The "Pan Am" TV show is fiction. But for a former Omahan, flying overseas as a stewardess for Pan American World Airways was like a fantasy come true.
It was a glamorous time, the outset of the Jet Age, a sophisticated era when passengers dressed up to fly. Stephanie Cooper remembers her 1956-60 stint with Pan Am as "four beautiful years."
Onboard, she served then-Sen. John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, as well as famed Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. She remembers playwright Tennessee Williams, actress Liz Taylor, journalist Bob Considine.
"Charlton Heston was very flamboyant," Cooper recalled. "He used to jump on with three tennis rackets and three girls. William Bendix (another actor) was a wonderful, interesting man, with family values."
At the crew's hotel in Chicago after a flight from London, she met New York Yankees Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, and briefly dated a Yankees teammate. (She politely declined to name him.)
"You met some celebrities who were airheads," she said, "but some with substance and good values. It seemed the bigger they were, the nicer they were."
Even if the names of Pan Am stewardesses weren't famous, the iconic light-blue uniforms and high standards were.
Yes, Cooper — back then, Stephanie Coffey, her maiden name — met a lot of interesting people, including diplomats. But she said she was most proud of upholding Pan Am ideals of elegance, precision and professionalism.
She recalls serving nine-course meals, and not just in first class. Stewardesses cracked and scrambled eggs. They served French cheeses, and after-dinner liqueurs. The bar stayed open until 2 a.m., New York time.
It was hard work but glamorous. Her grandchildren, learning about Pan Am through the TV show, look at her photos from that era and say, "Nana, is that you?"
The Sunday night show on ABC is exaggerated, she said, but it has caused a buzz among former Pan Am stewardesses.
"It's been a lot of fun going back in time," she said. "You start to think, 'Oh, my gosh. I was part of all that that was very historic.' You were young, and you didn't realize how powerful it was."
The TV show, set in 1963, portrays a Pan Am stewardess on the cover of Life magazine — a publication that once sold 13.5 million copies per week and dominated the market.
The issue of Life shown on the TV program is fanciful, but it's based on fact. Two Pan Am stewardesses did appear on the Life cover of Aug. 25, 1958, with the headline, "Air Hostesses: A coveted career." Cooper's photo appeared inside that issue.
The job truly was coveted and not easy to get.
Cooper had earned a nursing degree from Boston College but heard that Pan Am was hiring. She met the height requirement of at least 5-foot-8, and she had taken enough French classes to meet the airline's requirement that stewardesses be bilingual.
The TV show got the color of the uniform right, she said, but the hairstyles are wrong — hair wasn't allowed to touch the collar. And she didn't know of any stewardess who, as on TV, was a spy.
No one called them flight attendants then, and there was surely sexism. Stewardesses, who had to be single, had their weight checked regularly and had to wear girdles. They were supervised onboard by pursers who were almost always men.
Pilots, she said, weren't young, as portrayed on the TV show, and they didn't leave the cockpit to woo stewardesses during flights. Most pilots were in their 40s and 50s, disciplined fliers from World War II and the Korean War.
Stephanie flew for Pan Am's Atlantic division, "crossing the pond," she said, to Paris, Frankfurt and many other destinations. She worked in slow, lumbering prop planes and then helped usher in the Jet Age.
In New York, she met an FBI agent, Ed Krupinsky. They married, and she gave up her Pan Am career.
Years later, they moved to Omaha and he became the agent-in-charge for Iowa and Nebraska. Their five children attended high school at Marian, Prep and Westside, and two graduated from Creighton University. Her husband died of cancer in 1985.
Stephanie Krupinsky, as Omaha friends remember her, earned a master's degree in nursing at Creighton and did some modeling. She later remarried and left Omaha, and today lives in New York City.
She laments, as do most, that air travel today is often not enjoyable — intrusive security checks, cramped seating, late flights, bag fees.
When she flew for Pan Am, the worst problems might be occasional rough air or a drunk passenger. She never gave a thought, she said, to the possibility of terrorism.
She was devastated in 1988 when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky by a terrorist bomb over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. And she was saddened when Pan Am financially collapsed in 1991.
Her light-blue stewardess uniform still hangs neatly in her closet, a memento of what she calls " the really beautiful days."
The TV show doesn't get all the details right, but she accepts it for what it is — a TV show. She's glad it has stirred good memories.
"TV cannot portray the way most of us really were during those wonderful days of international travel. We were a first, the best, the envy of other international carriers. Pan Am was No. 1 in world travel."
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