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Book Review

‘Jet Set’ by William Stadiem

William Stadiem focuses on early first-class flyers in his book “Jet Set.”

Jacques Silberstein

William Stadiem focuses on early first-class flyers in his book “Jet Set.”

During the final two seasons of “Mad Men,” Don Draper has gone bicoastal. Smoking and drinking his way between New York and Los Angeles, the consummate man in the gray flannel suit morphed into a sophisticated member of the jet set.

In the gossipy “Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years,” William Stadiem closely chronicles the emergence of this new kind of traveler, one who could quickly and affordably reach the West Coast, South America, and Europe — and did so in huge numbers. By 1965, for example, the ocean liner was toast, with 83 percent of all trans-Atlantic traveling occurring by jet.

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This cultural history gets off to a soaring start by following the courses of two headline-grabbing flights chartered in 1962. First, Frank Sinatra embarks on a world tour (Stadiem makes much of his anthem, “Come Fly With Me’’), then an affluent gaggle of Atlantans jets to Paris for some cursory culture. They wind up perishing when their jet fails to stay aloft upon departing Orly for the United States. The accident affirms Sinatra’s wariness of commercial airline travel, and he ends up ordering one of the first Lear jets before eventually buying his own 707, a move that reeks of the indulgences of today’s one-percenters.

The tandem parables are fitting because while Stadiem — a contributor to Vanity Fair and an author of books exploring the mystiques of Marilyn Monroe and Sinatra — attempts to look at both sides of the class curtain, he’s clearly more interested in those sitting up front. The story of how the little people learned to love flying never really takes off.

Instead, the book is populated by a large cast of pop-culture icons, international playboys, and industry titans like Conrad Hilton, Howard Hughes, the billionaire founder of TWA, and Juan Trippe, creator of Pan Am and the book’s central protagonist.

Recurring roles go to the middlemen who navigated these often unfriendly skies, not always in the most ethical of fashions.

A particularly colorful bunch of characters, they include gossip columnist-cum-PR man Igor Cassini (credited with popularizing the term “jet set,” he was the brother of fashion designer Oleg) and travel guide writer Temple Fielding (a snob with a fondness for cultural stereotypes, he exhibited disdain for great museums — travel, for him, was all about food and lodging — and a penchant for carousing).

Fascinating stuff, sure. But Stadiem pads the book with an eye-glazing number of pages of digressive and warmed-over biographical sketches. Just when it all threatens to become too ring-a-ding-ding, the author pulls back to acknowledge the inherent — and very evident — sexism practiced by this cadre of rich and much-married men.

It happens, mercifully, after the book enmeshes itself in a convoluted tale of financial shenanigans and geopolitics. Suddenly, we’re released from the morass and transported to “Swinging London,” where Stadiem lightly touches down to visit such staples of salaciousness as Bond movies and the Profumo affair. It’s a short hop from there to the decline of the playboy and the concurrent rise of feminism.

Once again, cue “Mad Men.’’ Here, Mary Wells Lawrence, first at Doyle Dane Bernbach then at her own agency, finds success at selling the French countryside to Americans — hiring Elliott Erwitt to photograph an image of a father, son, baguette, and bike that would become iconic — and rebranding Braniff Airlines from a regional carrier to an international one that sports rainbow-hued planes, Pucci-designed uniforms and such teasing tag lines as “Does your wife know you’re flying with us?”

But the jet-set era would soon nose-dive. At the end of the book, just about everyone has died (except for the femme trio of Lawrence, Mary Quant, the miniskirted Mod, and Regine, the French discotheque queen, all of whom are still kicking it up in their 80s).

The wide-body 747, skyjacking, and Freddie Laker’s budget airline have conspired to quash the allure of jet travel.

We all know what happens next. Put that in your carry-on and take care when opening the overhead bin as the contents have shifted during the flight.

JoAnn Greco can be reached at joann@joanngreco.com.
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