What do Phil Knight, the Dalai Lama, and Jerry Seinfeld have in common? Ann Menke was once their flight attendant—material she mines for a new romance novel that she assures us is only partly fiction. Exposure to a Billionaire takes us deep into the world of a corporate flight attendant, rich—like super rich—clients, and eye-popping travel destinations from Bora Bora to Paris.
A Portlander since 1972, Menke began her career as a corporate flight attendant in the late 1980s. She was mentored by Nike founder Phil Knight’s first (and only) personal flight attendant, and quickly jumped into the corporate flying world. While flying alongside some of the richest people in the world for the next 30 years, she started documenting each trip—and thus began her book.
Though Menke originally conceived her work as a tell-all, Exposure to a Billionaire ended up as a fictional tale, one loosely based on her experiences. Menke's protagonist is Anna St. James, the lead flight attendant for billionaire Stuart Manning. There’s romance, there are some crazy rich people and exotic locales, and there are comic moments—like the one where Anna opens a canister of whipped cream and it explodes all over the galley, herself, and a pilot. Ooh la la!
We sat down with Menke to learn more about demanding passengers, semi-naked celebrities, luxury airborne lifestyles, and what’s next for Anna St. James.
Your debut novel seems to be based closely on your career as a corporate flight attendant. So how much of you is in Anna St. James?
I actually wrote it as a memoir. I just didn’t feel that was what I needed to do, so I switched it to fiction. There is a lot of me in Anna St. James, but Anna St. James is definitely her own character. I needed to take myself out of her, when I was writing it, so I took a picture of Emma Watson and I put it on my computer, and she was my Anna St. James writing it.
How close is it to your own experience? Did some of the crazy tales— like a guest getting superglue in her eye because she mistook it for eye drops and a couple having sex on board—really happen?
The super glue happened on board! The couple underneath the table, it happened [laughs]. Seeing Steven Tyler on the tarmac in Amsterdam, yes, that happened too.
Were you worried about anyone identifying themselves in the book?
The first gentleman I flew with, [CEO of Sequent Computer Systems] Casey Powell endorsed the book. He thinks the billionaire’s him. He’s said it over and over! He came to a book signings and he keeps saying, “I know it’s me, I know it’s me.” And I have to keep telling him, “The billionaire is not you.” There are parts of all the people I flew with in that billionaire. I worked for Paul Allen, I did a lot of flying with him. Ted Waitt with Gateway Computers, I flew a lot with him as well. And I don’t feel badly, because it is fiction. I don’t think it’s a bad depiction of any of them.
How did you become a corporate flight attendant?
I started off years and years ago. I did the initial commercial training [for Horizon Air] and I knew that wasn’t my thing. Then [Phil and Penny Knight’s flight attendant] asked if I would cover for her because I was trained. She mentored me, so when Casey Powell bought his first Gulfstream, she called me, and the next thing I know I was in his office, that afternoon, and I was being told I’m leaving in four days on a brand new airplane. It’s very similar to the book.
What are these private planes like—can you describe them?
Let me give you an idea of a Gulfstream. You could literally pop on here in Portland and go all the way to Europe and you’re up at about 48-49,000 feet, so you can see the curvature of the Earth. It’s stunning. The picture on the front of the book is a big round window—that’s a Gulfstream 650 window. When you look out, you see everything out there. Usually they’re seated for about 10-13 passengers, and they have different cabins. Sometimes they’ll have a bedroom in the back. The bathrooms are totally stocked with everything you want, need, could ever desire. The seats do a 360-degree swivel, they go back, they can berth if people want to sleep in their seats.
What’s the difference between corporate and commercial flight attendants?
You know how you see the flight attendants and they’re reading at the end? They serve and then they sit back and they’re reading magazines or talking in the galley? In corporate you don’t really do that. You’re on all the time.
At one point in the book someone chooses an outfit for Anna. Did that ever happen to you, that a passenger dictated your outfit?
Not dictating what I should wear—it was more nice gifts saying thank you. I got into my hotel room in Paris one time and in my room was this beautiful Chanel box, a huge box, and it was butter leather Chanel boots. They said, "Thank you for taking such good care of us." I had a trip in New York where we were in a totally different climate, and I did have a bunch of clothes sent to my room.
Did you ever have any awkward run-ins with passengers?
I had Jerry Seinfeld going to Europe, and I walked in the cabin and turned around and he’s taking his pants off! But he had boxers on, he was just climbing into bed because he needed to sleep and be ready—it wasn’t inappropriate or anything like that, but at the time it was like, "Oh! What are you doing there?"
Did passengers give you specific requests in advance, like your character Mr. Manning?
Before every trip that I did, I always would send out to their personal assistant, asking, "Can you give me an idea of what of things we should have on board—do they have a special kind of blanket they like?" It was a big long list, so you would make sure you had all of those things ready. It’s like being a party planner, except you have all of these personalities. I found that the most difficult people, with the most ridiculous requests, were the people that weren’t as famous. I call them the wannabes, and they would be on board as a guest, or maybe coming along because they’re helping someone, and they were the most demanding. We always had these customized toothbrushes and they would clear out everything, take it, and not ask—and they were a guest! It’s kind of like going into someone’s personal home and taking everything.
What are some of the most ridiculous requests you’ve received from passengers?
I did have a passenger (he runs a famous apparel company) and every time we’d be on the ground—stopping just for an hour to an hour and a half—every time right before we’d land he would always request five or six unbelievable wines from $300 up to $1,000. And sometimes you’re going into towns where it’s almost impossible to find them. So as soon as you’re landing you’re like, "I’ve got to get a car, I’ve got to get this, I’ve got to go find this wine." So those are impossible requests to me.
I had a producer out of Hollywood and his assistant. We had bedding on board, and we had mattresses that were amazing on board, but oh no, no, no. We had to fly first down to San Diego, to pick up his custom-made mattresses and then we had to fly them back up to LA and have his exact linens on board. They were these French linens and they had to be exactly what he wanted, and then when I landed in New York with them—it was a day trip—he requested that we send all that stuff back to LA for him to have back there.
All of this material has fueled book one. So what’s next? Do you have a second book in the works?
It’s Daughter of a Billionaire, so it’s the sequel and it starts at Lake Como, and it’s going to end in the South of France—shocking! The Manning foundation’s going to be up and running pretty big and there’s going to be a Croatian love interest, Adrian Tomoslav. It’s going to be fun. I’d like to have it done by the end of this year and hopefully have it ready to go by sometime in 2017.
Exposure to a Billionaire hit bookshelves in June.