I am in my office in the apartment I keep in Nice. I have just finished writing the speech I am to give tonight at the reunion of ex Pan Am employees at the Meridien Beach Hotel in Monte Carlo. These few pages took me two days to write, and there were reasons. Several times I considered calling up to say I wasn’t coming. I had no idea what I might be getting myself into. I had been told there would be 500 people present. In a ballroom, I suppose. But it wasn’t clear to me who they all would be. And I had never seen the ballroom. That’s important as anyone who has ever spoken in one can tell you. In the writing, furthermore, I lost control of the speech. At a certain point it began to write itself. It came out a not very thinly veiled criticism of Juan Trippe, Pan Am’s founder, who reigned over the airline for 41 years. How many people would the speech offend, and how much? I wrote it as delicately as I could. Trippe was the first and last aviation tycoon in history. He was also one of the meanest men I ever ran into. There, I’ve said it aloud for the first time. I’ve said it often enough in private, but as I wrote the speech for a Pan Am audience I was trying to disguise my feelings as much as possible .
Here is the speech.
At a certain point I signed 2 contracts to write a book about Panam. No in depth book or even magazine article had ever been done about Pan Am, nor about the airline’s founder, who was the secretive, you could almost call him mute, Mr. Juan T. Trippe. One contract was with Random House. The second was with the Pan American foundation, this being another name for Mr. Juan T. Trippe. In exchange for access to him and to Pan Am records, the Foundation would collect 15 percent of my royalties.
The book’s eventual title was An American Saga. It was not a paid company history. The independent author, me, had to pay to write it. Well, the Random House contract was for an advance of $120,000, big money in 1976 and my biggest contract to that date. And surely hundreds of thousands more would come in later. I figured I could pay 15 percent to Mr. Trippe’s foundation and still come out ahead. All editorial decisions would be totally, completely mine. He could not later order one word to be changed.
Random House thought Pan Am a great story that would be a big best seller. I thought the same. The MS came out over 800 pages long, including 200 pages of source notes, and took me three years to write. But the book never became a best seller--Mr. Trippe’s doing, I have always thought.
I’ll get to that.
I assume all of you know who Mr. Trippe was. I assume also that none of you spent as much time with him over as many years as I did, and perhaps you are wondering how we got on together.
A journalist gets to meet many, many celebrities. I was no exception. By then I had spent time, often weeks, with dozens perhaps hundreds of them. A varied lot. Bobby Kennedy, Mohammed Ali, Paul Newman, Howard Cosell—I don’t mean Howard as a laugh line. Howard was very very famous. I was eager to meet Mr. Trippe. I had known bullfighters, racing drivers, actors, singers but never a tycoon. What would a tycoon be like?
I was 46 when I met him, he was 77. In all we had about 50 interviews. My wife and I were invited several times to dinner at his apartment near Gracie Mansion, overlooking the East River. I dined with him a number of times at the Cloud Club on top of the then Pan Am building. He and Betty came once to lunch to our house in Greenwich, he invited himself, in fact. I think he wanted to rate the value of the project we were engaged in by rating our house, rating how we lived. And that lunch was the only time I ever saw him show any emotion, and when it happened I was surprised.
He was a terrible interview. Multiply that by 50. He would not permit me to tape our conversations. His answers when he gave them, were sometimes long winded, but often far afield of whatever I had asked him. Some questions, even questions having to do with events 30 or 40 years in the past, he would not answer at all, looking at me over his hands, then saying: “I’m a businessman, I don’t give away information like that.”
He seemed to be protecting secrets that were no longer relevant, even, in some cases, no longer secret. Habit? This was the man whose nickname from his time at Yale was “Mummy.”
In 1939 the Pan Am board of directors, fed up with his secrecy, with never knowing what he was up to, deposed him, putting in Sonny Whitney to run the company. Trippe was obliged to move to an office at the other end of the hall. For all the months this interregnum lasted he sulked, hardly spoke a word, until at the end of that time the board realized that over the years he had written almost nothing down, had never confided in anyone. It was impossible to figure out where anything was, what plans he may have set in motion. The entire company was in his head. The board had no choice but to dump Whitney and give him his airline back, and after that his power was never questioned. I once asked John Leslie, a vice president and member of the board why, during the decades that followed, no one ever resisted him and John said: “But he was right all the time.”
The interregnum must have been agony for Mr. Trippe , the traumatic experience of a lifetime, but when I asked him about it he said only “Whitney wanted it so I gave it to him.” That isn’t the way it happened but it was all he would say on the subject.
