Nothing defines the long-gone allure of jet travel like the Beatles arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1964, bearing their Pan Am-branded flight bags and ready to conquer America. The newly opened TWA Hotel at JFK, built within the restored 1962 TWA Flight Center designed by architect Eero Saarinen, is yet another reminder of that golden age.
In 1927, Pan Am began as a mail carrier service between Key West and Havana; its original Key West office is now First Flight Island Restaurant & Brewery. In 1933, Pan Am built the Pan American Seaplane Base and Terminal Building in Coconut Grove, an Art Deco whimsy designed by the legendary architecture firm of Delano & Aldrich where passengers would check in for flights to Havana in opulent seaplanes called “Pan Am Clippers.” In 1954, the seaplane facility, over-looking Dinner Key Marina, became the rather more pedestrian Miami City Hall.
Pan Am founder Juan Trippe hired famed aviator Charles Lindbergh as a consultant and launched the Pan Am empire, ferrying customers throughout the region. In 1939, it made the first passenger transatlantic flight, between New York and Marseilles, France. Commercial aviation was forever transformed in 1958 when Pan Am flew the first Boeing 707 passenger flight from New York to Paris.
But In 1991, Pan Am literally became history when it’s final flight landed at Miami International Airport. Appropriately enough, most of the remains of its legendary story have come to rest in Miami.
Special Collections at the University of Miami Libraries is home to the Pan Am archive “The Records of Pan American World Airways, Inc.,” comprising more than 1,600 boxes of Pan Am material —,business correspondence, photographs, ephemera, menus, and posters. (Special Collections is open to the public and located within the Kislak Center, which features donated rare books, maps and manuscripts from the late Miami philanthropist and collector Jay Kislak.)
In the early 1990s, UM’s Pan Am archive was acquired by the university in partnership with the Pan Am Historical Foundation chaired by Ed Trippe, the founder’s son. World Wings International, a philanthropic association of retired Pam Am flight attendants, has also donated archival materials and kept the legacy of the airline alive.
The Pan Am archive is organized into eighteen thematic groups with 300 subthemes. The collection spans press releases, brochures and such Pan Am periodicals as Clipper British Style. Images depict flight attendants in 1969 Evan Picone 747 uniforms, Miami’s seaplane base in the 1930s, and the former Worldport at JFK. A photo of the 1963 Pan Am building in New York, a symbol of American might created by Bauhaus master Walter Gropius and equipped with a rooftop heliport, captures the monolithic glamor of the legendary airline. Its administration facilities in Miami boasted a reflecting pool that earned it the nickname “Taj Mahal.”
To Gabriella Williams, Digital Projects Librarian at UM’s Otto G. Richter Library, Pan Am has “left its mark in the world and especially Miami, a city Pan Am helped bring into existence.”
When Pan Am folded, some of the 3-D objects went to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. Other artifacts wound up at HistoryMiami, a Smithsonian affiliate with more than 500 Pan Am objects; models of jets and a Pan Am sign from the Gropius building in New York are on display within permanent HistoryMiami exhibitions. In conjunction with Miami International Airport’s Fine Arts and Cultural Affairs efforts, HistoryMiami also lends Pan Am-related material for exhibitions at the airport’s “Hall of Aviation.” To Jorge Zamanillo, executive director of HistoryMiami, Pan Am has always held “a special place in South Florida aviation history.”
In Miami Beach, the Wolfsonian-FIU also has a handful of Pan Am-related objects in their library collection, including two beautiful 1930 posters that reflect the aesthetic sensibility of early Pan Am advertising.
Pan Am once seemed invincible: on “Mad Men,” Don Draper was desperate to land the Pan Am account, and throughout its history it was the choice of high rollers. In the 1960s, con man Frank Abagnale sought out Pan Am’s transformative powers: from the ages of 16 to 21, Abagnale impersonated a Pan Am pilot, and his memoir “Catch Me If You Can” became a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and a Broadway musical.
The international brand embraced the pioneering Intercontinental Hotels Corporation, some 83 hotels in 47 countries including the Edward Durrell Stone-designed Phoenicia Intercontinental Beirut.
