“During my high school years, I used to love going to New Orleans Lakefront Airport, right by Lake Ponchartrain to watch the Pan Am stewardesses and pilots march in formation out to the plane, the captain and copilot leading, followed by the radio operator and flight engineer and lastly the stewardess carrying the very important briefcase. It was really something to see and drew a lot of attention.”
Clipper Crew Note: The following story about Edwidge Stockton Mead’s Pan Am Career was told to Jocelyne Harding who transcribed it for the Clipper Crew historical archive. Our thanks to Edwidge!
When I graduated from Louisiana State University, where I majored in secondary education and minored in Spanish, I just didn’t want to teach, it wasn’t for me. After college I went to work for Pan American in passenger service at the airport. We were like stewardesses on the ground, greeting passengers, leading them through customs, public health, booking hotels, and taking care of their many needs.
One day the chief stewardess came to New Orleans to interview people for the job of stewardess. Prior to this time one of the requirements was you had to be a nurse, but so many nurses were called into service because of the war, it was no longer a requirement. The requirements were now: 5’ 0” to 5’ 5” inches tall, two years of college, a speaking knowledge of Spanish, and you had to be single and not divorced. I met these requirements and was so delighted and excited I was offered the position right after the interview.
Three of us were chosen: Marjorie Darden, Mary Jim Pierce, and of course, myself. My supervisor at the airport released me from passenger service so I could go to Miami for training. We had to hurriedly get ready to leave for Miami. My friend Marjorie and I decided to take the Greyhound bus from New Orleans to Miami. That was quite a trip. Pan American arranged accommodations for us for the first few weeks, and then we had to find our own living quarters.
There were 13 in our class; we were Pan American Class #5. Training was intensive. We had to learn how to ditch, and we did this in Biscayne Bay. We had to learn all the documentation necessary for landing at various foreign ports. Each foreign port had different requirements and if the paper work was not filled out correctly or in proper order for landing Pan American would be fined. It was quite a responsibility because if there were too many fines you would be out. We carried all required documentation and notes to help us in our briefcase.
After training five from our class rented a house on Biscayne Bay. My friend Marjorie and I lived in a boarding house across the street. It was great for me as one of the stewardesses was a wonderful cook, and when I was not on a flight I was free to have meals over there. Meals were covered by a small monthly check to help the girls with food expenses. The chief cook was Bea Picou who we called “Aunt Bea”. Bea was a beautiful girl and a fun person from Houma, Louisiana. She later transferred to another division and died in the 1951 crash of Pan Am Flight 151 in Liberia, Africa. It was a great loss.
I loved our uniforms, they were very pretty and were issued to us by Pan Am and custom fitted. We had to wear a British tan shoulder bag issued by Pan American and we furnished the shoes which had to match the bag. The uniform was the prettiest color blue, kind of a soldier blue, and we wore white blouses. No white gloves, but we did wear identification bracelets, and earrings with the Pan American logo. There was no girdle or weight check. We did not change clothes during the flight, like they do now, to serve, or anything, we were always in full uniform.
Alcohol was banned at the time. If someone boarded with a bottle of alcohol you had to confiscate the bottle and empty it into the trash in front of them. They would get really angry and sometimes curse you. If we found anyone getting on board who was inebriated we had to report it to the captain and he would make the decision whether or not to take the passenger. When flights were not full we had the opportunity to sit down and socialize with passengers, which was wonderful. To this day I still have a letter a passenger wrote to me, along with a handkerchief she sent me. She was embroidering names on handkerchiefs and promised to send me one, which she did, along with the nicest letter about how much she enjoyed her trip. The handkerchief was floral, so it’s difficult to see my name, but she took the time to do that. It’s very special and very much appreciated. She was on a flight from New York to Buenos Aires so we had a lot of time to visit.
The aircraft I worked on first was a Boeing four motor plane. Inside there were four compartments on one side, six passengers to a compartment, three on one side and three on the other side facing each other. There was a single row of seven seats on the left side of the plane, and a jump seat for the stewardess. We flew from New Orleans to Merida. The cockpit crew would then shuttle back to New Orleans, but the stewardess would go on from Merida to Guatemala. There were two flights from New Orleans daily. We would go to Guatemala and pick up other schedules from Guatemala to Mexico City, and then down to Panama. If a stewardess was sick, you picked up their flight wherever you were, so your plans could always change. We had layovers in Merida, Guatemala and one in Panama. Then we would work out way back to Merida where we would meet the cockpit crew and return to New Orleans.
