I am just old enough to remember when travel was fun. And easy. And inexpensive. I'm talking about the '50s, the '60s, until the end of the '70s. In 1953 I returned from the Korean War on a troopship with thousands of other soldiers, and it took us almost three weeks to get from Pusan, Korea to San Francisco. My father had bought me a plane ticket for the new intercontinental service by TWA on their Lockheed Constellation, and in eight hours I traveled across the continent and was home. (The plane flew at the then-incredible speed of 376 miles an hour on its four brutal propeller engines. Thank you Howard Hughes.) I then went back to the world of New York publicity, show business, and thus entered the JET SET, which is the title of Bill Stadiem's wonderful new Ballantine Book about that memorable era. As Bill told me at dinner last night, it is a tale about the people, the planes, the glamour and the romance of aviation's glory years.
Bill Stadiem has written a dozen best-selling books. photo by Jay
"The passenger jet was, and still is, one of the wonders of the world, a world whose other wonders the jet made accessible. Along with the personal computer it ranks as the greatest technological innovation of the second half of the 20th century." That is Bill detailing why he wrote this book, and as he spoke I realized how right he was....my career in those years was bound up with jet travel. It turned my life into a wonderful adventure, freeing me from the shackles of a desk in midtown Manhattan and allowing me to roam the world and become....a jet setter. I remember the excitement in October of 1958 when Pan American made history as it launched the Boeing 707 international jet flight from New York's Idlewild Airport to Paris's Le Bourget. Shortly thereafter I took a 707 flight to London in seven hours on British Air at a roundtrip cost of $489 economy! (and then trained to Scotland for a meeting with a writer about the movie rights to his book about deep-sea going pirate salvage tugs which captured wrecked ships.) On the return flight the lovely stewardess, on learning I was a movie producer, handed me her personal card and suggested we get together, which we did. In the early Seventies, I experienced the most interesting flight of my life....when I boarded an Air France Concorde (faster-than-the-speed-of-light) plane in Paris and, in the one-class cabin, was seated directly behind Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. We did not chat but I discreetly gawked the entire four-hour flight to New York. Unfortunately, after an accident, the French discontinued these fabulous planes...quel domage, what a pity.
Bill's book is utterly fascinating....it is about the bold-faced names who populated the front of all these jet planes while the rest of us sat in the rear and traveled the world. In 1958 about 500,000 American tourists visited Europe....and a decade later, the figure had gone up to 2 million, a 400% increase, thanks to the jets. I have been friends with Bill for many years, ever since he was the restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine. The Harvard JD-MBA and former international lawyer has written more than a dozen bestselling books, from Too Rich, the life of Egypt's King Farouk, to the inside story of Frank Sinatra's valet, ex-Navy man George Jacobs. Just this morning Liz Smith wrote that Pharrell Williams is circling the film about him. Remember Bill's shocking book, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Senator Strom Thurmond? (He was a Southern bigot who had a black daughter.) Stadiem's upcoming book on the life and family of gangster Meyer Lansky should be fabulous, and he told me about his now-being-researched Vanity Fair article about the infamous Madame Claude. (And we regaled each other about the exploits of the Ma Maison crowd with her beautiful girls.)
He devotes a chapter in Jet Set to Frank Sinatra and his deathly fear of flying, detailing how the crooner always hired private jets all of his life, although his 1958 album, "Come Fly with Me," was the soundtrack of the new jet age. Frank had bailed out at the last minute from flying cross-country with impresario Mike Todd (Elizabeth Taylor's husband) on the latter's plane, Lucky Liz, which went down in a fireball in a New Mexico cornfield. Sadly, the greatest tragedy of Sinatra's life was the death of his beloved mother Dolly, in the January 1977 crash of a small jet flying from Palm Springs to Las Vegas' Caesar's Palace for Frank's opening there. Dolly detested Frank's last wife, Barbara Marx, and wouldn't fly in the same plane with her so Frank chartered this Lear Jet for his mother....a 20 minute flight, and it crashed in a sandstorm into the massive Mount San Gorgonio.
