by Doris Rich; Smithsonian Institution Press; 309 pages.
Amelia Earhart was one of the leading aviators in the country when her plane went down over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. She was also one of the most famous women in the world, and Doris Rich explores the costs of that fame in this new biography of the woman known as Lady Lindy.
As a young woman, Earhart clipped newspaper articles about the professional achievements of career women. But after dropping out of college to nurse Canadian soldiers wounded in World War I, she traveled around the United States without a clear ambition of her own. All that changed on Christmas Day, 1920, when she attended an air show in Long Beach, California. Her first flying lesson (less than two weeks after the show) convinced her that “life was incomplete unless I owned my own plane.” She rose to fame as the first woman to fly the Atlantic, as a passenger in 1928 and as a solo pilot in 1932.
Earhart spent the last decade of her life breaking speed and distance records while engaged in an endless string of speeches, interviews, and magazine articles. At first she made public appearances in order to earn money for flying; by the late 1930s she was flying in order to keep up the demand for her lucrative appearances. Though Earhart hated the fame that made her career possible, writes Rich, she “played on it relentlessly as a platform on which to fight for her ideals of equality for women, international peace, and a world where flying would be a commonplace.” Though unwilling to call herself a feminist, she was driven to show that women could do anything men could.
In her career as an aviator, Rich writes, Earhart’s “courage was far greater than either her knowledge of aircraft or of navigation.” Her speaking schedule made it difficult for her to maintain the skills necessary to fly the newer airplanes. Some of her crash landings were so serious that she was lucky to have survived them. But the risks never deterred her. “As far as I know, I’ve got only one obsession—a small and probably feminine horror of growing old,” she said before her final flight, an attempt to circle the globe. “I won’t feel completely cheated if I fail to come back.” The strength of Rich’s book is that it defines Amelia Earhart by her courage, generosity, and determination, and not by the way her life ended.