Marriage is a privacy with many secrets. The union of famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart to her business manager and author-adventurer George Palmer Putnam in 1931 had many carefully constructed privacies. Putnam preserved some of those confidences after her disappearance, most notably drafts of her poems. Although Earhart wrote three books about her flights, was the aviation editor for Cosmopolitan, and wrote numerous other pieces of journalism about everything from her experiences flying an autogiro to her musings on clouds, her love of poetry only shows up on rare occasions in her prose.
Despite poetry’s absence in much of her published writing, Putnam said in his memoir, Soaring Wings, that “AE wrote many fragments of verse, for she found a deep pleasure in building little images with words. That aspect was very private—almost secret.” While acknowledging that private pleasure, Putnam also published two fragments of poems from among her papers in his memoir, but the other splintered lines weren’t discovered until his granddaughter donated Putnam and Earhart’s papers to Purdue University in 2002.
Among the secrets he helped keep were her lyric fragments on death and desire, and her rejected submission to Poetry magazine. Exploring the archives, the only final drafts of any poems I found among the old scrapbooks and scribbled notes on envelopes were those in that rejected submission. Somehow it enamored me even more—this famous and unknowable aviatrix and writer left only these unfinished drafts as clues I could puzzle over, watching her mind revise, redact, question, leaving no answer to the mystery of where her final poems may be.
Searching the archives for Amelia Earhart’s lost poems is a study in fragments—every tucked-away line on the back of a receipt hidden in a notebook an invitation to speculate on her thoughts. Even when her widower published pieces of her verse in his memoir, he had an independent source verify the authenticity of one of them, unsure if the private voice on the page was indeed hers.
This fragment, titled “A Child’s Trilogy,” contains short sections of pleasures, of beloved yellows like “clean scrubbed lemons in the market stall, our black cat’s eyes at night.” The piece is written in the voice of a child, asking questions while lying in bed:
How is all the fragrance that narcissus have
packed in one small green bud?
What kind of scissors do the angels use
when they cut the snowflakes from the soft white clouds?
And is my lost jack-knife really on the moon?
The poem goes on to wonder if the speaker and the birds envy each other. There is no date or context to say when this may have been written, though Amelia’s sister Muriel wrote in her memoir Courage Is the Price that she believed the poem was inspired by the children Amelia met when she was a social worker. Amelia was a child with a reputation for adventure and experiment, as well as a child who loved language.I study the lines and consider what I would leave out if I reprinted my vows or old love letters, what intimacies would I invite others to know, what intimacies will always and only be mine.
She and Muriel loved stories and created their own private vocabulary. They called vacated cicada shells “Hannibals” and conducted a ritual called “Hannibal Fate,” in which they sang made-up songs and lit the cicada husks on fire, saying if they weren’t careful to extinguish all the flames there would be grave trouble “for many honeymoons to come.”
Whether the poem fragment George published was written when she was young or when she was a social worker is unknown, though I see both a child’s innocent wondering and an adult’s wisdom, and feel I understand something of the young woman Earhart once was in these lines, some of the few to survive the fire in 1934 that destroyed her and Putnam’s home.
Of all the people in Earhart’s life, the one who devoted the most pages to Amelia’s relationship with poetry was her sister Muriel. As she describes in Courage Is the Price, she and Amelia fell in love with poetry when they were young, memorizing and reciting verses to each other. Poetry remained an important shared value when they were both nurses in Canada during World War I. After their time as nurses, Amelia enrolled at Columbia to study medicine but also audited a course in French poetry and would write French poems on her physics exams when she didn’t know the answer.
When she and Muriel lived in Chicago they were devotees of Poetry, and while Amelia adored many poets, Muriel said her greatest “admiration [was] for the poetic apostle of beauty, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” In their childhood library, Muriel discovered a quatrain below one of Rossetti’s sonnets, that she believed to be Amelia’s:
Beauty is not the hue and glow of right
Nor for man’s pleasure given;
For hell itself is beautiful at night
From the far windows of heaven.
