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Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Iconby Kathleen C. Winters
When Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific in 1937, she was at the height of her fame. Fascination with Earhart remains just as strong today, as her mysterious disappearance continues to inspire speculation. In this nuanced and often surprising biography, acclaimed aviation historian Kathleen C. Winters moves beyond the caricature of the spunky, precocious… See more details below
When Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific in 1937, she was at the height of her fame. Fascination with Earhart remains just as strong today, as her mysterious disappearance continues to inspire speculation. In this nuanced and often surprising biography, acclaimed aviation historian Kathleen C. Winters moves beyond the caricature of the spunky, precocious pilot to offer a more complex portrait. Drawing on a wealth of contemporary accounts, airline records, and other original research, this book reveals a flawed heroine who was frequently reckless and lacked basic navigation skills, but who was also a canny manipulator of mass media. Winters details how Earhart and her husband, publisher George Putnam, worked to establish her as an international icon, even as other spectacular pilots went unnoticed. Sympathetic yet unsentimental, this biography helps us to see Amelia Earhart with fresh eyes.
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“In this biography…Kathleen C. Winters chooses to disregard the afterlife. She focuses on Earhart’s surprising lack of technical skill and flight experience, drawing on her own experience as a pilot, and on contemporary opinion. Fascinating reading.”—The Times Literary Supplement
"Succinctly lays out the facts of Amelia Earhart's remarkable story from 'a pilot's perspective' . . . The author's knowledge of aviation history renders this a proficient chronicle of women in flight."Kirkus Reviews
“Winters follows her biography Anne Morrow Lindbergh (2006) with a refreshing look at Earhart. Resisting tabloid tales, Winters focuses on responsible accounts and Earhart’s own writings to show how public demands and family pressures induced the aviatrix to fly beyond her capabilities. With erudite analysis of everything from Earhart’s flying to her marriage and longtime financial support of her parents and sister, Winters proves there is still much to learn about this American icon.”—Booklist
“In this latest installment of Earhart historiography, Winters (Anne Morrow Lindbergh: First Lady of the Air) explores her subject’s skills as an aviator and questions her character, thus providing another corrective to earlier Earhart hagiographies and popular perceptions. Earhart’s accomplishments have been scrutinized for some time, and Winters’s well-written and thoroughly researched study should serve as a final corrective. Recommended both as a character study and a technical study to general readers and specialists.”—Library Journal
“The late aviation historian Winters draws on a variety of new sources, including Earhart’s own writings, to tell with an absorbing style the amazing story of a flawed American heroine. Winters’s ‘back story’ of her subject’s growth and achievements, problems, and ultimate failure focuses on the human development of an international celebrity who chose to fly beyond her capabilities, rather than conjecturing on Earhart’s fate after the crash. Highly recommended.”—CHOICE
“Winters vividly captures what life was like for Earhart and her fellow women pilots in the 1920s and early ’30s, when technology was developing and flying was dangerous.”— St. Paul Pioneer-Press
“Informative and insightful.”—Asbury Park Press
“Unsparing as Winters is with her subject’s many shortcomings, her admiration for her intrepid spirit comes shining through.”—Living Scotsman
“Kathleen Winters's book is full of details I had never known about Amelia Earhart, which put her achievements and ultimate tragedy in a surprising new perspective. The author's experience as a pilot herself comes through in every part of the book. Anyone interested in flying or women who defy stereotypes will enjoy this book; but it also is a study in the timeless American traditions of marketing and PR.”—James Fallows, Atlantic Monthly, author of Free Flight
“Kathleen C. Winters promises to dig through the myths and heroic dross to look at Amelia Earhart from ‘a pilot’s perspective.’ This she does with masterly story-telling precision, revealing the sad truth that the famous aviatrix was all too often (usually owing to conflicting demands) ill-prepared to undertake her many attempted record flights. The result is a sober and absorbing account of the world’s most iconic, yet tragic female pilot.”—Larry E. Tise, author of Conquering the Sky and the Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor of History, East Carolina University
“In Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon, pilot and biographer Kathleen C. Winters draws upon new sources to give us a welcome and long overdue account of Earhart’s tumultuous career, as well as the careful fashioning of her public image. A book with no small share of surprises, and an important contribution to the history of women and aviation.”—David Toomey, author of Stormchasers and co-author of Amelia Earhart's Daughters
“If you’re only going to read one Amelia biography, make it this one. It’s fast moving, puts all the facts in the context of the times and doesn’t try to prove a point. It’s hard to put down.”—Budd Davisson, Editor-in-Chief, Flight Journal magazine
Praise for Anne Morrow Lindergh:
"A perfectly calibrated tribute to an early heroine of the air."Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Both pointed and modest."The New York Times Book Review
Brisk life of the famed aviator who is more often taken to task for her sloppy technique than lauded for her bravery.
