Amelia Earhart handed an extraordinary letter to the man she was about to marry just hours before their wedding in Noank, Conn.
“You must know again my reluctance to marry,” she told publisher George Putnam. “I must extract a cruel promise, and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.”
They were together for the next six years until Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while trying to fly around the world.
Amelia Earhart, was born on July 24, 1897, in Atchison, Kans. Her maternal grandfather was a well-to-do banker and judge, but her father was an alcoholic country lawyer. During her childhood the family moved frequently, and it took a while for Amelia to find herself. She tried junior college and worked as a nurse’s assistant in World War I, thought about entering Smith College, enrolled at Columbia, then quit to spend time with her parents in California.
In Long Beach, she took her first ride in an airplane. It lasted 10 minutes. That was enough for her. “I knew I had to fly,” she wrote.
Amelia Earhart tried college again, tried teaching and social work in the Boston area. She continued to fly out of Dennison Airport (later the Naval Air Station Squantum) in Quincy, Mass. She promoted flying, acting as a sales representative for Kinner Aircraft, writing columns about aviation and laying plans for an organization for women fliers that would become the Ninety Nines.
‘Would you like to fly the Atlantic?’
One day in April 1928, Amelia Earhart got a phone call asking her, “Would you like to fly the Atlantic?” Charles Lindbergh had done it, and the publisher of his bestselling book, George Putnam, had been asked to promote a female flier.
Putnam was an heir to the G.P. Putnam’s Sons publishing company and an adventurer in his own right, having led expeditions to the Arctic and to Baffin Island. He was married to Dorothy Binney, the daughter of Crayola co-founder Charles Binney, and had two sons.
Amelia Earhart of course said, ‘Yes,’ to flying across the Atlantic. On June 17, 1928 she took off with Wilmer Stutz and Louis Gordon from Newfoundland and landed in Wales 20 hours and 40 minutes later. No matter that all she did was to keep the flight log. She was a celebrity. On their return to the United States, they were greeted with a ticker-tape parade and a meeting with President Calvin Coolidge.
After the flight, George Putnam continued to promote the Earhart mystique. In 1929, he divorced his wife. He asked Amelia to marry him. She said no.
He asked her again four times. Finally in October 1930 she said ‘yes.’
They planned on a small, no-fuss wedding, but George blurted out the secret and reporters besieged them. Finally they decided to get married in Connecticut at George’s mother’s home in Noank, a fishing village in the town of Groton. One Friday evening they decided to do it the next day.
Feb. 7, 1931 was a bitterly cold day George’s mother didn’t have time to decorate the house with flowers, but did light a crackling fire. They had no guests, just three witnesses: George’s uncle, the judge’s son and George’s mother. Amelia wore a brown suit with a crepe blouse and lizard-skin shoes.
Just before the ceremony, she handed George the four-page letter. She described things they had already discussed: her reluctance to be married and her request that he let her go after a year if she wasn’t happy. She also wrote, “”I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.”
No Wedding Here
George didn’t waver. After her death, George explained that Amelia needed to have a measure of freedom.
“She did know it for an element without which she personally could not do, as some plants can do without water but cannot survive without air.”
George borrowed his mother’s platinum wedding band for the ceremony. Afterward, Amelia drank a glass of wine, put on her fur coat and left with George in a car to an unknown destination.
George phoned his secretary to ask her to break the news. An hour after they left Noank, reporters inundated the town with phone calls. The bewildered postmistress said she didn’t think there’d been a wedding that day. George’s mother said, “They didn’t tell me where they were going so that I shouldn’t be able to tell.
One year later, Amelia did not ask George for a divorce. He gave her plenty of space and the marriage worked for both of them. She later wrote,
The more one does and sees and feels, the more one is able to do, and the more genuine may be one’s appreciation of fundamental things like home, and love, and understanding companionship.
Firsts and Last
She became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic on May 20, 1932. She set other records, including seven women’s speed and distance records.
Amelia Earhart disappeared on July 2, 1937 while attempting to fly around the world. Putnam published her biography, Soaring Wings, in 1939.
With thanks to The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart by Mary Lovell. This story was updated in 2018