In our interviews he never boasted, never crowed about how big or important he once had been. He never got enthusiastic about any of his own accomplishments or PanAm’s, either. Nor did he praise any of the men whose work, objectively speaking, was as vital as his--Hugo Leuteritz, for instance. Never mentioned him. Leuteritz was the radio man who virtually invented long range navigation, which was what made possible all that crossing of oceans. He worked 19 years for PanAm, then quit in protest, so he told me, against Mr. Trippe’s highhanded ways. Leuteritz lived to be 95, the last of the founding pioneers to pass on. Going through his things afterward, his son found a few hundred shares of Pan Am stock, worthless of course, which his father had kept to the end as if unable to bear throwing them away.
No matter how dramatic the event being discussed, Mr. Trippe in our interviews never offered any revealing anecdotes about himself or anyone else, or smiled or laughed or showed any particular emotion. The anecdotes and details that are in An American Saga, and there are many, I had to get from others. No, I can’t say I ever knew him, and there were days I wondered if anybody did.
Crossing the Pacific in 1935, was possibly the most dramatic event in the company’s dramatic history. He said nothing worth quoting on any of that. The takeoff of the inaugural flight was to be broadcast live on all the radio networks. Half the dignitaries in the country would be in attendance, and 50 million or more listening in. The China Clipper would be obliged to find and land on a series of pinprick islands lost in thousands and thousands of miles of open ocean. In other words Mr. Trippe was risking everything with this flight. The night before takeoff he phoned Leuteritz. “Hugo,” he asked, “are you sure of your navigation?” Leuteritz said: “Relax, Juan, we’ve tested it and tested it. It works.” But this anecdote came to me from Leuteritz, not Mr. Trippe, who would not admit to any worries, any misgivings on that day or any other. I asked him a specific question about Wake Island once . Wake is the top of an underwater mountain. It is a sand spit in the shape of a hairpin the two arms of the hairpin barely two miles long but in some places only a hundred yards wide. No one had ever lived there. It has no water, almost no vegetation. It’s highest point is 12 feet above sea level. Between the two arms of the hairpin is a rather small lagoon. Mr, Trippe sent a shipload of men and supplies to Wake to build a hotel and all the rest without knowing if flying boats could even land there. “Suppose,” I said to him, “it proved impossible to land on that lagoon.” He answered: “We could have landed off shore on the lee side.” But there is no lee side to Wake. It was the lagoon or nothing.
I came to see Mr. Trippe as a colossal gambler. In his quiet, undramatic, stubborn way he was as much a daredevil as any of the bullfighters or racing drivers I had known. Even Las Vegas never saw bets as high as his, and he did it not once but over and over. Crossing the Pacific in 1935, of course. Buying those first jets before most of the world’s airports could even land them. He once spent millions of dollars for powerful new jet engines for which he had no planes. The idea was to force Boeing to build him the plane to go with them, the plane he wanted but Boeing didn’t. With so many engines on hand he couldn’t back down, so Boeing would have to.
He had started as a pilot in air races in the rickety planes of World War I. This he talked about willingly enough, but without any particular emotion—fear, for instance.
The only emotion I ever saw from him came during the luncheon at my house that I spoke of. He was long retired by then, but someone phoned to tell him that a regularly scheduled helicopter carrying Pan Am passengers from JFK to midtown had crashed on the roof of the Pan Am building. Debris had killed a pedestrian in the street. He turned from the phone with tears in his eyes, and I thought he would start to cry. In an anguished voice, speaking mostly to himself, I heard him say: “It’s the end of New York Airways.”
According to the contract I had signed with him he had the right to read my finished manuscript, but not to change it. He began demanding changes anyway. I refused. He went to Random House and in his quiet, tenacious, stubborn way threatened lawsuits. He went back there day after day quietly threatening. He used up everybody’s time. After agreeing over my protests to certain innocuous changes, the publisher finally got fed up and sent the book to the printer. But it was too late. With the Random House lawyers still afraid he might sue, the decision was made, by whom I don’t know, to publish the book, as they say in the trade, quietly. Worse, the press and the critics had heard about all this. If Mr. Trippe was editing the book, which he seemed to be doing, controlled the book, which was what it looked like, then obviously it was a corporate sponsored puff job, and not to be taken seriously. My 800 page fully documented in depth and highly entertaining study of Pan Am, the first ever written, was not even reviewed in the New York Times.
During the writing I went to Wake Island, flew in from Hawaii on the once a week supply plane, a C 141. I had conceived the notion that I would begin and end the book with descriptions of this tiny atoll a thousand miles from anywhere which Pan Am had colonized, had put to use for the first time in history, and had turned into one of the most famous islands in the world. It was so famous that the Japanese, once the war started, absolutely had to have it. They attacked it within days of Pearl Harbor, overwhelmed the small marine garrison, and recolonized it themselves. And then for the rest of the war they starved to death by the hundreds. The island could not be supplied. Cargo vessels were vulnerable to American submarines, and supply by air was impossible--the only planes in the world that could reach it were the Pan Am flying boats. A few days before I got there a Japanese burial squad landed, dug up the bodies of 786 soldiers, cremated them amid the ruins of the old Pan Am hotel, and took the ashes back to Japan.
