Like crackling icicles,
your brittle sword-branches
rattle in the small breezes
of thick warm nights . . .
—EMIL A. HARTE
Maybe even our real names, in a way, are pseudonyms.
In 1937, during her final attempt to circumnavigate the world at its equator, Amelia Earhart spent eight days in Miami to repair her Lockheed Electra. This last “stunt,” as she called it, would be a test of grit and hubris, something never before done by woman or man. One month later, 22,000 miles into the trip, she would disappear.
Mythological and yet resolutely human, Earhart was a feminist whose heart beat for humanity, however estranged she was from a normal, terrestrial life. This story is about two little-known things about her: her time in Miami, and her poetry.
In 1921, Earhart was a yet-to-be adored aviator when she submitted four poems to Poetry magazine under the pseudonym of Emil A. Harte. One of them was about her newly discovered passion for flying. Harriet Monroe, the founder of the esteemed journal, wrote back to “Mr. Harte,” saying the poems were “unusually promising.” But, she added, they were “not quite—as yet.” As in, all of them were rejected.
Earhart was both unusual and promising from a young age. Born in 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, in a Gothic mansion, she was the progeny of Puritans and pioneers, and her defiance was a precocious trait. When sledding down Kansan hills, boys in her town would ride lying down while girls were supposed to assume a more “ladylike” pose, but Amelia, perhaps recognizing the aerodynamic advantage, disregarded the gender norm. This may have saved her life: one day, while catching speed down a hill, she realized she was fast approaching a man with a horse-drawn junk cart, but plucky Amelia was able to zip just barely between the horse’s legs (as she told it). Had she been upright, her head would have met the horse’s ribs.
Earhart’s family, of means and Victorian tendencies, moved around a lot. Her father struggled with alcoholism, and young Amelia, who was raised much by her grandparents, is described variously as a loner, frail yet daring, and a tomboy. Muriel, her sister, said the two of them were taught at home for a period of time, during which, she describes, “We omitted geography almost entirely from our studies, but we reveled in poetry far beyond our years.” Later, Amelia was sent to an all-female finishing school in Philadelphia, where she was meant to learn the rites and graces of high society. She was kicked out for walking on the roof in her nightgown.
In 1921, the same year she had submitted her rejected poems to Poetry, Earhart took her first flying lesson. She had become enchanted by the idea of flying after seeing a stunt show in Toronto. As Earhart said, “‘I think I’d like to fly,’ I told my family casually that evening, knowing full well I’d die if I didn’t.” Before the year was over, she had not only passed her flying license test (only the sixteenth woman to do so ), she’d also worked enough odd jobs to buy herself a plane.
By 1928, Earhart was living in Massachusetts, employed as a social worker helping Syrian and Chinese immigrants. She was involved in the local aeronautical community, flying planes and writing articles about flying for newspapers when she received a call from George Palmer Putnam, a giant of the publishing world who had released Charles Lindbergh’s blockbuster memoir We the year before. Putnam asked if she’d like to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. It was as a passenger, not a pilot, but she still jumped at the opportunity.
This was no simple feat: fourteen people, including three women, had died that year alone attempting the same thing, and a treacherous flight Earhart’s turned out to be: During a thirteen-night rainstorm in Nova Scotia that left the crew grounded, the pilot got blind drunk every single night. In spite of rain and spirits, they made it, and upon her return to the United States, she was greeted by praising crowds and journalists, though she insisted, “I was just baggage, a sack of potatoes.” Earhart was christened “Lady Lindy,” a term she didn’t have much taste for, and earned the admiration of the world for her fearlessness, charm, and wholesome beauty. Putnam invited her to his home to write a book about the experience. Soon after, Putnam and his wife divorced, and he asked Earhart to marry him.
Though she said yes, and though they would remain together the rest of her days, Earhart wrote Putnam a Rilkean prenuptial letter that asserted, “Please let us not interfere with the others’ work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection 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 times the confinements of even an attractive cage.”
