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'The world was our bargain basement': Former Pan Am stewardess on her global adventures

Mary Lou Bigelow said it wasn’t all glamour – but it was one hell of a thrill.

Source: Mary Lou Bigelow

We were young, adventurous and only knew this way of life.

AS A YOUNG woman, Mary Lou Bigelow was not sure what she wanted to do with her life, she just knew she wanted to see the world.

During her junior year in the University of Massachusetts in 1959, she started thinking about what she should do after graduation and it hit her – a flying career.

Her uncle Earl Moore had been a pioneer pilot back in the 1930s and died the year she was born.

Source: Mary Lou Bigelow

“I would often go through his scrapbook of newspaper clippings which included one with Amelia Earhart and other pilots in Puerto Rico at the Borinquen Flying School that he founded. And, among his photos was a large one of a Pan Am hanger in San Juan,” Bigelow told TheJournal.ie.

“In my senior year, I saw ads for stewardesses. As any young student full of hopes and dreams, I never considered that I would be turned down.”

When she called the Pan American World Airways office in New York to ask about an interview, her hopes were dashed when they told her she would need a second language.

Instead, she applied to Trans World Airlines (TWA) and worked their domestic runs as an air hostess before being transferred to the international division. The interview process for air hostesses was tough and Bigelow described walking into a room of 200 “very attractive young women”, all dressed to perfection.

Source: Mary Lou Bigelow

It could have been deflating, but at that young age, we were all perennially optimistic. I was excited to be there. In the morning, half of the girls were interviewed, but the rest of us were told to take a lunch break. After lunch, I was one of the first to be interviewed, but the front of my lovely beige silk dress was spotted with butter drippings from an English muffin.
I walked into the interviewer’s office, head held high, and immediately called the interviewer’s attention to the front of my dress, saying: “Why couldn’t you have interviewed me before and not after lunch?” and told her the story of how my English muffin didn’t cooperate with me.

“You can imagine my surprise, two weeks later, when I received a telegram welcoming me to the next stewardess class in Kansas City, MO. I attribute my success in landing the TWA air hostess job to the very fact that I was able to show how I could handle a difficult situation,” Bigelow said.

In 1962, a friend in American Airlines told her Pan Am had loosened its fluency requirements and that they were interviewing a limited number of American women for a training programme over the summer.

Source: Mary Lou Bigelow

They both applied and were both chosen – out of 3,000 young women. The image of air stewardesses in the 1960s is a glamorous one and Bigelow speaks fondly of the shopping in particular.

“I remember taking a huge empty suitcase on long trips to Hong Kong and filling it along the way with perfume and leather gloves from Paris; handbags and shoes from Rome; gold jewellery from Beirut; beautiful Thai silk from Bangkok; and electronics, clothes and pearls from Hong Kong! The world was our bargain basement – back then.”

Source: Mary Lou Bigelow

We were pinched in Rome, received curious stares in Cairo and Teheran, brushed past “host hoppers” or “lounge lizards” awaiting the arrival of flight crews in some hotel lobbies, and also enjoyed whistles and welcoming smiles around the world

Source: Mary Lou Bigelow

Life back in New York was “a whirlwind of dates and parties” too, but Bigelow said they did not think of it as glamorous. They saw themselves as lucky young women and she savoured the opportunity to tour famous landmarks and observe new cultures. She attended the operas in Paris and Rome and watched bullfights in Spain.

Source: Mary Lou Bigelow

It was not all play and no work for the Pan Am ladies, however. During their flights, they served caviar, fine wines and speciality meals to first class passengers on expensive china. Bigelow said the best part was finishing off the caviar once the passengers had their fill.

In 1964, when she got married, Bigelow was forced to retire as a stewardess, but she continued to work for the airline in their ticket sales department. All five of her room mates were married within a six month period. At 32, she said, they would have been asked to retire.

When asked what her favourite part of being a Pan Am stewardess was, she said: “All of it”.

MLB inside 314 (1) Bigelow at Foynes in October 2014. Source: Mary Lou Bigelow

To this day, she still travels and has gone to a number of reunions to meet other members of the Pan Am family over the years. She will be among the 300 former workers and associates of the airline who will attend a reunion in Foynes, county Limerick, organised by Margaret O’Shaughnessy of the Flying Boat Museum from 12 to 14 April, to share their memories and experiences.

Read: A mam’s heartfelt thank you to the air hostess who helped calm her baby is going viral>

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