Memories of a TWA Air Hostess of the 1940s
Glamorous, smart, and sophisticated — that’s how I’ve thought of my Aunt Violet, my dad’s sister, ever since I was a young girl. She has always made an impression on the people she meets with her fashion style, engaging conversation, and interest in what is happening in the world. Her time as an air hostess (or stewardess, as flight attendants of the late 1940s were known) with TWA (Trans World Airlines – the now defunct, but once major airline) represented a lifestyle of travel that I yearned for even as a grade school student. Although her days as an air hostess ended several years before I was born, Aunt Vi’s flight career still came up in family conversations and I listened intently.
I’ve loved talking to her about her first dreams of travel, how she became an air hostess, what commercial flights were like in those days, and special experiences she had. I’m happy that she agreed (and was very pleased) to let me share a part of her story on Traveling with Sweeney.
She dreamed of Africa
Aunt Vi grew up on the south side of Chicago, the 5th of six siblings, including my dad (he was 2nd). As far back as she remembers, she wanted to travel. She remembers sitting on the front porch steps on Lowe Avenue (shown above) as a young girl. Even before she’d ever heard of stewardesses, whenever a plane flew over on its way to or from Midway Airport, she wistfully looked up at the sky, and thought, “Someday… I’ll be doing that.” She imagined a journey anywhere around the world, but especially to those places that seemed most exotic to her. It was Africa that really grabbed her imagination, and she dreamed of seeing zebras, giraffes, lions, and elephants in the wild.
Ready for take-off
Aunt Vi’s flying career started in a simple way. On a Saturday morning in 1947, her mother suggested that she visit a cousin who was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. So Aunt Vi took the streetcar to his home at 80th and Justine. Fatefully, he had been reading the paper recently and told her that TWA was advertising for air hostesses in Chicago and that she should go for an interview.
She replied that she didn’t qualify for the job, but he countered asking, “But isn’t that what you always wanted to do?”
As she was leaving, he said, “Promise me you’ll go to the Drake Hotel for an interview on Monday.”
Aunt Vi took his advice and had an interview with the head executive managing TWA air hostesses.
At the time Aunt Vi was applying to TWA, the official job qualifications for air hostess included a nursing degree, a college degree, or four years practical business experience. Aunt Vi’s job as a private secretary in Chicago met the last requirement. She also recalls that one had to be at least 5’2; fall within an approved weight range; have good grammar and diction; and be poised and self-confident. Most importantly, an air hostess had to SMILE! Meeting all of these criteria and having a beaming smile, she got the job right away and she was soon on a flight (her first flight ever) to Kansas City, the location of TWA headquarters and the McConnell School for training. This young woman was now on the verge of realizing her dreams as a young girl.
Unfortunately, as luck would have it, as soon as she finished the training, the pilots went on strike so she headed back to Chicago to work at Western Electric. Then in 1948, she got a telegram that the strike had ended and so she flew back to Kansas City to begin work with TWA. How excited she was!
On the job as a TWA air hostess
The crisp light blue suit in a “cut-out” design (because of the cut-out TWA logo on the right shoulder), navy blue blouse, jaunty hat, classic pumps and a big smile characterized the appearance of TWA air hostesses of the late 1940s. No jewelry could be worn, and the hat and high heels had to be worn at all times. Perceived by outsiders as a dream job, the air hostess’s duties were quite demanding. For my Aunt Vi, her time with TWA as an air hostess and later as an instructor were happy days filled with experiences that became lifetime memories.
Fasten your seat belt
Beginning as a junior air hostess, she was based in Newark, New Jersey for her first year and she flew on the DC-3, a two-propeller “tail-dragger” aircraft which carried 21 passengers and one air hostess. There were many ups and downs (takeoffs and landings) on those trips because each flight was composed of several legs lasting about one-half hour each. So a trip from Newark to Kansas City, a route that Aunt Vi flew often, might take off at 5 a.m., and land in Kansas City at about 4 p.m. after 11 interval takeoffs and landings. With no air conditioning or oxygen, these flights never went above 9,000 feet and pilots were often maneuvering over and under clouds to get around storms, lightening and rain, hot thermal winds, and other rough weather. No wonder that many passengers would need to use the “burp cups” located beneath each seat which were specifically noted in the air hostess’s pre-flight announcement (no microphones on these planes). During her first six months on the job, Aunt Vi also found the burp cups very useful. Smoking was allowed which added to the discomfort.
From the start to the finish of every flight, an air hostess was very busy. At each stop along the itinerary, passengers deplaned, and new ones came onboard. Before each leg’s take-off, air hostesses were responsible for checking the manifests; making announcements; taking orders for coffee, tea or milk (the only in-flight beverage choices aboard airlines of the 1940s); getting the food on-board; and handing out pillows which served double duty as tables for the food trays.
