Feature

Being Amelia

Who is Amelia Earhart?

November 2013

On the day of her July announcement at AirVenture in Oshkosh, Earhart planted herself in front of a Pilatus similar to the one she’ll fly out of Oakland and gave a 15-minute speech to roughly 50 people—mostly journalists and representatives from companies sponsoring her flight. Afterward, her public relations handler, Katie Gerber, worked to firm up details on Earhart’s appearance the next morning on Today. When Gerber announced that the flight to New York City was nearly confirmed, Earhart wept at the thought of making news on the iconic morning program. “It’s like a dream,” she said. She swept tears from her cheeks and laughed. “I’m such a little bitch.”

Earhart and her entourage walked a couple hundred yards across the airport grounds to the enormous Pilatus tent, which was part of a makeshift city that smelled like new sod and freshly lain mulch. She gave interviews to local media, then called 9News to tell her bosses about the pending appearance on Today. A few minutes later, she huddled with Gerber. It wasn’t good.

Patti Dennis, 9News’ vice president and news director, wanted exact details on Earhart’s lineage. “She wants to know what I can put into writing,” a stunned Earhart told Gerber. “She wants to know how much research I’ve done.”

The sudden rush for proof had been fomented the night before, when 9News ran a story in advance of the AirVenture announcement and mentioned the familial relationship between the two Earharts. Shortly afterward, news anchor—and self-described amateur genealogist—Kyle Clark posted the first of two messages on his Twitter feed: “Apologies for the error in the story that just ran claiming our Amelia Earhart is a descendant of the famous flier. Not the case.” The second one followed shortly after: “We try to catch these things before they make air—but every now and then one gets past the keeper.” (Both tweets have since been deleted.) Earhart had seen Clark’s tweet the night before and was livid. He had called her out publicly. Earhart poked fun at Clark’s improper use of the word “descendant” in her own Twitter response: “@kyleclark Amelia had no children and has no descendants. Thanks for the update.” Semantics aside, the underlying message was clear: Her co-worker didn’t believe her story.

Gerber asked Earhart what could be proved about her lineage. Earhart mentioned the research she’d paid for in college. “It’s a distant, common ancestry,” she said, almost pleading now. “What else can I say? That’s what it is.”

“They’re just jealous,” Gerber assured her client. “They’re all jealous.”

During her August 2 interview on Today—she was bumped from her originally scheduled appearance—Earhart stressed her “very, very distant” relationship to the original Amelia Earhart, then focused the rest of the interview on the pending flight. “When I think about the best way to honor being a namesake of Amelia, it’s all about adventure,” she said. “There’s not a lot of things that we’re entitled to in life, but what I believe is we are entitled to developing our own adventure, whatever that is, whether it’s just leaving the house or if it’s flying all the way around the world. So this is my version of adventure and my best way to keep Amelia’s spirit alive.” Afterward, Earhart felt good about her appearance. “It’s finally starting to feel real!” she posted on Twitter. Later that day, she flew to Las Vegas on a pre-planned trip to see friends.

That afternoon, I called Clark. I wanted to know why he posted those tweets and to get his take on Earhart and her genealogical claim. He declined to comment. Soon after, I got a text message from Earhart: “Can you call me?”

When we finally spoke on the phone that night, she began to cry. Her friends were inside a restaurant toasting her accomplishments, she said, but she was outside on the phone with me worrying about her career. Dennis had learned of my call to Clark and that I had asked about Earhart’s family background. Dennis then called Earhart and asked her to clear up the genealogical confusion. It was becoming obvious the questions about her family claims were only going to increase with the attention the world flight would bring. The station seemed to want Earhart to be ahead of what could be a potentially embarrassing story for both her and for 9News. “This is going to cost me $3,000,” Earhart told me. She sounded scared. “I’ve—I’ve got to go,” she said, and then hung up.

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