Amelia Earhart's 'Secret' Connecticut Wedding
MSP 9, The George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers, courtesy of Purdue University Archives
“Aviation Pioneer Amelia Earhart married George P. Putnam here in Noank, Connecticut, February 17, 1931” reads the carved, wooden plaque on the front of the old Latham/Chester general store, now a property of the Noank Historical Society.
Like so much of Earhart’s enduringly fascinating life, these seemingly straightforward facts raise more questions than they answer. Why did the famously independent, proto-feminist Earhart, who derided marriage as a “cage,” marry Putnam, of the famous publishing family, and why in the tiny, fishing village of Noank?
The answers to these and other questions about Earhart’s Connecticut connections are not nearly as elusive as the ultimate mystery of her disappearance.
Putnam first met Earhart in 1928, when he was searching for a woman pilot to be the first to fly across the Atlantic, albeit with a male flight crew at the controls. Grandson of the publishing company’s founder, Putnam had a taste for adventure and hit the jackpot a year earlier, by publishing We, Charles Lindbergh’s best selling account of his historic solo flight from New York to Paris. “[A] skilled conjuror . . . with a knack for showmanship” who could “pull a best seller out of his hat,” as one contemporary observed, Putnam realized that if he could publish the story of the first woman to make the journey, he would score another blockbuster.
After considering several candidates, Putnam and the flight’s sponsor, socialite Amy Phipps Guest (who wanted to make the trip herself until her family intervened) finally found the perfect person: young Amelia Earhart. At the time, Earhart was working in relative obscurity as a social worker in Boston, a job she’d taken to subsidize her passion for flying. Born in Atchison, Kansas, in 1897 to a comfortably middle-class family, she learned to fly at the age of 23 in Long Beach, California.
“By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground,” she wrote of her first time up in a plane, “I knew I had to fly.”
Though engaged since 1923 to chemical engineer Sam Chapman, Earhart kept putting off the wedding (and declined to wear an engagement ring), because she knew that Chapman would ground her once they were married.
Earhart’s meeting with Putnam did not go well . . . at first. The busy publisher kept her waiting outside his office for an hour. When finally ushered into his presence, she was “as sore as a wet hen,” as Putnam later recalled
“I just didn’t like him,” Earhart recollected. She found Putnam brusque and rude, taking “one phone call after another” during their interview. Yet, by the end of the meeting, she “recognized his tremendous power of accomplishments and immediately respected his judgment,” as she later related.
Despite his manner, Putnam realized within minutes that Earhart was not only the right woman for the job, but a potential gold mine of publicity, with her slender frame, bobbed golden-brown hair and freckle-faced good looks. He also noted her vague resemblance to Lindbergh and reputedly coined the nickname “Lady Lindy” (which she hated), flooding the media with carefully orchestrated publicity shots of her in a masculine flying outfit.
The historic flight left Newfoundland on June 17 and touched down in Wales 20 hours and 49 minutes later. Although Earhart sourly compared her role as passenger to that of “a sack of potatoes,” it made her world famous, just as Putnam planned. He invited her to stay with him and his wife, Dorothy (Binney, heiress to the Crayola Crayon fortune) at their home in Rye, N.Y., to write the story of her transatlantic flight. (Putnam and his secretary actually wrote most of the book which he titled 20 Hours and 40 Minutes, shaving nine minutes off the actual flight time because he thought it sounded snappier.) It was around this time that Earhart and Putnam probably began an affair, under the nose of Dorothy who Earhart considered a close friend. (No saint herself, Dorothy was having her own affair with her son’s tutor.)
In a rather undramatic conclusion, Dorothy simply packed her bags and left one afternoon during a barbecue party. Even as movers carried his wife’s trunks out the front door, Putnam was out on the patio, one guest recalled, “gaily spearing hot dogs for a shy young aviatrix named Amelia Earhart.” Dorothy soon filed for divorce, on the pro-forma grounds of “failure to provide” (something of an irony, since her own personal wealth probably exceeded his). Earhart, meanwhile, had broken her engagement to Chapman the year before. Questioned by reporters about future matrimonial plans, the famous flyer coyly responded, “[Y]ou never can tell. If I was sure of the man I might get married tomorrow.”
Yet writing to a friend, she confided: “I am still unsold on marriage . . . I may not ever be able to see [it] except as a cage until I am unfit to work or fly or be active.”
