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Living the High Life

You might say they were the super models of the day.

As they marched purposely through airports, stylish designer hats poised above perfectly coiffed hair (that never touched a collar) and brandishing poised, practiced smiles, they commanded attention and respect. Every young man wanted to date them, every young girl wanted to be them, and every wife silently feared them.

These were the flight attendants who acted as hostesses aboard the new jet engine aircrafts that debuted in the 1960s and ushered in the Golden Age of airline travel.

Coronado Island is home to numerous former flight attendants —  stewardesses or “stews” as they were once called. (The term flight attendant didn’t make it into the nomenclature until the 1970s.)

We gathered together a group of these pioneering women and asked them to reflect on a career where they served meals and drinks and supplied pillows (and even lit cigarettes), all during a more innocent time… before security screenings and shoe bombers.

Some attendants, such as Molly Nunn, are still flying high. Nunn knew she wanted to be a flight attendant at age 8. The Coronado resident now deadheads from San Deigo to her US Airways home base in Philadelphia. From there, this senior stew flies with her best friend to international destinations such as Paris and Munich, Germany.

Mary Griffin was aiming to attend college and expected that her tenure as a stewardess would be somewhere along the lines of six months; 33 years later, she retired from a successful commercial airline career with PSA and then US Air, following the merger of the airlines. She still remembers the day in 1969 when the Supreme Court ordered that flight attendants could be married. “Miraculously, the next day, all these gals showed up to work wearing wedding rings,” she said.

Nancy Peace was cleaning teeth in Miami when she heard that National Airlines was holding a recruiting fair in the area and thought, “Hey, that looks fun.” Her boss encouraged her to look into it, and she went straight from the dental office to the job fair. She was hired that same day by National and went on to fly in 747s and DC-10s. “It was probably the best job at that time,” she says, of an era where women’s choices were still limited. But Peace was a trailblazer and even got her single engine pilot’s license a few years later.

Montyne Connolly was a nurse before realizing her childhood dream of becoming a flight attendant, which she did … at age 45.

“What could be better?” asked Edie Denny, who flew for PSA. “They paid for your clothes, provided a cleaning allowance and you got to travel. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that all PSA did was go up and down the coast like a pogo stick. I was in three-inch heels serving coffee between Sacramento and L.A.”

Sandy Boyce never thought about being a flight attendant. She was a student at San Diego State College and was recruited by United Airlines to be, of all things, a recruiter for the airline. After going through flight attendant school, Boyce became one of six recruiters stationed on college campuses across the nation; in her case, San Diego State where she was paid $15 per recruit. After a year of recruitment duties and with her college degree in hand, Boyce was able to pick her home base and was soon flying out of San Francisco. sandy-boyce--airlines-lineup

Travel to exotic ports was a favorite job perk cited by all the stews, with some layovers being downright memorable. Connolly enjoyed staying in a five-star hotel in Dubai and the exhilaration of the frigid Falkland Islands. Nunn always heads for a specific upstairs table at her favorite restaurant in Paris. “There’s a delicious salad, steak with this to-die-for sauce and pommes frites.”

To Denny, all food in Italy is wonderful: “There’s a flavor of life there like nowhere else.”

Karen Nagler, a Pan Am stewardess for two decades, said, “Flying for Pan Am was really a lifestyle. For probably every one of us, it was more than a job.” The strictly international airline required a college degree and second language. Nagler would go around the world in 10 days, enjoying a 24-hour layover in each destination, from Tokyo to London. Le Cordon Bleu chefs graced the airborne kitchens, and you could “buddy bid” to fly with your best friends in the industry. There were five-day layovers on the Fiji trip, and the stews would bring their boyfriends and mothers to enjoy first-class champagne and caviar on their way to the island nation. “It was ridiculous. And we got paid for it.”

Stacy Mycorn was able to visit every state in the union, “and I loved all of them.” Working for a charter airline, she was an attendant on one of three of Elvis Presley’s tour planes. Elvis flew in Hugh Heffner’s “Bunny Jet,” complete with bedrooms. Mycorn also flew her share of politicos, and met an outgoing Gov. Ronald Reagan, as she ferried the governor aboard a Lockheed Electra four-engine turboprop to Mammoth. 

Griffin, like most other stews, made it a point to never date passengers. But there was one invitation, written on a napkin, that her fellow stews and even the pilots urged her to accept: The Doors’ legendary lead singer Jim Morrison had invited her to dinner. Griffin accepted, and Morrison escorted her to his studio, shared his gold records, and then took her to a French restaurant in Hollywood. With his tight jeans and leather jacket, Griffin thought the staff would surely throw him out, but they welcomed him.

When Nunn told Neil Sedaka she loved his music, he replied, “Honey, you’re not old enough to know who I am.” But he happily signed a PSA napkin for her, scrawling, “Cheers to the oldies.” Connolly flew with the band Foreigner, and the crew was showered with CDs, concert tickets and backstage passes. Other celebs included Charles Lindbergh, Paul Newman and the Beach Boys.

When Princess Margaret was flying from Tokyo to Honolulu, Nagler volunteered to serve as her personal attendant; being a history major, she was drawn to the monarchy. The princess drank Scotch while they amiably discussed politics in the blocked-off upstairs that was the first-class lounge. “She was the most down-to-earth person …We both loved jigsaw puzzles, and she belonged to a puzzle club.”

And then there were the ballclubs.

Boyce said she enjoyed the times her crew ferried sports teams to and from games, “especially if they won!” In that case, the ballplayers often took the airline crew out. But Griffin countered with her memory of flying with the Oakland Raiders: “The team trashed the plane so badly it couldn’t be used for the next morning’s flight.”

