Amelia Earhart died in the quest for celebrity
Hilary Swank portrays the flying ace in a new film. But will it get anywhere near the truth?
The cult of celebrity is a modern phenomenon. Don't you believe it. This week sees the premiere in the US of a film that will prove that the power of the pretty face, coupled with a gullible press, has been part of Western culture for decades.
The film, Amelia, has Hilary Swank (above left) playing the legendary American aviator, Amelia Earhart, with Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor in supporting roles.
Doubtless Swank will do a fine job conveying Earhart's cool charisma and ballsy beauty. But how deep will the biopic go? Will it stick to the script - the one so assiduously crafted in the wake of her disappearance over the Pacific in 1937, that has Earhart as the world's most brilliant female pilot? Or will Amelia reveal the truth: that the American was a slave to celebrity who sacrificed her life as a consequence? Don't bet on the latter.
Earhart traded on her looks - her svelte body and sensuous faceEarhart (above right) was born to a middle-class family in Kansas in 1897. It was in 1920, while a student at New York's Columbia University, that she visited an air show and was transfixed by what she saw.
She quit her studies, scrimped and saved and bought a second-hand biplane. Her family paid for flying lessons and Earhart began to trade on her looks, her svelte body and sensuous face. She became a sales rep in Boston for an aircraft manufacturer and then one April day in 1928 she took a call from a pilot called Hilton H. Railey. Fancy flying the Atlantic? he asked.
Her plane would be a Fokker, bought by a Pittsburgh heiress, Amy Phipps Guest, as an impulsive reaction to the conquest of the Atlantic the previous year by Charles Lindbergh.
Guest had intended to be ferried across the same ocean but her family wouldn't hear of it. Far too dangerous they said, although they liked the idea of a woman following in Lindbergh's slipstream. So they hired a publicity man called George Putnam to find the "right sort of girl"; in other words, a photogenic broad with a spotless reputation. Putnam called Railey, who called Earhart, who accepted without hesitation.
The plane took off from Newfoundland on June 17, 1928 and touched down in Wales a day later. In the cockpit was the pilot, Wilmer Stultz, and the mechanic Lou Gordon. Earhart sat at the back - "like a sack of potatoes" - admiring the view.
Not that the world's media cared. Within hours of the plane's arrival in Britain it was as if Earhart had been the one at the controls. "Joy to Amelia Earhart: city gives noisy welcome to girl and companions of flight across the Atlantic" trumpeted the New York Times when the trio returned home, relegating Stultz and Gordon to nameless nobodies.
In the next year Earhart wrote a book, launched her own clothing range and endorsed everything from pyjamas to cigarettes. There were lectures and photo calls, and even a little flying, although her pride took a buffeting when she finished third in the inaugural All-Women's Air Derby of 1929. The winner of the race was Louise Thaden, a gifted aviator but a novice in the self-promotion stakes.
By 1932 Earhart had married publicist George Putnam, a good career move if ever there was one, and her celebrity status was secure. As well as being appointed Assistant to the General Traffic Manager at Transcontinental Air Transport, she wrote regular columns in newspapers and in magazines such as Cosmopolitan.
Earhart's fame created opportunities for her that were denied to the likes of Thaden, though Earhart did prove her courage and skill in becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932.
But in the years that followed, Earhart began to chase records simply to keep her name in the headlines. In 1935 she became the first person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City, a meaningless feat set alongside Amy Johnson's epic flight from Australia to London in 1930.
When in 1936 another Briton, the beautiful Beryl Markham, flew the Atlantic east to west (the harder route on account of the headwinds) Earhart knew she had to come up with something bolder. She conceived the idea of becoming the first pilot to circumnavigate the globe, the outcome of which is well known.
One investigation found Earhart guilty of ‘poor planning, worse execution’
Having departed from California on May 21, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished over the Pacific Ocean en route to a planned stopover on the small coral island of Howland, approximately 1,700 miles south of Hawaii.
The sceptics would have you believe Earhart was either captured by the Japanese or staged her own disappearance to start a new life; alas, the truth is more prosaic. The aircraft ran out of fuel and fell into the ocean.
But at least the conspiracy theories distracted from the unpalatable truth that Earhart had cut too many corners in her preparation. She hadn't taken the time to learn Morse code, the most efficient way of communicating if she ran into trouble. Nor had she mastered her plane's automatic direction finder. In short, as one investigation concluded, Earhart was guilty of "poor planning, worse execution".
She probably knew it, too, before and during the flight, but she pressed on regardless. Earhart was like the ageing heavyweight boxing champion, desperate for one more shot at glory even though the body and brain cried 'Stop!'
Earhart loved flying, but she also loved celebrity. As she once said, "The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune." In the end it was fame that killed her as much as lack of fuel.
Amelia will open in Britain on November 13 ·
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