The Big 50

As American Way turns 50, we salute half a century of wit, wonder and tireless inspiration.  

WORDS Chris Wright
May 2017

Still here 50 years later

In May, 1975, the literary critic Granville Hicks wrote a piece for American Way on the staying power of The New Yorker, which was then a half-century old. For Hicks, this was a “remarkable” achievement, due to the fact that “magazines come and go like butterflies.” 

This month, American Way is celebrating a 50-year anniversary of its own. To mark the occasion, I recently jetted off to the American Airlines headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, where I was given access to a vast archive of back issues, on the understanding that I’d extract some highlights. 

This was a tough assignment — there were thousands of pages to sift through, millions of words, and enough images to fill the Met a few times over. Not once, however, did the task become tedious.

In fact, my only real complaint was that I didn’t have the time to read everything I wanted to.

It’s a testament to the many talented people who have worked on American Way over the years that the magazine has not only endured, but that it has remained so thoroughly and reliably engaging. 

So, yes, magazines come and go like butterflies, but the best keep on flying. 

WINTER, 1966/67

And We’re Off

American Way has employed some fine talent over the years: James Beard and Isaac Asimov were longtime contributors, while the likes of Paul Theroux and John Updike have also graced its pages. Our first issue didn’t quite reach these heights. The magazine ran to 26 pages, and was mostly celebratory items on the airline, or commercial bits like the inflight gift guide. But there were a few genuine articles, including one on the Big Apple: “New Yorkers share one thing in common. Brokers or bunnies, conservative or campy, kicking or kooky, they don’t realize how much they’re hooked on this city until they’ve been away for a while.”



Patty Poulsen, newly crowned World Stewardess Queen, 1967, had the looks (“People don’t glance at her, they stare”) and the smarts (“Beneath the exterior, there is a surprisingly serious young woman”). Poulsen described herself as “sort of a film nut,” adding, “Right now I’m hung up on Antonioni, Fellini and Resnais. Kooky, huh?”

In the July, 1978, issue, a passenger recalled the service she received from another cerebral attendant, Anita E. Wofford: “My daughter was studying on the plane, but when she asked me to interpret one of T.S. Eliot’s poems I was at a total loss. What looked to me like just a bunch of words meant an awful lot to [Wofford], and she did interpret it for my daughter.”

Then there’s Betty Nash, who, at the age of 80, has been on the job for six decades. Her secret? “People want a little love.  And I don’t mean a lot of hugging and everything, even though we might do that.”



Flight of fancy (pt.1)


In August, editor Adam Pitluk sat down with rock legend Neil Young. Describing the inspiration for his latest album, Earth, the 71-year-old provided a rare insight into how the mind of a rock legend works: “Remember Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Remember the bat in the city, flying down? That’s where this record is coming from. That’s what I was thinking of, for the whole record, was the bat. The bat couldn’t see. It could only hear. It heard where it was going. That’s what this record is.”


Flight of fancy (pt.2)


In 1975, Bob Considine envisioned the future of air travel: “The day is not too far off when passengers on supersonic airliners will be zipped across oceans and continents at two or three times the speed of a bullet. They will be fed intravenously, because there won’t be time for the automated stewardesses to move stiff legged down the aisle with the goodies cart, preceded by a smiling mannequin brandishing her martini-filled hypodermic syringe.”


Shaken, not stirred

In 1993, novelist and nervous flyer Ray Bradbury wrote about boarding a plane after a few too many glasses of Dutch courage: “Once I was in a fluid state, not unlike mercury skimming the surface of a cold plate, they siphoned me in the direction of the jet. Lurching into my seat they offered me a belt. No thanks, I said, I’ve already had six!”


“Honest hair"

McCall’s beauty editor Amy Greene called time on the ’60s bouffant: “The sleek, small-head look is just beginning. It shows off the shape of your face and head, without the distorted lumps and bumps of teasing. It’s honest hair.”

TRAVEL AUG, 2000/APR, 2015

We’ll always have Paris (on our shoe)


Elizabeth Hurley turned tour guide in 2000, leading us through Paris’s Jardin des Tuileries: “Here, you’ll see lovers entwined on park benches, old men playing boules, and more dog poop than you could believe exists.”  

Fifteen years on, sportswriter Isaac Eger recalled walking through Pigalle: “No one here seems to be bothered by the dog-poo minefields that are Parisian sidewalks. I watched chic grannies gracefully pirouette over and around the little brown gifts.”


Charles Marsh 
Editor, 1986-87

I started at American Way right after grad school. My first job was flying to New York to meet our columnist Isaac Asimov, who, in those days, was probably the best-known writer in the world. I’m still not sure which emotion — excitement or terror — was uppermost on that flight. Asimov chose his own topics for his column. One was so controversial that we knew we couldn’t run it. We rejected the column with trembling voices — but Asimov laughed, said he understood, and immediately sent us a replacement.


