Amelia Earhart's Stop In Coatesville
In 1934, aviator Amelia Earhart stopped for a meal—and had some foolishness for dessert.
(page 1 of 3)
You’ve seen it on Entertainment Tonight. A famous couple walks into a restaurant. A crowd gathers. Paparazzi appear. Never mind the publicists working behind the scenes to spread the word. It’s business. In celebrity culture, publicity = fame = $.
Business is what it was to George and Amelia Putnam—aka, Amelia Earhart and her publicist husband. In 1934, they brought their show to Coatesville for an impromptu performance. On a cross-country drive, Amelia—who, in 1928, was the first female aviator to (sort of) fly the Atlantic—and George were recognized when they stopped to eat. Before they escaped, the Putnams were a picture of benevolence as they endured autograph hunters and a tour of the firehouse. “This looks to be a fine little city,” Earhart told the crowd, before she and her spouse slipped behind the wheel and sped east out of town.
She promised to return “someday” and give everyone a free airplane ride. But she never did.
Born in Atchison, Kan., in 1897, Amelia Mary Earhart was raised a tomboy by a mother who dressed her in bloomers (divided skirts associated with feminism) and permitted such non-girlish outlets as sledding and access to a rifle, which she used to shoot rats in her grandfather’s barn. Earhart’s lawyer father, however, was an alcoholic who was never successful in his practice. Amelia lived for a time with her maternal grandparents, against whose Victorian manners she honed her unconventional style.
A formative experience might’ve been the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where Amelia saw her first rollercoaster. She came home and, with the help of an uncle, built a small cart, which ran down a wooden track from the roof of a backyard shed. The ride, she told her sister, was “just like flying.”
Earhart was not impressed when she saw her first airplane—“a thing of rusty wire and wood”—at the Iowa State Fair. Instead of flying, she began to imagine herself in a variety of other male-dominated careers: film direction, advertising, mechanical engineering.
Earhart graduated from high school in 1916 and enrolled at the Ogontz School (now part of Penn State University) in Montgomery County. She dropped out after three semesters to work as a nurse in a World War I military hospital in Toronto. The experience made her a pacifist.
Also in Toronto, Earhart attended an air show where she stood her ground when a pilot buzzed the spectators, chasing most of them from the field. “I did not understand it at the time,” she later wrote, “but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”
In 1920, Earhart had her first 10-minute flight. “I knew I had to fly,” she said.
She worked at a variety of jobs—including driving trucks—to earn money for lessons. In 1922, she used an inheri-tance to buy a small Kinner airplane. Four years later, she moved to Boston to work as a teacher and social worker at Denison House, which offered social services and education to the urban poor. She also moonlighted as a Kinner sales rep and wrote newspaper columns promoting aviation. Her advocacy of female aviators made her a local celebrity.
Meanwhile, in New York, George Putnam was building a reputation in the family publishing business. After Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927, Putnam had suggested that the new hero write a post-flight book. It sold more than 650,000 copies through Putnam Books in its first year. It was one of the bestselling titles of all time, earning its author more than $250,000.
Realizing that a story of the first woman to fly the Atlantic could also be a big seller, Putnam went looking for the just the right female pilot. He’d also published the polar-exploration story of Richard E. Byrd. Putnam discovered that Byrd had recently sold his Fokker trimotor to a Pittsburgh heiress who planned to use it to fly the Atlantic. The woman’s family threw a fit, so she told Putnam she’d lend the plane to “the right sort of girl.”