East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart

East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart

East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart

East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart


The myths surrounding the life and legacy of Amelia Earhart run the gamut from the mundane to the ridiculous. Since her disappearance in 1937, people have questioned not only her actual death, but many aspects of her life, including the nature of the relationship with her husband, the flamboyant publishing magnate George Palmer Putnam, and even her very competency as a flier. Now, with East to the Dawn, Susan Butler offers the most comprehensive account to date of Earhart's extraordinary life- and finally sets the record straight. The image we have of Amelia Earhart today- a tousle-haired, androgynous flier clad in shirt, silk scarf, leather jacket, and goggles- is only one of her many personas, most of which have been lost to us through the years. Many of her accomplishments have been obscured by a growing obsession with the mystery of her disappearance. As well, Earhart herself was a master of putting on faces: a woman constantly striving for success and personal freedom in the 1920s and '30s, she could scarcely afford to let on when something was troubling her. Through years of research, however, as well as interviews with many of the surviving people who knew Amelia, Susan Butler has recreated a remarkably vivid and multi-faceted portrait of this enigmatic figure. As a result, readers experience Amelia in all her permutations: not just as a pilot, but also as an educator, a social worker, a lecturer, a businesswoman, and a tireless promoter of women's rights; we experience a remarkably energetic and enterprising woman who succeeded in life beyond her wildest dreams, while never losing sight of her beginnings; and we experience a woman who battled incredible odds to achieve her fame, while ensuring that her success would secure a path for women after her. Some odds, are insurmountable, however, and this fact became painfully evident on the last leg of Earhart's round-the-world- flight. In the chapters describing the last flight, Butler deals with and dispels some of the most pernicious myths about Amelia- for instance, that her disappearance was planned as part of an espionage mission against the Japanese. Instead, she offers a less romantic but ultimately tragic scenario: that the Electra's limited navigational equipment was unable to find Howland Island- a piece of land the size of the Cleveland Airport- in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and a great flier died at sea. Butler masterfully renders this portrait of the first lady of aviation in a story filled with drama, pathos, and humor. East to the Dawn is a landmark biography, and will be the definitive life of Amelia Earhart for years to come.


Like many young girls looking for a role model, I became interested in Amelia Earhart at an early age. After all, she was so appealing: she was courageous, glamorous, and mysterious. She was that rare bird -- an American woman who had achieved fame and fortune by virtue of her own natural talents.

She appealed to me for an additional personal reason as well. My mother was a pilot in the 1930s, when most people were still afraid to get into an airplane, much less fly one. Her parents bought an airplane and hired a pilot to fly them around. The pilot had a lot of downtime, and my mother, Grace Liebman, in her early twenties, wanted to fly. So he taught her. Before long she was a pilot, had her own plane -- an opencockpit Waco biplane, dark green with white trim -- and was a member of the Ninety-Nines, the women's flying organization of which Amelia Earhart was the most illustrious member. Flying out of the airport, in Red Bank, New Jersey, my mother had a wonderful time doing what the early pilots did in those days -- buzzing friends, flying under the bridges that link Manhattan with the rest of the world, and landing in cornfields, hay fields, and on beaches.

Those were the days when there was something magical about flying. There was the incredible thrill of being in the air, the heady sense of accomplishing something people had been dreaming about at least since Icarus.

To women, though, flying was something more. Still hemmed in by all sorts of restrictions, still valued for looks and decorative skills, still steered toward passive accomplishments, for women it was the ultimate escape: total freedom, total mastery -- no interference. Total liberation. Women who became pilots won something additional along the way: respect.

Amelia Earhart was the looming, absent genius of our household. When her name came up, it usually caused a reflective pause in the conversation -- she was obviously so special. My mother had known her only slightly. I always wanted to know what kind of a person she was, why she was so famous, what kind of a life she really lived. I read Amelia's books, and the books about her. They didn't satisfy my curiosity. They just whetted my appetite. I decided to research her life, and I found out that not only was Amelia an amazing flier, easily the greatest female pilot of her time, but that she was a person of judgment and integrity with a strong sense of mission -- that she had started out as a social worker and had gradually become as single-mindedly dedicated to improving the status of women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger.

Appearances are deceiving. Her contemporaries knew Amelia Earhart in all her permutations: as fashion plate, as lecturer, as educator, and of course as flier. But the passage of time has winnowed away everything except "pilot," so that what comes down to us across the years is the image of a tousle-haired androgynous flier clad in shirt, silk scarf, leather jacket, and goggles. Those alive when she was saw much more -- the famous Steichen photo that appeared in Vanity Fair showing a chic, slender, contemplative woman; the news photos of her as she testified before congressional committees; and clips of her on the lecture circuit, where she spent the greater part of her time. Although it was her piloting skills that made her famous, Amelia was much more than just a pilot -- that was why she was so much missed.

So I started on her trail. I spent days at the Schlesinger Library, where the Earhart papers are. I interviewed Fay Gillis Wells, one of the original members of the Ninety-Nines. I pored through the old newspapers she gave me. In one of them I found a reference to Amelia's beloved cousin, Kathryn (Katch) Challiss. It gave Katch's married name, and through that I tracked her down. I interviewed her for the first time ever, and when she died, her daughter Pat Antich gave me her diaries and the diaries of her sister Lucy, who lived with Amelia for several years. In the diaries were endless entries mentioning Amelia. Another cousin gave me the . . .

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