Pilot and aviation historian Winters (Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 2006, etc.) succinctly lays out the facts of Amelia Earhart's remarkable story from "a pilot's perspective," underscoring how Earhart tended to skimp on the details of preparation for her difficult flights—e.g., on her last fatal flight around the world, she had not mastered the radio technology and resisted learning Morse code, which would have allowed the ship circling Howland Island in the Pacific to find her. Moreover, her handler turned husband George P. Putnam fashioned publicity events that forced her to adhere to unsound deadlines. Clues to Earhart's personality emerge from her peripatetic upbringing, especially in terms of her disintegrating family due to her father's drinking and loss of employment as a railroad lawyer. Her father's devil-may-care attitude and her mother's free spending fueled Earhart's delight in adventure and risk-taking. She was a tomboy, athlete and feminist, her Midwestern edges polished at a Philadelphia finishing school and later at Columbia University, but she restlessly worked many jobs to pay for her initial flying lessons. Her life-changing opportunity came with a call from former Army Air Corps pilot Hilton H. Railey in April 1928; he and promoter Putnam were seeking a replacement pilot for a transatlantic flight (with a male flight crew) and were impressed by Earhart's Lindy-like looks and poise. Criticism that she flew on the Friendshipmerely as "sheep in the cabin" prodded her to plan her own stunts, and by May 1931 she had made the solo transatlantic flight that established her reputation. In addition to examining Earhart, Winters includes the achievements of lesser-known women pilots such as Ruth Nichols.
The author's knowledge of aviation history renders this a proficient chronicle of women in flight.
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The Turbulent Life of an American Icon
By Kathleen C. Winters
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2010 Kathleen C. Winters
All rights reserved.
OF AMELIA EARHART'S ANCESTORS, she was most like her grandfather Alfred Otis. Both were extremely ambitious, enjoyed adventure and traveling, and had a strong sense of duty toward family. They were also firstborn children and lived with their grandparents during their formative years. Alfred's parents, Isaac and Caroline Abigail Otis, had moved from the state of New York to Michigan in 1834, among the many thousands lured westward at the time by the promise of available land. Caroline was the daughter of Gideon Curtiss II, a devoutly religious state legislator in New York. The Curtiss family counted among their relatives John Brown, the abolitionist who would stage a bloody raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859.
The hard-working Alfred strove to be a role model to his twelve siblings, as his granddaughter Amelia later would with her sister and cousins. He studied at night following his farm chores and entered the University of Michigan, graduating in 1852. Amelia's mother, Amy Otis, would later recall that her father spoke Greek and Latin "like a parrot" and tutored her and her school friends in mathematics.
After graduating, Alfred traveled throughout the South, taught, and eventually enrolled at the University of Louisville to study law. His foremost goal during this period was to make money. His correspondence to his brother George during a stay in Mississippi is peppered with descriptions of his wealthy neighbors, including planters with good libraries who were "generally rich, count[ing] up from fifteen to twenty thousand & sometimes double that sum."
After passing the bar, however, he soon found himself struggling to get enough business. In October 1855, Alfred, a poor man with little more than a frockcoat, shirt, trousers, and a few books, moved to Atchison, Kansas, which would later become Amelia Earhart's childhood home. Atchison, on the western bank of the Missouri River between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Leavenworth, Kansas, was at the time a frontier depot, serving as termini for steamboat and ox-team freighters, and outfitting west-bound settlers. The river was at times tame, at times turbulent and fast moving, and in harsh winters portions could freeze over, making navigation impossible. Alfred arrived as part of the first major wave of migrants to set out after Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May 1854. After the Civil War, frontier life would lure more than a million more people to Kansas, the greatest number of migrants in its history, encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862: In return for a small filing fee, settlers gained title to 160 acres of land after five years of residence; wealthier homesteaders paid $1.25 an acre and claimed title after six months of residence. Flour mills, foundries, and woodworking factories would also fuel the town's expansion, and by Amelia's birth its population hovered around fifteen thousand.