When I first started flying for Pan Am the war had not yet ended. It was quite something to fly into the Canal Zone. There was always an air escort and we had to put up blinders on the windows and confiscate cameras so no one could look out or look down to see the submarine net that protected the Panama Canal. One captain was really nice, he asked me if I had ever seen the net and when I said no, he told me to come into the cockpit and just carefully peer over the glass, and stay way down low and don’t stand up because the escort planes count the number of people in the cockpit. I did exactly as he said and got to see it. It was awesome!
I remember flying to Panama on one occasion when we had lovely young girls on the plane and I thought to myself, they are really nice looking and seemed well-educated; I had no idea who or what they were. They were traveling with a man who seemed to be in charge of them. When we got to Panama the man explained he owned a night club and he invited the crew to come as his guests to see the show and offered free drinks. I was so innocent at the time. Of course all the sailors and servicemen down there went to the show too. As we entered I saw all the military sitting in a semi-circle and hanging over the rail, and I thought this is strange. And then I saw that the girls from the plane were working at the club. The first half of the show was pretty good, a lady came out and sang, and all the boys were whistling and carrying on. When she came out again for the second half of the show, she said it would be much better than the first half and then she she started to do bumps and grinds and wave handkerchiefs. I turned to the copilot and said I have to get out of here, I can’t stay, as she started stripping, they were all strippers! On the way out the owner was at the door and questioned why we were leaving. I did not want him to know how embarrassing it was so I told him we had a very early flight in the morning and needed rest. I thanked him and let it go at that. What an experience.
Guatemala was really beautiful, we used to have a few days there and in Mexico we stayed in Merida, we didn’t stay in Mexico City. In Guatemala City there was a locally well-known photographer. He decided to take photograph in glamorous poses of Pan American stewardesses who were in the city at a particular time. In my photo to the left, I was wearing a drape and leaning on a tree trunk prop. He furnished the props and had us all in different poses. The photos lined his entire store front and really helped promote his business and they were well done. In my scrapbook I have some of the brochures from the hotels where we stayed and I even have menus they served on the plane for Thanksgiving as well as menus from the PAA terminal in the Canal Zone. Prices unbelievable!
The planes that we flew through Central America were two engine DC-3s that carried 21 passengers. Pan Am gave us a chest of what they called silver, which was not really silver, but we were responsible for it, and had to count each piece. The company was very particular about it. There were large insulated thermoses; each one contained six casseroles. We had to set up the trays for each passenger. We would put the silver on the tray, pour the consommé and coffee, and then take a casserole out of the thermos and put it on the tray. Add dessert and it was ready to go. We served the trays and passengers just put them on their lap. There was only one class of service. You have to remember not many people flew back then. Many times we did not have full loads, and I remember on one flight I had only one passenger.
Governor James Houston “Jimmie” Davis of Louisiana, writer of the song “You are My Sunshine”, was on one of my flights, with his entire band. They just played music the whole time and we had a great time. It was very special then to travel and people looked up to the stewardesses and thought highly of them.
On many flights a lot of the people were Spanish and very emotional and nervous about getting on a plane. We had to pacify them before and during the flight. Sometimes they got sick before they even got on board, and many times they got sick during the flight. Of course we had air sick bags but a lot of passengers didn’t know we had them and/or how to use them. When an accident of that type would happen, we sprayed the spot with a special spray and put newspaper down on top of the mess on the floor. It would be cleaned up at the next port.
I did have one very scary flight, we were going into New Orleans and a cold front was meeting a warm front. The plane was dropping down and going up like a fast elevator. I had just served breakfast and did not have time to pick up anything. Of course everyone started screaming and I could hardly get to the jump seat as my passengers were grabbing me as I was trying to get into my seat belt. The cream, the jam, everything went up and hit the cloth ceiling and of course all the silver was all over the floor. We made a safe landing but when the door opened what a big mess greeted the chief steward. Back then the chief steward would always greet the plane first and take the briefcase. When he did this, he couldn’t believe what he saw. It looked like a war zone. We were supposed to have clean cabin on landing, but he understood what we had been through and all was forgiven.
