Fifty Years Ago, Everyone Wanted to Be “International”

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Nov. 6 2013 7:18 AM

When IHOP Was Glamorous

Fifty years ago, all anyone wanted was to be “international.”

American Airlines Flight Attendants
American Airlines flight attendants, at a time when aviation was portrayed as glamorous.

Photo via Allison Marchant/Flickr/Creative Commons

This essay is excerpted from The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel, published by Simon & Schuster.

In a 1956 issue dedicated to the “Air Age,” Life magazine profiled a Pan American crew traveling on a “13,000-mile, seven-day flight” from New York through Paris, Rome, Beirut, Tehran, and back. The feature gave readers a behind-the-scenes look at airplane operations, complete with spilled trays in the tiny galley. But the main emphasis, captured in four pages of photos, was how the crew spent their time off: kayaking in the Mediterranean, buying Damascus brocades in a Beirut shop, visiting a modernist painter’s gallery in Paris, dining near the Eiffel Tower. The co-pilot visited Left Bank jazz clubs, and the stewardesses went shopping for perfume. To the Life reader, it was all exciting and exotic—right down to the Paris hotel’s six-foot-long bathtub, a favorite of the co-pilot, who said he “never saw a tub like this back in West Virginia.”

Here was a new take on the old glamour of aviation, offering not a dream of individual heroism or a general notion of escape but an image of travel as stimulating and fun. When the Life article ran, a mere 8 percent of Americans had ever taken an airplane flight, and international travel was similarly rare. Aside from wartime postings, few people had ever left the country, let alone the western hemisphere. In the United States of the ’50s and ’60s, the word international possessed a glamour almost as intense as the word modern, making the ocean-hopping life of the Pan Am crew deeply alluring. For Americans in particular, what came to be called the Jet Age represented a new version of escape and transformation, one that addressed several widespread longings.

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In the prosperous postwar period, Americans enjoyed a rising standard of living, embodied in suburban houses, push-button kitchen gadgets, and chrome-bedecked cars. Although extreme poverty lingered in some places, most people were no longer yearning for escape from hardship. More likely, the escape they wanted was from boredom, regimentation, and routine—an escape symbolized by international travel. If you flew, especially internationally, you were someone special. If not a hero like James Bond, you were at least a person of leisure: an international playboy, a college student traveling standby, a tennis player on the international circuit, a carefree adventurer with time to see the world. On the last page of its Pan Am feature, Life highlighted the contrast between the globetrotting crew’s adventures and mundane American life, showing the pilot returning home to his wife and daughters in a New York suburb. On the days off between flights, he said, “Sometimes I just stand in the yard watching the briefcase brigade go by.”

Having achieved a smoother passage through life, many Americans yearned for a more exciting one. The man or woman in a Pan Am uniform embodied that longing. So did other icons of Jet Age glamour. Take the era’s distinctive automobile designs. In the mid-’50s, American car makers abandoned streamlined styles in favor of the aviation- inspired “forward look,” with its wrap-around windshields and winglike tail fins. The cars’ shapes, their advertising, their names the Pontiac Strato Star, the Oldsmobile Rocket), and their features (“flightomatic” transmission, “Jetway hydra-matic”) all suggested high-tech aviation. Hood ornaments took on the shapes of jets. “Millions of Americans now drove with model planes in their peripheral vision,” observes Grant McCracken, the cultural anthropologist. “These peripheral planes made a plane of the car and a pilot of the driver.” Detroit’s products, he writes, “impressed as cars. They wowed as planes.”

Then there were James Bond and his many imitators. With their daring and mystery, spies and secret agents had long been glamorous fictional figures, but the popular culture of the early ’60s produced a new version of the character. He was aptly dubbed “the international man of mystery” by the Austin Powers parodies of the 1990s. This spy was not a wartime hero but a jet-setting operative whose adventures transported the audience to exotic locales, exclusive venues, and the arms of beautiful women. Bond was the prototype, but television shows like I Spy (which premiered in 1965), Mission Impossible (1966), and The Saint (a British series that debuted in 1962 and began airing in the United States in 1967) picked up the theme. The Jet Age secret agent was charming, omnicompetent, and exceedingly well-traveled. No place was truly foreign to him, yet he was always having new experiences. He made the international intriguing.

Even as one sort of Jet Age glamour was informing spy movies, another was providing a respite from the high-stakes conflicts of the Cold War. This was the innocent internationalism reflected to this day in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and the Miss Universe pageant, with their colorful costumes and shared aspirations, superficial exoticism and essential sameness. The same Jet Age optimism was depicted in The Endless Summer (1966), a documentary in which two young surfers fly around the world in search of the perfect wave. From Africa to Australia, everywhere they find friendly people who love the beach as much as they do. In the world of The Endless Summer, nobody worries about nuclear war.

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