Amelia Earhart movie, exhibit show that the pioneer pilot still soars in the American imagination
Amelia Earhart flew into the American imagination more than seven decades ago, and never departed. A new movie starring Hilary Swank ("Amelia") and an exhibition at Seattle's Museum of Flight ("In Search of Amelia Earhart") provide an opportunity to revisit her adventurous life and times.
Seattle Times movie critic
'In Search of Amelia Earhart'
Opens Saturday and runs through May 2010, at The Museum of Flight. It will include a number of artifacts from Earhart's life, including photos, newsreel footage, personal items including the flying suit she wore on her 1932 transatlantic flight, and the last surviving piece of her Lockheed Electra aircraft. 9404 E. Marginal Way S., Seattle; $7.50-$14, children 4 and under free, group rates available (206-764-5700 or www.museumofflight.org/amelia).
Also: 'Amelia,' directed by Mira Nair and starring Hilary Swank, will open here Friday. For a review, pick up a copy of Friday's MovieTimes or go Thursday to www.seattletimes.com/movies.
Nearly a century ago at a fair in Toronto, a young nurse's aide watched an exhibition of stunt flying, as a pilot began diving at the crowd. "I remember the mingled fear and pleasure which surged over me as I watched that small plane at the top of its earthward swoop," she would write, years later. "I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by."
She was Amelia Earhart, then — but not for long — earthbound, and she would later become famous for a trip in another little red airplane. In a cherry-colored Lockheed Vega, she was the first woman and second person (after Charles Lindbergh) to fly solo across the Atlantic, in 1932. And, five years later, near the end of a round-the-world flight, came what would become her epitaph: She and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared, somewhere in the clouds between New Guinea and Howland Island in the mid-Pacific, never to be seen or heard again. Though no evidence could be found to confirm it, they were presumed drowned.
More than seven decades later, our fascination with Earhart and her fate continues. "Amelia," a new movie directed by Mira Nair ("The Namesake") and starring Bellingham native Hilary Swank, will open in theaters this Friday. It's the latest in a string of screen Earharts, including Amy Adams' comic turn in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," and TV movies starring Diane Keaton and Susan Clark. And "In Search of Amelia Earhart," an exhibit featuring many artifacts from her brief life (she was not quite 40 at the time of the Pacific flight), opens this weekend at Seattle's Museum of Flight.
Why has Earhart stayed in our imaginations, when she's been gone for so long that few remember reading her name in the headlines? "I think it's because there was a moment where she absolutely touched the psyche of the American public, maybe even the world public, because she was such a charismatic person," said Susan Butler, author of the 1997 biography "East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart," in a telephone interview. (The book is one of two on which the film "Amelia" is based, along with Mary S. Lovell's 1989 "The Sound of Wings.")
"I first thought it had to do with her disappearance — it made her kind of a mystery person," said Butler of Earhart's lasting fame. "It always used to irritate me when I was researching that I kept running in to people more interested in how she died than how she lived. But when Princess Diana died and the world went ballistic, I realized that if a high-profile person is very suddenly killed, it unnerves everybody and everybody has to find out all the details.
"Since then, I've come to the conclusion that if and when her remains are found, I think she'll be even more famous. Her achievements will stand out more strongly."
Earhart was born in 1897 in Atchison, Kan., and grew up all over the Midwest; she would ultimately attend six different high schools (partly due to her alcoholic father's troubles in holding a job). After graduation, she briefly attended finishing school but left to work as a nurse's aide in Canada during World War I, and later as a social worker in Boston. Though she dreamed of earning an engineering degree, Earhart never completed college (she was turned down for a scholarship, and her family could not afford to help) and later in life would claim that she never tried to. "Failure was not allowed to intrude upon the seamless past Amelia presented to the world," wrote Butler.
She was, however, falling in love with aviation: In 1921, she took her first flying lesson, and soon saved enough money to buy a secondhand two-seater plane. In a time when few women dared to fly, she quickly became known for her exploits, and in 1928 became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Though Earhart was merely a passenger for the trip, it resulted in enormous publicity and fame (three women had previously died that year attempting the feat). Contracted to write about the flight for The New York Times and London Times, she began a story with, "Some day women will fly the Atlantic and think little of it because it is an ordinary thing to do" — a prophetic but then astonishing notion.
Photo spreads of Earhart, slim and elegant, appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine, and her face appeared in numerous ads. She designed a line of clothing, made her living on the lecture circuit, and became one of the most famous media personalities in America — "like Oprah Winfrey and Gloria Steinem rolled into one," said Butler. Though she married publisher George Putnam — one of the organizers of the 1928 flight — in 1931, her focus remained on her career as an aviator.
The 1932 flight — though she was forced to land in Ireland rather than France, as Lindbergh had — brought her even greater fame, and she continued to set records, including the first solo flight across the Pacific in 1935, from Honolulu to Oakland. One goal still eluded her: to be the first woman to fly around the world.
With Noonan, she left Oakland on May 21, 1937, flying eastward to begin the journey. (She previously attempted it earlier that year, flying west, but had to postpone the trip when her plane became damaged.) Despite navigational and equipment challenges, they arrived in New Guinea June 29, and left two days later for the tricky 2,500-mile leg to the very small target of Howland Island.
No one knows exactly what happened during this last flight; radio communications were sporadic. More than 17 hours in, Earhart transmitted that gas was running low, that they were circling the island but could not see it, that they were "now running north and south" — and then, silence. A massive sea and air search was launched, but no evidence of Earhart, Noonan or the plane was ever found.
Numerous theories abound about her disappearance: She was on a spy mission and ended up in a Japanese prison; she wanted to abandon her high-profile life and took on a new identity; she landed and survived for a time on a deserted island (the latter being the meticulously researched theory of Ric Gillespie, author of "Finding Amelia" and leader of a planned expedition to find her remains next year). Butler, who's heard them all, says she's "more positive than ever" that Earhart's plane and its occupants are at the bottom of the ocean. She said that robot submarines are being developed to descend the 17,000-foot-depths, and that "when we prowl around the ocean floor, around Howland Island, we'll find her."
Regardless, the image of Earhart haunts us still — a laughing, lanky woman squinting in the sunlight as she emerges from the cockpit, silk scarf flowing in the wind; a daredevil who soared to seemingly unimaginable heights, and who remained fascinated by the reckless allure of flight.
"The stars seemed near enough to touch and never before have I seen so many," she once said of an early flight. "I always believed the lure of flying is the lure of beauty, but I was sure of it that night."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
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