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Lessons on Travel—and Friendship—From the Women of Pan Am

By Julia Cooke

Aug 3, 2021

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Courtesy of the Pan Am Historical Foundation / panam.org

Author Julia Cooke spent four years interviewing the fearless Pan Am stewardesses of the ’60s and ’70s—here’s what she learned along the way.

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This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast. Note that you’ll see the word “stewardess” in this story. That’s because most of the women who didn’t transition into more modern flight attendant roles in the late ’70s prefer this title: They say the job as they knew it no longer exists. 

I’m sitting in a car, driving through a blizzard in Montana in February. The light is a velvety lavender color. The winding two-way road is white and I’m driving about 20 miles per hour through a mountain pass in a rental car with no four-wheel drive, which has already gotten stuck in the snow once. I’ve left a day early from the home of a woman I’ve been interviewing for four years: Karen Ryan. This is the first time I’ve met her in person, in her home, an hour and a half from Missoula under normal circumstances. Now, it’s two hours, then three, then four hours for me to reach the hotel airport I’m staying at in order to—I really, really hope—fly out tomorrow. 

Also: I’m 26 weeks pregnant. But, one thing I know is that the women I’ve been interviewing for the last four years would probably have done the exact same thing in my shoes—launch themselves into a blizzard to try to catch a plane.

This interview in Montana is for a book I’m writing on the international stewardesses of the ’60s and ’70s [Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am]. I’ve already gone to luncheons and reunions in Berlin, Bangkok, and Savannah to meet and then interview these women who are now in their 70s and 80s. As a group, I’ve never met so many independent, curious, international women before. 

I was studying how stewardesses of the 1960s seem to have embodied so many of the social changes that came much later: globalization, third-wave feminism, soft diplomacy. But underneath the intellectual, I felt an intense desire to know how these women’s lives had been shaped by their constant travel—what kind of freedom they had found. And, maybe most importantly, how their relationships with one another had contributed to and amplified that freedom. Because I wanted to live like that too: independent, supported by a community of fearless women—women like Karen Ryan.

“There’s just something about wandering around by myself,” Karen told me, “just kind of soaking in the ambience of a place.”

Karen loved flying for the access it afforded her to wander around the world alone. Her friends from back in the day describe her as blonde, beach-y, pretty, plucky—but what I learned from talking to Karen was that she was also an anti-authoritarian romantic with near-religious faith in wanderlust and individualism. As a stewardess, she felt that she was in good company. 

“I didn’t realize at the time how picky Pan Am was, because who knew? They didn’t tell us that, but my gosh, these were pretty exceptional women,” she said. “There’s something about a takeoff while you’re sitting on the jump seat. No one else can hear you, the passengers can’t hear you. And I think [flight attendants] exchanged really profound thoughts during some of those moments.”

These exceptional women weren’t just Karen’s colleagues. They were her support system when she got divorced from her college sweetheart. 

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“When my marriage dissolved, I really leaned on a lot of Pan Am flight attendants,” she said. “I don’t know how people go through emotional times without someone to share with or vent with. I’m certainly not that stoic person that can just hold it all inside. So, I thought it was very healing for me.”

I’d also been interviewing a woman named Clare Christianson. A very tall, very self-possessed woman who lives now on an island in Puget Sound and who worked for Pan Am for more than 20 years. First, in flight service, and then as one of the few women promoted into management.

“When I went to stewardess training, 65 years ago, it was almost as if I had come into a group of preselected friends, because I got along so well with everyone that was selected to train with me,” Clare said. “Three of the other girls and I started living together and two of them remained my lifelong friends.”

“There’s just something about wandering around by myself,” Karen told me, “just kind of soaking in the ambience of a place.”

Clare had quit flying after a decade and worked her way up in management in Pan Am, supervising stewardesses and eventually working in training and recruiting too, along with a small group of other ambitious women.

“I think what brought us so close together in the Manhattan flight service office was that we all saw each other every day and had the same time off to do things on the weekends and the same holidays off,” she said. 