True to her word, Earhart devoted her energies to aviation over the next few years. She became the first woman to fly solo across the continental U.S. and back, set new altitude records, and gave lectures promoting flying in general, and women pilots in particular. Meanwhile, her picture appeared on the covers and in the pages of the most popular magazines of the day (Cosmopolitan, Redbook, etc.), an image meticulously crafted by Putnam.
“Your hats! They are a public menace. You should do something about them when you must wear them at all,” he fired off in a letter. He coached her on how to smile for the camera, advising her to conceal the gap in her front teeth by keeping her lips closed, and how to walk and talk during slide lectures: “You will have a tendency to turn your back to the audience . . You really have to remember always to talk into the microphone . . . Remember too your tendency is to let your voice drop at the end of sentences.” He was also just as determined to make the notoriously nuptial-averse Earhart his wife.
© Noank Historical Society, Inc., Noank, Conn.
By his own account, she rejected at least two of his proposals. Other sources list as many as five. According to Earhart biographer Jean L. Backus, Earhart finally agreed to number six in October 1930. The setting, if not exactly romantic, was appropriate: the Lockheed aircraft factory in Burbank, Calif. Earhart did not want any press announcements and, for once in his life, Putnam kept his mouth shut with the media, possibly fearing, as Backus observed, that if the news leaked, Earhart might call the whole thing off. He did, however, invoke one sacred privilege familiar to many a newly engaged man: taking his girl home to meet mom.
Widowed at 58, Frances (Faulkner) Putnam (with Amelia, above) moved to Noank in May of 1930 on the recommendation of Katherine “Speedy” Forest, a friend and local artist with New York connections. She purchased a boxy, Italianate summer home at 47 Church Street known as The Square House which Putnam and Earhart would visit now and then, quietly slipping in and out of Noank without causing too much fuss among the locals.
“Noankers have told me that they used to see her on the street in town or in the post office, and that she was always very friendly and said hello,” said Noank Historical Society curator, Mary Anderson.On one such visit, on November 8, 1930, Earhart and Putnam applied for a marriage license at the Groton Town Hall. The document, still on record at the town clerk’s office, was signed by Probate Judge Arthur Anderson who waived the five day waiting period of “intention” required by state law, and decreed that “the intended marriage . . . be celebrated right away.” Either out of ignorance, or nervousness, the clerk misspelled Earhart’s name on the decree (later corrected), leaving out the first “a” in her name.
But Earhart, who thought nothing of climbing to record altitudes in open cockpit airplanes, froze at the idea of finally getting married.
“She just wanted to think about the whole thing more,” recalled Anderson’s son, the late federal judge Robert P. Anderson in a 1976 interview. “She had dedicated herself to the business of flying and she was anxious to retain her individuality.” Anderson went on to say that Earhart “was very devoted to George” but feared that “changing her name somehow would diminish her stature.” The couple visited Judge Anderson’s home, at the corner of Brook and Elm streets, as Robert’s younger brother, William, then a teenager, recalled in 1989. Shooed out of the room, William nonetheless remembered Earhart’s pensiveness as she asked the judge if she could retire to his study to have a cigarette and think things over.
“When she came out, she had decided against it,” the younger Anderson recollected. Putnam, as Robert remembered, “was very considerate about it.”
Not so the media, however. Soon the wire services were buzzing with the story about the marriage license together with denials by Earhart that she and Putnam had wed.
“Sometime in the next fifty years I may be married,” she snipped to reporters, hoping to throw them off the trail.
Yet Earhart’s friends and relatives were neither fooled, nor pleased. Earhart’s mother, Amy, objected to the match because of their age difference (Putnam was ten year’s older) and the fact that Putnam was divorced (an irony, since she was divorced herself). Dorothy predicted, “[t]hey’ll fight like cats and dogs in a year. She’s stubborn and cold-bloodedly cruel and she’ll soon tire of his indigestion and rotten, vile temper.” Many of Earhart’s fellow women pilots were equally disdainful of Putnam. Jacqueline Cochran (the first woman to break the sound barrier) described him as “the dullest person I’ve ever been around,” while Elinor Smith (the youngest licensed pilot in the world, at the age of 16, whose license, issued in 1927, was signed by none other than Orville Wright himself) informed Earhart over lunch that she would “as soon see [her] hooked up with Genghis Khan” as marry Putnam. (In fairness, both Cochran and Smith were threats to Putnam’s plans to “solidify [Earhart’s] position as America’s foremost woman aviator” to the exclusion of all others, as Earhart biographer Kathleen Winters wrote.) Yet even Cochran admitted that Earhart did have genuine affection for Putnam.
