Saturday, March 27, 2010

'Fly Girls' and Some Myths About 'Stewardesses'

Photos: The 2003 revised edition of "Coffee, Tea." Donald Bain and his oeuvre. Fantasy image of stewardesses in the so-called golden era.

Any time someone evokes the so-called golden era of airline flying and focuses on stewardesses -- as does this TV reality show that I that haven't seen -- you can be sure you'll be hearing about a famous 1967 book, "Coffee, Tea or Me?" that is widely believed to have been written by two saucy, sexy stewardesses. The book, a spectacular best-seller, created the template for the image of the racy, jet-setting airline stewardess as globe-trotting party girl in endless pursuit of rich men and good times.

However, the memoir (along with three "Coffee, Tea" sequels) was actually written by an American Airlines PR guy in New York City named Donald Bain. After the initial success of "Coffee, Tea," he became a prolific author, not only of fictional sexy "memoirs" of career girls like stewardesses, nurses and schoolteachers, but also of mystery thrillers such as the "Murder She Wrote" series. That series was, famously, adapted for TV.

Naturally, the "Murder She Wrote" books were published with the "author" identified as "Jessica Fletcher," who was, of course, the fictional character in the books, and the character played in the TV series by Angela Lansbury.

Don Bain wrote 'em all himself.

Over the years, I've spoken and corresponded with Don a number of times, including right after he came came forward in 2003 as the actual author of "Coffee, Tea or Me," which was first published in 1967 under the names of the two stewardesses, Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones, neither of whom actually existed. Instead, two Eastern Airline stewardesses who had been merely talking about writing a book about their experiences were hired by the publisher to tour the country promoting "their" authorship of "Coffee, Tea" in print and, especially, on television.

The stewardess book was a sensation, as I've said, even though it was actually pretty tame -- suggestive rather than salacious. Back in 1967, the late and seldom-lamented Look Magazine said breathlessly that the book "Gives the lowdown on stewardesses; reads like a footnote to 'Human Sexual Response."

It did nothing of the sort. It was more like a romp and a caper.

The "revised" edition published by Penguin in 2003 still carried the names of Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones on the cover as the authors, but this time Don Bain finally took credit. "--with Donald Bain," it said on the cover under the two fictitious stewardess names.

Don, a real gentleman, spilled the Bains, or beans, in his 2002 autobiography "Every Midget Has an Uncle Sam Costume."

He told me back then that the "Coffee, Tea" project got started when he was a young PR guy (with the standard literary aspirations) at American Airlines in New York. He was already a fairly regular business traveler.

An editor at a publishing house introduced him to two Eastern Airlines stewardesses who thought they together might be able to write a book about their escapades. The editor thought Don might want to be the ghostwriter for the two women. But when Don sat down with them, they didn't have much to offer besides a few anecdotes.

"I realized they didn't have enough to sustain a book, and I was going to have to use an awful lot of my own imagination," he told me then. Nevertheless, he was inspired by the idea. So he created a "memoir" out of whole cloth.

The book shot onto the best-seller list, and the two stewardesses were delighted to go on the road to publicize it as the authors -- even though their real names were not on the cover. Bedazzled by fame, "one of them legally changed her real name to the one I had given her on the book," Bain told me.

Don had the fictional stewardesses dedicate "their" book to himself in in the first edition. He also dedicated the three "Coffee, Tea" sequels "to Donald Bain, without whom this book wouldn't have been possible." As his writing career took off in the ghostwritten faux-memoir genre, each successive book, including the ones about racy nurses, was oddly dedicated to "Donald Bain."

"I always wondered if somebody was going to look at them all and say, 'Who is this guy who all these young women are dedicating books to?'" he said.

Back then, Don greatly admired flight attendants (at the time they were almost all female and young) for their grit, their poise under stress and their determination to succeed in male-dominated environment, in an era when newspaper held-wanted adds still were segregated under separate headings for "Male Help Wanted" and "Female Help Wanted."

When "Coffee, Tea" was re-released in 2003, this time with his name on the cover under the fictional authors', he wrote this in honor of flight attendants:

"Thanks for being on the front line of air-travel security. You have my undying gratitude for the tough job you do so admirably, and for allowing me to have had fun writing about an earlier era in air travel and your role in it."

I've written about Don several times over the years. Now that those purported golden days are being evoked again, even by real modern-day flight attendants in a reality show on television, it's not a bad idea to keep the record straight.


1 comment:

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing. As an author myself, I sat here reading, shaking my head at the brilliance of it all. Then, of course I Tweeted about your most excellent read and included the link.

The story reminded me of an article I once read by Andy Rooney on becoming a rich author. He recommended all types of things, like cleaning your typewriter keys, paying bills, sharpening your pencils, daydreaming--and having a rich relative die and leave you the money.

Thanks again for a great article.