You’ve seen it on Entertainment Tonight. A famous couple walks into a restaurant. A crowd gathers. Paparazzi appear. Never mind the publicists working behind the scenes to spread the word. It’s business. In celebrity culture, publicity = fame = $.
Business is what it was to George and Amelia Putnam—aka, Amelia Earhart and her publicist husband. In 1934, they brought their show to Coatesville for an impromptu performance. On a cross-country drive, Amelia—who, in 1928, was the first female aviator to (sort of) fly the Atlantic—and George were recognized when they stopped to eat. Before they escaped, the Putnams were a picture of benevolence as they endured autograph hunters and a tour of the firehouse. “This looks to be a fine little city,” Earhart told the crowd, before she and her spouse slipped behind the wheel and sped east out of town.
She promised to return “someday” and give everyone a free airplane ride. But she never did.
Born in Atchison, Kan., in 1897, Amelia Mary Earhart was raised a tomboy by a mother who dressed her in bloomers (divided skirts associated with feminism) and permitted such non-girlish outlets as sledding and access to a rifle, which she used to shoot rats in her grandfather’s barn. Earhart’s lawyer father, however, was an alcoholic who was never successful in his practice. Amelia lived for a time with her maternal grandparents, against whose Victorian manners she honed her unconventional style.
A formative experience might’ve been the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where Amelia saw her first rollercoaster. She came home and, with the help of an uncle, built a small cart, which ran down a wooden track from the roof of a backyard shed. The ride, she told her sister, was “just like flying.”
Earhart was not impressed when she saw her first airplane—“a thing of rusty wire and wood”—at the Iowa State Fair. Instead of flying, she began to imagine herself in a variety of other male-dominated careers: film direction, advertising, mechanical engineering.
Earhart graduated from high school in 1916 and enrolled at the Ogontz School (now part of Penn State University) in Montgomery County. She dropped out after three semesters to work as a nurse in a World War I military hospital in Toronto. The experience made her a pacifist.
Also in Toronto, Earhart attended an air show where she stood her ground when a pilot buzzed the spectators, chasing most of them from the field. “I did not understand it at the time,” she later wrote, “but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”
In 1920, Earhart had her first 10-minute flight. “I knew I had to fly,” she said.
She worked at a variety of jobs—including driving trucks—to earn money for lessons. In 1922, she used an inheri-tance to buy a small Kinner airplane. Four years later, she moved to Boston to work as a teacher and social worker at Denison House, which offered social services and education to the urban poor. She also moonlighted as a Kinner sales rep and wrote newspaper columns promoting aviation. Her advocacy of female aviators made her a local celebrity.
Meanwhile, in New York, George Putnam was building a reputation in the family publishing business. After Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927, Putnam had suggested that the new hero write a post-flight book. It sold more than 650,000 copies through Putnam Books in its first year. It was one of the bestselling titles of all time, earning its author more than $250,000.
Realizing that a story of the first woman to fly the Atlantic could also be a big seller, Putnam went looking for the just the right female pilot. He’d also published the polar-exploration story of Richard E. Byrd. Putnam discovered that Byrd had recently sold his Fokker trimotor to a Pittsburgh heiress who planned to use it to fly the Atlantic. The woman’s family threw a fit, so she told Putnam she’d lend the plane to “the right sort of girl.”
According to Earhart biographer Doris Rich, Putnam was given this template: “a woman who was a flier, well educated, with a pleasing appearance and manners acceptable to the English.” Someone suggested a young woman who was active in aviation in the Boston area.
As a sequel to Lindbergh, Earhart had exactly the right look—the same tall, thin build; the same piercing, blue-grey eyes; the same Nordic coloring; the same shy smile. Putnam thought she was perfect, and the offer was made: Earhart would be paid in fame, but not in cash. Fees for anything she wrote would go into a fund to finance the project. Professional test pilot Wilmer Stultz flew the plane. That was good because most of the flight was on instruments for which Earhart was not trained. Her job was to keep the flight log. “Stultz did all the flying—had to,” she told an interviewer after landing in Wales. “I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.”