Leaving (it) on a jet plane

A report in 1969 took us behind the scenes at the American Airlines lost property office: “In any single month last year, American processed some 500 pairs of eyeglasses, 300 to 400 coats, 350 hats and 225 pairs of gloves. The Lost and Found Department also receives a steady supply of skis, chess sets, expensive cue sticks and golf clubs. Girdles and bras, removed on long flights for the sake of comfort, often turn up. Recently, a small box marked ‘Valuable’ opened onto two glass eyes, one brown and one blue.”


Ebert does Venice


“Every season has its charm in Venice,” wrote noted film critic Roger Ebert in a piece about off-season travel. “I was explaining this to my friend Chaz, telling her that Venice in the winter is cold, overcast, gray, dreary, rainy, abandoned and melancholy. ‘Then why should we go?’ she asked, and I explained that those were its positive qualities.”


Sherri Burns
Editor, 2003-2008


American Way was always — and still is — in a class by itself. One particularly vivid memory for me is when we visited Trump Tower for our photo shoot with Donald Trump (June, 2004). Trump gave us a tour of his offices, pointed out Donny Jr. hard at work, and regaled us with stories (in between phone calls) from his corner office, which included celebrity gifts (including one of Tim Duncan’s basketball shoes, which was huge) and the requisite can of hairspray in the bathroom (even then his hair was a matter of speculation). 

TECH, 1970

Inventions that didn’t take

There are great inventions, and there are watches with prodding human hands and specially designed pea forks. The illustration to the left wasn’t entirely serious, but it’s fair to say neither quite caught on.

On the flipside, 1970 also saw NBC president Julian Goodman very nearly predict on-demand TV: “Viewers may soon have the opportunity to tape programs directly off the air and replay them at any time on a home screen. Or they will purchase pre-recorded video programs to play on specially equipped receivers.” 



From Tennessee Williams in the ’70s to Casey Affleck in the issue you’re reading now, American Way has a proud history of talking to the people who matter. We’ve been shown around Madrid by Penelope Cruz, San Juan by Benicio Del Toro and Houston by Beyoncé (try getting that interview today). We’ve chewed the fat with everyone from Steve Martin to Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie.

There have been a few tricky moments, though: In September, 2015, NFL star Marshawn Lynch opened the door to say, deadpan, that he’d canceled the interview (he was messing with us). And when Homer Simpson was asked to name his favorite part of Springfield in a 2007 “interview,” his response was: “My favorite is your home neighborhood: Stupid-Question Town.”

CULTURE 1967/1978

Doing the Boo-ga-loo

Our Spring, 1967, issue ran a review of a Young Rascals concert at the Brooklyn club Action City. “Teeny boppers dig the gig like wild,” noted the reviewer, before going on to write: “Teenagers Ska, Boo-ga-loo, Wobble, Hanky-Panky and Shing-a-ling. Among other bits.” The other bits were never identified.

A decade later, in July, 1978, a piece titled “Boogie, Hustle, Slap, Bump,” recounted the anything-goes dress code at hedonistic New York disco Studio 54: “Attire ranges from purple furs and black leather suits to athletic supports and cowboy garb. In fact, when firemen were summoned to the club recently, some guests thought their uniforms looked right at home.”


Home-run writing


Every now and then, AW’s sportswriting has hit a higher plane, as when Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, former editor of The New York Times Book Review, described the smaller-than-life experience of catching the game on TV: “I watch figures the size of beer cans crunching and denting each other on iridescent lawns in fall. In winter, I watch other figures in brightly colored underwear lofting balls no wider than a penny onto nets the size of thimbles. And in spring and summertime, I watch little dolls wave swizzle sticks at tiny aspirins.”


Crew uniforms: a brief history


1967 American introduces a redesigned uniform. Gone are the military-style outfits of the previous 30 years: “Smart and tailored” becomes “sassy and revealing.” 
1969 The “Americana Collection” debuts, with saddlebag-inspired carry-ons, ascot scarves, Pilgrim-styled shoes and a fur hat.
1973 A new Bill Blass-designed line aims for a smart, sophisticated look. 
1980 Joyce Dixon sticks with the business-like stylings Blass introduced, with a few flourishes.
2016 American Airlines has tapped Twin Hill to create new uniforms. The first redesign in more than 20 years was rolled out in September.


Elaine Srnka  
Editorial Director, 2000-2003

The job wasn’t always easy. I have dozens of tales of difficult celebrities (so many celebrities!), boycotts from Italian Americans who took issue with columnist Jim Shahin’s parody of Jersey, and even a boycott led by Penn and Teller when we stopped featuring a horoscope. We had readers angry about errors in the crossword, readers angry about their favorite restaurant being left off the “Top 10 Steakhouses” list, readers who showed up unannounced at my office. I loved every minute.


