Flying the skies as a stewardess in the ’60s wasn’t anything like they show it on TV
A recent graduate of Penn State, I had been teaching art in Lower Merion, Penn., and was asked to dance with my students during the prom. Something wasn't right. I had to get out of Philadelphia. I wanted to see the world. Couldn't join the Marines. That was too rough.
I was going to become a stewardess — yes, a stewardess. (This was what we were called, not a flight attendants, please.) And for the best airline … Pan Am. This was 1966.
Moving to Kew Gardens in New York was a requirement. A woman had just been stabbed in the street, 48 people watched. Nobody tried to help her. This was to be my home for one month while I trained, then I moved to Manhattan, and found an apartment with a German stewardess who was promiscuous, and a spinster virgin in her thirties.
The uniform was fabulous, I felt beautiful in it. And sexy. It was a tight blue skirt (well, not too tight) with a slit, a crisp white blouse and a fitted jacket all in sky blue. Like my eyes. The movie “Catch Me If You Can” has a scene with the stewardesses on either side of Leonardo DiCaprio, and we looked as stunning as in that film.
My first flight was to Bermuda. As we circled going in for the landing, I felt dizzy and ran to the bathroom to throw up. But I was out of Philadelphia and happy about that. I was about to see the world. I felt like Candide. Voltaire would have understood.
Bermuda was enchanting, all pink, and we stayed in a white hotel. After I was over my nausea, I had 24 hours to see the island then get back on the plane and fly back to Manhattan. In three days I was to fly to London then Paris then Rome. In London we stayed in a hotel on Hyde Park Corner, but it was so noisy I had to put the mattress over the window and sleep in the bathtub.
I only had 12 hours for the layover and needed my sleep. The noise was overbearing. Same thing happened in Paris, and Rome was a disaster. Layovers were 12, 24, 48 hours and in Beirut we had three days before we flew onto Bangkok. Sleep became a problem.
On the layover in Beirut I managed to fly to Jerusalem, but the guards detained me at the airport as they thought I was a German Jew … My maiden name was Wagner. After being held by police for an hour, I only had two hours to see this ancient city. Then my girl friend and I were thrown out of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Her dress was too low in the back, and mine was too low in the front.
Never mind. The city had all been rebuilt and was a haven for salesmen selling cheap trinkets. It was capitalism at its worst. Our guide said, "See the machine guns" as he pointed to the top of the Wall, and sure enough, Arabs on our side were prepared to fire on Jews on the other side.
At this time the city was half Arab and half Jewish. The only thing surviving from Christ's time was the Mount of Olives — and what a sight that was. Van Gogh images twisting to the Heavens. Alas, after three hours we had had enough and flew back to Beirut's Intercontinental Hotel owned by Pan Am.
We decided to have a cocktail in its rooftop lounge which was resplendent with sheiks looking for women. We watched the mystery of the Middle East and how women were more objects than we were made out to be by the airline. There were few jobs for women in the ‘60s, so I look at my days as a stewardess as an adventure, not as being turned into an object by an airline. I was too young to teach and had to "sew my wild oats," as my mother used to say.
Flying became grueling hard work. My feet swelled and ached from the stilettos though we changed to flats on the plane. TWA had one more stewardess than we did which meant we worked harder.
Each city was a new adventure, but the pressure of having to get my sleep became a problem. In Bangkok I could buy Quaaludes and became hooked on them to sleep. Quaaludes, Seconals, Nembutals. My handbag became a pharmacy when it wasn't a bar and filled with those mini liquors we used to pinch from the plane.
This is how I became an alcoholic/addict.
No, I do not object to the word stewardess and all that silliness. I object to the amount of hours given for layovers which leads to sleep deprivation and addiction to pills. So what had begun as Candide's best of all possible worlds ended up being best of all possible pills and no rest for the weary.
I don't know if the layover hours have been changed for the crew since 1966, but I certainly hope so.
I became chronically airsick, went from 130 to 108, and was granted a medical leave of absence during which I tried my hand at modeling in Paris. At 33,000 feet in the air passengers kept saying I had beautiful blue eyes. I thought, I'll find out if this is true. In three months I had worked for French Vogue and gleefully quit Pan Am.
Today I still get airsick and do not like to fly. The mere smell of a plane makes me nauseous, but after flying only two years I did see the world and am grateful I had this experience just as I was grateful when it ended. Eventually I had the opportunity to return to Philadelphia where today I live a contented life and view it as my home and what a sweet one — where I would rather take a train than a plane any day.