With less advanced technology, meal service was a challenge, and Aunt Vi and I both had good laughs as she described what it was like on the DC-3. Cardboard boxes to be used as trays were delivered to the plane along with a thermos jug, plastic dish with salad, casserole dish, bread and dessert. Despite the short ½-hour duration of most legs, as soon as they were in the air, the hostess began to prepare the cardboard trays with full meals each of which included a salad, an entrée, and a dessert. Aunt Vi said that with the short time available, the co-pilot would often come back to help distribute the trays. It was rare that anyone ever actually finished a meal before the seat belt sign went on for the descent.
Upgraded to the Constellation
Aunt Vi was thrilled when she was transferred from Newark to LaGuardia in New York City. With other hostesses she shared an apartment on Long Island from which she could enjoy easy access to Manhattan, but it also opened opportunities for her for longer-range, including coast-to-coast flights. She would also now be flying in what was a larger, more advanced and luxurious aircraft, the Constellation (affectionately nicknamed “The Connie”). The design of this four-propeller plane was strongly influenced by TWA owner Howard Hughes and made its first commercial flight in 1946. The Connie carried about 45 passengers and had a separate lounge behind the cockpit that might be considered “First Class” today. Meal service was a step up in quality from that on the DC-3 and was not as frantic due to the longer flight legs.
Flying was very expensive, so nearly all passengers on domestic commercial flights were celebrities, business people, or those traveling to seek specialized health services, or attend funerals. Not many people were flying with the family to vacation destinations. But on February 6, 1949, TWA introduced “Sky Tourist Service” on reconfigured Constellation aircraft. The Connie could now carry considerably more passengers (about twice as many) at lower fares. This was a significant event as air travel became more accessible and affordable for leisure travelers. In the publicity photo above, Aunt Vi is reviewing the flight manifest (which is clearly a long one) on an inaugural flight of the new service.
Aunt Vi was a fearless air hostess — the kind of flight attendant you hope to have on your flights. I asked her if there were any scares during her air hostess days. She said there were definitely exciting events and lots of turbulence, but she was never afraid. She had confidence in the pilots because she trusted that they were professionals, trained to know exactly how to handle difficult and unforeseen situations. One such instance was the time when her plane, flying in a thunderstorm, had to circle over Chicago because the landing gear failed to go down. That’s a rather scary situation that still occurs even in our current, more prevalent air travel, but I can imagine that in those younger days of commercial air travel, passengers needed even more reassurance than now. When the flight finally landed, Aunt Vi was greeted on the tarmac by her father (my grandfather) who had come to meet her at the airport for the first time since she’d been flying. Everyone on the ground at the airport knew about the airplane’s troubles in the sky, and she remembers how he was absolutely proud and relieved to see her safely on the ground.
On another flight when she was strapped in her hostess seat in the back of the DC-3 for a descent, the exit door popped open inward. Of course, all the passengers turned around to look at Aunt Vi trying to assess their level of danger. She gave them a smile and the sign, “It’s OK” and thus a calm atmosphere was restored in the cabin.
On one of her DC-3 flights, Aunt Vi witnessed a rare occurrence that was most likely the phenomenon known as “ball lightning” after the plane had been struck by lightning. In the blink of an eye, electrical currents that she described as a spherical “rainbow of colors bigger than a baseball” came hurtling down the aisle toward the back of the plane where she was sitting, then continued directly out through the tail. That certainly would have scared me! But after the plane had passed through the storm, Aunt Vi got up and calmly proceeded with her work — business as usual.
A chance to explore
In cities like New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles and San Francisco where she was either based or on long layovers (often a full 24 hours), she took every opportunity to explore. During layovers in New York City when she was based elsewhere, she often stayed at the Prince Hotel on 38th Street near 5th Avenue which was convenient for taking long walks to Central Park. She soaked up the energy and excitement of the city, browsing in Saks Fifth Avenue and other high-end department stores, and stopping for lunch at restaurants that looked inviting. The Prince Hotel had many international guests, and she loved being among people from all over the world.
She recalls her first layover in a big, new city when sitting in her room she summoned up the nerve to go out and about and dine on her own. This quickly built her confidence, stoking her enjoyment of exploring new places.
When Irish Eyes are Smiling
In the photo below taken in 1949, Aunt Vi’s beautiful smile was captured by the local Zanesville, Ohio (near Dayton) press during a major publicity event in which she was a key participant. To emphasize the amazing capabilities of modern air travel, shamrocks had been flown from Ireland to Newark, where they were entrusted to Aunt Vi’s care. From there, she flew with them to Zanesville where she was greeted by a priest on the airplane stairs of the DC-3. In the photo, she is presenting him with the shamrocks — just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.