But this book delves into the world of jet-setters in ways which fascinated me and will do the same for you. (Yes, I'm urging you to read this to recall what life was like in those days and, if you are younger, to learn what life was like in a kinder, gentler age.) We see Grace Kelly at the Prince's Palace in Monaco after attending the Cannes Film Festival. He pictures the scene in London when Mary Quant invented the miniskirt; they were all the rage on the streets of swinging London in the '60s. In those days, men - including me - still wore hats and smoked pipes, and the beach of St. Tropez was just a seven-hour fight away. Speaking of St, Tropez, he does a thorough, sexy chapter on French film director Roger Vadim, who married three of the most beautiful actresses of the age....Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Jane Fonda. (Jane was just honored this week by the AFI for her accomplishments. It's a long way from the Vadim Barbarella days.)
Bill goes into the inside story of Juan Tippe, the Yale-educated WASP with the Spanish-sounding name who parlayed his fraternity contacts into a tiny airmail route which became the world's largest airline, Pan Am. And we learn about the long gestation period of the successor to the 707, the 747, which is still with us. It brought back so many memories of swinging London in the Sixties, and of Victor Lownes opening the Playboy gambling club, where I stood beside Sean Connery one night as we rolled dice and talked about women. I walked home to the Dorchester with my pockets full of money and stars in my eyes as the hookers solicited me along the way. No, I didn't.)
He tells the fascinating story of couturier-to-the-stars Oleg Cassini, the man who dressed the women of the Kennedy world (once married to Gene Tierney), and his social-climbing brother Igor, who arrived in the U.S with ten dollars in his pocket and started his climb to fame. I was a prèss agent in those days and Igor was the notorious 'Cholly Knickerbocker' gossip columnist of Hearst's the Journal American...who lost it all in a huge juicy scandal recounted here in detail for the first time. Liz Smith worked as a junior assistant to Igor (My statuesque six-foot tall vice president, Temple Texas, was her best friend in those days, which is when I first met her.) I was fascinated by his chapters about Temple Fielding, the guru of high-level travel guides, and his budget-minded competitor, Arthur Frommer. Did you know that Conrad Hilton was a New Mexico cowboy who built the world's most powerful luxury hotel chain and married some of its most glamorous women, including Zsa Zsa Gabor? Here's the full story. And again, a woman whom I have always admired, Mary Wells Lawrence, the queen bee of Madison Avenue advertising. Her suggestive Braniff Airline ads brought sex appeal to the skies....and also brought her the owner of the airline as a husband.
There is more, much more.... Claude Terrail and his formidable Tour d'Argent restaurant, with its Pressed Duck dish and picturesque view; he married Jack Warner's daughter, Barbara, to unexpected results. My Huffington readers may recall my article about Maxim's, that art deco masterpiece of a club in the heart of Paris, where in 1963 I hosted the world premiere press party for the Cinerama film, "How The West Was Won," with a tribe of Indians pitching their tepees in the street. Bill tells of the outrageous Regine and her new club, reveals the scandalous past of film producer Sam Spiegel, he of Lawrence of Arabia and The African Queen, with his harem of women aboard his yacht. We see financier Eddie Gilbert on the run to Brazil, and hear about Bernie Cornfield's buzzy parties in Beverly Hills after he gets out of a Swiss jail. Learn the real story of how Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman made the first James Bond movie.
How Stadiem unearthed some of these hidden stories is shocking and makes for such fun reading. Yes, this seems like a time long gone, but it resonates today....think of the popularity of Mad Men. This is a rollicking, sexy, romantic romp through the glory years of air travel....when escape was the ultimate aphrodisiac and the smiles were as wide as the aisles. Long gone, much missed, but certainly not forgotten.
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