Between the two sisters, poetry was a shared language and a shorthand. When Muriel gave Amelia $40 to pay the coal bill for the social-work house, Amelia returned with a receipt for $20 of coal and a bird carved from ivory she’d purchased at a curio shop. She defended her financial decisions and protested she could not resist the appeal of it, saying “[It’s] so much lovelier than hunks of coal, Pidge, you must admit . . . Let me have my hyacinth just this once!”
The reference to the hyacinth was from one of Amelia’s favorite quatrains by Moslin Eddiv Saudi about selling one’s coat to buy a hyacinth. I admire and envy their closeness as sisters. Although they grew more estranged with age, when they were young they shared a bond that they triangulated through poetry, their touchstone for intimacy.
Among the fragments of poems Amelia left behind are small pink notes in no discernible order. When I hold them closer, the light pencil scrawls of Earhart’s cryptic script get more illegible rather than revealing clarity in the graphite lines and loops. All the unassembled pieces seem to be about women and beauty. On the back of two poems in her Poetry submission, “To M——” and “My Friend,” she wrote “personality.”
It tempts me to believe the M in the poem’s title is a redaction of Muriel’s name. On the backs of some of the scattered pink notes is a clear P. Perhaps these, too, were part of a series on personality, though it is equally tempting for me to chart a connection to Muriel’s nickname Pidge, to see the love of poetry extending beyond recited verses with books tented on their laps and believe that the person who shares a love can also become the subject of that love. Poetry is such a useful art for temptation, and even more so when almost all that’s available to study are fragments. Voyeurism always wants the privilege of intimacy without the requisite consent and vulnerability.
A wedding is a public act, but a marriage is a long intimacy that usually keeps its privacies. In the premarital agreement with Putnam that Earhart penned the night before their marriage on her soon-to-be mother-in-law’s stationary, Earhart famously requested an open marriage and asked to leave if she wasn’t happy in a year. She also asked, “Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements.”
Although he respected her wishes in many ways, the privacy of the letter itself was something George did decide to disclose in Soaring Wings, saying it was a “sad little letter, brutal in its frankness, but beautiful in its honesty,” that he was sharing “for it is a document of striking integrity and independence.” However, the version he published contained redactions, leaving out details of why they might seek love outside of their marriage, and her final sentence is cut short, failing to complete her offer to “give you that part of me you know and seem to want,” as revealed later in a biography by Mary S. Lovell.
While some disclosures of the private seem a betrayal, the openness of the formerly private letter seems a revelation made out of pride rather than shame. Why he redacted two sentences is a secret for himself, but it was a secret that remained uncovered for 50 years. When his granddaughter Sally Putnam Chapman wrote a memoir called Whistled Like a Bird after reading the original draft, she resisted the temptation to speculate too much about the reason for his edits, saying “I find it curious.”
I don’t resist the temptation. I study the lines and consider what I would leave out if I reprinted my vows or old love letters, what intimacies would I invite others to know, what intimacies will always and only be mine. Putnam’s granddaughter leaves her conclusions simple and open to interpretation, respecting the redaction’s small cloak for privacy.
In his memoir, George also shares a fragment on desire that Amelia wrote, though the object of desire remains unclear. While her prenuptial letter does say neither of them would be bound by a “medieval code of faithfulness,” biographers have debated claims that she had a relationship with her friend and National Aviation Director Gene Vidal. Putnam never asserts the small verse is about him, though perhaps he didn’t feel he needed to. It’s possible he never thought the desires Amelia mentioned in her prenuptial letter would come to bear. It was a scrap of paper in his own pocket that betrayed an early infidelity to his first wife, but perhaps he couldn’t believe that Amelia’s heart could have the same appetite as his own.
Or perhaps he knew for sure, the fragment coming from a locked drawer where he’d saved the tender missive from years past, wanting to remember, to see himself the way she saw him. He does not disclose that. He simply presents Earhart’s desire in his memoir, saying it is one of the few fragments of her verse that survived the house fire:
To touch your hand or see your face, today,
Is joy. Your casual presence in a room
Recalls the stars that watched us as we lay.
I mark you in the moving crowd
And see again those stars
A warm night lent us long ago.
We loved so then—we love so now.