We did make an emergency landing on Ascension Island. The U.S. had a base there where they had many soldiers. I had only one passenger on the plane and she couldn’t speak English. They picked us up in a jeep and brought the captain and the crew along, so all of us could sleep in the hospital on the base. My passenger and I didn’t want to go into the hospital where all the men were, so she and I slept out on an enclosed porch. When we got to the porch this lady proceeded to take off her girdle and started to take off the rest of her clothes! I didn’t know how to say in Spanish “don’t undress”! Sign language did help me and we both stayed in our clothes with very little sleep. The soldiers there yearned for anything from home, so upon departure I gave them all the magazines and newspapers from the plane which made them very happy.
Back in New Orleans whenever a plane needed maintenance on one of the engines we wouldn’t take any passengers, but the stewardess went with the crew to Miami. The stewardess had to go for the sole purpose of serving coffee to the crew. Back then things were hard to get, and when we didn’t have a full load of passengers and food was left over, we were grateful to divide steaks among the crew to take home. This was quite a treat as during the war you had to buy meat with points. Meat was very hard to get, sometimes it helped if you knew the butcher. Things like shoes, sugar, and cigarettes were also rationed. Pan American did serve delicious meals.
Pan Am paid us well, I have forgotten exactly what, but it was a better paying than secretarial jobs. Flying was so much better than manual typing. When I flew out of New Orleans Lakefront airport, it was kind of scary though because the runway was short and they had to act fast to get the plane up in the air and get it over the seawall. Thankfully we had no accidents.
In 1946 Pan Am moved operations to Moisant Airport, it was also then we changed planes and were flying the DC4s which carried 50 plus passengers – that was a big plane! On that plane we had two in the cabin, a steward and a stewardess, or two stewardesses, the one who had worked the longest for Pan Am was in charge. Again, we had to make sure all the paperwork was in order. This was the responsibility of the senior employee. Entering New Orleans we had to go through customs and public health before we could leave airport. When we would enter Miami there were 11 different departments and baggage declarations and all the documents had to be filled out correctly.
I didn’t encounter any coups, but there was a small uprising in Merida, otherwise things were pretty stable. There were times we had to be very careful in Buenos Aires because Americans were not liked then. We were told upon arrival to take off all visible identification. A few times they did not permit stewardesses to work those flights but things lightened. In some of those ports we entered, the minute you got off the plane they stuck a thermometer in your mouth to see if anyone was sick. We always had to spray the plane for insects on board before entering the United States. Smoking was not permitted. There was no carry-on luggage like today. One poor lady got on with a picture of the Sacred Heart, she was in one of the compartments in front and she put her framed picture on back of the seat, she was so nervous about flying, but it helped her to calm down – she had great faith!
We used to go to Haiti and the Dominican Republic as well and I remember buying goods from over the fence in Haiti. When the plane was ready to depart and we were walking to the plane the vendors were practically throwing items at us to buy. And buy we did, with the prices they charged they were practically giving it away (possibly stolen goods), so we used to look like merchants coming back with all our goods.
We did have one or two bad experiences while traveling. In Guatemala in all hotels Pan American had reserved a block of rooms for the stewardesses, away from where the regular guests were. No one would even know they were there. These rooms were used solely for stewardesses. There were a lot of stewardesses because they came from other Pan Am bases, such as Houston, not just New Orleans. Because stewardesses were coming and going all the time we usually left the doors unlocked so there was easy entry for everyone. Well, one time a drunken man tried to break into the room. On that night we had to bolt the door and we even put furniture against it as he was very persistent and determined to enter. He failed to get in.
Another time in Panama another drunken man was trying to get into our room so we called the manager. He was removed. In San Juan we had bed bugs – that was the worst, it was awful. I was so tired, and as I got into bed, I felt these things sticking me so I picked up the covers and the mattress, and there was nothing but bed bugs! We called the steward, and told him to bring the spray gun and then the hotel manager came and started yelling at the steward accusing him of being in our rooms. Most of the crew went out for the entire night, I was so tired so I slept in another room but checked the room and the bed carefully to make sure it was free of bugs. I was afraid they would find a way to get into my luggage but they stayed in San Juan.
One flight we had really rough weather. We were in a two motor DC 3 and on that flight I felt really ill. The captain came back to check everything, took one look at me and said and I looked as green as grass. He told me to go up into the cockpit and sit in his seat until I felt better. That was really nice of him and it did the trick. He worked the cabin, that was quite a switch!