I have seen your eyes at dawn beloved
dark with sleep
And lying on your breast—have watched
the new day creep . . .
—AMELIA EARHART, unpublished poem
It’s difficult to describe the type of icon that Earhart became. In 1932, in her candy-apple-red Lockheed Vega 5B, she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean—only the second person to do so after Lindbergh. She was awarded honors from the United States Congress and France, befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, and wrote another book called The Fun of It. In a Depression-era climate, aviation was a salve for the public, and Earhart ambitiously built her stardom through a mix of powerful public relations (she and Putnam were potent business partners), product endorsements (baggage, Lockheed Martin, Lucky Strikes), and lectures. She used the platform to preach pacifism and women’s rights in and outside the workplace and to promote herself and, of course, the poesy of aviation.
Earhart had an independent, androgynous style—both fashionably and politically—and a grace that aided her career goals as aviator, clothing designer, and activist. She captured the imagination of a public that was just beginning to recognize the potential of flight. She generally charmed people, with her easy Kansan way, and was unafraid of speaking her mind. She was what might be called a natural celebrity. Yet, although her taste for adventure enamored those around her, it seems it was also a source of alienation. Earhart the hustler aviator, the women’s advocate, was as public as they come, but when it came to her poetry and personal life, she was desperate—as many of us are—for privacy.
In my attempt to understand Amelia Earhart, the time that she would spend in Miami, and the metaphysical effects of her disappearance, I spoke to a renowned aviation scholar. Though he agreed to speak with me and gave me permission to quote him, he asked that I keep his identity secret. “I’m not interested in engaging in a dialogue about this again,” he told me. I assured him that instead of seeking “the truth” about what happened to her, I was seeking something else, something more remote about her life and disappearance.
The scholar, relenting, first told me about her function in the aviation world: “The airline industry realized that until women got comfortable going onto the airplane with their children, the industry was never going to be successful. So her function was making women comfortable flying.” We talked about her public persona, the way it coupled with the emergence of mass media, and the mix of politics, fame, and fortune. (On a good week, her lecturing would earn her $32,000, during a Depression economy. )
Regarding what she did while she was in Miami, he pointed me to a 1996 biography by Doris Rich.
For her final flight, Earhart would attempt to fly around the world at the equator, something no one had done. The first attempt out of Oakland, California, failed when she crash-landed in Honolulu. Her second attempt would come out of Miami, after repairs were made.
Before arriving in Miami, Earhart and Putnam stopped in New Orleans. Edna Gardner, a fellow female aviation pioneer and friend, said that Earhart looked “very tired and pale,” and that she “lower[ed] her head and stare[d] at her plate.” She said that Putnam responded to this by saying, “Stop your sniveling.” Gardner said that Earhart’s husband, in that moment “was just as cruel as he could be, right in front of all of us.”
(Gardner was reported to not like Putnam, and at best this is hearsay, but maybe it’s a point of insight into a marriage built on business. We also don’t how Earhart might have responded later that night, being a woman who described her marriage to Putnam as one of “dual controls.” )
They arrived at Miami Municipal Airport the next day, an airfield originally opened by Glenn Curtiss, which is now the site of a Hialeah police department and UPS sorting facility. Carl Allen of the Herald Tribune, a friend who was covering the attempt, came from Oakland. On May 29, Earhart announced her plans to leave Miami, and confirmed that she had gotten rid of several pieces of equipment to lighten the load. (Some have said she made a critical error by leaving certain radio equipment behind.) “I have a feeling there is just one more flight in my system,” she told Allen, “and this trip is it.” Fred Noonan, her navigator, convinced Earhart to go fishing for pompano to calm her nerves.
On June 1, 1937, Earhart and Noonan rolled out onto the tarmac as spectators rushed the line of policemen to get a glimpse. Before taking off, Earhart had left more items behind: her parachute, a life raft, and a hair bracelet that had served as a good luck charm.
