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American Airways, was my mother’s direct boss in 1935. She was a member of the first string secretarial pool who sat at the ready on the 58th floor of the Chrysler Building just outside his office, which TIME magazine described in its 1933 Trippe cover story as “spacious [and] buff-papered ...[with] French doors open upon a balcony overlooking downtown Manhattan and the harbor.” Edie O’Neill arrived at Pan Am during the pinnacle of Trippe’s success when he was 37 and already known as the “Clipper Skipper”. Just five years before, and during the Great Depression, TIMES’ “swarthy young president of Pan American Airways” had, with the partnership of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and John Hamberton, dynamically established the prototype airline for nearly every first in the aviation industry. My mother started at Pan Am in January of 1935, the year that marked Pan!Am's inauguration of pan-Pacific flights. She took great pride in the fact that, with several other hardworking women, she had transcribed some of the most important business history of those heady days. I wish I’d known this when she was still alive to tell me her perspective of that part of her tenure, but the stories she did tell were more about the Whitneys, Vanderbilts or Rockefellers who visited Trippe’s office, or the day she saw Charles and Anne Lindbergh in the building, whom I’ve since learned may have been there because the Lindberghs were technical advisors for
PanAm who charted trans- oceanic, air routes as pioneers for the first Clippers, or “flying boats,” as they were known. Imagining my mother in this setting, where she continued to work for the next six years, gives depth to comments she often made about her life. Orphaned at 15, she lived with a host of older siblings, a cramped situation tight enough to induce strong determination to reach beyond the roles of nuns, nurses, or young mothers calling out to the first generation Irish girls she knew. In high school, Edie O’Neill set her sights on the City. She finished secretarial school at the age of 19 and was placed, through an agency, into a huge secretarial pool at a firm on Wall Street. There she transcribed the boring, business letters of junior-junior executives who kept correcting themselves mid-sentence as they dictated to pool transcribers over an internal phone system. Having tired of the droning, unknown voices who told her what to type every day, she noticed that PanAm was hiring, passed the rigorous skills’ assessments and began her days witnessing the birth of an industry. Surely when she gazed down from the 58th floor of the 77 story Chrysler Building, she had to have felt she’d begun an odyssey that would take her worlds away from the banal future she feared if she kept loving that Irish boy who drove a taxi or the other one who worked in a bar near her home in Queens. In her stories about this time, she said that Juan Trippe needed more than a few secretaries to help him accomplish what he did in one day. He often called in more than one of the most precise transcribers and typists to come in for dictation. This expediency allowed fresh copies of the same missive to be signed by Trippe and hand-delivered to power brokers throughout Manhattan. My mother was at Pan Am transcribing its business history during the heyday of the airline industry. In her old tin Schrafft’s keepsake box, there’s a first flight cover addressed to “Miss Edith O’Neill c/o Pan American Airways”. It is stamped “Honolulu, June 18, 1935 first flight Midway”. The envelope is part of a cache that officially flew along on the Sikorsky Clipper, to commemorate an inaugural, pan- Pacific trip that had originated in California. This was the biggest first for an airline that went on to create food-service in tourist class and long range, weather forecasting for every flight.
In 1936, my mother was at PanAm when the industry was buzzing about Amelia Earhart taking delivery of a Purdue Uninversity financed Lockheed 10E Elektra to fly around-the worldl; she was there in 1937, the day PanAm announced Earhart and her plane had disappeared. She was still transcribing with the pool when she became engaged in 1938, as well as in 1939, when PanAm conquered the sky as the first airline to operate scheduled trans-Atlantic service for passengers and mail. Other Flight covers in the Schrafft’s box confirm these dates. The most telling are stamped June 24th to 30th, 1939 because these are addressed to my father at Thew Shovel Company, 500 Fifth Avenue. The stamps on each read “Northern Trans-Atlantic First Flight”. All the flights depart from New York, but each is stamped with a different inaugural landing point: Marseilles, England, Ireland, New Foundland and New Brunswick. I can envision my mother in PanAm’s offices because there is a small, sepia photo of her standing at her desk. She is wearing a Coco Channel rip-off sewn by her older sister, a gifted seamstress who’d gone to school to perfect her skills and could create a pattern from any designer in Vogue. In the photo, my mom’s engagement ring is obviously on display as she holds her left hand against the bow at the waist of a soft, fluid dress. Her skin is china-smooth and her face is framed by soft curls; Manhattan stares in from the window behind her. A year later, when she was holding her head in her hands at her desk one morning, Juan Trippe asked if she was alright. When she looked up at him, he said: “Why, Miss O’Neill. I believe you must be expecting!” My mother was astonished – both at her boss’ outburst and the fact that she’d been clueless. Trippe was right, of course, and in 1941 my mother left PanAm and boarded a plane for her own first flight with her husband, their son, and their future. ____________________________________________________________ ___ Suzanne McLain Rosenwasser is a freelance writer whose features about Long Island have appeared in The New York Times and other newspapers. She currently writes a column "Believing in Boys" for the online magazine The Good Men Project (www.goodmenproject.com).