Pan Am: A Dream Takes Flight (Part I)

06/24/2011 01:17 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

Pan Am has a place of its own. You call it 'the world'; we call it "home."
-- From the chorus of a Pan Am advertising jingle (1970s)

In the trailer for the new television series Pan Am coming in September to ABC, the phrase "The world is theirs" flashes on the screen. What does this mean? Why was it that Pan American World Airways employees luxuriated in this feeling of ownership and "at-homeness" in the world? What inspired such loyalty and pride on the part of its employees? What was the Pan Am mystique all about?

And how many employees today feel that they're working for the best company in the world? What, then, was it like for the Pan Am employees when "their world" and feeling of "at-homeness" in that world came crashing down? To answer that, I think we must first go back to how it all began, and I will do so through the lens of the diaries of the two women who are pivotal to my story.

The year was 1929, and magic was in the air -- literally. Two young couples, both newly married and very much in love, were about to embark on an historic journey that would make the world smaller by connecting continents and inspiring wanderlust in generations to come. Juan Trippe, 30, and his wife Betty Trippe, 25, joined by Charles Lindbergh, 27, and his wife Anne Lindbergh, 23, took off from Miami to begin to establish Pan Am's exclusive air routes and landing rights worldwide. In today's age of global travel, it's hard to comprehend or imagine that there was once a time when none of these routes existed.

One hundred years before, pioneers with a spirit of "Westward Ho!" raced across America's plains in covered wagons to establish their claims to the rich territory. In the same way, the goal of the new "wild west" period of the Golden Age of Aviation was to get there first. Why? The airline that obtained mail routes from the Post Office would earn a subsidy that could help to sustain a fledgling enterprise. No wonder Juan Trippe was a man in a hurry.

And who better to fly the airplane than Charles Lindbergh, an iconic figure of epic proportions after his historic flight across the Atlantic to Paris in 1927? Lindbergh was hired by Trippe before the airline even existed, and served as technical advisor to Pan Am for 40 years. Along with "Lucky Lindy" came his wife Anne, his bride of three months.

Anne Lindbergh -- who became an acknowledged pilot in her own right -- was soon to be called the "First Lady of the Air." Because she later achieved fame as a writer, many people are unaware that she was every bit as adventurous, daring, and skilled a pilot as her husband Charles. Shy and introspective, as well as bookish, she was asked at her high school graduation dinner in 1925 about her life's ambition. Her response surprised everyone: "I want," she said, "to marry a hero."

Anne longed for adventure, but at the time was bound by the rigid constraints on, and expectations of, a young woman of her social standing. Among other roles, her father was a partner in the banking firm of J.P. Morgan, the titan of capitalism. Anne's world was privileged but insular, and a week after meeting Charles, she confided to her diary that, "my little embroidery beribboned world is smashed." Later in her life, she reminisced that when she first met him, "He filled some kind of hunger in me to break out of the pattern which was neatly laid out before me." She began to nourish a life-long passion for travel and exploring new lands.

Always self-conscious about her looks, Anne was pretty but not photogenic. She felt that her photographs made her look like she had "a nose all over my face." Anne had dark wavy hair and lovely violet-colored eyes, and at 5'2", she appeared delicate and feminine. Possessed of stalwart health and an iron will that belied her small stature, her children later called her a "Tiny Titan." She needed those attributes to be able to keep up with her peripatetic husband Charles, with whom she later laid the worldwide ground work for the budding aviation industry in such far-flung destinations as China, communist Russia, and the desolate Arctic wilderness.

Betty Trippe, in contrast to the shy Anne, was an effervescent and outgoing brunette with sparkling sapphire eyes. Like Anne, Betty was from a well-respected and stable family, whose father ironically had also been a partner in J.P. Morgan & Company. However, Anne and Betty never met until their historic adventure in 1929 with their husbands. Betty immediately took Anne under her wing. It's been said of Betty that "she seemed genuinely interested in human beings, be they cooks or bankers. She had total recall of the significant minutiae of their existences, from rheumatic knees to grandchildren's math scores." Human warmth and empathy were her hallmarks.

Betty and Juan were introduced in 1925 by her brother, Ed, just a few months before Betty and Ed's father died. Luckily, Juan met Betty's father once, and she notes that Juan was the only young man whom her father didn't call a "whippersnapper." Betty's family, however, felt that Juan was "ridiculously impractical and visionary about the future of aviation": why didn't he get "a decent job?" Juan told Betty that he wouldn't see her for a year -- not until he had built a company.

Betty writes in her diary, "I was sent to Europe in the summer of 1927 with my aunt with the thought that I might forget the impractical young man." On October 18, 1927, the day that Pan American Airways commenced regularly scheduled service as an international air carrier from Key West to Havana, Betty received a cablegram in Paris from Juan. It trumpeted the good news: "FIRST FLIGHT SUCCESSFUL." Says Betty, "I cried with joy right there in the Place Vendome, where I picked up my mail." In June of 1928, Juan and Betty were married, and she became "the First Lady of Pan Am."

(To be continued...)