Perhaps George knew the rumors. He was certainly aware that she was (falsely) accused of infidelity with her business partner Paul Mantz in his divorce. And there were rumors that she would divorce Putnam when she concluded her world flight. Maybe like the secret of the full draft of her premarital letter, he expected a more complete truth to surface one day. Or maybe he knew she loved another and included it because he admired her lines.
While he did not comment on the quality of her poetry in Soaring Wings, he critiqued her fiction as unstructured, though confessed it did “contain some passages of nerve-stretching beauty.” So perhaps his silence on her verse was awe, or not knowing how to remark on the few fragments that remained. Marriage is a narrative, but the memory of love is a lyric.
Although it’s clear Amelia and her sister Muriel used poetry as a way to communicate with each other, it’s not clear if George shared the same shorthand in their conversations or if Amelia shared drafts of her poems with him. As a publisher, he was certainly well-versed in literature, and sharing a poem with his first wife, Dorothy, was how she knew they would get a divorce, according to his granddaughter’s memoir, Whistled Like a Bird. After years of fighting and infidelity on both their parts, he slipped a poem called “Light Love” by C. H. Towne into her tent during a trip, which ends: “blest be all kisses, / And blest be the love that dies before satiety.”
In her diary, Dorothy wrote: “we pass from one phase to another, opening and closing doors on emotions that at the time you were sure were eternal!” When I read about Putnam’s relationships, I imagine the wildness with which he loved is the same as my ex-husband’s, and it becomes easy to impose my story on someone else’s. By all accounts, Putnam was a husband who loved the romantic gesture—flowers, poems, thoughtful gifts. Though despite his demonstrativeness and evident love, he kept secrets too, writing to his first wife Dorothy and begging her to reconsider the divorce, even after he’d begun his relationship with Amelia.
I know some of the secrets my ex-husband tried to keep from me, though some he surely kept more secure. Archival voyeurism is a speculative genre. It’s hard for me not to use the lives of others as a mirror, or to project my own truths into someone else’s life, as if my secrets or ex-husband’s could teach me what happened in the private intimacies of another marriage.
Sometimes the secrets a marriage keeps are not out of shame or even protection of the other person. Some secrets are about the privacy of the self. One mysterious love fragment written on hotel stationary was among Earhart’s papers donated to Purdue by Putnam’s granddaughter. Since the stationary was from a hotel George often visited with Amelia, he is believed to be the subject of this fragment:
I have seen your eyes at dawn, beloved,
Dark with sleep
And lying on your breast—have watched
The new day creep
George seems not to have known about this love fragment, or he chose to keep this one private. I wonder if he even knew the full extent of the pieces of verse hidden within the scrapbooks that escaped the house fire, since so many didn’t appear in his memoir. Or perhaps he felt it was permissible to reveal some secrets while continuing to guard others. Both Putnam and Earhart surely knew that if she wanted to make her poems public, she could have. He was not only her business manager but a well-known publisher who had written books on his own adventures and was responsible for publishing and promoting Charles Lindbergh.
In fact, it was at his urging that she wrote her three memoirs, and on her first trip across the Atlantic he gifted her with a diary. Writing was a shared value, and yet poetry was a secret they honored in different ways—he keeping private the fact that she wrote, and she perhaps keeping to herself that she wrote about him, drafting lines about his face in sleep, the tenderness of that vulnerability in him so few ever got to see, the love she felt held in the quiet of a quatrain.
Earhart’s lack of writing about desire or love among the remaining fragments is likely due to the fact that many poems predate her relationship with Putnam, though she did have other romantic relationships. Her early poems circled around the nature of time, friendship, and aviation. In her 1921 submission to Poetry, 23-year-old Earhart included four poems and a cover letter that states: “Enclosed are four small efforts of a novice” and is signed with the pseudonym Emil A. Harte.
Her four small efforts included a typed version of “From an Airplane,” “To M——,” “Palm Tree,” and “My Friend.” She kept these next to earlier drafts written in longhand, as well as the personalized rejection from the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, which read: “Not quite—as yet. But we consider these unusually promising. So please send more when you have some you like.” However, if Amelia sent back to Poetry or submitted to other magazines, she did not keep the returned final drafts, though, as noted in Lovell’s biography, Sound of Wings, Gene Vidal recalled that “she wrote poetry for magazines under another name.”
