Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bringing Amelia Earhart down to earth

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

When I was little, I had a poster of Amelia Earhart on my bedroom wall. I wish now that I knew what I had done with it - I imagine that she was lost in some move or room-cleaning. But I'll always remember the other Amelia smiling down from the cover of Doris L. Rich's 1989 biography (one that my father tells me is spectacularly boring), proudly standing next to her car and plane.

My parents have never held on to one story about the source of my name (my father's latest explanation, and the one I prefer, is that like Chelsea Clinton, I was named after a Joni Mitchell song), but when I was young, I adopted Amelia Earhart as my namesake. I read children's biographies of her, following her through her boyish childhood, where she climbed trees with her sister Muriel and refused to grow her hair long or wear gloves. I made a yearly pilgrimage to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where her plane was on display, a relic equally important as the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. I was seduced by the story of Amelia's first encounter with the air, when she visited an airfield in southern California and was given a ride that changed her life. Like L. Frank Baum's Dorothy Gale, Amelia Earhart was an insatiable wanderer, an adventurer, qualities that elevated her beyond other female aviators of her day. She was a complex, turbulent figure, qualities that vaulted her to fame when she became the first woman, and the second person, to fly across the Atlantic, and certainly contributed to her untimely disappearance in 1937. But these complexities were mostly lost on 9-year-old me, and are certainly not part of Amelia Earhart's story in American mythology.

I returned to Amelia earlier this week, when I read Judith Thurman's fascinating profile in The New Yorker. The profile was undoubtedly written to coincide with the release of Mira Nair's film Amelia (starring Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart and Richard Gere as Amelia's husband, George Putnam, casting which distresses me), but there have been countless homages since her dramatic and untimely death, including a Gap advertising campaign and a Ms. magazine cover. I was most interested by Thurman's analysis of Earhart as a feminist icon, one which certainly didn't make it into the "biographies" I read as a child. In fact, much of Earhart's personality has been eclipsed by the myth of the courageous female aviator. In reality, she was a campaigner for women's education who never finished college herself and could never seem to hold down a job, an androgynous figure who nevertheless had enough "feminine" insecurity to shave two years off her age, someone who was ruthlessly independent and ambitious but also utterly careless. Thurman's profile neatly sidesteps the sainthood that Nair's film is sure to bestow.

The article made me rethink the way Amelia is presented in our cultural mythology, one that I never really questioned. Certainly, she did an extraordinary thing by entering the boys' club of aviation, and boldly doing what was, at the time, the most unthinkable of adventures. But this act - combined with the sensationalism of her disappearance over the South Pacific - has allowed us to neatly whitewash the most interesting, and unconventional, parts of her life. Among them are the letter she wrote to her husband when they were married. Earhart told Putnam, "You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me. . . . In our life together I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. . . . I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage." Extraordinary, right? This is the Amelia we never get to see.

She certainly made good on her promise of non-monogamy; most agree that she had a long affair with Gore Vidal's father, Eugene Vidal. During her lifetime, she was a subject of much controversy - her last flight was famously accused of being a capricious joyride, and many criticized Franklin Roosevelt's failed and expensive rescue mission. She was ambitious to a fault, and adored the spotlight that was cast on her after her first flight across the Atlantic. But she was also fascinating because of her refusal to let her gender limit or define her, and her determination to maintain celebrity because of her status as a pilot, rather than simply becoming an outrageous public figure. She was certainly not an angel or a saint, but her refusal to conform to the norms of her time, her constant straining for freedom from constraint, qualifies her for a different kind of immortality.

Inevitably, thinking about Amelia Earhart, I go back to Joni Mitchell. Her song, "Amelia," is one of the only homages that I think fully captures the reasons that Earhart will always be an inspiration to me. Mitchell sings, "A ghost of aviation/She was swallowed by the sky/Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly/Like icarus ascending/On beautiful foolish arms/Amelia, it was just a false alarm," and she is both warning Earhart and celebrating her. Who knows if Amelia Earhart finally found her escape when she disappeared in 1937, but she spent her life searching for a means to trick gravity, and master a world that never fully satisfied her. Like Mitchell, and countless other women who "sleep on strange pillows of [their] wanderlust," Earhart refused to allow society to confine her. And for that reason, I'm proud that she was my childhood icon (and possibly my namesake), a woman who should be remembered as more than just a female pilot.


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