At the Portrait Gallery: “One Life: Amelia Earhart” Opens 75 Years After Her Disappearance

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Rare glimpses into the personal life of Amelia Earhart await those who visit the National Portrait Gallery’s “One Life: Amelia Earhart” exhibition, which opens today, Friday, June 29, 2012.

The exhibit, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance, arrives roughly one month after a group of hopefuls uncovered what they believe is Earhart’s anti-freckle cream jar. The jar was recovered with other artifacts from a tiny coral atoll in the Pacific, where female skeletal remains were reportedly discovered in 1940.

Earhart’s life is documented in a clockwise journey around the one-room exhibit through a thoughtful and deliberate selection of photographs, artwork and memorabilia.

In a 1903 portrait taken of Earhart at the age of 5 or 6, she is donned in a frilly, white frock with a large bow fastened in her hair. The young, wide-eyed girl looks a far cry from the jumpsuit-clad aviator captured in later photographs of Earhart leaning against a Lockheed Vega, the famous aircraft that made an appearance in the 2006 film Night at the Museum and is on view at the National Air and Space Museum.

Another photograph shows Earhart standing with Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon, the two men who piloted the flight that earned Earhart the distinction of being the first woman to cross the Atlantic by airplane. She became an overnight celebrity, a reputation she didn’t relish, since she had only been a backseat passenger for the flight. An embarrassed Earhart confessed that aside from navigation tasks, “I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.”

Earhart’s first solo transatlantic flight took place four years later in 1932, when she piloted the Lockheed Vega. The cabin was so tight she could only spare room to bring a few small accessories, including a leather flying cap and a bottle of smelling salts that she used to stay alert throughout the difficult flight.

The woman behind the leather flying cap springs to life in a selection of video and audio footage. Earhart is ceremoniously christening a plane for Transcontinental Air Transport. Earhart speaks into a microphone and addresses a crowd and radio audience, her voice sweet and friendly, her manner humble—almost reluctant to be at the center of attention. Earhart flashes her winning smile, then bashfully smashes a bottle of champagne on the propeller of a TAT plane.

“It’s great to give visitors the opportunity to hear her and see her,” said curator Frank Goodyear.

A more intimate look into Earhart’s personal life can be gleaned from a letter she penned to her fiancé the night before their nuptials. George Putnum, a publisher and explorer who helped select Earhart to be the woman on the 1928 transatlantic flight piloted by Stultz and Gordon, proposed to Earhart six times before she finally acquiesced to his requests in 1931. The letter she wrote on the eve of their union depicts a young woman filled with trepidation even hours before the ceremony.

“You must know my reluctance to marry…” she wrote. “I must exact a cruel promise and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.”

It appears they did have a successful union, Goodyear explained, although infidelities were rumored to be true of both parties. After her disappearance, Putnam personally funded months of additional searches, combing the Pacific long after the U.S. Navy abandoned recovery efforts.

One of the last photographs taken of Earhart during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe shows the pilot shortly before she vanished on July 2, 1937. Earhart’s cropped hair is wind-touseled, an easy smile plays upon her face.

“It’s a quiet picture,” Goodyear said.

Even though Earhart was rumored to be sick and exhausted toward the last legs of her journey, her expression in the photograph is of a woman in her own element; confident, happy, and hauntingly at peace.

“It’s apparent from this picture, flying was her absolute passion,” Goodyear said.

“One Life: Amelia Earhart” will run through May 27, 2013.

One of the last photographs taken of Amelia Earhart
One of the last photographs taken of Amelia Earhart. Photo courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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