The daredevil with the courage to take to the skies and aim for the sun has captured our imaginations since Icarus, but that is only part of the equation that explains our enduring fascination with Amelia Earhart. The confidence of her stride, the demure smile that alluded to knowing more than she’d ever say out loud, her apparent comfort with stardom, her insatiable need to continue conquering new horizons combine to create the lure that draws us to her.
More has been written about her than about almost any other woman of the first half of this century, including her friend Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet 100 years after her birth and 60 years after her mysterious disappearance, the enigmatic veil surrounding Amelia Earhart has never been altogether lifted. Was she a pawn of her husband and manager George Putnam? Was she used in an international spying game by President Roosevelt? Was she an inexperienced flyer caught and tortured by the Japanese?
Wrong on all counts, according to “East to the Dawn,” a new and excruciatingly researched biography by Susan Butler. She lovingly excavates Earhart as “a person of judgment and integrity with a strong sense of mission [who] became as single-mindedly dedicated to improving the status of women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger.” A tall order, but with access to journals, letters and interviews with Earhart’s cousins and friends as well as research from dozens of libraries and archives, Butler presents us with a fully realized portrait of a truly remarkable woman.
Earhart spent most of her first 13 years living with her strict maternal grandparents in Atchison, Kan., while her alcoholic father, repressed mother and younger sister moved from town to town, seeking a secure environment where the family could reunite. Earhart’s closest friends were her female cousins, and she was a natural leader in their games and activities, quickly learning to keep her own counsel and being “instinctively wise enough and gutsy enough to know she would do anything she wanted as long as it didn’t make waves.” She dreamed of going to Bryn Mawr, found solace in reading and recited her favorite poem, Swinbourne’s “Atlanta in Calydon,” about the virgin huntress of Greek mythology who refuses to marry, so many times that her cousin Katch Challis could still repeat it 50 years later.
Earhart was in her early teens when she returned to live with her immediate family, but their lives were shadowed by her father’s excuses, unfulfilled promises and occasional public displays of drunkenness. Frequent moves throughout the Midwest finally landed them in Chicago, where her father abandoned them and Earhart finished high school. She outwardly appeared to adjust to the lack of roots and economic reversals and never complained nor used her father’s alcoholism as an excuse, but she never put herself in a position of totally depending upon a man again.
With the help of her mother’s family, Earhart entered a Philadelphia finishing school, where she was elected vice president of her class but soon dropped out to begin what would be a 10-year stop-and-start search for a path of her own. She had volunteered as a war nurse in Toronto and spent a year as a premed student at Columbia University by the time she joined her reunited parents in Los Angeles in 1921. It was there that Earhart discovered her love of flying, taking lessons at several of the many small airfields that were popping up in a California preoccupied with flying. She managed to buy a plane and made friends with dozens of other female pilots, all drawn to the unique freedom and escape flying offered women, still so restricted in their activities and expectations when they were on the ground. Yet once again familial obligations interfered when her parents finally divorced in 1924; Earhart sold her plane, bought a car and drove her mother to Massachusetts.
In Boston, at 29, Earhart connected with an occupation that was both acceptable for a single woman and provided the respect and independence she craved, never mind that she had to lie about her work experience to get the job in the first place. She found a vent for her natural leadership abilities and progressive beliefs at Denison House, one of the growing number of settlement houses providing support for poor families, where she taught children and organized community activities. Earhart was one of the millions thrilled by Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. So was another woman, whose tenacity would forever alter Earhart’s life. Fifty-five-year-old heiress Amy Phipps Guest, an adventuress in her own right, was adamant that a woman follow in Lindbergh’s path. Initially, she wanted to make the transatlantic flight herself but, dissuaded by her family, she decided to put up the money, telling her lawyer, “I am determined an American shall be the first woman to fly across to England. Find me someone. Someone nice who will do us proud.”
Earhart, who described herself at the time as “a social worker who flies for sport,” was the woman they found through an article she had written for the Bostonian and with the help of Lindbergh’s publisher, George Palmer Putnam. For her to be a passenger on such a long-distance flight was daring enough for the times, and so while the plane was piloted and navigated by two men, newspapers in June of 1928 headlined “A Woman’s Triumph,” and press coverage of the landing and Earhart’s appearances afterward surpassed all expectations.
Putnam reported that Earhart “captivated all who met her,” but it was clear from a photograph taken before the first flight that she had already captivated him. Within the year, he divorced his wife and was begging Earhart to marry him. She had strung along a previous engagement for several years and initially resisted Putnam’s overtures. Yet in him she found a capable man willing to immerse himself in her ambitions. Still, her fears and need to control are made clear in a letter she presented to Putnam the morning of their wedding in early 1931. “I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.” She asked that they “not interfere with each other’s work or play” and told him flat-out that she could not “guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage.” While promising to “try to do my best in every way,” she signed her clearly heartfelt and brutally honest missive exactly the same way she signed her impersonal cables: AE.