The reluctant beauty queen
I wish I could show you a photo of Aunt Vi winning the Miss TWA Chicago pageant, but nobody in the family has one, and that’s the way she wanted it because any photos that once existed showed her on stage in a bathing suit. A TWA station agent had entered her in the contest without asking her first, but convinced her that she must participate. Walking around in a bathing suit on stage was embarrassing for her, but she even more vividly remembers something else about the pageant. I’d also heard an eye-witness account of this from my dad who was in the audience with another of his sisters, my Aunt Lorraine, and my grandparents. Aunt Vi was announced the winner and just as the emcee was handing her the prize — a beautiful red purse — someone sitting behind the Sweeney clan started to boo. Grandpa Sweeney turned around and grabbed the guy by the collar. Fortunately, my dad intervened and a fight was avoided. Aunt Vi was quite aware of what was happening in the audience, but kept her cool as she accepted her prize.
Aunt Vi flew with many movie stars and other celebrities, and recalls that on one occasion Frank Sinatra was on her flight. Part of the air hostess pre-flight routine was to instruct the passengers to fasten their seat belts and ask if they would like a Chiclet (to help keep the ears clear during take-off). But her usual spiel got turned around a bit after Frank looked into her eyes and said, “Oh, you’re pretty!” She was flustered and thinks her words actually came out something like “Fasten a Chiclet, would you like a seat belt?”
After one year with the airline, Aunt Vi was asked to be an air hostess instructor, but declined. She later accepted a second position based in Kansas City which required her to travel to various bases two weeks at a time to train new attendants. She was also assigned to flights as a “check hostess” to observe and evaluate crew service.
While in this position, she received a special assignment to accompany a Hollywood movie mogul and his entourage on a flight from New York to Los Angeles. The VIP had reserved the lounge area of the Constellation where Aunt Vi made sure they were comfortable and entertained. Her natural sociability and pleasant conversation led to an invitation from the mogul to join him and his guests at his home in the Hollywood Hills for dinner that evening. Of course, she accepted!
Upon landing in Los Angeles, the mogul was greeted on the tarmac by press as well as associates and friends who had arrived in limousines including the actress, Dorothy Parker, who would be part of the dinner party. The mogul rode with Aunt Vi and another hostess (who was based in Los Angeles and had a car) to his mansion in the hills for a memorable dining experience. Along with the Hollywood elite, she was served dinner at an enormous table in a huge formal dining room. It was a night to remember!
Aunt Vi spent the night at the home of her friend, but the fun in Los Angeles wasn’t over. She had the next day free and was delighted when an airline publicity agent called her and asked to show her around city. It was a great day she remembers fondly that included having her very first Caesar’s Salad at the prestigious Chasen’s Restaurant which was famous for the salad.
This Hollywood assignment remains one of her treasured memories.
Love, marriage, and “clipped wings”
While flying a regular Chicago to Kansas City route, she met and fell in love with a young, dashing, and charming TWA captain, Harry Ward. Uncle Harry was considered quite a catch. Handsome and with a southern drawl, he was also the youngest pilot ever to become a TWA captain. Aunt Vi says that 1949 was a year in heaven – she was enjoying her dream job and had fallen in love. Uncle Harry would meet her on the tarmac in his blue Oldsmobile convertible with an ice bucket containing a bottle of sparkling Burgundy (obviously a scenario that couldn’t happen with today’s air travel security regulations). After just a few weeks of dating, he proposed marriage but she turned him down because she didn’t feel she knew him well enough. They continued dating and just about a year later she accepted his second proposal, although she knew it would mean the end of her air hostess career, including an imminent promotion to superintendent as well as the potential to fly internationally after four years of service.
Before unions influenced policy, TWA hostesses (and those of other airline companies) could not be married. Once they wed, they were required to leave the position. Later, when the air hostesses were unionized, this constraint was eliminated. The new rule was retroactive and Aunt Vi was invited to return to her job, but by then she was happily raising her children and declined the offer.
When she got married and for decades longer, Aunt Vi belonged to TWA Clipped Wings, an international organization of TWA flight attendant alumni of all generations.
Aunt Vi has taken every opportunity to travel and in the 1970s she got to fulfill her dream about Africa by taking a private safari tour with a girlfriend — it was a trip of a lifetime. Now 92, she still travels to visit friends and family in Chicago, Atlanta, Colorado, and anywhere else whenever she gets the opportunity. I love the times that I’ve gotten to visit her in Arizona and get together in Chicago for family gatherings. I’ll be making another visit to Phoenix soon and I’m looking forward to seeing her as well as other family members.
Aunt Vi is an inspiration to me. Although she has the challenges of macular degeneration (which has severely diminished her sight), she makes the most of every day and is ready to hop in a car or on a plane whenever she gets the chance. She is always eager to hear about my travels. She already may have been to some of the places herself — about others, she may still be dreaming.
Thanks Aunt Vi, for letting me share a part of your TWA air hostess story.
Note to our readers from Aunt Vi: ”If I’ve had any errors in my recollections, please remember that it was a long time ago and I’m 92 years old!”
Aunt Vi died on November 11, 2019 at the age of 97. Her stories and her influence on those who knew her live on.