Denny’s passengers once included a contingent of Hell’s Angels, on their way to a funeral in Oakland. She found to her amazement that “They were the nicest group I’ve ever had. They’d ask ‘May we?’ say ‘Excuse me’ and ‘Thank you so much.’ It was unbelievable, because they looked full-on nasty.”

Stews had to adhere to a rigid set of rules, both to be accepted into the hallowed ranks and for grooming standards once on board. Carol Novick, standing 5 foot, 8 inches, was deemed too tall when she first applied in the late 1950s; the guidelines were 5 foot 2 inches to 5 foot 7 inches; no exceptions. “But that changed when the jets came online and they needed taller attendants,” she remembered. Novick eventually was hired by United and American airlines.

There were surprise spot inspections, when stews were checked for skirts that would freely twirl around their waists. If the skirt didn’t twirl, the stew was immediately put on “weight checks.” If the weight didn’t come off, the attendant would be grounded.

Jewelry was limited to stud earrings and a watch. Some remember PSA’s hula orange lipstick, (nail polish had to match), false eyelashes and side curls glued down with superglue.

But all the stews remembered their airlines’ hats with great affection, as much a trademark and point of pride as caps once bestowed by nursing schools. “Now they don’t even wear hats,” sighed Mycorn.

Today, as long as attendants can move down the aisle and exit safely, their weight is irrelevant. “It’s changed a lot and I think some of that’s good,” Nunn said.

“But sometimes I wish they still had it, because I think there was just more of a desire to keep yourself neat.” Denny said. “There isn’t that sense of honor anymore — it isn’t there.”

From a zero-tolerance policy on gum chewing to the impeccable visage, “You had an image,” said Mycorn.

But for all their glamour and poise, these former flight attendants needed to call on an assortment of life skills — flexibility, patience and tolerance chief among them — as they were called upon to serve a planeload of passengers, some not always so pleasant.

Peace said that acting is key: “They told us, ‘You have to have a smile on 24/7.” Connolly, who worked on government charters taking troops all across the globe, said stamina is extremely helpful: “With two hours’ notice, you had to be ready to fly overseas.”

In the era before cell phones, flight attendants were ordered to report to flights via beepers, and Nunn remembers having a 30-foot cord for her landline phone, “So I could hear it ring while I lay by the pool.”

Jeri Barsz flew for United Airlines for 35 years and still remembers the days of mandatory girdles, which all attendants were forced to wear, regardless of how slim they were. Although flight attendants were gradually freed of restrictive undergarments and other grooming requirements in the wake of court cases, “In a lot of ways it was kind of sad,” said Barzs. She is chagrined by today’s lack of standards for flight attendants on nearly all American airlines and the accompanying loss of passenger respect. “That’s how it is everywhere now,” she sighed. “If you can’t run a tight ship as an employer, it’s pretty hard to have a blooming business.”

Connolly observed that today’s Asian airlines still strive for a high level of perfection.

Availability was part of the flawless image. Many flew secretly married; of course, wedding rings weren’t permitted. Many remember the turbulence that began brewing as the decade of the ’60s drew to a close, and women began demanding equal rights in the air that were enjoyed on the ground. Why was it, they asked, that flight attendants, unlike pilots, couldn’t be married? Why did stews have to double up in hotel rooms while pilots were always provided single accommodations? Eventually, amid lawsuits and the flight attendants’ union pressure, regulations changed.

Beyond PSA’s trademark aircraft with their painted smiles, and Pan Am’s prestige that continued to grow, the flight culture many of these stews experienced remains unmatched. Novick recalled, “All airplanes had lounges; there was a place to go and meet people, and play cards with them cross-country if your supervisor wasn’t on board.” Continental had a piano lounge. Gourmet food was a given, from roast beef sliced fresh in front of your eyes to many other options if you didn’t feel up for the au jus meal.

“Stew bums” were also part of the culture. These men would try to meet stewardesses in the terminal, even calling the airlines’ bank of hotel rooms in hopes of making a connection. Vicki Inghram, who flew for the military airline Flying Tigers, said men would be lined up flashing their smiles as the flight crew deplaned.

Peace was reminded of a passenger aboard a flight to Los Angeles who looked like the entertainer Isaac Hayes: “Six foot, six inches with a shaved head and gold chains.” Filled to the brim with champagne and strutting like a cowboy, he forced his phone number on a bemused Peace. Upon landing, he fell through the plane door and into the catering truck, but without missing a beat, pulled himself back into the plane and said to Peace, “Like I told you, don’t forget to call.”

Despite having to deal with drunks, cigarette smoke, mergers, bankruptcies sleepwalking, streaking, and passengers earning a place in the “Mile High Club” (don’t ask), flight attendants never lost sight of their first priority: passenger safety.

Connolly remembered a passenger who suffered a heart attack on a flight midway to Honolulu. “Four flight attendants did CPR for two and a half hours,” she said proudly. And for passengers apprehensive about flight, Connelly said she and her crewmates would reassure them: “You’re safe on this flight. We’re gonna take care of you.”

Sept.11, 2001, forever changed air travel. Some flight attendants, including Griffin, felt it was a good time to retire, particularly since far fewer passengers were flying in the wake of the terrorist event.

But a decade later, and after surviving added security screening costs, surging fuel prices and a number of high-profile mergers, airlines are once again flying at full capacity.

“As a child,” said Denny, “looking up at the airlines, I never thought it would be a reality — but it snuck up, and there it was.”

Nunn, who’s approaching her career-in-flight’s 35th anniversary, said if she hadn’t gotten her wings, it would have been a true loss.

“It was the best job ever,” said Boyce, amid unanimous concurrence. “I wish I was still flying.”



CLM Starfish

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