He is also quoted in East to the Dawn as saying he shared his own poetry with her and that she steered him away from Edgar Allan Poe and towards Amy Lowell. I like to think this was an intimacy she began to share with Vidal, no longer confiding in Putnam about the fervent poetry she still composed, sending out her crafted drafts in secret. Even before she became famous, she submitted under a pseudonym, wanting to write and be read, but without revealing who she was. Before fame she also used a pseudonym for other purposes, checking into a hotel under Putnam’s wife’s maiden name, for example.
Privacy was always a primary value. Her poems—especially under a pseudonym—seem to be too much of the self, an extraordinary secret to keep in a marriage, though one I understand, especially if the force of that love and adoration feels consuming. If Vidal is right and Amelia continued to submit poems under pseudonyms, there is no sign of what became of those submissions among the numerous notebook pages and clippings in scrapbooks. All that remains among her papers are fragments from a couple dozen poems, a small trail of clues I keep believing will solve the mystery of her private obsessions with love and death.
Final drafts of poems are a pleasure to undress, especially if earlier drafts can be found. Poems keep their secrets so well, but when I peek behind the final presentation and see the doubts and corrections it thrills me with a sense of intimacy. The first poem, “From an Airplane,” in Earhart’s Poetry submission situates her in the sky. In 1921, Amelia was living with her parents in Los Angeles and taking flying lessons. Though people now take for granted the view from a plane, this sight was once the rare vision of flight hobbyists and stunt pilots.
Even the watchful purple hills
That hold the lake
Could not see so well as I
The stain of evening
Creeping from its heart;
Nor the round yellow eyes of the hamlet
Growing filmy with mists.
Earlier drafts of “From an Airplane” have only small secrets to disclose. Earhart makes careful edits, altering the final line of “the hamlet blinks thru the mists” to “growing filmy with mists.” She reorders the first few lines, revising towards clarity rather than hiding more securely in her poem. However, on the back of drafts are bolder secrets. Earhart practiced writing her pseudonym several times, and fragments on one of the drafting pages read: “some must / with closed eyes of horror”; “the focused horror of death’s approach”; “with a great desire / for another glimpse.”
These fragments on death don’t seem to correspond with anything in her Poetry submission. I like to imagine they were notes towards a poem she never wrote, or notes on a poem that vanished and left only these wayward lines.
Longhand drafts of earlier versions of her other poems in the Poetry submission were also kept with the final draft, including an earlier copy of “Palm Trees,” which once had the tantalizing title “Traitor.” Her earlier drafts show a fixation on the tree, and although the draft titled “Traitor” ends “Although the soul, wide-eyed, has looked on death / and escaped,” her revision eases away from death to an examination of the palm tree—normally a sight of sunshine and ease, but here rendered brittle and crackling.
Like crackling icicles
Your brittle sword-branches
Rattle in the small breezes
Of thick warm nights.
Knowing nothing of cold
Is it with the malice of ignorance
That you chill
The thick, warm dream
Of souls uneasy at discomfort?
An obsession with death pervades many of the other remaining fragments. Although she was young at the time of her submission, she’d already served as a nurse in Canada during World War I (and suffered a long illness afterwards), and in the early days of aviation the mortality rate for pilots was grim. In her short life she lost many friends to plane accidents, and shortly after learning how to fly, she took stunting lessons.
She wasn’t interested in performing in aerial shows, but stunting is a mimicry of failure, of deadfalls and simulating lack of control, and it is only the mastery of the stunt pilots that lets them pull out of danger. As she describes in her own book, Fun of It, she knew she couldn’t really learn to fly without learning what it feels like to come that near to death.
There are some secrets a marriage should keep even after the marriage has ended. Amelia Earhart’s official photographer, Al Bresnik, claimed in Sound of Wings that when he stopped by to show her some photos before she left for her ill-fated second attempt at a world flight, Earhart said to him that there was “a possibility she was pregnant and that when she came back she was going to be ‘just a woman.’” It was well documented that Earhart was sick on her final flight, though it was attributed to food poisoning.
