In Review: Come Fly the World

Glamour, danger, liberation: in a Mad Men–era of commercial flight, Pan Am World Airways attracted the kind of young woman who wanted out, and wanted up

Required to have a college degree, speak two languages, and possess the political savvy of a Foreign Service officer, a jet-age stewardess serving on iconic Pan Am between 1966 and 1975 also had to be between 5′3″ and 5′9″, between 105 and 140 pounds, and under 26 years of age at the time of hire. Julia Cooke’s intimate storytelling weaves together the real-life stories of a memorable cast of characters, from Lynne Totten, a science major who decided life in a lab was not for her, to Hazel Bowie, one of the relatively few black stewardesses of the era, as they embraced the liberation of their new jet-set life.

Cooke brings to life the story of Pan Am stewardesses’ role in the Vietnam War, as the airline added runs from Saigon to Hong Kong for planeloads of weary young soldiers straight from the battlefields, who were off for five days of R&R, and then flown back to war. Finally, with Operation Babylift—the dramatic evacuation of 2,000 children during the fall of Saigon—the book’s special cast of stewardesses unites to play an extraordinary role on the world stage.

Julia Cooke’s Come Fly the World: The Jet-age Story of the Women of Pan Am is an exciting, well-researched, and written book—plus received a Goodreads Choice Award. As a journalist and travel writer, Ms. Cooke is smart and savvy. Her vast vocabulary and excellent writing pulled me into the text, and I couldn’t put it down.

This collection of well-written stories pictured the political, historical, and cultural environment of being a stewardess between 1966 and 1975. As a former Pan-American Stewardess, I appreciate Cooke’s writing’s authenticity and the irony indicated by the Table of Contents: The Wrong Kind of Girl; You Can’t Fly Me; Women’s Work.

The uniqueness of each woman’s story—Lynne, Karen, Hazel, Tori, and more, uncovered the lives of these world travelers, pathfinders, and role models. During the Vietnam War, Pan Am World Airways flew aircraft from Saigon to Hong Kong, packed with soldiers leaving or returning from the battlefields. Through their eyes, and real-life stories, our hearts and minds as readers are transported into the culture of yesteryear as we sit next to diplomats, military soldiers, celebrities, politicians, philanthropists, and adventurers.

One of my favorite parts of Cooke’s collection of narratives was the Babylift, which involved the dramatic evacuation of thousands of children during the Fall of Saigon. Many of these children fathered by soldiers and adopted by kind and loving families conjured a heartfelt reminder of how the travesty of war could create a higher form of humanity: human kindness and love.

Cooke’s memorable actors traveling the globe in world-class fashion will excite your senses. Not only is it reminiscent of an era gone by—glamorous flying experiences where Pan American Stewardesses wined and dined recipients over the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. Tasting delicious cuisine worldwide, passengers delighted in roast beef, veal, salad, escargot, pate, and cheese. Pan Am did not hold back the impressive bounty of the skies.

With the advent of the women’s movement during the 1960s and 1970s, Ms. Cooke illuminated what it was like for an African American woman—college educated, speaking at least two languages, 5’3” to 5’9”, between 105 and 140 pounds—at last, had the same opportunities for a life of freedom in the skies.

Purchase a copy of Come Fly the World here.