Potato or not, Earhart was now a celebrity. She was mobbed in London, had tea with Bernard Shaw and danced with the Prince of Wales. A newspaper observed that, as a passenger, Earhart had added no more to the flight than if she had been “a sheep.” Hurt, Lady Lindy still had sufficient PR sense to lie: Dealing with the press, she told a reporter, had always been “thoroughly enjoyable … from first to last.” Earhart returned to a ticker-tape parade in New York and was received at the White House by President Coolidge.
Soon thereafter, Earhart and Putnam put her fame to work. She quickly wrote and published a book, 20 Hours, 40 Min., about the flight. According to Rich, it was “not very interesting—a dull summary of the problems of commercial aviation and a plea for more support.”
But sales were brisk, in part due to Putnam’s heavy schedule of lectures and public appearances. He financed a new airplane on Earhart’s behalf. For being part of an NBC radio broadcast of an auto show in New York, Earhart was presented with a blue Chrysler roadster. In exchange for her endorsement of a fur-lined, leather “Amelia Earhart Flying Suit,” a Fifth Avenue department store gave her one. She also helped design a line of “active living” clothing, promoted a line of luggage, and suffered criticism for endorsing a brand of cigarettes. “She had learned from Putnam that there could be considerable gain by enduring such foolishness,” Rich wrote.
All of this huckstering required Earhart and Putnam to spend a lot of time together. The press noticed. Gossip followed. When Putnam and his wife divorced in 1929, Earhart was immediately asked if she’d be the second Mrs. Putnam. After he’d proposed six times, the idea began to seem sensible. “In January (1931), Amelia made up her mind,” wrote Rich. “If Putnam needed to bask in her limelight, she needed him to maintain that limelight.”
Plus, he would tend to the “grubby work” of managing her career. But she insisted on an open marriage, writing on the eve of their wedding, “I want you to understand that I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.”
They wed at the home of Putnam’s mother. Earhart kept her own name.
In the following years, Earhart built her reputation as a serious aviator. She flew solo across North America—the first woman to do so—and competed in air races. She
was an official of the National Aeronautic Association and first president of the Ninety-Nines, an association of female pilots dedicated to advancing women in the field of aviation.
The couple worked constantly. But, in July 1934, Earhart and Putnam spent two weeks at a friend’s ranch at Sunshine, Wyo. It was the longest the couple had spent together since their wedding. According to Rich, they enjoyed the back country—fly fishing, riding pack horses and cooking over camp fires. For some reason, the aviator and her husband decided to drive to their home in Rye, N.Y.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike was not yet built. Getting across Pennsylvania by car meant using roads like Route 30. So, on Wednesday, Aug. 1, Earhart and Putnam’s touring car pulled up at Coatesville’s Coach and Four Inn about dinner time. Across the street, Raymond Clark was among a crowd of firefighters awaiting the start of a business meeting at the Washington Fire House. He was first to recognize Earhart. By the time they emerged from the restaurant, a crowd had gathered.
The Coatesville Record described Earhart as “affable, willing to greet all strangers, and with a facile way of greeting those who had the distinct privilege of meeting her.” She was dressed, it reported, in a gray crepe dress that buttoned high on the neck, with a yellow hat. “Incidentally, Miss Earhart designs her own clothes.”
A boy produced a toy airplane; Earhart signed the wing. She shook hands. If anyone paid attention to Putnam, the newspaper didn’t mention it. City councilman Clarence McConnell appeared with a bouquet of flowers. Frank Soule, president of the fire company, proposed a tour of the firehouse. Earhart accepted and, when the firefighters interrupted their meeting, she launched into her familiar stump speech. “I have often been confused as someone else,” she said. “I have often been congratulated for swimming the English Channel.”
The firefighters chuckled. She asked how many had flown in an airplane. About 10 percent raised their hands. Earhart asked if anyone knew the number of female pilots in the country, then informed them there were about 600. When Earhart asked who had recognized her, Clark stood. “I think he’s just too smart,” she observed, drawing laughter and causing Clark to blush.
Finally, Earhart mentioned having never seen anyone slide down a firehouse pole, and asked for a demonstration. Twenty men volunteered.
“The firemen wanted Miss Earhart to ‘take a slide,’” reported the Record. “She said she would come back sometime and do it for them.”
And then, with a wave, Putnam and Earhart were gone. It was a little delay and a lot of foolishness. But such foolishness had made them rich.