JACKIE COCHRAN An Autobiography By Jacqueline Cochran With Maryann Bucknum Brinley Bantam. 358 pp. $18.95
JACQUELINE COCHRAN's exploits in aviation spanned some two and a half decades, from her overall victory in the Bendix Cup transcontinental air race of 1938 to her 1400-mph closed-course records in an F-104 Starfighter in 1964. She is perhaps best remembered as the founder of the World War II WASPs, the Women's Air Service Pilots, and her fame among the legions of extraordinary women aviators in the first half of the 20th century is second only to that of Amelia Earhart.
Her personal history is even more exceptional: the stepchild of a desperately poor North Florida sawmill worker, she never knew the date of her birth or the identity of her real parents. Often on the verge of starvation, she was 8 years old before she had a pair of shoes, and couldn't read or write until she reached adulthood.
She left her job in the mills when she was 10 or 11, for a live-in position at a beauty salon that catered mainly to prostitutes. Work as a beautician proved to be her route out of poverty. She was skilled and attractive, and when she gained a position at Antoine's-Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, she was so much in demand that she commuted regularly to their salon in Florida. It was in Miami, at a dinner party with friends, that she met multimillionaire Floyd Odlum, who became her husband in 1936.
Odlum's immense wealth and network of powerful friends helped pave the way for her flying exploits. In fact, it was he who turned her attention to flying, at their very first meeting in 1932. Odlum bet her the cost of 20 hours' flying time that she couldn't earn a pilot's license within six weeks. She got it in three.
To call her an unusual woman would be a considerable understatement, and she deserves a current biography that does her justice. (Her 1954 autobiography, The Stars at Noon, is available only in second-hand bookshops or -- in a limited quantity only -- as a photostatic reprint from Ayer Co. Publishers.) Unfortunately, Jackie Cochran isn't that book.
It's an easy read, and covers the events of her life comprehensively enough; those points alone perhaps make it worth printing. The format used is that of Yeager, the autobiography (with Leo Janos) of the aviation hero who was a close friend of Cochran and Odlum. Segments of narrative in the subject's voice are interspersed with "other voices," the comments and anecdotes of people who knew her. The trouble is, Cochran died in 1980, whereas Yeager was around to review the work.
So whose voice is it we read here? Certainly not that of a pilot; the book is full of howlers, misuse of aviation jargon and misunderstanding of flying techniques and situations, all related in the first person by Cochran's "voice." The very first sentence of the book reads, "The engine was experimental and turned out later to be aerodynamically out of balance." Aerodynamics describes the flow of air around a structure, and has nothing to do with the dynamic balance of the rotating machinery that propels it. Later, "The only instruments you have are a little compass and a tachometer, which tells you whether or not your ship is level. You don't want to rotate too badly." That's gibberish, and there's plenty more of it. Cochran's "voice" sounds about as authentic as that of a channeler claiming to speak for Cleopatra.
ONE fascinating anecdote is said never to have been recounted before, and might be independently confirmed by Lady Bird Johnson. Stuart Symington's "voice" recalls that in 1948, Lyndon Johnson was hospitalized in Dallas for kidney stones, in the middle of a Senate race. Johnson was desperate not to have his illness known, for fear of jeopardizing his campaign. Symington had invited Cochran to Dallas for a political lunch in Johnson's honor, and asked her to go and see him in the hospital. She found him in poor condition: "I slip out of the room and back to Lady Bird. 'Either you get proper medical aid for this man or he's going to be dead within twenty-four hours. I think he's dying.' "
Floyd Odlum had suffered the same affliction, and had been successfully treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Cochran contacted Odlum's physician, surreptitiously hustled Johnson out of the hospital by a back door, and flew him (with Mrs. Johnson) to Rochester in her Lodestar. En route, she put to use the skills she had learned early on in three years of nurse's training. Johnson recovered, and won.
"I knew Lyndon in a way no one else knew Lyndon after that experience," the book reads. "He used to say, 'Here's the pretty gal that saved my life.' " Johnson and Eisenhower were both visitors at the Cochran-Odlum California ranch in later years; Eisenhower wrote his memoirs there.
Floyd Odlum, who had been crippled by arthritis for many years, died in 1976 at the age of 84. Jacqueline Cochran died August 9, 1980. At the time of her death, according to the National Air and Space Museum, she held more speed, altitude and distance records than any other pilot, male or female, in aviation history. Her real life story wouldn't make a good movie; it's too incredible for that. But perhaps we can hope for a television documentary that, with the help of existing newsreel footage, might offer some realistic glimpses of this remarkable woman.
Janet Guthrie is working on a book about her experiences as a racing driver in the Indianapolis 500. She has held a commercial pilot's license since she was 18 years old.