May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Amelia Earhart was recruited as deliberately as Eliza Doolittle was plucked from the streets of London by Professor Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion . George Palmer Putnam, the air-minded executive of a venerable American publishing company who had scored a triumph in 1927 with the publication of We , Charles Lindbergh’s first-person account of his solo flight across the Atlantic, was searching for a woman flier to repeat Lindy’s feat and, of course, to write a book about it that Putnam could publish. Earhart’s qualifications were perfect. Kansas-born, she was, like Lindbergh, a Midwesterner. She was twenty-nine, neither too young nor too old; she could fly, having learned from another woman, Neta Snook; she was amiable, bright, and daring; and she looked enough like Charles Lindbergh to have been his sister.
In June 1928 Earhart, bearing the title of commander in chief of a trimotor Fokker biplane named Friendship , flew in twenty hours and forty minutes from Newfoundland to Wales. Although she readily acknowledged that she was only a passenger in an aircraft operated by two male pilots, Earhart copped the glory of being the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air.
For the next nine years Putnam kept Earhart constantly ,in public view. With his backing she launched a national organization of female pilots, soloed coast to coast across the United States, set several speed records for women, and participated in the celebrated Santa Monica-to-Cleveland air race that Will Rogers nicknamed the Powder Puff Derby. Putnam’s wife, after enduring eighteen months in the shadow of “Lady Lindy,” sued him for divorce. He married Earhart in February 1931. The following year, precisely on the fifth anniversary of Lindbergh’s flight, Earhart finally made her own true fifteen-hour, one-woman-and-no-men solo hop from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland, just in time to edge out several other women who were making plans to get there first.
Even these considerable achievements might be forgotten, however, had not Earhart vanished at the height of her career, during a highly orchestrated, closely watched attempt to fly around the world. The unexplained disappearance of Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, in their Lockheed Electra in the South Pacific on July 2, 1937, has haunted generations of biographers and historians, occasioned numerous expeditions to the area, and resulted in more books and articles than did George Putnam’s finest efforts to ensure her fame. Earhart’s brief career, scarcely a decade long, is remembered as the acme of female aviation in America.
The name of Harriet Quimby, on the other hand, is not likely to produce a nod of recognition even from well-informed Americans, although she did merit a postage stamp a few years ago (along with three other female pioneers of American aviation, and issued in a maddeningly useless fifty-cent denomination).
Early in this century, when Quimby was enjoying her split second in the sun, no one would have guessed that she would ever be forgotten. She was the first woman in America, and one of the first in the world, to become the licensed pilot of a heavier-than-air-machine. In 1912 she was the first woman to make a solo flight across the English Channel, piloting a notoriously tricky monoplane designed by the French aviator Louis Blériot. She flew by day, by night, in air meets, and in solo demonstrations while crowds gazed up in amazement. Her celebrity was so newfangled, so unprecedented, so bizarre that nobody knew what to call her. An aviatress? A female aeronaut? A lady bird?
Quimby was ten days shy of thirty-six and a successful writer in the male-dominated field of newspaper and magazine journalism when she began to fly at the breezy little landing strip of the Moisant Aviation School on Long Island. Fearless, ambitious, and as flamboyant as a pink flamingo, she soon was treating the readers of Leslie’s magazine to tales of her adventures in the air and offering sisterly advice on the hazards of becoming an aviatress (or aviatrice or aviatrix). She dazzled spectators at an international air meet in New Orleans in 1911 before conquering the Channel the following year.
Yet the neglect of Quimby is understandable, if not forgivable. Her career as a flier was even shorter than Earhart’s—a mere eleven months—and her end was only mildly mysterious. She and her passenger, a friend and aviation enthusiast named William Willard, were flipped from the cockpit of Quimby’s Blériot in a freakish accident during an air show over Dorchester Bay, south of Boston, on July 1, 1912. They fell one thousand feet into the shallow water. Quimby, according to The New York Times , was the fourth woman aviator to be killed in an accident, the 154th flier since 1906. Neither achievement has stayed in the record books. The only mystery is why the plane suddenly and violently tipped forward—and why neither the pilot nor her passenger had fastened a safety belt.
George Putnam created Amelia Earhart, but Harriet Quimby created herself. Putnam, in the long run, had greater success.