If Amelia told George she suspected she was pregnant, he never disclosed it in his memoir or in any other record. If it was true, perhaps it was a secret she kept, for the most part, to herself. A fear or hope or simply a fact she didn’t have a feeling for yet. I’ve had the same secret, for a moment been alone in that singular knowledge of my body. I shared the news quickly, but it was a delicious pleasure at first, that privilege of knowing.
Though it seems strange to me that Earhart would confide in a photographer a secret as personal as a potential pregnancy, sometimes the pressures of a secret make it easier to confide in a near stranger, someone with less investment in intimacy who might feel no need to persuade the person confessing or suggest a course of action. However, Amelia was famously guarded and, as Putnam notes in Soaring Wings, often mentioned a fake daughter’s name in interviews, an invisible friend she’d made up with her sister Muriel as a child—a name she used to fend off journalists if they pried too deeply, a ghost of a girl she used to protect herself from questions she did not want to answer.
When the search for Amelia’s plane was finally abandoned, George held out hope long past reason for her recovery. Yet when he accepted her vanishing and memorialized her, he didn’t use poetry; he used fragments from her log book, which can be found in the Purdue archives: “the light of the exhaust is beginning to show as pink as the last glow of the sky. Endless foggies. The view is too vast and lovely for words . . . I am getting housemaid’s knee, kneeling here gulping beauty.”
I think excerpts from a flight logbook seemed a more fitting tribute, but it’s tempting to believe he still held those poetic fragments on scrap paper to be sacred. Or perhaps all that remained was too splintered, mysterious scrawls with numerous redactions and illegible line endings. One draft contains many versions of the line “golden passion with ashes on her wings,” with scansion marks above the various versions, trying to get the line right. One changes the title “Jealousy” to “Surrender,” and perhaps those attitudes of anger and submission were too great to know what she might secretly be saying.
Perhaps George decided her poems, which he called “those brave commencements on stray scraps of paper,” were best left as clues among her letters. Something unsolvable, unknowable, a mystery he may have never fully understood about her, a mystery I can’t help but try to solve or at least get closer to. Intimacy is always an act of imagination and full of the tempting belief you can know a person in a way they haven’t been known before.
Putnam was a man who loved publicity, often doing stunts to promote his publishing ventures. He once claimed to have received threatening letters for publishing a book about Mussolini and even faked his own kidnapping to gain media attention for a book he was writing, The Man Who Killed Hitler. He loved the spotlight, and yet I like to believe that he loved his wife more. Their contemporaries often conjectured that their marriage was a business arrangement, though people often do not believe in an intimacy that is not performed lavishly in front of them. According to family and his ex-wives, George was uxorious in all four of his marriages.
He admits that Amelia turned him down several times when he proposed and required that the wedding stay small and secret. While he accepted Earhart’s terms for marriage in her prenuptial letter, he was, as Lovell points out in Sound of Wings, “a romantic at heart, he wanted marriage with the woman he loved and to be a full partner in every sense of the word.” Even if he may not have loved receiving a letter requesting an open marriage and a firm request for privacy of their joys and difficulties, George consented to those terms and—as is true in many marriages—mostly kept his word.
Writing about Amelia’s premonitions about death in his memoir, George described an intimate but not transgressive moment in their marriage, a small exchange one evening about the difficulty of growing old. He did not expose her poems, which constantly circle the subject of death. The unfinished poem with the most drafts in Earhart’s papers is titled “Carrion.” One early draft appears on stationary for the New York Evening Journal. I trace the heavy inked script curled across the folds in the paper through its cellophane sheet, trying to see how Earhart’s hand moved.
The poem appears to have originally been titled “Steps” and begins “the soft flesh of old age, char d’enfant, difference under caresses women are languorous as cats / Stars return the tall-blossomed apple trees.” The poem resembles little of its later drafts until the middle of the page, which reads: “arid on the hot sands the panther paws of love have buried the flesh . . .” At the end she writes: “Panther paws of love. / Obliterating(?) Pity(?) [illegible]. It’s because it obliterates its only kindness possible.”
