Riviera Reporter
Riviera Reporter

Pan Am: Remembering the great days

The first four days of November saw a remarkable coming together of former Pan Am employees in Monaco. I sat down at the Meridien Beach in Monaco with three 747 captains, two old-time cabin crew and a couple of familiar faces to me – those of Max Gurney, for many years Pan Am's rep in Monaco, and Jean Khalifa, who represented the company at Nice-Côte d’Azur Airport. These were just a handful of the some 500 ex-Pan Am people who had come to Monaco to celebrate with some slight anticipation the 75th anniversary of the company's first transatlantic flight (another hundred or so, didn't make it thanks to Sandy).

Pan Am pilots and staffLeft to right: Pan Am pilots Tom Carroll and Don Cooper; District Sales Manager for Southern France Max Gurney and Flight Stewardess Mary Lou Bigelow

A wonderful spirit

This, to an outsider, seemed a remarkable turnout. "No surprise to us," insisted Captain Don Cooper. "There was a wonderful spirit in the company. There's nothing like it in today's airline world – and it was like a big family. The idea of getting together was a given.”

Pan Am pilot Tom Carroll, Monique Peyrat, Max Gurney and Mary Lou Bigelow.Left to right: Pan Am pilot Tom Carroll, Monique Peyrat, Max Gurney and Mary Lou Bigelow

"I'd say there were a couple of hints that helped that family feeling," put in Captain Tommy Carroll. "We used to fly together far more than is usual these days when people often get to meet up for the first time at the pre-flight briefing. And then we had a rather hands-off management that just let us get on with the job. There was a great spirit then." So why, just over two decades ago, did Pan Am go belly up? "That's a big question," said Captain Daryl Moses. "Management was maybe a bit too hands-off and a huge debt built up and then our big boss made no plans for his succession and so we ended up with weak management."

 Max Gurney with Pan Am "girls" wearing various styles of Pan Am uniforms throughout the years of operation. Max Gurney with Pan Am "girls" wearing various styles of Pan Am uniforms throughout the years of operation

Cabin crew were also full of positive memories. Said Muff Murgatroyd: "We knew we had a superb product. Overall service and catering were outstanding and, of course, we had in those days a very good class of passengers. Air rage hadn't been invented." I met separately with Nancy Hult Ganis, the stewardess (her favoured term) who had come up with the idea for the ABC series Pan Am which, after much hype, bombed in the ratings and was quickly cancelled (though it recently got good reviews in France when shown on a TNT channel). "We felt very special, you know. We only flew outside the US, much of the time to high-end destinations such as Paris, Rome and Nice or to exotic places like Liberia or Fiji. I suppose we felt like an elite – and we were: well-bred, well-educated, almost like diplomats." This didn't, lamented Nancy, come over in Pan Am.” The writers I talked to, young guys, just didn't get it. They seemed to think that what ABC wanted was Desperate Stewardesses. It was not like that at all. Maybe we should have gone elsewhere, HBO, perhaps. I have to say, though, they got the uniforms right.”

Mary Lou BigelowMary Lou Bigelow Pan Am Graduation 1962

Pan Am episodes can be purchased on US iTunes.

Pan Am’s Dixie-Clipper Reunion Monaco Nov 1-4, 2012, see The Mary Lou Bigelow Show:

All photos © Mary Lou Bigelow