“She was nuts about him,” Cochran said. “Her face would light up when he’d telephone or the way she’d look at him.”
On February 6, 1931, Putnam telephoned his mother to tell her that he and Earhart would be driving up that night from New York to be wed the following day. Putnam also requested Judge Anderson to perform the ceremony.
The next day was clear and cold. There were no guests: just Putnam’s mother and two witnesses: an uncle and Robert Anderson, a 24-year-old lawyer at the time. There was no opportunity to arrange flowers, decorate the house, or even buy a wedding ring (Putnam’s mother supplied a platinum substitute), suggesting that Putnam was striking while the iron, and Earhart’s gameness, were hot. Just before the judge arrived, Earhart handed Putnam a two-page (four sided) letter on gray stationery bearing the letterhead, “The Square House.”
In it, she spelled out the terms of what today would be considered a pre-nup, “brutal in its frankness” as Putnam later wrote, “but beautiful in its honesty.”
“There are some things which should be writ before we are married,” it began. “You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which mean most to me . . . I want you to understand that shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly . . . Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play [and] I will try to do my best in every way and give you that part of me you know and seem to want.”
Below is the full letter.Earhart was sitting on the sofa with Robert, engaged in a discussion about aviation, when it was time for the five-minute civil ceremony in which she struck the word “obey” from the vows. When it was all over, she promptly returned to the sofa to pick up her conversation while Frances placed a string of amber beads around her new daughter in-law’s neck. As he was leaving, Judge Anderson congratulated the bride, addressing her as Mrs. Putnam. When she responded, “Please, sir, I prefer Miss Earhart,” the judge declared “That marriage was short but effective,” then turned on his heels and left.
In a telegram to her sister, Earhart wrote: “OVER THE BROOMSTICK WITH GP TODAY,” referring to an old slave wedding custom. “BREAK NEWS GENTLY TO MOTHER.” Putnam, meanwhile, telephoned his office to release the news. Within an hour, reporters were crawling all over the small village, hunting for the newlyweds who had long since fled. Resident Clifford Sullivan, in grade school at the time, recalled that getting into town that day was “like trying to get into the Kennedy compound in Hyannis.” The village postmistress told reporters she knew nothing about the wedding, while it was left to Putnam’s mother to issue the briefest of statements on her doorstep, saying her son and daughter in-law “didn’t tell me where they were going so that I shouldn’t be able to tell you.”
In the absence of any hard, or at least juicy, facts, the papers including the New York Times, simply massaged the story to add color. The ceremony, the Times reported, took place before “a crackling fire” in the classic “New England home overlooking Long Island Sound.” Carpenter Paul Bates, current owner of the house, continues to smirk at such folklore.
“There never has been a fireplace in this house, and can you see the water from here?” he asked, gesturing to the cluster of equally old houses surrounding him.
Bates also likes to tell the story of a local real estate agent who started the rumor that Earhart’s (non-existent) wedding reception took place in a somewhat grander mansion he was listing down the street. Locals also chuckle at bio-pic depictions of Putnam and Earhart taking long walks down Noank’s sandy beach, a feature that the hilly, rockbound coastal village lacks.
A year later, Earhart made her own solo flight across the Atlantic and, in 1936, began planning a round-the-world trip. On July 2, 1937, she and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared during the final leg of the journey somewhere over the Pacific, while searching for Howland Island. Putnam personally financed an extended search, but Earhart and Noonan were eventually declared dead.
In June of 2010, NavList, an international group of celestial navigation enthusiasts, dedicated the plaque in Noank, as part of “Celestial Navigation Weekend” at the Mytsic Seaport that year. The aim was to honor both Earhart and Noonan.
“Earhart was not a celestial navigator, which is why she needed Noonan on the flight,” said NavList manager, Frank Reed. Flying over great expanses of ocean, he said, is different than flying over land, where pilots can visually pick a spot on the horizon and head for it.
“Howland Island was this tiny speck, which they needed precise measurements to find,” said Reed. It is his speculation that cloud cover or some other weather factor likely contributed to the miscalculation, and ultimate crash.
Because of its central location, and out of respect for Bates’ privacy, the historical society chose to hang the plaque on the Latham/Chester store instead of the actual house where Earhart was married. Considering her desire to keep her private life private, and the fact that this five-minute episode in her life seemed far less significant to her than the many hours she spent aloft, the decision may be just what she would have wanted.
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