June 6, 2006

Cameo of George Palmer Putnam

George Palmer Putnam
1887 - 1950

HSUMD Newsletter
Vol. 21 No. 6 June 2006

Amelia Earhart with George Palmer Putnam.

(Following is an article prepared by Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert member and local historian, John Di Pol, drawn from his library of history books. Ed).

With your indulgence, permit me to diverge a bit from our usual fare, although there is a connection of our topic, tenuous as it may be, with the history of our region.

Who was Mr. Putnam? Well, he was the husband of the famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart, at the time of her tragic disappearance in the Western Pacific while on her around-the-world flight in 1937.

George Putnam was born in 1887 in Rye, NY, to the comfortably wealthy family of the publishing company G. P. Putnam Sons, Inc. George attended schools in New York and Connecticut, then Harvard, but that lasted only a year. Putnam had restless feet and he headed west. Before departing he had met the heiress Dorothy Binney and continued corresponding with her. Marriage was proposed and accepted. George brought his bride out west to Bend, Oregon. There he entered politics, became mayor and publisher and owner of the Bend newspaper. After a few years, including a stint in the Army during WW I, George and Dorothy moved back to New York where George accepted a position in the family's publishing business.

George was a driver and hard worker. He was a member of two Arctic expeditions, in 1926 and 1927, both sponsored by reputable scientific societies. He authored several books and made the "big leagues" when he signed Charles Lindbergh to publish the book "We", Lindberg's account of his solo flight across the Atlantic. Because of his reputation of working with Lindbergh, he was contacted by a wealthy American dowager who wanted to sponsor the first flight of a woman across the Atlantic and commissioned Putnam to find a suitable candidate. And George did so: he came up with the essentially unknown Amelia Earhart. The rest is history.

George was instrumental in organizing the flight, which was made in 1928. Because Amelia was not instrument qualified, two rated pilots accompanied her. No matter, Amelia made the international headlines. George rapidly became Amelia's agent, promoter, publicist, confidant. Successes followed: Amelia's solo transatlantic flight in 1932; first person to solo Hawaii to California and many other honors, with George busy in the background. George's marriage to Dorothy suffered and divorce followed in 1929. His relationship with Amelia had deepened; marriage proposals followed, with Amelia finally accepting and they were married in 1931.

By the mid-1930s, planning started for Amelia's around-the-world flight. On May 29, 1937 Amelia, with Fred Noonan as navigator, took off from Oakland eastbound on her historic attempt. It was July 2nd, on the leg from New Guinea to Howland Island in the Pacific, that Amelia and Fred were lost at sea. George was devastated, as was the rest of the nation, literally. In addition to the search efforts of the U.S. government, Putnam enlisted help of his own and, obsessed with finding her, spent months tracking down every lead.

Putnam rebuilt his life with writing, publishing and lectures. In 1940 he moved to Lone Pine where he purchased a cabin lodge high up at Whitney Portal in the Eastern Sierras. With the advent of WW II, George, at age 55, applied for a commission in the Army Air Corps. He was accepted and served as an intelligence officer in the China-Burma-India theater. After the war George returned to Lone Pine, in poor health. He began corresponding with Margaret (Peg) Haviland, whom he had met while at Intelligence School before "shipping out". This lead to their marriage in late 1945, with Peg joining him at Whitney Portal.

Their life at the Portal was serene, but full, with George writing, doing consulting for publishers, maintaining contacts around the country. But, a problem. Peg could not stand the winter cold, so the following year they spent time at Stovepipe Wells Inn in Death Valley. During these years George wrote two books: Death Valley and Its Country, 1946, and Death Valley Handbook, 1947. The royalties helped him to surprise Peg. He purchased the Stovepipe Wells Inn for her! Peg stayed most of the year at Stovepipe to operate the place, with George at the Portal working on his latest book Up In Our Country, a conversational essay on the inhabitants, flora and fauna of the area. But by 1949 George's health was failing. By winter he was at Stovepipe too ill to travel. Later, after Christmas, he was taken to the hospital in Trona with kidney failure and died there on January 4th, 1950. He was cremated and his ashes are in the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.

Peg continued to operate Stovepipe Wells. As tourism increased she built up the business by expansion and improvements. In 1962 Mrs. Putnam met and married Willard Lewis. She ultimately sold the Stovepipe in 1966 to the Fred Harvey Co., or was it AmFac, or whatever. Mrs. Putnam-Lewis passed away in 1981.

Up In Our Country was published posthumously in 1950. Your writer had found a copy in a used book store several years ago - the only copy he has ever seen. A slim, handsome volume, conservatively designed. He bought it.

Ref: THE SOUND OF WINGS, The Biography of Amelia Earhart, Mary S. Lovell, 1989. L.A. TIMES, April 22, 2001.

UP IN OUR COUNTRY, George Palmer Putnam, 1950