Back in August I was asked to be keynote speaker for Tucson’s Modernism Week, Oct. 4-6 — an extravaganza of films, lectures and events. It was “Mad Men” comes to Arizona — a celebration of ’50s, ’60s and ’70s iconic architecture and lifestyle by its Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation.
“We want you to talk about your Pan Am days and how they propelled you into your success as a supermodel, actress, author,” the events coordinator Carrie Dally emailed.
I thought, “OK,” as I was wheeled to dinner at Shannondell Rehab where I was recovering from brain surgery on July 2. I had been diagnosed with Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. A shunt had been placed in my brain. Could I heal in time? Was I dreaming? Could I fly? My neurosurgeon said, “Go for it!”
On Oct. 4, my shunt and I boarded a Delta flight to Tucson. And though I had been a stewardess for Pan Am in the ’60s, I had not flown since 1988. So while you, of course, already know all of this, I was shocked at the absence of a free hot meal — but even more shocked that technology ruled the skies. Passengers either had laptops, iPhones or iPads and no longer talked to each other.
Pan Am had given roses, tablecloths and towelettes to first class and leis in Honolulu when passengers disembarked. I was given a miniature bag of peanuts and a Diet Coke.
“Who designed your uniforms?” I asked a Delta stewardess. (OK, “flight attendant” — a change I found silly).
“Richard Tyler,” she said.
“I dated him in 1979,” I said. “Managed his career before he won the Coty Award.”
My ego fell on deaf ears. Silence surrounded me.
Carrie Dally, a tall, beautiful woman greeted me at baggage, and the next morning –after a swim in the arid desert air at the Aloft Hotel – together we visited pop-up shops in which dealers or vendors sold a cornucopia of vintage, design, lighting and furniture from the ’50s, ’60’s, ’70s. “What’s old is new again,” was its theme. There were designs by Herman Miller, Max Gottschalk, Eames molded plywood chairs, Harwood Steiger textile designs, atomic era lamps.
Carrie introduced me to Demion Clinco, the president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation. “We thought you were a good fit for Modernism Week as Tucson has a rich history in aviation,” he said, shaking my hand.
For lunch we tried to get into Chaffin’s Diner designed by Ronald Bergquist in Googie Style with red leather banquets and a vintage car show in its parking lot. But were told it would be an hour wait, so we settled for sitting outside in the desert air, filling up on burritos filled with blackened salmon.
Then it was time for my talk. On the way, in Carrie’s Ford Explorer, we passed an intriguing chapel. “Who designed that?” I asked.
“Paolo Soleri. Isn’t it magnificent? Over there is Edward Nelson’s work. Do you know that in 1955 Phillip Johnson designed a visitor’s center that is being torn down in the meteor crater where I giant meteor fell? But they are trying to preserve it.”
Finally we arrived. I talked about the glamour of being a stewardess, the lime green Vanity Fair girdle I wore, the gloves, the stilettos (I carried flats in my handbag) and the weight, height and hair restrictions. “I threw up on my first flight but smiled as we landed. I was happier to be in Bermuda than Philadelphia.”
I also talked about falling in love with Claude Picasso. “Claude looked like Carrie’s boyfriend Matthew,” I said. Matthew had shoulder-length hair and was a talented musician. “Today Claude’s a billionaire with plugs.”
People seemed to enjoy my talk. There was laughter — and that felt good. I signed copies of “Picasso’s Ghost,” and the next morning I kissed Major Dally goodbye.
I was sad to leave a charming Tucson that respects and preserves mid-century art and architecture.
And Pan American stewardesses.