November 12, 2019

A woman’s world?

It’s hard to tell, what with the requisite girdles, supervised weigh-ins and protocol panty hose (“not too dark; this isn’t a cabaret”), that the 1960s world depicted in “Pan Am” is supposed to be about the era’s most worldly women.

ABC-TV’s new hour-long drama, which premieres Sept. 25, is set at a lush airport popping in Pan Am’s signature blue. Stewardesses walk in a perfectly synchronized horizontal line (like at a cabaret), each leg in kick-line step as they ascend their version of a stage — the tarmac. The women talk like this: “I get to see the world,” one stewardess, Maggie (Christina Ricci), tells her boyfriend. “When was the last time you left the village?” And the men, awed by the Pan Am breed of beauty and brains, say things like: “Get your fanny to midtown, Sweetheart!”

It’s not exactly the milieu remembered by Nancy Ganis, one of the show’s creators and executive producers, who was a Pan Am stewardess more than 30 years ago. Ganis took to the skies for the first time in 1969 as a wide-eyed 21-year-old in search of the world. Back then, she said, becoming a stewardess was an indication of ambition and intelligence, and many of the women hired were well educated and from privileged backgrounds. On the show, a woman gets props for being “trilingual.” 

“Pan Am hired people to be like the girl next door,” Ganis said by phone from the show’s New York set. “We were supposed to have very high moral standards. We were considered ambassadors of good will, sort of a quasi-diplomatic corps. You came to the job with certain innate skills — how to be gracious, good manners, poise.”

But, even with Ganis at the show’s helm, truth can get lost in translation.

The current cultural fixation on retro fantasies of the ’60s (think “Mad Men”) portrays women as beautiful and submissive. Last May, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd quoted an anonymous entertainment executive suggesting that amid great economic uncertainty, men find comfort in Hollywood chimeras of female subjugation: “[I]t’s not a coincidence that these retro shows are appearing at the same time men are confused about who to be. A lot of women are making more money and getting more college degrees. The traditional … dominant and submissive roles are reversed in many cases. Everything was clearer in the ’60s.”

Ganis thinks the clear-cut gender roles of yore permitted more social graces. “When those lines got blurred in the so-called sexual revolution, I don’t think it liberated women; I think it gave men license to disrespect. There’s been a denigration of how women have been presented in the media; they’ve become more objectified than they were then.”

“Pan Am,” at least on its shiny surface, portrays women eager for opportunity. Working for the world’s most prominent airline was the way — often their only way — to see the world. “It was the best education I could have had,” Ganis said. Having grown up in Detroit “rather comfortably,” as she put it, Ganis had planned on teaching in an inner-city school, but realized she lacked a certain cultural proficiency. 

“How could I teach kids whose life experience is so removed from mine?” she said she wondered at the time. Being a flight attendant was illuminating. “When I ventured out into the larger world, it helped me begin to understand diversity and to appreciate differences,” she said.

Nancy and Sid Ganis. Photo by Phil McCarten/Reuters

The dawn of the airline industry, as depicted on the show, plays out as a nostalgic fantasy. Travel is glamorous and exciting — a world filled with dignitaries, movie stars and wealthy businessmen. Travelers dress up for air travel. Notably absent are today’s cumbersome security measures and ubiquitous TSA uniforms; then, the only acceptable pat-down for a stewardess was a little smack on the behind by a female superior, just to ensure proper girding by the girdles.

Other aspects of air travel are unrecognizable, too. Flights were sparse, and international travel often involved multiple-day layovers, allowing crews to kick back and explore cities. Ganis remembers decamping to the village of a prominent Maasai warrior in Kenya, hiking the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan, partying in Karachi, and boarding a houseboat to Srinagar in Kashmir.

In the show’s opening moments, a fictional Life magazine cover declares this “The Jet Age,” heralding opportunity as much as uncertainty. A real 1968 Life cover featuring Pan Am stewardesses, titled “Aboard the First Flights,” reported on the first direct flights between New York and Moscow, signaling an incipient economic partnership between Russia and the West. In those days, Pan Am travel was so groundbreaking that cities eager for tourism rushed to build runways and hotels. “New Caledonia brought in yachts to put up the crew when women started flying, because they couldn’t put us in Army barracks,” Ganis said. At that time, about half of Pan Am’s flights were special charters, serving an elite clientele that included the White House Press Corps and members of the State Department. The airline ran diplomatic missions to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, helped evacuate American troops from Vietnam and, according to Ganis, secretly airlifted special parties out of Israel when the Six-Day War broke out. “I had a couple of friends who were on those flights,” she said.

The women in charge of the passengers had to be cool in a crisis. “One of the primary reasons you’re on the airplane is to save lives in case of an emergency,” Ganis said. “You had to be prepared for any situation and know how to get out of a burning aircraft in under 90 seconds, with all your passengers.”

The stewardesses’ success hinged on the confidence and trust of those in the traveling class. “We were treated as equals,” Ganis said. “Passengers invited us on their journeys. You never thought of yourself as being subservient.”

Ganis’ husband, Sid, a well-known film producer and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2005 to 2009, is also a producer on “Pan Am,” mostly in an advisory role. During a three-way conference call with the pair, he said he’d much rather sit back and relish his wife’s success — after all, she lived the life depicted in the show.

“My wife is in the lead, she’s in the spotlight,” Sid said, en route by train to meet Nancy in New York. “In our lives, throughout 25 years of marriage, she is my equal. At this point in my career, this brand-new thing is happening, and it’s about Nancy. And it’s very, very gratifying for me.”

To which Nancy cooed: “I’m much more comfortable with you in the spotlight.” And then they hung up.