Why Alfred selected Atchison over Lawrence, Kansas, or other new settlements is unclear, but he would have known that Atchison was founded by and named for the famous Senator David R. Atchison from Missouri, a powerful champion of the proslavery movement. Whatever Alfred's reasons for choosing Atchison, his correspondence clearly showed that his sympathies lay with the proslavery movement, at least during his first years there.
Alfred's arrival in Atchison coincided with a period of increasingly violent upheaval. The controversial provisions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act had removed legislative barriers to slavery in the West, leaving the question of slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to be determined by popular vote. Consequently, the act intensified the existing disagreement between stunned northern abolitionists and southern slaveholders and helped to precipitate the Civil War. Bitter guerilla warfare erupted between the opposing sides, bringing bloodshed and mayhem to Kansas. When the abolitionist Free Soil Party gained support in the Kansas Territorial Legislature, an angry Senator Atchison retaliated and led a heavily armed mob of Missourians into Kansas. They cast thousands of fraudulent proslavery votes on Election Day, March 30, 1855.
Hostilities expanded, and in early 1856 leaders of the Free Soil Party were indicted for treason and imprisoned after a conflict at Lawrence, Kansas. Shortly after, on May 21, a proslavery mob sacked Lawrence, demolishing its hotel and printing presses. Alfred participated in the sacking of Lawrence but stressed that the hotel was destroyed "under judicial process & orders." (The grand jury had indicted the hotel as a nuisance, claiming it was a fort, just the sort of fighting words needed to provoke an attack.) Only two days later, in retaliation for the Lawrence incident, John Brown and his sons massacred five proslavery men at Pottawatomie Creek, west of Atchison. A large number of northern abolitionists continued to settle in Kansas, and the Free Soil Party captured control of the Territorial government in January 1858. Three years later, in January 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a Free State; in March of the same year, Lincoln was inaugurated as the sixteenth president of the United States; and in April, Confederate soldiers fired on Fort Sumter.
Despite the claims of previous biographers, there is no evidence that Alfred Otis served in the Union Army during the Civil War—or in the Confederacy, for that matter. In a family history, Alfred's daughter Amy, Amelia's mother, would later claim he was an active abolitionist who hid and smuggled runaway slaves. She wove quite a story of his actions, describing his hiding slaves in trunks on his property and carrying them in luggage to safety. This seems highly unlikely, based on the extensive evidence of her father's proslavery sentiments. The idea that the law-abiding Alfred would violate another man's property rights by aiding runaway slaves is difficult to take seriously.
The town of Atchison and Alfred Otis prospered hand in hand despite the political upheaval of these early years. Its rapid growth and prime location at the extreme western bend of the Missouri River convinced him of its promise and reinforced his decision to put down roots there. Throughout the violent struggle between the abolitionist and proslavery factions, he remained loyal to the town, declaring he was an "Atchison man." By April 1856 he had purchased ten lots in town, built his law office, and erected a "smashing log house 12 X 14" on one of his claims. He toiled for long hours and continued to focus on accumulating material wealth. Land litigation powered his law practice, and through this and real estate speculation he reaped his riches. In 1865 he and his partner, George Glick, who later became governor of Kansas, gained a plum client for their practice, the Central Branch of the Union Pacific Railroad.(Four years later the first transcontinental rail line would be established when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads joined at Promontory Point, Utah.) The two partners would help found the Atchison and Nebraska Railroad, the Atchison Gas Company, and the Atchison Savings Bank.
In the process of becoming wealthy, Alfred had established himself as a revered leader in the community. In 1878 he would be elected Circuit Judge on the Democratic ticket, but after declining a second nomination, he would devote his time to his business enterprises, real estate and banking, and serve as president of the Atchison Savings Bank. He would also serve two terms as Regent of the University of Kansas. By the time of his retirement in 1891, he had earned the sobriquet "the Judge," an emblem of his standing in the community as well as his prominence in the eyes of his children and grandchildren.
