50 Years Later, N. Hollywood Bears Traces of Vanished Aviator

It was July 2, 1937, when the Coast Guard cutter Itasca attempted one more time to make radio contact with a silver, twin-engine plane seeking to refuel on tiny Howland Island in the Pacific.

"We must be on you but cannot see you," the pilot of the plane radioed to frustrated operators on board the ship who could neither respond by voice transmission nor obtain a fix on the plane's flight position. "Gas is running low. We are flying at 1,000 feet."

The pilot was Amelia Earhart, who was on the last and most hazardous leg of the around-the-world flight that had begun nearly two months earlier. The radio transmission was one of the last before the plane carrying Earhart and her navigator disappeared without a trace. Despite an exhaustive search and investigations that continue today, no evidence proving her fate has ever been found.

At the time of her disappearance, Earhart lived in North Hollywood with her husband of six years, George Palmer Putnam. A promoter, writer and former newspaperman, Putnam's greatest coup had been signing Charles A. Lindbergh to write about his 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris. After Earhart flew across the Atlantic as a passenger in 1928 and instantly was catapulted to fame--the novelty being that she was the first woman to make the crossing--Putnam convinced Earhart to write about her experience.

"I want to do it because I want to do it," Earhart later wrote of her passion for flying. "Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others."

Feminist Spirit

The mystery of her disappearance accounts for much of the continued interest in the aviator. But, for many people, the fascination surrounding Earhart 50 years later has to do with the feminist spirit she embodied long before women's liberation became part of society's vocabulary.

"She had such intense interests and desires, and strongly believed in what she wanted to do and kept pushing toward that end," recalled Neta Snook Southern, Earhart's flight instructor in the early 1920s. Earhart and Southern, 91, who now lives in Los Gatos, had an intense friendship while both lived in Southern California.

Southern, who married and moved to Los Gatos, said she has kept many of the letters they exchanged over the years and donated more than 50 others to museums.

Putnam reportedly had proposed marriage to Earhart on several occasions. Earhart's ambivalence about marrying was no secret. In a letter to a friend in 1930, she wrote: "I think I may not ever be able to see marriage except as a cage until I am unfit to work or fly or be active--and of course I wouldn't be desirable then."

Finally, when Putnam proposed a sixth time at the Lockheed Co. in Burbank, she consented. They were married in 1931.

In 1932, determined to prove herself a true pilot--not just a "sack of potatoes" as she had described her role in the flight four years before--Earhart took off eastward from New Jersey in her Burbank-built Lockheed Vega and became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Flies Coast to Coast

Three months after that historic crossing, Earhart returned to North Hollywood for a short time to prepare for another flight. Her next "first" was in August of the same year, when she became the first woman to fly coast to coast.

In 1934, the Putnams rented a bungalow in an exclusive area of North Hollywood where residents paid $5 a month for a Hollywood security company to protect their privacy and property.

The following year, in July, 1935, Earhart wrote to her mother that they had found the ideal house to buy--overlooking a golf course and close to Burbank Airport--on the same street.

"At the very end of Valley Spring Lane (I don't know whether you ever walked there or not) there was a little house with a 'For Sale' sign on it," Earhart wrote. "It was a square lot with two sides on the golf course and a 100-foot lot on the other, now vacant."

Earhart and Putnam visited the house and purchased it on the same day.

Today the two-story, four-bedroom house on the end of a cul-de-sac has been remodeled with walnut floors and a porch overlooking the golf course. Owner Susan Morad, who lives in the house with her husband and two children, says there are no visible traces of Earhart's presence.

"What we first were attracted to was the house, but when we found out she had lived there, that definitely added to it," Morad said.

From 1935 to 1937, Earhart made many more flights, many of them from Burbank Airport. It was there that she poured over blueprints with Lockheed engineers, who built the $34,000 Electra she was flying at the time of her disappearance. Earhart's badly damaged plane was sent to Burbank after she crashed on the runway at Pearl Harbor on her first around-the-world attempt in 1937.

Next to flying, one of Earhart's greatest passions was books, say those who knew her.

"She would search the libraries for anything she could find on aerodynamics, although there wasn't much at the time. We were always thinking about what aviation would turn into," Southern said. "Another day, she'd bring poetry and we'd discuss that."

Shortly before World War II, the North Hollywood Jaycees dedicated a plaque to Earhart at Lankershim Boulevard and Camarillo Street. In 1954, when the plaque was relocated, the Jaycees proposed creating a more fitting tribute to the flier. The project took nearly seven years to complete.

After an announcement to the community was made, donations from Valley residents who still remembered the aviator--and hundreds of coins from school children born four decades after her last flight--poured in to pay for the $20,000 project.

It wasn't until 1968 that North Hollywood sculptor Ernest Shelton, a former Jaycee and part-time teacher at Valley College, began working on the memorial.

Working from many photographs provided by Earhart's one-time secretary, Shelton recalled later that he "tried to recreate the woman as the public remembers her. I made her taller than she actually was because her slender body gave the impression of height."

The seven-foot statue of Earhart, her hair cropped short and her body as lanky as photographs showed her to be, is made of fiberglass and steel with 23-karat gold overleaf. It stands at the corner of Tujunga Avenue and Magnolia Boulevard, adjacent to the North Hollywood branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, which is said to have been visited by Earhart. The library was built in 1929.

After a suggestion was made in 1980 by a North Hollywood patron that the library change its name from Sidney Lanier to Amelia Earhart, the library polled the community. Earhart won out over Lanier, a Southern poet, 2 to 1. On April 21, 1981, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included the North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the Jaycees, Lanier was out and Earhart was in.

Inside the one-story hacienda-style library are reminders of Earhart, including a glass case with photographs of her taken in Burbank, a letter from her sister and a sheer, flowered scarf she wore tucked inside her flight jacket.

Above the library's fireplace is a poem inlaid into the wood: "I am but a small winged bird, but I would conquer the world."

The words, ironically, were not written by Earhart, but Lanier.

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