She questions what her poem is about, trying to understand the secrets the images and metaphors are keeping from her. This is so often true of my own process. I feel the pleasure of discovery, believing I understand something about her perhaps no one else has. I succumb to the temptation to impose myself on her redactions, to edit in my own sentiments. It’s difficult to remain faithful to rendering an incomplete poem word for word when I believe I’m so close to knowing who she was in private and what she might have wanted to say.Although Amelia asked explicitly for marital privacy in her prenuptial letter to George there are gaps where the stories got out, as well as shared moments that never got told.
At the top of another fractured draft the soft looping script reads: “The vulture is kind / life is merciless,” a version of the conclusion from her last draft. The page itself has gone nearly diaphanous with time, the ghosts of the words on the back become shadows I see on the front when I hold it up to the light. In this draft she titles the piece and begins: “Bruised flesh fit only for the vulture Death after the heel of love has trampled mud into it . . . Lovers and maidens sit wishing the yellow quotes of it. What arousing shall arise upon those darkened eyes / Death the conqueror of all.” The draft begins to break apart, text appearing written on the side of the page or in columns. Among the fragments are: “You need not drink (of it) you need not drink” and “the buried flesh of the story.”
Here there’s also a breaking apart where Earhart seeks to understand her own poem. She says: “Love comes on panther feet paws.” Then: “Panther-footed love.” Then: “Panther paws of love.” Each iteration trying to revise towards the cleanest expression of thought. George said she often enjoyed “having little words get up and dance for me,” but these lines seem a pursuit, a vision or a feeling that’s about to slip beyond the horizon no matter how quickly her pencil flies across the page, crossing out, correcting, trying to force the right words to stay. On the bottom right the draft seems to be whittled down to:
Life without [illegible]
Merciless life passes
Leaving for the great vulture
The arid flesh
Bruised by the
panther paws of love
Gone are the stars, the tall-blossomed apple trees, and maidens. All that remains is for the merciful vulture to remove the wounds of love.
The privacies of marriage often get shared, no matter how secret the two people in it hope to be. Although Amelia asked explicitly for marital privacy in her prenuptial letter to George there are gaps where the stories got out, as well as shared moments that never got told. In his memoir, George never mentions that Amelia was engaged when they met or that he was married, though both items were public knowledge. And based on how he discussed her handling of the drunk pilot during her famed transatlantic Friendship flight, it seems that she either never disclosed to him that her father was an alcoholic, or he cared for this privacy as well and skillfully crafted a counternarrative.
Before she even left for the Friendship flight she wrote, as was customary, “popping off” letters in case she died on the flight and requested her mother burn her writings without looking at them. Every time I view her incomplete drafts, then, I infringe on her desired privacy, and each time I handle slips of paper and try to order the pieces to make a recognizable verse, I violate the wishes of a person I so badly want to know.
All love is incomplete. Everyone has a secret from a beloved. Everyone keeps an unsayable thing from themselves. And everyone wants to be a voyeur to love, to be attached to the story, to know what others don’t—sisters, friends, photographers, rumored lovers, myself playing the archivist. Perhaps fragments are a way to know Amelia Earhart, as it is a good way to know any one-directional love, to study her mind in different attitudes of reflection—her love of beauty, her familiarity with death, and the privacy with which she guarded these thoughts.
That the final drafts of most of Earhart’s poems vanished seems fitting. Even in a life so thoroughly documented, no one knows where her poems are, or what they might have said if she’d had more time. In Soaring Wings George said: “Always AE cherished a wistful ambition to have one full year of leisure to devote to writing, a year uninterrupted by flights, lecturing, or journalistic dead lines. She never had been satisfied, I think, with anything she wrote.”
Perhaps my fascination with the archive is the fascination any lover feels, desiring privileged knowledge of the beloved. There is no longing my way into an answer, no transforming the lyric fragment into a narrative, only a sense of the engine of a mind wounded by love’s panther paws; the brittle clicks of palm branches; the beloved, dark with sleep, who never knew devotion’s careful study. This seems to be the way of all of love’s most disciplined pleasures—to adore someone you don’t fully understand but accept that intimate distance, respecting the secrets that are not yours to know.
Traci Brimhall’s essay, “Archival Voyeur: Searching for Secrets in Amelia Earhart’s Lost Poems” was originally published in New England Review 40.4.