IN APRIL 1862 ALFRED Otis married twenty-five-year-old Amelia "Millie" Josephine Harres, a well-connected woman from a prosperous family, who was ten years his junior. After the marriage ceremony in the bride's hometown of Philadelphia, the newlyweds traveled by train to St. Louis and from there on a steamboat up the Missouri River to Atchison. At the time of Millie's arrival in 1862, Atchison was still relatively primitive, with rutted dirt streets, no sidewalks, and an extreme climate. There were few trees to break the force of relentless winds, and temperatures could drop below zero in winter or hover near one hundred in summer. Millie did not embrace the pioneer mindset and, even decades after leaving Philadelphia, held fast to Eastern standards of gentility. She wore long, black brocade gowns, and her daily agenda involved church, afternoon teas, and social calls. Her mother, Maria Grace Harres, a Philadelphia-born Quaker, provided companionship and helped around the household, having moved in after her husband died.
Amy Otis Earhart was born in 1869, the second of six surviving children and the oldest daughter of Alfred and Millie. Slender and pretty, she liked traveling and dancing, and would later regale her own daughters with tales of her youth, when she and a friend were the "undisputed leaders of the young social set" and traveled by chartered steamers to balls and cotillions at Fort Leavenworth and St. Joseph. It was an idyllic and cosmopolitan upbringing. With five brothers, one sister, and myriad cousins in Atchison, Amy did not want for company or material comforts. Her father considered travel crucial to his children's education and organized at least one big trip annually to locations ranging from Colorado to California.
The Otis children partook in daily reading sessions; Grandmother Maria would lead with a page or so of Dickens, followed by the youngsters taking their turn. Alfred urged his children to read domestic and foreign newspapers, as well as history and biographies, and to memorize and recite poetry. Until Amy married she lived at home, organizing a Dickens club and busying herself with other social activities. She was fond of saying that her grandparents and parents drilled into their children that "everything given you is given you to share with others." This notion may have later contributed to her own financial irresponsibility.
All things considered, it was not surprising Alfred balked when poor Edwin Earhart asked for her hand in marriage. Amy had first met Edwin at her debut in 1890, a coming-out party that attracted the elite of Atchison's society to her parent's home. There on a warm June evening, a light breeze scented with heliotrope wafted through the yard, where Japanese lanterns were strung on wires between trees. Hired musicians from St. Joseph played reels and waltzes, and the guests danced atop a wooden floor built especially for the event. It was in this romantic setting that Amy's brother Mark introduced her to Edwin, his tutor and fellow student at the University of Kansas law school. Amy's was a standard of living unknown to Edwin, and its luxury drew him in like a honeyed flower.
Edwin, born in 1867, was the youngest of twelve children of Mary Wells Patton and the Reverend David Earhart, an Evangelical Lutheran who moved his family from Pennsylvania to Kansas to minister to Indians and settlers in 1860. Hardship and poverty beset the Earharts, whose meals often consisted of only corncakes and turnips, and who staved off starvation with financial help from a local pastor and the Home Missionary Society. The reverend kept Sabbath strictly, deeming Sunday a day of rest and no activity. An Earhart family anecdote told of hungry, six-year-old Edwin sneaking off to fish one Sunday and returning with a catch for supper. Only after his mother begged that she be allowed to cook the fish did his father give in and allow it to be eaten.
Despite his difficult childhood, Edwin was charming and erudite, a natty dresser, and a good dancer with an ear for music; he also sang and played piano. It is unclear which of his characteristics most annoyed Amy's father; perhaps it was too much charm, too little substance, and a sense of frivolity that put off the stern Alfred Otis. Edwin seemed neither ambitious nor wealthy enough to adequately provide for Amy. He had a fondness for liquor, too. His daughter Muriel would later describe him as a man of "humor and a great joie de vivre. He could not say No to his friends whether he was asked to lend money or to take another drink."
Hoping to dampen Amy's ardor and allow more time for her to meet suitors in her own social circle, Alfred insisted that Edwin earn at least $50 a month before marrying her. But this only hardened Amy's resolve, and she stubbornly insisted on waiting. Five long years elapsed before Edwin met Alfred's demand, and he and Amy wed on October 16, 1895, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Atchison. After the small wedding, Amy and Edwin Earhart boarded a train for Kansas City, Kansas, settling in their new, furnished, white frame house at 1021 Ann Avenue, a wedding present from the Otises.
