as a hotel – and on the roof sits an infinity pool where the view seems to stretch on forever. All the way perhaps, to a bright future.”

Isn’t that a wonderful ending?

Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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