Friday, October 07, 2011

Pam Am Real and Imagined

Out the window of a 707
Pam Am the TV show may fail just like the airline but for nostalgia fiends the show has been widely anticipated and, in the first viewing it didn't disappoint for anyone who flew with Pan Am in the 1960s.  Which of course is the point: To capture the spirit and glamour of the Mad Men phenomenon when flying really was glamorous.  The dress code for example was decidedly business suits and ties and smart clothes for the kids just as the TV passengers dressed.

Whether the writers of Pan Am have pulled it off as well as Mad Men is debatable but, at least from my memory, they did get a lot of the ambiance right.  My first flight would have been on one of the 707s that this first batch of TV passengers flew on.  London to Beirut in August 1968.  My father was about to take up his first position with Intercontinental Hotels which, at the time, was a subsidiary of Pan Am.  From this point on we flew Pan Am almost exclusively until the early 1990s and, while we didn't fly first class on that first flight, we were lucky enough as 'employees' to get upgraded almost always thereafter.

PAA first class grapes.
One thing I remember of the first class cabin on the 707s was the little seating area where you (not the kids) could sit casually with other passengers and have a cocktail.  Later, on the 747, Pan Am tried to create a dinning room in the air in the upstairs cabin.  I am fairly certain this failed since I always remember the upstairs being completely empty.

Of course this being TV, the writers had to add the requisite sex and intrigue story lines.  One of the characters - a stewardess - is recruited as a pseudo-spy for what we expect will be future adventures. As ridiculous as this story line seems, it was widely assumed in the 1960-70s that American multinational companies had CIA or intelligence officers on their pay rolls.  Whether they were hired at the direction of the intelligence services or subsequently recruited isn't clear to me although a combination may be likely.  The improbable story line in Pan Am reminded me of a story my father had told a few times about a colleague at Intercontinental (IHC).

On board with Ms. PanAm Sydney
This fellow was a VP of Business Development at IHC and thus traveled all over the world looking for hotel sites.  He happened to be in Melbourne where we were living at the time and received a phone call from someone asking that he go over to the Hilton hotel and spend some time eating in their coffee shop.  Apparently the coffee shop was frequented by staff from the Russian embassy.  As a fluent Russian speaker, our hero sat in the booth next to some Russians and spent afternoons listening in to their conversations.  Who knows whether he reported back any more than news one guy had a pastrami and the other a hot dog but my father was convinced our hero was a spy.

The first Pan Am episode reminded me of this very tenuous evidence of collaboration between the intelligence community and big business, and I looked up our hero. (He has a distinctive name which I remembered after all these years).  Sure enough, he has contributed to an oral history of the intelligence services and he served in military intelligence in the 1950s and his service record was the CIA.  There was no mention of IHC.  So perhaps truth is stranger than fiction.

PND on the tarmac in Tehran
In our family the Pan Am years were glamorous and exciting for all kinds of reasons.  Not least because Pan Am carried us around the world from one adventure to another as the photos from the archive prove.  I'm also hoping that Pan Am the TV show becomes popular since we have a fair amount of Pan Am branded items in the attic that we could sell on EBAY and after all these years it's about time we got rid of them.

In addition to the images I've posted on Flickr and those I've periodically posted on PND, I have now produced a Big Blurb Book: From the Archive 1960 -1980 of some of the images I really thought were special.

I now have an iPad version of this book for sale ($4.99) on the Blurb site which you can find here: STORE

I have to say, even on the iPad the book looks pretty good.

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