Amy and Edwin lived only fifty miles from Atchison, but their standard of living differed sharply from that of Amy's wealthy parents. Amy was no longer the "pampered debutante" in an affluent family, and she at first found marriage to Edwin, now a struggling railroad lawyer, to be a tearful, wrenching adjustment. Frequent trips to Atchison helped to alleviate her feelings of isolation, though Edwin seldom accompanied her, and the rift between him and his in-laws widened as he continually failed to adequately provide for his family.
Amy's first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. After becoming pregnant again in 1896, she decided she would retreat to her parents' house for the birth. There the Otises and a staff of Irish servants doted on her, as they had before she married, and a half hour before midnight on July 24, 1897, in a second-story bedroom of the Otises' frame and brick Victorian house, Amelia Mary Earhart was born. It was her great fortune to be born near the cusp of the twentieth century, when enormous technological changes were sweeping across America. Her destiny would later be assured after "aviation fever" gripped the country, and unimagined opportunities would open up to her.CHAPTER 2
AMELIA, THE FIRST OF Amy and Edwin's two daughters, was named for her grandmothers, Amelia "Millie" Harres Otis and Mary Wells Earhart. On October 10, 1897, she was christened at Trinity Episcopal Church in Atchison, Kansas. At the marble font, Reverend John H. Moleneaux touched holy water to her head, intoning a benediction, welcoming her to the faith of her ancestors. The pretty, nine-pound infant, who had a clear complexion and an upturned nose, wore a family heirloom, a long ivory gown fringed with lace. She lay nestled in her mother's arms while other family members clustered near black walnut pews.
Around the church revolved the social lives of Atchison's leading citizens, among them Alfred Otis. He was among the founders of the parish, having drawn up its articles of association in 1857, and served as vestryman and senior warden until resigning the positions before Amelia's birth. He helped select the builder of the stone church, designed in the Gothic Revival style, with a high-pitched roof covered in a patterned slate, its steeple with bell cote topped by a stone cross. In vivid red, blue, green, and yellow, its three soaring stained glass windows depicted the Ascension of Christ, Christ in the home of Martha and Mary, and Christ and the Child.
Amelia grew up in Atchison, not Kansas City. She would later write, "My girlhood was much like that of many another American girl who was growing up at the time I was, with just the kind of fun and good times we all had then," yet in many ways she did not live as other American girls—for she lived apart from her parents. Millie Otis, whose own mother had recently died, longed for the company of her namesake and favorite grandchild, Amelia. Millie's husband had been left with his grandparents until age fourteen; perhaps he encouraged his lonely wife to take in Amelia. In any case, during the school year, from ages three to eleven, Amelia lived with the Otises in Atchison. In the meantime her parents resided in Kansas City with Grace Muriel (known as Muriel and nicknamed "Pidge"), Amelia's sister, younger by two and a half years. When the school year ended, Amelia left the grandeur of her grandparents' home for her parents' small, white frame house, on a small lot, in an ordinary neighborhood in Kansas City, and the two sisters reunited on holidays and spent summer vacations together. Muriel would form an especially close bond with her mother, whereas Amelia was closer to Edwin. She adored her witty and imaginative father, who would entertain the girls and their friends with Western thrillers, complete with bandits, cowboys, Indians, and other made-up characters. She thought him brilliant, too, and a wordsmith familiar with the entire dictionary; she recalled his addressing her in a letter as "Dear Parallelepipedon," and rushing to find its definition. She missed him during the school year, yet she never admitted so publicly. Though a loving and dutiful daughter, she was more independent than Muriel and would grow into a very private woman, shielding herself and hiding any unhappiness with a humorous quip. Her good friend Louise Thaden, also an aviator, would later write, "Amelia, I think, has never been really close to anyone. It has always been difficult for her to break down the barriers of reticence and reserve."
The handsome nine-room house in Atchison that Amelia grew up in had been built in 1861 by her grandfather Alfred for Millie. Its amenities included stained-glass windows, crystal chandeliers, a formal dining room, and a piano in the drawing room, along with a well-stocked library of classic and contemporary literature. A lively child, Amelia much preferred being outdoors, but she would often be found sprawled on the library floor with a book, or curled up in a nook, reading. She and her family "loved the smell of a book," she would later say.
Excerpted from Amelia Earhart by Kathleen C. Winters. Copyright © 2010 Kathleen C. Winters. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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