About a month later, after completing 22,000 miles, with stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, they took off from Lae, New Guinea. Her last correspondence came from near Howland Island, an uninhabited coral island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
laughs in the burning sun
and only Death,
shadows the aerid flesh
bruised by the panther-paws of love.
Following her disappearance, the US Navy undertook a giant rescue effort. No conclusive evidence was found of Earhart, Noonan, or the Lockheed Electra. In 1945, in a letter to the War Department, J. Edgar Hoover related something told to him by an American soldier: “He . . . and another American soldier were being entertained by some Japanese in a hotel in the Philippine Islands. He described the walls of this hotel as very thin, enabling him to overhear a conversation in English between two Japanese to the effect that Amelia Earhart was still being detained at a hotel in Tokyo.”
Besides this conjecture that the Japanese detained Earhart, other theories have developed over the years. There are the sensible ones: that she crashed at sea or was marooned on nearby Gardner Island. Then there are the more outlandish ones: that she was spying for FDR, that she had moved to a rubber plantation in the Philippines, or that she assumed the identity of a woman named Irene Craigmile Bolam and settled in New Jersey. There’s also the untested theory that leaving from one of three points on the Bermuda Triangle had something to do with it.
At the core of the myth of Amelia Earhart is the essential paradox that makes a mystery: an event has happened, one that we can all confirm is based in reality, yet we’re faced with the just-as-real fact that there is no trace, no sign or indication of resolution. All possible evidence is awash—in this case, in the greatest of real voids, the ocean—and we are left staring into it, pouring our hopes and fears and selves into the abyss, hoping that meaning will follow.
Only a little bit of Earhart’s poetry survives, currently held by the Purdue University Library. In 1934, a fire destroyed part of Earhart and Putnam’s home in Rye, New York, and it is thought that many of her creative works were lost in the blaze.
At one time and another, AE wrote many fragments of verse, for she found deep pleasure in building little images with words. That aspect was very private—almost secret.
—G. P. PUTNAM
The scholar I met with told me that during his research about Earhart’s time in Miami, he came across a story about a woman who decided to be the first person to give birth on an airplane. It was 1929, and though the scholar can’t verify a direct correlation, it was the same year Earhart had come to Miami to deliver one of her inspiring lectures. The woman and her husband chartered a Pan American airplane and a baby girl was born mid-flight.
In 2009, the scholar reached out to Airline (pronounced Airleen), the baby who was, quite literally, airborne. But the woman had no desire to speak about the matter, and turned down the inquiry.
Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace
The soul that knows it not, knows no release . . .
“Amelia Earhart’s Hialeah Layover” is a chapter from Rob Goyanes’s forthcoming book, Balalaika: An Owner’s Manual for Asif Farooq’s MiG-21.
1. Samuel L. Morris, “What Archives Reveal: The Hidden Poems of Amelia Earhart,” Purdue University, Purdue e-Pubs, November 7, 2006, http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=lib_research.
2. Judith Thurman, “Missing Woman,” New Yorker, September 14, 2009.
3. See http://www.ameliaearhartmuseum.org/AmeliaEarhart/AEMoreStories.htm.
4. Morris, “What Archives Reveal.”
5. See http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19670093000.
6. George Palmer Putner Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers, 1931, Purdue University Libraries, http://earchives.lib.purdue.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/earhart/id/2988.
7. “Amelia Earhart,” American Experience PBS documentary.
8. Doris Rich, Amelia Earhart: A Biography (New York: Smithsonian Books, 1996).
9. See https://theautry.org/collections/aviation-development-in-southern-california-4.
10. Rich, Amelia Earhart.
12. “Amelia Earhart,” American Experience PBS documentary.
13. FBI case file on Amelia Earhart, https://vault.fbi.gov/amelia-mary-earhart/amelia-mary-earhart-part-01-of-01.