Pan Am was a powerful semiotic message of international domination, but it could be a dangerous life. In 1975, Pan Am flight attendants like Pamela Borgfeldt Taylor worked with Miami’s Al Topping, then Pan Am’s Director for South Vietnam and Cambodia, to rescue Vietnamese ground staff and their children. The hazardous mission was made into the movie “Last Flight Out;” Topping was played by James Earl Jones.
In 1986, purser Neerja Bhanot, a former beauty queen and model, lost her life defending passengers from a terrorist attack at Karachi Airport in Pakistan. Bhanot’s life story became the Bollywood film “Neerja.” On December 21, 1988, a Pan Am jet flying over Lockerbie, Scotland was destroyed by a bomb, a horrific act linked to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. On board was Miami-based John Cummock, whose widow Victoria has been the leading advocate for the families left behind.
Although they were often dismissed by early feminists, flight attendants formed their own unions as early as the 1950s to fight against racial discrimination and sexism. Marlene White, a pioneering African-American flight attendant, made the cover of Jet magazine in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, Gloria Steinem was a speaker at the first Stewardesses for Women’s Rights convention.
Flight attendants in that era had an uphill battle. The uniform for Southwest flight attendants consisted of hot pants and lace-up boots, a kind of perky dominatrix attire. At Richard Nixon’s second inaugural ball in 1973, flight attendants in sequined mini-dresses served as hostesses.
Pan Am flight attendant uniforms — designed by Hollywood costume designers Edith Head and Don Loper, as well as Adolfo and other well-known fashion designers — had an understated elegance, in synch with Pan Am’s corporate image. (In 1968, Hardy Amies designed a futuristic flight attendant uniform for a mythical Pan Am space shuttle in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) Throughout Pan Am history, flight attendants working for the airline dodged the rampant idiocy of marketing efforts like National’s infamous “Fly Me” ad campaign.
Pan Am demanded college degrees for its flight attendants, and in 2013, many former employees were justifiably angered by the dumb “coffee-tea-or-me?” tone of the ABC television show Pan Am, starring Christina Ricci and Margot Robbie.
As it happens, one of the seminal forces of the feminism movement, Patricia Ireland, began her career as a Pam Am flight attendant based in Miami between 1967 and 1975. In that era, only wives of male Pan Am employees had access to their husband’s health benefits, and accordingly, Ireland’s husband was denied access to her Pan Am health insurance.
With the help of NOW, the National Organization of Women, Ireland filed an Equal
employment Opportunity Claim against Pan Am. She won the case and left the airline to become a lawyer, taking a law degree from the University of Miami: Ireland went on to serve as president of NOW from 1991 to 2001. Ireland’s lawsuit changed American culture, and yet again, Pan Am was in the thick of things.
IF YOU GO
“The Records of Pan American World Airways, Inc.” at Special Collections, the University of Miami Libraries.
Special Collections, the University of Miami Libraries. 1300 Memorial Drive (Kislak Center), Coral Gables. Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. 305-284-9552, www.library.miami.edu. The Pan Am archives can be seen by appointment.
Some of the Pan Am archives are gathered together as the digital exhibit “Cleared to Land: The Records of Pan American World Airways, Inc.” and can be seen at https://scholar.library.miami.edu/digital/exhibits/show/panamerican.
Pan Am artifacts at HistoryMiami
Several Pan Am objects are on display within permanent exhibitions. The remainder can be seen by appointment. 101 West Flagler Street, downtown Miami. Closed Monday. Admission for adults is $10, 305-375-1492, www.historymiami.org
“Miami International Airport: A Hub for History”
Miami International Airport’s “Hall of Aviation,” an ongoing celebration of MIA’s launch in 1928. On view through August 2020, with such Pan Am objects as uniforms and a 1965 photograph of a Pan Am flight attendant at MIA. At the South Terminal, International Greeters Lobby, at Miami International Airport.
“Pan Am AWARE”
A volunteer-staffed store with Pan Am memorabilia, supporting the Pan Am Historical Foundation. Open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.. 3814 Curtiss Parkway, Miami Springs. 305-871-1028; www.panam.org