Purple prose

Writing for AW, novelist Wallace Stegner described the “brief and passionate flowering” of California’s Sierra foothills in springtime: “The country that in summer can be furnace-hot is cool, sunny, breezy. In the Merced canyon, golden poppies blanket the slopes, lupine crowds to the edge of the highway, patches of brush glow purple with redbud.”

FOOD 1967/2016

What’s Cooking?

Our debut issue ran a celebratory item about the inflight menu, which was devised in a fully-equipped “Test Kitchen” in the airline’s offices, part of which had been transformed into a “mock-up cabin with authentic jet seats.” A premium “Captain’s Table” menu from that year included a full list of pre- and post-prandial cocktails, along with such items as crabmeat gruyere cups and tournedos of beef with sauce Robert.  

Ah, the good old days. But wait... 

This fall, American Airlines partnered with Michelin-starred English chef and restaurateur Mark Sargeant to create premium cabin menu items on flights to the U.S. from Europe. The result: starters like poached native lobster, followed by slow-cooked West Country pork belly with fennel seed and white bean cassoulet, or barbecue short rib of Angus beef with sweet potato champ and red cabbage slaw. Dessert includes a warm spiced Victoria plum crumble with English custard or vanilla ice cream. Really.



A 1977 article, “Tube Rubes,” explored the rather uncomfortable tradition of company owners featuring in their own TV commercials. 

Tom Carvel, owner of Carvel Ice Cream, defended the “lousy” ads he appeared in: “I don’t care. Our commercials are so bad they’ve made nothing but money — four dollars for every dollar spent.” 

Perdue Farms owner Frank Perdue defended his looks: “I suppose I could get a nose job and make myself ordinary. But no one would remember me. You forget Ronald Reagan a lot easier than Charles de Gaulle.”

KFC founder Colonel Sanders defended his not-very-authentic image: “When I decided to use my name with the chicken, I thought I should look more like a colonel. So I grew my goatee and wore a white suit.”


Blameless bats

Along with the many appreciative letters we’ve received over the years, there’s been the occasional gripe, such as this one from a reader in Austin, Texas, who took exception to an article that described the city’s bats as “infamous,” which he viewed as unfairly negative. “To my knowledge,” he wrote, “our bats have done nothing wrong.”



“We don’t mean to leer, but those are some great looking legs.” So began the intro to a 1991 photo essay by the wonderfully eccentric photographer Chip Simons. “Legs Across America” was a project 10 years in the making, inviting us to see the country’s major landmarks and sleepy side streets “through the legs of the common man, woman and child.” The images on the left depict Kennedy Space Center, New York’s East River, and Silver Springs, Maryland.

TRAVEL JULY, 1991/ SEPT, 2007


San Francisco Fog

Fourteen years apart, author Amy Tan (1991) and comedian Robin Williams (2007) recalled childhood memories of seeing Frisco fog for the first time. While Tan viewed the city’s rolling haze as “a sort of celebration,” Williams had a less sanguine response: “What is that strange smoke?” 


Doug Crichton
Editor, 1988-93

For the 25th anniversary issue (September, 1991), we commissioned stories from writers such as James Michener, Wallace Stegner, John Updike and Paul Theroux. The most intimidating thing was having to go back to my idol, Ray Bradbury, and tell him his piece was weak. He groused at first, but soon came around and did a complete — and stellar — rewrite. He went on to write several more pieces as a contributing editor, and we ended up being good friends.

TRAVEL 1970/1971


Plane speaking

American Way was big on planes in the ’70s: an October, 1970, issue was dedicated to the new Boeing 747, while the cover story in September, ’71, was the new McDonnell Douglas DC-10.

ART FEB, 1970


Accompanying a striking cover in February, 1970, was an equally colorful interview with its creator, pop artist Peter Max: “When I was confronted with the idea of doing this cover, I realized it’s very much up my alley, because of all the things I do with clouds and stars and outer space and so forth. What this cover really represents is an Aquarian fantasy of Aquarian people, floating around in the clouds, enjoying the freedom of flight.”


Jumpy like the Wolf

Last month, CNN’s Dana Bash described workaholic colleague Wolf Blitzer: “My joke with Wolf is that he doesn’t sleep at night. They just plug him into the wall.” 


Worst. Movie. Ever.

Dore Schary made some howlers during his Hollywood career, but rock bottom was The Prodigal, the 1955 Biblical romp he greenlighted while head of production at MGM (one reviewer used the word “garbage” three times in the first paragraph). Discussing the flop, Schary didn’t hold back: “My executive producers pleaded with me not to make it. Lana Turner had mixed feelings about it — she hated it and disliked it.”



Our 50-year anniversary comes at an exciting time, since we’ll be unveiling a redesign of American Way next month. Expect more entertainment, talking points and inspirational travel content from America and the world. And expect us to deliver our stories in more creative and compelling ways. We want to make a product worthy of the world’s biggest airline, and of the magazine’s next big anniversary issue, set to hit planes in the winter of 2066.


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