Ironically, once married, Earhart was freed to focus almost exclusively on her flying and to promote aviation and the advancement of women. Though by all accounts they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, Putnam generally stayed in the background, answering her mail, handling the social arrangements and the household help. He negotiated with companies such as Lucky Strike and Beech-Nut to underwrite the cost of her flights as she set speed and altitude records, entered air derbies and captivated the public’s imagination.
She wrote books and articles, organized a women pilots association, taught at Purdue University, championed social work, air safety and equality for women, created her own clothing line and briefly had a column in Cosmopolitan, but it was the speeches that provided the cash flow. “It’s a routine now--I make a record and then I lecture on it.”
While enthralling her audiences with descriptions of her flights, she hammered home the need for women to be independent, advocating “wages based on work not sex nor any other consideration,” because “limited hours and limited pay only [hinder] those who want to progress.” She often was impatient but never lost her sense of humor and never claimed it was easy, warning women who wanted to work, “If and when you knock at the door, it might be well to bring an axe along; you may have to chop your way through.”
She dressed in feminine, understated gowns that she knew lulled her audience into feeling comfortable with her and made her strongly feminist message less threatening. Her famous tousled hair was the result of a curling iron. She did not resist becoming a celebrity, and while there was little posturing behind her fame, there was no ambivalence either. She possessed an almost innate understanding of the power stardom brought yet never thought herself as above anyone else; she was more comfortable staying with the families who ran the airfield operations than at hotels or with the local leaders anxious to have her in their homes.
Earhart truly came alive when she was in the cockpit, and she loved her planes as if they were her pets. Her self-possession was exemplified by her ability to nap before even the most challenging flights. Butler weaves in stories of the dozens of would-be Amelia Earharts who died in their planes or lacked Earhart’s unique combination of luck, skill, drive and confidence. Though her initial fame was the result of being at the right place at the right time, the records she set (such as being the first woman to solo across the Atlantic) and the reputation she earned proved to herself and any doubters that her accomplishments were based on skill.
Butler alludes to the possibility of other affairs but uses Lucy Challiss’ diaries, letters and cables, along with interviews with Gore Vidal, to show that his father, Gene Vidal, and Earhart were lovers. Earhart was instrumental in having Vidal appointed head of the government’s new Bureau of Air Commerce, and when his position was threatened, she took the case directly to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was “absolutely dazzled” by the flier. Vidal was quickly reinstated and, weeks later, Earhart’s endorsement of Roosevelt for reelection made headlines.
Where others have written that FDR used Earhart to spy on the Japanese on what would be her final flight, if anyone uses anyone in this biography, it is Earhart who uses the Roosevelts. At various times, she had the support and assistance of the Army, the Navy and the State Department to gather clearances for her flights, assess the weather and even improve air strips.
The title “East to the Dawn” refers to the direction Earhart headed in her attempt to circle the globe. Butler supplies details from letters written during the flight by Earhart’s navigator, Fred Noonan. He praised her as “the only woman flier I would care to make such a trip with because in addition to being a fine companion, she can take hardship as well as a man and work like one.” They took weeks to fly more than 20,000 miles, and Butler brings alive the thrill they felt flying over the Niger River and spotting wild animals, sleeping outdoors in the open desert and staying in a former sultan’s palace. They rode camels in Karachi, visited the pagodas of Rangoon and walked the rim of a volcano in Bandung before leaving New Guinea, never to be seen again.
After conducting her own research and with reliance on the findings of Japanese journalist Aoki Fukiko, Butler concludes that Earhart and Noonan were lost at sea, “less dramatic” than the theory they were captured by the Japanese but “ultimately as tragic.”
Butler spent 10 years researching and writing, and at times it seems that she is so enamored with some of her discoveries that, quite understandably, she cannot tell the forest for the trees. Butler’s painstaking work cries out for a Max Perkins of nonfiction, a working, caring editor to massage the text, remove redundancies and provide a fresh eye. Too frequently the research drives the story and not the other way around. Details that detract from the smooth flow of the saga--such as the listing of airplane license numbers, flight times down to the second and the kilocycle bandwidth of various radios--could easily have been moved to the end notes.
The reader closes “East to the Dawn” with the lingering realization of how truly contemporary Amelia Earhart remains and with a new understanding of the love and admiration she earned from colleagues and the public at large. The exhilaration she felt in her ability to control her plane as she literally lifted herself above earthly concerns and her insistence on being her own person while fighting for causes larger than herself continue to command our respect and fuel our dreams.