Who Was Amelia Earhart?

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Judith Thurman has a fascinating profile of Amelia Earhart in the New Yorker.

“…Ware regards Earhart’s pose of Lindberghian diffidence with critical amusement. She quotes the great aviator Elinor Smith, who was still flying in 2001, at eighty-nine: “Amelia was about as shy as Muhammad Ali.” The abuse of the term “icon” incites iconoclasm, or ought to. Earhart was saintlike only as a martyr to her own ambition, who became an object of veneration and is periodically resurrected—her unvarnished glamour, like a holy man’s body, still miraculously fresh. Embraced by feminists, she was featured on a 1976 cover of Ms., which promised a story “BETTER THAN THE MYTH.” Read closely, however, Earhart’s life is, in part, the story of a charismatic dilettante who lectured college girls about ambition yet never bothered to earn a degree. In the nineteen-nineties, Apple and the Gap both featured her in ad campaigns—the Gap to sell khaki trousers, Apple to promote its corporate image of nonconformity. The slogan that appeared with a gauzy, doe-eyed photograph of Earhart in a white helmet was “Think Different.” (She thought of herself not only as different but as a special case to whom most ground rules didn’t apply.) Three Hollywood movies, starring Rosalind Russell, Diane Keaton, and Amy Adams, have told a version of her story, and a new one, “Amelia,” directed by Mira Nair, with Hilary Swank in the title role and Richard Gere as Putnam, will open in October. The script is based on two biographies, “The Sound of Wings,” by Mary Lovell (1989), and Butler’s definitive “East to the Dawn” (1997); and on “Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved” (1999), by Elgen M. Long, a veteran pilot, and his wife, Marie K. Long. (All three books are being reissued this fall.)

There were, in fact, other famous female aces in the early decades of aviation. All of them were daring—some were said to be better pilots than Earhart—and many of them were killed and forgotten. If Earhart became an “icon,” it was, in part, because women who aspired to excel in any sphere, at a high altitude, looked upon her as their champion. But it was also because the unburied come back to haunt us…”

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