Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

POLISH: THE LIFE OF A STEWARDESS

Thursday, July 16, 2015

by Marcella Kearns, MCT Education & Literary Manager

When Ellen Church, a San Francisco nurse and novice aviator in the 1930s, saw an opportunity by proposing that "air stewardesses" aboard a flight would put travelers at greater ease, a luxury industry and profession was born.

Helen2Helen Kolodka, my great aunt, was one such hostess in the skies. She was a nineteen year-old student at Springfield College in the 50s when she signed on with Eastern Air Lines. Former World War ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker was CEO at the time, and Helen was thrilled to join the ranks of its employees.

I was thrilled, in turn, to get the inside scoop about life as a stewardess in the "Golden Era" of air travel.

"Personal appearance," she clipped promptly when I asked her to recall some of the strictures of the job. "Whenever we went in for a trip, we always had to have a personal appearance check first, even before we went to our mailboxes. We used to get designer uniforms and bags. We had to wear high heels. Appearance was everything. If you got caught three times without your hat or your gloves, you were fired!"

When I asked if rules were truly that rigorous, she leaned in to me, stern. "I hardly wore nail polish," she declared, "and any time I didn't, the supervisor would say to me, 'Don't you think you would be better groomed if you wore nail polish?' They had it right there, where we had our inspections, so I put it on. Another thing. Size. I remember my supervisor saying to one girl, 'Get on the scale. If you don't lose a half a pound, we're taking you off your next trip.' She really had a problem with her weight," she laughed. "Like Marilyn Monroe had a problem with her weight, that is!"

Helen1"I felt so bad for her," she added. "They never put me on the scale, I was so thin. I was a size six in those days. Of course, I was thin because I skipped meals. For crew call in the morning at the hotel, I'd ask what time the shuttle was leaving and get up right before and have nothing but a cup of coffee. It probably wasn't the healthiest thing to do."

The standards were strict. Helen and her colleagues were held to the highest code of moral behavior, presence of mind, and dedication. Even so, the job was not without its joys. Helen reveled in the travel itself, the sights and new spaces, the colleagues and friends she made. Of course, thinking of the escapades of BOEING BOEING, I ventured to ask about romance. I knew one of her greatest loves had been a fellow Eastern employee, a pilot to whom she was engaged before an accident unrelated to work took his life on a different course. Helen confessed that she found herself often pursued outside that relationship.

"How often?" I asked innocently.

My aunt doesn't miss a thing. She smiled at me and summed it up with "I was a good girl. I left my phone off the hook a lot." When I pressed her for more, in true you-asked-for-it style, she began a litany that left me scrambling to keep up:

- The U.S. Senator's son who flew her routes just to see her.

- The gentleman who sent flowers or Estee Lauder perfume to her hotel room.

- The electrical engineer whose roommate started calling her, too.

- The dashing and good-looking Lithuanian.

- The red-flag case, a man in Texas who called her hotel room to invite her down for a drink. He claimed he had flown with her that day, but she and her crew were all ready for bed.

- The Palm Beach lawyer whom she dated until he proposed by revealing his marital status. He wanted to know if she'd marry him. Then he explained that if she said yes, he'd divorce his wife. "Any children?" she asked, stunned. Yes, one. (Needless to say, she broke things off immediately.)

- The charmer from Row Two of the tourist cabin who asked if she'd sit with him when she was free. They were engaged one Christmas, but eventually she broke it off. He wanted a full-time housekeeper, she concluded as time off became time cooking for him and not much else. In fact, the last straw was when she arrived one weekend to find he'd set up a pail and brush for her to scrub out his fireplace… after she made him dinner.

Helen did eventually marry, but she continued to work with Eastern. I imagine my great uncle, an Air Force colonel, likely couldn't deny her the lure of an office at 40,000 feet. She flew for 31 years. For my part, I'm glad she didn't deny herself. Mandated nail polish aside.

Don't miss your chance to see the zany comedy about a bachelor juggling relationships with three stewardesses in BOEING BOEING, August 13-30, 2015


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