Book Review: Come Fly the World: The Jet Age Story of the Women of Pan Am


These days headlines about disruptive, drunken passengers and fist fights at 30,000 feet are all too common. The glamour that once went along with international jet travel is long gone. Julia Cooke's book Come Fly the World recalls those glamour days through the lives of several stewardesses (even the word belongs to that postwar era) who flew for Pan Am Airlines.

In the early days of air travel cabin attendants, or stewards, had mostly been male. But after World War II competition among airlines focused on the service and quality they could provide for their mostly business travelers, the overwhelming majority of whom were male. Thus a move to female attendents, dubbed stewardesses. 

Pan Am in particular felt a need to sell style and sophistication to go along with its already established reputation as the only American carrier to fly exclusively international routes. This meant that Pan Am recruited ambitious, educated women. In the 1960s ten percent of their stewardesses had advanced degrees at a time when only 6% of American women had any college degree at all. Good looks were also required, and Pan Am, along with other airlines, had age and weight requirements for its female staff.

Cooke's book follows the careers of several Pan Am stewardesses through the 1960s and 70s. Their stories are interwoven with the story of Pan Am itself as well as with broader events. Pan Am stewardesses were afforded an independent cosmopolitan lifestyle and a degree of female empowerment uncommon for their time. The need to maintain their weight and wear their hair a certain way was considered by many of them a good tradeoff. But, as time went on, restrictions against marriage and pregnancy became issues for many, eventually leading to grievances before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and in court.

At the same time, Pan Am was involved in supporting America's Vietnam war effort by ferrying soldiers to and from the war zone for week long R&R sessions. Later, as the war was ending and South Vietnam was falling, Pan Am and some of the women Cooke profiles were involved in Operation Babylift, a controversial effort to rescue orphaned babies from the country before it fell.

I really appreciated the way that Cooke wove these women's stories into the broader context of their time. It helps to give them their due and to understand how unique an experience being a stewardess for Pan Am in the 60s and 70s really was. I rate Come Fly the World Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐, and recommend it for anyone interested in the history of aviation, American women, or the 1960s and 70s.

NOTES: I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Andi Arndt in her clear and calm voice. The hard cover and audiobook versions are available now, and a paperback version is expected in April of 2022.

Come Fly the World links:

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📘 Buy this audiobook: Amazon | | Scribd  

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