The real women of Pan Am

Former Pan Am stewardesses meeting for lunch are,

Former Pan Am stewardesses meeting for lunch are, from left: Ingeborg Seemueller, Rosemary Wells, Ellen Lessenich, Lena Spongberg, Kari Heimberger, Theresa Brennan, Jean Robinson, May Chorbajian, Else Kinney, Rita Kaiser, Mariana Holubar and Dorli Retinger. (Oct. 27, 2011) (Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan)

It's uncertain whether the much-hyped ABC-TV series "Pan Am" will return next season, but the memories of real-life stewardesses who worked for the global airline during its heyday are sure to live on long after the TV show is grounded.

Among the women keeping those memories alive is Rita Kaiser, 73, a former Pan Am stewardess who abided by its rigid rules during the early 1960s. Kaiser, who lives in Levittown, was recruited by the airline for her language skills, as were many of her colleagues. She and her late sister, Marianne, had immigrated from Germany and worked as au pairs in the Midwest to perfect their English before landing jobs with the airline.

One day, Kaiser took a bus to what was then Idlewild Airport, walked into the Pan Am terminal, filled out an application and was given a desk job. But partly on the strength of her language skills (in addition to English and German, she speaks French and some Italian), she became a stewardess, flying for Pan Am from 1963 to 1989. Eventually, she was promoted to purser, supervising the flight crew.

"It was the golden age of flying," says Kaiser. Traveling for Pan Am turned her into "a woman of the world," she says. "It gave us tremendous freedom."

When most women were homemakers, teachers, nurses or secretaries, the Pan Am stewardesses were independent, liberated female travelers -- before the feminist movement took hold. They enjoyed being paid to see the world, unattached.

Kaiser and other stewardesses who were based in New York moved to Long Island to be close to airports, and stayed here after retiring. Nowadays, they look back on their careers with nostalgia and some mixed feelings, recalling workplace rules that prevented them from keeping their jobs if they married or got pregnant. And they are among the most avid fans, and severest critics of the "Pan Am" TV series and the way characters behave. Real Pan Am stewardesses, they say, would act more refined and would never be rude to customers.

In 1937, the airline's first commercial flights across the North Atlantic flew out of Port Washington. And during the jet age, its flagship terminal was located at Idlewild Airport, now John F. Kennedy International Airport. Although Pan Am folded in 1991, the spirit of the airline lives on through the activities of World Wings International, a philanthropic organization of former flight crews with 2,200 members across the globe. Kaiser is president of the Long Island chapter, which has 26 members -- down from 40 a few years ago because of deaths and relocations. They meet monthly at restaurants, like a recent visit to the Cheesecake Factory at the Walt Whitman Mall. Lingering over lunch specials, they chat about raising money for their charity and reminisce.

The pay wasn't great, Kaiser recalls. She earned about $350 a month for 65 hours in the air, and often augmented her income by working another 20 hours overtime. But the layovers were often several days long with nothing to do but relax and see the sights. "We ate in the best restaurants, we went shopping for perfume in Paris," Kaiser recalls. "I knew my way around Rome better than I knew my way around Levittown." Holidays, like Christmas, were spent in places like Bangkok, Thailand.

During layovers, Pan Am put them up in the best hotels, Kaiser says, and the $10 per diem they received in the early 1960s stretched well with the foreign exchange rate, affording them modest meals at the best restaurants. There were lots of invites, too, from diplomats they met on the flight.

Their travel agendas were the stuff of dreams. "I set foot on all the continents [except Antarctica] and all the Caribbean islands -- all the places where Pan Am flew," says Theresa Brennan, 68, of Seaford, another veteran stewardess. Born in northern Maine of French Canadian ancestry, Brennan, spoke French and got her first "amazing" airline job when she was 21.

Back then, she was Theresa Cote, unmarried and free to fly the world. As a stewardess and then a purser, she flew to Hong Kong and exotic places such as Tahiti, Fiji, Guam, Haiti and Martinique, from 1965 to 1972.

She gave up flying to marry and start a family. In those days, marriage or pregnancy was cause for dismissal, former stewardesses say. Brennan had four children, and today helps run a family termite and pest control business in Seaford.

Another reason for women losing their airline jobs in the 1960s was failing to "make weight." Pan Am stewardesses were required to step onto a scale if their bosses thought them to be overweight or even "on the borderline."

"You had to maintain your figure," says Kaiser, who is still trim enough to wear her Pan Am-blue uniform. The consequences for getting pudgy? "You would be taken off the payroll and suspended until you lost the weight."

Airline regulations that prevented family members from working together eventually changed, allowing Kaiser and her sister to share flights and good times. She also shared a house in Levittown with Marianne and her flight director husband, who is also deceased. Kaiser never married, choosing her career instead, she says.

Despite the demanding, inflexible regulations, the women had to follow, the airline receives high marks from its alumnae. "Pan Am treated us very well," says Lena Spongberg, 80, of Kings Park. She was hired in her native Belfast, and worked from 1957 to 1960. In that short time, she visited Baghdad, Beirut, Istanbul, and looked up some Irish school friends who were serving as nuns in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her late husband was a Pan Am flight engineer.

What do these real-life stewardesses have to say about the TV series? "I watched it once, but that was enough for me, because it was a little bit too far-fetched," Spongberg says. "We never wore our hats while we were working, and we didn't wear high heels" while flying. The butt-patting flight captains and sassy stewardesses who talk back to passengers also seem out of character.

Kaiser observes that the TV stewardesses "are not elegant enough. They are too much like college kids. We had to learn how to walk properly, and we didn't swing our backs like they do."

Working for a real 1960s airline was hard work, the former flight attendants say. They prepared meals like scrambled eggs or filet mignon from scratch while catering to passengers.

While most flights were drama-free, a recent Pan Am episode where a passenger suffers a heart attack, brought flashbacks to Brennan. On one of her flights, a woman had an allergic reaction after eating seafood. She couldn't breathe and had to be given oxygen. Another time, the No. 1 engine caught fire shortly after takeoff from Trinidad. Brennan says she remained calm during those incidents because of her airline training.

World Wings members who watch the TV series hope it resumes. Kaiser says her organization started a Facebook petition to keep the show running. Despite its flaws, it's still a reminder of exciting times for the former stewardesses.

"To be honest," says Spongberg, "I have never really forgotten Pan Am. To me it was just a magical life . . . . There is nothing like travel to broaden your mind. It is the best educator you could have, to get out of your parochial little self and see the rest of the world. It changes your whole way of looking at things."

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