It may or may not not have been a marriage made in heaven, but aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart’s wedding to publishing magnate George P. Putnam was not entered into through flighty considerations. Putnam succeeded in landing the famed aviator as a bride only after his sixth proposal, and when they did tie the knot before Probate Judge Arthur Anderson at Putnam’s mother’s home in Noank, today in 1931, it was only after Earhart had presented her fiancé a letter outlining in most uncertain terms the conditions under which she would agree to marry him.
Earhart’s hesitation about marrying Putnam seems not to have been about him personally, but rather about the institution of marriage itself. Though at 42 George was 10 years Amelia’s senior, fellow pilot Jacqueline Cochran said Earhart “was nuts about him” to the point that just his presence, or even his voice on the phone, made her face light up.
But flying was Earhart’s first passion and priority, and she feared anything – especially marriage –which might restrict her freedom to fly, or, truth be told, to do a number of other things. She confided to a friend that she found it difficult to see marriage as anything but “a cage until I am unfit to work or fly or be active.”
Putnam had been instrumental in getting Earhart’s career off the ground. Grandson and namesake of the founder of the highly successful G. P. Putnam’s Sons publishing house, George had earned his own stripes as a publisher through his release of Charles Lindbergh’s spectacularly successful book We – the account of Lindbergh’s 1927 solo trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. To follow up on that success, Putnam decided to find a female pilot who – accompanied by a male flight crew, of course – would become the first woman to follow in Lindbergh’s footsteps.
Earhart, who was working as a social worker in Boston to support her flying passion, applied for the job and got it. Putnam recognized that with her tomboy good looks and vague resemblance to Lindbergh, Earhart had potential to be a world-class celebrity, and he set out to make her one.
Step one was her June 17, 1928 trans-Atlantic flight from Newfoundland to Wales, which gained her instant international fame, a New York ticker tape parade, and a White House reception with President Coolidge, despite the fact the two men aboard did all the flying.
Step two was to publish Earhart’s account of the flight, 20 hours and 40 minutes, mostly ghost-written by Putnam and his secretary, after Earhart took up a temporary writer-in-residence stay at Putnam’s New York home. While writing the book, or soon thereafter, the pilot and the publisher began an affair.
While Putnam worked through a not-so-messy divorce (his wife Dorothy Binney, a Crayola crayon heiress, was also having an affair), Earhart, in step 3, racked up a string of aviation firsts and commercial product endorsements, which Putnam stage-managed to maximize her now carefully crafted and honed public image. (Putnam, for example, had early on dubbed Earhart “Lady Lindy,” a nickname she hated, but which was eagerly taken up by the press. He also coached her on how to walk, talk, smile, and dress.) In addition to promoting her own functional-but-feminine clothing line, Earhart became an associate editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, and a great advocate for commercial airline travel for the future Transcontinental Airways. Under George’s direction, Earhart became a shining national icon, albeit with a thoroughly Putnam sheen.
Along the way, Putnam – who had clearly fallen in love with this person who was partially his own creation – sought repeatedly to win Earhart as a bride. On the penultimate attempt, in November 1930 also in Noank, the couple went so far as to take out a marriage license, get a waiver on the five-day waiting period, and go to Judge Anderson’s chambers to have him perform the ceremony. At the last second, however, Earhart left the room for a smoke, then came back and said she just wasn’t ready – not quite yet.
Important conversations must have ensued between that November day and the next time they came before Judge Anderson the following February 7th, because on that day, George Putnam and Amelia Earhart did get married –– but only after she had handed him a letter that read in part:
“You must know my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me.”
But it was not only the potential restrictions on her work which concerned Earhart.
In our life together . . . I shall not hold you to a midaevil code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. If we can be honest I think the difficulties which arise may be avoided should you or I become interested deeply (or in passing) in anyone else.
Marriage for Earhart would require both freedom, and space.
Please let us not interfere with each other’s work or play . . . . In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage.
And even with a guarantee of freedom, Earhart insisted that the marriage itself have an escape clause.
I must exact a cruel promise and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.
Provided Putnam was willing to accept all these, Earhart would make him this promise.
I will try to do my best in every way and give you that part of me you know and seem to want.
Having presented in the clearest way the one way she could marry, George Palmer Putnam and Amelia Earhart became man and wife, and remained so up to the disappearance of her airplane July 2, 1937.
Tom Verde, “Amelia Earhart’s ‘Secret’ Connecticut Wedding,” Connecticut Magazine
Louise Bernikow, “Amelia Earhart Marries George Palmer Putnam,“W•enews
Amanda Hess, “Amelia Earhart’s Surprisingly Modern Pre-Nup,” Slate