Veteran Pan Am Stewardesses Look Back

What was the golden age of jet travel really like?

By Angela Sanders July 1, 2013 Published in the July 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Pan Am stewardess Betty Lou Ruble Snyder says hello to race car driver and international playboy Sterling Moss.

Twenty-four retired Pan Am stewardesses milled in a meeting room at the Multnomah Athletic Club one recent afternoon. Chardonnay circulated, and leopard print was well represented. 

So commenced the annual business meeting of World Wings International’s Portland chapter, the local gathering of people who once worked for Pan Am, which died ignominiously in 1991 after decades of glamorous flight. High on the agenda: nostalgia for an era when international travel still tingled with mystery, romance, and weird sexual politics.

“Pan Am was the best job you could get as a woman,” said Barbara Geiger (years at Pan Am, 1954–1960). “It paid the best, had the best vacation, and you could travel all over.” After a job interview that included standing on a chair to have her legs inspected, Geiger’s service with Pan Am took her to China, the South Seas, and throughout Europe before she met her husband, a CIA operative, on a flight to Paris. 

Besides being “well proportioned” (as a 1965 recruiting brochure put it), the female Pan Am recruit had to be younger than 27, have perfect vision, speak a foreign language, and be single. Once hired, she mixed perfect old-fashioneds and roasted prime rib to order in a galley smaller than a walk-in closet. She was trained to burp babies, convert dollars to deutsche marks, and calm a passenger having a panic attack. Starting pay: $301.50 a month.

Mary Nilson (1964–1966), now an antiques dealer in Lake Oswego, surveyed the MAC room. “When you get a start like we did, you don’t stand still,” she said. The group included an importer, a real estate agent, an interior designer, a college guidance counselor, a travel agent, and a career coach. Most were grandmothers. Several married pilots.

As the women mingled, conversation ranged from celebrity passengers (Joan Crawford insisted staff use the lavatory at the rear of the plane) to the short-lived recent television series Pan Am (“Was it accurate? No. But it was a good show.”) to ailments you’d expect among women long qualified for the senior discount. 

Servers wheeled in trolleys of chicken salad. Chapter president Cinda Belozer (1972–1986), vivid in electric blue, cued up a slide show of last September’s global World Wings convention, held at the Benson Hotel and attended by more than 400 Pan Am flight-crew vets. Photos of women in crisp vintage Pan Am uniforms flashed over the screen as Sinatra crooned “Come Fly With Me.” Sandra Phillips (1963–1964), her rhinestone “I ⁄ Pan Am” choker sparkling, groaned each time her photo appeared. 

When the key-lime-pie plates were cleared, members rose to leave. “I’ve got an early flight tomorrow,” said Jan Guerci (1970–1986), still a flight attendant, but now with United. 

Still flying, after all these years? Amazing. 

“It’s not amazing,” she said. “It’s a freakin’ miracle.”

Fly back in time with our slide show of vintage snapshots from Pan Am’s golden age

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