After working in New Orleans I was transferred to Miami without much notice. In those days you just did what you were told. You didn’t bid for lines like you do now. I stayed in Miami for a while. Some of our trips were short, like three times a day to Havana. On one of those trips we rushed blood plasma to Havana as there was a terrible accident and they were in dire need of blood. Other times we flew three times a day to Nassau, and sometimes we had a trip of 17 days. On the long trip we would leave Miami fly to San Juan, then to New York, down to Belem, Rio, Santos, Montevideo, Buenos Aires and back – that was a 17 day trip. Other flights took me through the Caribbean, Kingston Jamaica, and the north coast of South America and many other ports.
My favorite places were Buenos Aires, Rio and Guatemala. Guatemala was just very special. It was beautiful, it was cool and the air had a lovely fragrance to it. I never had a bad layover. I believe the layovers were all good because we had plenty of time to explore the cities and visit surrounding sites. In Guatemala I went to the Mayan ruins and the beautiful lake and other places of interest. I stayed at the Palace Hotel. There was a little native boy, so cute, who would always meet me, and say “Missy I will carry your packages”, and I’d give him some money and off we would go to the markets. The market back then did not have refrigeration, the floors were mud and dead chickens were hanging in the meat market and naturally drew many flies! It was awful but they did sell beautiful handmade leather bags for only $3.00 and they also had lovely linens. The meats were off limits. Before I stopped flying the markets were much improved with cement floors and refrigeration added.
On layovers we always toured, shopped, dined and played. When we packed for our trips we packed dressy clothes for ourselves in case we went out. When we out to dinner we dressed in cocktail dresses and always brought the right clothes. The crews would go out together, and sometimes a passenger would ask you out. One time I was in Rio and a very nice man asked me to dine, I guess I didn’t have sense, but I went and I had a lovely evening. He took me to Corcovado to see the Christ statue on the Mountain and many places of interest.
All the layovers were exciting for me; there was lots to do, and lots to see. In Rio the crew would go on Copacabana Beach and play a game called Peteca which was a little shuttle cock with a feather, which was played similar to our volley ball, and then we would go swimming. What fun.
Flying into Rio at night could see why Copacabana was called “The String of Pearls” because the lights evenly placed along the beach made it truly look like that way.
Camaraderie was good then, sometimes you wound up working 23 out of 24 hours because someone was sick, so what we would do, like on a flight to South America, is take turns sleeping on the life raft under the coats so the passengers didn’t see us. Cat naps did help. One stewardess would stand guard.
I flew for two and a half years. It was a very irregular life, and the crazy hours and schedule ran down my immune system. I was really anemic and stopped flying to build my health back up. But at the end of six months things had changed; the work was a bit different and the constant irregular lifestyle was not what I wanted anymore so I stopped flying.
The funny part about it is I went to work for Delta Steamship Lines, as secretary to the President of the company and stayed with them 28 years, and became an executive assistant. For my 20th anniversary I got a free a 47 day cruise on one of their luxury liners and found myself going back to the same countries to which I had flown! It was so interesting to see all the changes. When I was with Delta we landed in Santos and took a cab through the mountains to São Paulo to visit the other offices there, since I worked for the President each office gave me the royal treatment. I was very spoiled and it was hard to adjust on my return to reality.
I stayed single, I am very independent, and I liked my independent life. When I was 50 I did marry, the owner of the Ford dealership in Natchez. He also loved to travel, and we had lots of plans to do so, but those plans never materialized because he died a year and a half after we married. I am living in Natchez now, a quiet very quaint little place, with beautiful antebellum homes. This is where the old South lives. I didn’t want to go back to New Orleans, so I settled here.
When the awful TV show on Pan Am was broadcast, somehow the TV folks in Jackson WAPT MS found out I was a Pan Am stewardess and they came to interview me. I love reminiscing. It was a very special time in my life. I loved to travel my whole life and did. I managed to travel to Machu Picchu which was probably one of my favorite trips as a tourist as well as Rio and Guatemala, etc. etc. etc.
I am most grateful to Pan American for giving me the opportunity to fly with them and to have been able to visit the many countries I did and witness how other people live. Pan American always treated all their employees very special. For flight crews they even sent cars to pick us up at home and take us to the airport for our flights, and they returned us home afterwards. I am honored Pan American was part of my life, a wonderful company for which to have worked and one that afforded me the most memorable and happy times of my life.
Watch Edwidge’s interview click here
Clipper Crew Note: You may have to wait a bit for the page to load, then click the > arrow, a commercial will load, and Edwidge’s interview follows the brief commercial.