Being Amelia

Who is Amelia Earhart?

November 2013

Earhart meets me two weeks later at the doorway of her townhome. Her dog runs onto the concrete porch, a white collar with his name, “Nubbin Earhart,” scrawled on it. “He’s not related to Amelia, either,” she deadpans.

A few minutes later, Earhart and I are sitting near her kitchen. She’s tapping her pilot’s license on a wooden table. There are books about female pilots on a shelf in the hallway. There’s a half-globe on her wall, the bronze Amelia Earhart bust from Kansas on a ledge, and a framed sepia-tone print of the original Amelia flying near the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge on her first transcontinental flight in 1928. Stuck to the glass is a smaller photo of Amelia Rose recreating the scene on her own transcontinental trip.

Earhart has been trying to make sense of the past few weeks, trying to figure out how this latest moment fits into her life’s narrative. “The fact is,” she tells me, “this could have happened to anybody.” She’s talking less about her identity and more about the fact that everyone’s fallible. That’s not to say some folks haven’t reveled in her misery. “People are so unkind,” she says of the new online messages about her. “If I would have sat there and read through all that shit, I probably would have killed myself.” At the TV station, she says, co-workers have been treating her differently, averting their eyes when she’s in the newsroom, as if she has been struck with some fatal disease.

Before her announcement, Earhart wrote emails to her flight sponsors and to her foundation’s contributors. She wanted to explain things and give them a heads up. Earhart said she’d understand if anyone wanted to back out of the flight or pull donations. But just so they knew, she wrote, she was still Amelia Earhart, and that hadn’t changed. She still wanted to inspire young women; she was still going to fly around the world. “Without exception,” she says, “they all came back and said it doesn’t matter. Every single person said, ‘Keep on.’ ”

In a weird way, the revelation about her family history was freeing. “This brought me down in a really good way,” she says. “It humanized the whole situation. It made me vulnerable. It showed people that, no, I’m not going to quit because I found out I’m not related to Amelia Earhart. If I did that, what would I be?” Sure, she was miserable at first—“the worst day of my life”—but it led her to assess herself, her accomplishments, her goals without an unclear lineage hanging over her. Is she happy with the person she’s become? Earhart stops tapping her pilot’s license. “This,” she says, holding up the plastic card with her photo on it, “doesn’t fall into your lap just because your name is Amelia Earhart."