She told me about how they took French lessons and bought season tickets to the ballet to share among the group. On three-day weekends they would travel to India or Rome or London. They’d sleep on the plane and when they’d arrive, they’d see West End shows in London or haggle for rugs in Dehli. Or, you know, buy a marmalade. 

“I remember my husband didn’t like to travel that much and I would make up excuses to travel,” Clare told me. “He was born in England and he loved orange marmalade. So, I would use it as an excuse that I would have to go to England to get more orange marmalade for him. I never told him how easy it was to get in the States. He would just love it when I would go to England and return with four jars of orange marmalade. He thought I had done this just for him, that I had suffered through a weekend in London just to get him orange marmalade.”

When Clare left Pan Am, and finally finished her college degree, which she’d put off years earlier to start flying in the first place, these same women had hosted a prom in one of their Manhattan apartments. They shopped for cheesy gowns together at thrift stores, they pinned corsages to one another.

“Of course, our husbands thought we were crazy, but we had the best time,” Clare said. 

Clare once told me that her women friends had been the most important relationships in her life. “You can be close to a husband,” she said. “But there’s just something about friendship.” She’s 87 now and still traveling—she’s going on a cruise next year with one of her flying friends. When I asked Clare for advice about keeping friendships strong she’d said, “Keep in touch. Keep in touch. Keep in touch.”

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I hadn’t really thought that much about friends and travel before I began to spend time with these women in the present day, talking about their pasts. I’d gone to college, then lived abroad for five years in my 20s, and I met an incredible range of people from all over the world. I stayed in touch with some friends and lost touch with others. But, as I’d begun to interview these women, I’d started to make more of an effort to keep my good friends closer, inspired in part by my conversations with Karen and Clare.

Really, travel and risk—going far from home, staying longer—had always been intertwined in my mind. I’ve always thought most clearly and felt most connected with myself in movement. Now I felt connected with my son, too, even though he wasn’t yet born. The trips I’d taken with him when he was so easily portable inside my body had amplified my feeling of devotion to him. But that devotion had an aftertaste. I was terrified of what I’d lose once he was born and fully in the world—travel I wouldn’t undertake.

And if I’m honest, driving through that blizzard in Montana while I was so pregnant was a little more risky than I felt great about in that moment. I didn’t love that shift of perspective—I had always been more used to saying yes to a risk than no—but there I was.

I was terrified of what I’d lose once he was born and fully in the world—travel I wouldn’t undertake.

I understood now that if I was going to have children and be happy about it, I’d have to figure out how to find some kind of in-between. Too much risk might be a terrifying drive through a blizzard, but I did want a milder sort of adventure with friends I loved. So I sent an email to some old, close friends as I planned my visit to the next stewardess I was interviewing, asking if anyone wanted to meet me anywhere in or near the Bahamas—and incredibly they said yes. We decided on Miami.

And so off I went, hugely pregnant, happy to fly to beaches instead of blizzards. Happier yet to see my friend Kelly, who’s always been the most efficient of packers, rolling up to me in our hotel’s bar with her tiny suitcase, and then another friend, and another, and soon we were five women who hadn’t been together in years, leaning toward one another, talking. As I bobbed in the ocean later that day, dodging seaweed, me and my growing belly and my friends, I realized that this impulse to bring everyone together, it was the right one.

The whole weekend, we found ourselves in places that we don’t often get to in our daily lives, even if it was hardly high adventure: a swim in the ocean, a nice restaurant by the bay, the anonymity of our hotel. All of us, whether we had kids or not, kept talking about how happy we were to be together in a context other than where we live. It was also about, I thought, seeing other women equally committed to being individuals despite changing life circumstances.

The destination itself didn’t seem to matter, and yet we kept talking about where we’d go next. It’s been two years, and we’re thinking about the next destination. Staying in touch, staying in touch, staying in touch.

Julia Cooke is a journalist, travel writer, and author of Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am [2021, Mariner Books]. 



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