I found the hotel’s foundations easily enough and stood in the ruins myself, and without much difficulty conjured up a vision of the China Clipper tying up out front after ten or more hours in the air, the well heeled passengers trooping up toward the hotel where cool drinks awaited them on the veranda. And after that a good night’s sleep in imported American beds in a hotel that was almost of luxury class.
The ruins of the pier are still there too, concrete pillars jutting up out of the water like rotting teeth. And off to the side is a concrete ramp that slopes down into the water. If repairs were needed the fat, wet flying boats could be winched up the ramp onto dry land and attended to. The present Island personnel will talk of the ramp if questioned. It is known to them as the Pan Am ramp. No one I spoke to seemed to know why.
Waiting for my plane out I walked along the beach which is littered with rusting, half swallowed military junk, and listened to the silence and gazed off into the vast distance.
I saw Wake then, and see it now, as a symbol of the daring, the imagination, and the hard, hard work that had made Pan Am into the colossus it became, the first and also for so many years the greatest airline the world had ever known.
Few people worked on Wake when I was there. A six man Air Force detachment was in command. Probably there are less now. Soon there may be nobody. Wake has no value for weather forecasting which is done by satellite today, nor as a refueling station—today’s great planes overfly it. Leuteritz’s radio direction finders are obsolete. Before long, most likely, Wake will go back to being the uninhabited desert island it once was.
The island had erupted from the ocean floor who knew how many eons ago. Juan Trippe and Pan Am had given it sudden extraordinary fame. Now the rather small island had evolved into little more than a rather large monument—one that commemorated more than anything else the hour of the hundreds of men who had first put it to use, the hour of the Pan Am flying boats, the hour of the vision and ambition of Juan Trippe. It would be visited in future by very few persons, and perhaps in time by no one at all. No matter, it is there, and will remain there, and its status as monument will last for as long as aviation has impact on the affairs of men.
And that is how my book ends.
Shortly after it came out Juan Trippe suffered a stroke from which he did not recover, though he lingered another seven months. He died April 3, 1981 in the same New York apartment in which I had sometimes dined with him. He was two months short of his 82nd birthday. His funeral at St. James Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue at 71st Street was well attended. The church was crowded, I saw, but not full, with none of the dignitaries present that he would have drawn in his prime. He was a man who had outlived his fame. And almost his airline.
Nov. 3, 2012, Meridien Beach Hotel, Monte Carlo
In the end I did not give this speech.
I have not given that many speeches in my life, maybe a dozen, under fifty certainly. I have never been afraid of them. If you work out in advance what you intend to say, what is there to be afraid of? Memorize the topics you mean to cover, if necessary. After that, just tell the your audience what you feel. Don’t read to them from behind a podium. Stand out in front. Make eye contact, say your piece, and then sit down again. Nor have I ever written out a speech before, and I only did it this time because the subject matter, revealing to a Pan Am audience my pent-up bitterness about Juan Trippe, seemed to me, as I have said, so delicate.
I looked out over all the tables, at hundreds of people from all over the world, ten or twelve to a table, all of whom had paid good money to be there. Many were middle aged women wearing their old stewardess uniforms, now mingling with ex pilots, some of them over 80, but dressed once again in the uniforms of the Pan Am captains they used to be. There was a great deal of emotion in the room. It was like a college reunion, except that the gaiety was mixed with grief, for these people, it seemed to me, were still mourning what had been lost.
I approached the podium my text in my hand, and turned and looked out at them all and knew I couldn’t read it. This isn’t the time or place for a formal speech, I thought. That’s not what they want. They just want you to talk to them. I stuffed my speech into my pocket as best I could, moved to the front of the stage, and that’s what I did, and they got all hushed, and they listened. I paraphrased parts of my prepared speech now and then, what I remembered of it, of course I did, who wouldn’t, and when I came to Mr. Juan T. Trippe I had barely started when somebody called out “Yes!” and everybody was smiling and nodding. And that was the last I worried about that aspect of it, and I described the way Trippe had behaved, a world figure, a giant in so many ways, but impossible to deal with, who had ruined, in my opinion, my book.
I talked about going to Wake Island, and my notion that Wake would serve forever as a monument to the airline they had worked for and obviously still loved, and I finished with Trippe’s death. He hadn’t quite outlived his airline, I noted, but we all had and this, I said, made me sad every time I thought of it.
Afterward I shook a great many hands, and listened to the stories some of them wanted to tell me, and signed a copy of the book one woman had brought all the way from Chicago. And then I went out and got into my car. It was pouring rain. Nice is about twelve miles down the coast, and I drove home.