The emotional landscape of a First Woman will always invite speculation. As the first woman to fly the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart was treated like something startlingly exotic, according to Gore Vidal, who once met her, and remembers whole crowds just standing and staring.
What they saw was a unique blend of masculine and feminine. Never glamorous (and not wanting to be), Earhart exerted a most potent charm through her confident, engaging way of speaking and her indomitable character, edged with humour. But she was, at least partially, a creature of her own Svengali, the publisher George Putnam, who promoted her to huge effect and eventually became her husband, though not before she had served him with a pre-nup, disavowing the fidelity clause. Yet as no other romances seem to have come to light, it is fair to assume that she was effectively married to that wide blue yonder, with all its perils and possibilities.
It was Putnam who saw that Earhart could provide the natural other-half to the Lindbergh legend ("Lady Lindy"), even noting that the two of them looked surprisingly similar wearing that particular headgear - as long as she concealed her gaptooth smile by keeping her lips closed. Especially in the dreary Depression years, Putnam was mindful of the impact this mysterious goddess could make by suddenly descending on yet another shore.
But behind the cheering crowds, the media frenzy, the ticker-tape parades, one curious fact is easily overlooked - that Earhart was not actually a very good pilot. Her instructor may have praised her smooth touch on the controls. And nobody ever doubted her coolness. But under the test, she turned out surprisingly careless, in particular in her casual attitude to radio communications. On her last and fatal journey, round the world from west to east, it seems that either a badly-connected antenna or a wrong frequency prevented the plane from receiving crucial messages from the coastguard vessel in mid-Pacific. (And I certainly wouldn't like to have been the ship's radio operator when he discovered that.)
Nor was she a good poet, as everyone wanted to believe she was. Her lines were musical enough to linger in the air. But what does she mean by "Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace"? (Significantly this film is titled 'The Price of Courage', reversing that phrase to make it a little more meaningful at least.)
In this American Experience production, the handful of people who remember her confirm that she had been suffering much mental and physical illness, and had been advised not to take on such a massive project. Also her marriage was breaking down, Putnam holding her to a punishing work-schedule, lucrative though it was, while one commentator said she detected "none of the warmth you expect in a happy marriage".
So she paid the ultimate price for her courage after all. But perhaps in the end, this strange loner-rebel-poet felt she'd done all she could. Suppose she'd completed that last tour. Where do you go after conquering the world? Her biographer Doris Rich believed that Earhart's life was one long restless challenge, defying the fates, taking her good luck for granted, and believing that an early death could be something glorious.
She was right there. For it turned her into the legend that she is. To this day, the wild theories continue to pop up, and every fragment of wreckage in the Pacific is declared to be from her plane. Was she spying for FDR? Did the Japanese capture her and turn her into Tokyo Rose? Did she become a banker in New Jersey, as some claimed? Or did she just settle for the hermit life on some island too remote to be spotted?
They still won't believe she's dead, even now. That's how you stay young for ever.
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