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Aviation's golden age

Business, celebrity travel crossed paths to create jet set

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Today, jetting off to a far-flung locale for either work or pleasure is not uncommon; we can get from Winnipeg to Europe in a matter of hours, not days.

But before 1958, commercial passenger flights were beyond the means of most middle-class North American families. Reserved for those who could afford it, most people could only dream of taking a flight to an exotic destination.

The introduction of affordable air passenger services in the late 1950s and early 1960s brought the glamour of speedy air travel to the masses. In Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Romance in Aviation's Glory Years, bestselling author and mid-century social historian William Stadiem deftly examines the first glamorous years of commercial air travel.

The creation of the Boeing 707 was key to the development of passenger air travel. In October 1958, Pan Am launched a regular passenger air service between New York and Paris, making the trip in less than eight hours. Prices were kept low, making it possible for middle-class Americans to make the trip.

Inevitably, comparisons to Mad Men storylines will spring to mind, but Stadiem uses his legal and screenwriting backgrounds to take the book deeper into the historical record, digging past the newspaper headlines of the day. He outlines the technical and creative battles between the major airlines racing to be the first to offer commercial jet flights and introducing the major players of the jet set themselves.

Stadiem notes the importance of "the division between the Jet, which was business, and the Set, which was social." While businessmen had made global travel by plane possible, the celebrities that "populated the slopes of Gstaad, the topless beaches of San Tropez, the tables of Maxim's, the dance floor at Regine's and... the gossip columns of the world" built the fantasy of jet travel.

Fuelled by stories from gossip columnists such as Maury Paul, Elsa Maxwell and Igor Cassini, the public was captivated by the antics and undertakings of the "beautiful people." Now, they too could venture abroad for the first time, following the footsteps of the jet set. These tourists began to rely on the advice of others to make their way in an unfamiliar city, and travel guides became big business, as did hotels that catered to American expectations.

Stadiem presents the warts-and-all version of events, traipsing behind the scenes and revealing the dirty laundry between almost everyone, including Conrad Hilton, Juan Trippe of Pan Am and even John F. Kennedy. From aviation executives and travel writers to Hollywood starlets and Main Line debutantes, he seamlessly winds these smaller stories together to bring the big picture into focus.

By the late 1960s, the rise of terrorism and the fall of the playboy lifestyle brought an end to the reign of the jet set. Stadiem seems more pragmatic than mournful about the end of the age, noting: "The problem for the Jet Set was that... it was simply too aristocratic for an increasingly democratic and meritocratic world."

Jet Set brings back the ambience of the golden age of air travel and makes one wish for that kind of excitement and glamour on every plane ride.

Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, July 5, 2014 at 8:31 AM CDT: Formatting.

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