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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

A 'Heck of a Ride' at TWA

Five flight attendants, the carrier's 'golden girls,' have been a team 30 years. That ends today, as their L.A.-to-D.C. route has been axed.

September 03, 2001|PETER PAE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Narz was the epitome of the glamorous TWA hostess. When the airline wanted an image change, she obliged. In the mid-1960s, the airline renamed them "stewardesses" and ordered them to adopt "the girl-next-door" look. That meant blonds had to dye their hair black.

Mary Jo Knipe, a 39-year veteran who raised four children in between flights, kept a 1960s issue of Cosmopolitan featuring black-and-white photographs of TWA stewardesses going through training. The headline read: "What They Teach You (About Men) in Airline School."

The half-dozen photographs show young women who appear almost identical, wearing TWA's signature short haircut accented by a slight curl around the ears, long false eyelashes and narrow, meticulously plucked eyebrows.

"Woman didn't have many options," said Knipe, who has lived in Torrance since she moved west from her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, in 1963. "We were expected to be either housewives or secretaries, and the opportunity to become an airline hostess seemed so exciting."

Still, career advancement for women was severely restricted. Women were not allowed to be pursers--the cabin crew boss--until the early 1970s.

Knipe, 58, was one of the few hostesses who not only married but raised children at a time when two-income households were an oddity. TWA's attitude toward marriage then resembled current military policy toward gay personnel, she said: Don't ask, don't tell.

Becoming a hostess was rigorous. A college degree was required when most women had only a high school education. They were expected to be young--perhaps in their early 20s--and single. They signed contracts agreeing to retire if they got married, had children or when they reached the age of 32. Airlines dropped many of the requirements 30 years ago.

Three of the women are single. "I've been engaged a couple of times, but never married," said Gordon, who lives in Playa del Rey. "I thought I was too young and then all of a sudden I was too old."

There was a certain cachet in becoming an airline hostess, said June O'Mahoney, who is single and has been with TWA 42 years. She was working the coach class on the recent flight, along with Gordon and Knipe.

In 1959, 20-year-old O'Mahoney, who had just immigrated to the U.S. from London, applied to be a TWA hostess, not knowing she would have to compete against 112 other candidates. After surviving three days of interviews, O'Mahoney was sent to TWA's famed airline school in Kansas City, Mo., where trainees stayed at a posh Spanish Mediterranean-style hacienda that seemed more like a resort than a school.

"We were starry-eyed then. I was in awe of everything I saw," said O'Mahoney, 62, who moved to Torrance in 1960. She rattled off her extensive list of celebrity encounters: Bob Hope, Tatum O'Neal, Julie Andrews. And then there was Gregory Peck. "He was charming, absolutely charming."

Flying TWA was an event then, a luxury for the few who got to sit in leather seats next to windows with curtains and be served meals on imported china with Tiffany silverware.

Nowadays, passengers are more likely to wear bluejeans and flip-flops than silk ties and wingtips.

"It's just not the same anymore," Sanford said as she folded paper napkins much like the way she used to fold linens that were once a standard. "We used to have trainers from Europe teach us about dinner service."

Sanford, a native of Belleville, N.J., who moved to Los Angeles in 1965, said she dreamed about flying around the world since she was a young child, and the best way to do that was to work for an airline. TWA had the best routes, she said.

"When you were hired, you felt special."

TWA also had one of the more illustrious histories in the industry. Charles Lindbergh laid out its first transcontinental route. Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes acquired control of the airline in 1939 and kept it for 25 years, drawing a host of celebrities in the process.

Takeover specialist Carl Icahn took control in 1985. In 1988 he took the company private, extracting a $469-million profit for himself and leaving the company with more than half a billion dollars in debt. Eventually, Icahn sold off TWA's most lucrative routes, including New York to London, before relinquishing control in 1993.

The airline never recovered, posting losses for the last decade and filing for its third Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year before it was acquired by American Airlines.

As TWA's standing in the industry diminished, passengers' expectations also changed dramatically.

"It's gotten to be like a Greyhound bus," Narz said. Passengers are less respectful and courteous, and the ladies don't get to fly to exotic places like they used to. But that hasn't diminished their affection for their jobs.

"I love to fly. It's in my bone and blood," Narz said. "I don't need the money. I give [husband] Jack fits because it costs me more in taxes to work than to stay home, but I still get a kick out of it."

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