EAST TO THE DAWN The Life of Amelia Earhart By Susan Butler Addison-Wesley. 489 pp. $27.50

In June 1928 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly the Atlantic and, instantaneously, the second most famous aviator alive, one year after Lindbergh's flight established the category. She was a slender, attractive young woman from the Midwest whose combination of intelligence, ambition and modesty gave her an irresistible charm. She was also courageous, with a small touch of recklessness that in 1937 helped end her life.

In 1928, though, she was the right person in the right place. A licensed amateur pilot, totally unknown (except in Boston), she earned her living as a social worker. In a series of accidents she was selected by competing entrepreneurs to become the first woman to make the transatlantic flight. The risk was that she would become another accident statistic. By the mid-1920s, flight had caught the public imagination as it would not do again until the moon landing in 1969, and as it will do perhaps only once more when (if ever) a human lands on Mars. Eager for firsts, for fame, for prizes, pilots were regularly disappearing into the waves or crashing into the rocks.

All of Earhart's initial fame resulted from the fact that she was a woman -- and an attractive one who could be readily glamorized. During the 1928 flight she was passenger, not pilot. Two men did the actual flying. That made no difference to the crowds and the headlines: That a woman had the guts simply to be in the plane was sufficient. It was, of course, an expression of the deep sexism of the culture, but it gave Earhart her chance to become a champion of women's equality in the workplace. That and aviation were the dominant themes of the rest of her brief life. With the help of her husband and business manager, George Palmer Putnam, one of the supreme publicists of the period, she capitalized on the opportunity. Earhart knew how to be a heroine -- a rare talent -- and made certain that she was never just a passenger again.

With her own airplane, she soon became the premier publicist for the aviation industry and for women in professional life. A lecture-circuit trouper, she made innumerable speeches from coast to coast, her face as well known as Franklin Roosevelt's or Mary Pickford's. She, too, was America's sweetheart. Since records were what it was about, she became the first woman to fly from Hawaii to the West Coast, then to fly around the world -- almost.

On the whole Earhart kept her private life to herself; this was partly an expression of personality, mostly a response to the demands of the fame that defined her. An androgynous figure, she attracted both men and women, but which she was attracted to is less clear.

One evening at the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt, given to enthusiasms, took up Earhart's offer to take the first lady on her first flight. Soon they were circling above Washington. She immediately wanted Earhart to give her flying lessons, but the president said no.

Earhart remained on close terms with the Roosevelts. When FDR was under pressure to fire Gene Vidal (Gore's father) from his post as director of aeronautics, Earhart's threat not to campaign for Roosevelt in the 1936 election saved Vidal's job. That Earhart and Vidal were lovers, as Susan Butler claims, is almost certain. In this fascinating biography Butler sets out for the first time in print much of the evidence. Earhart's relationship with her husband may have been less amorous from the start, a business partnership rather than a romantic engagement. She demanded, as part of their informal marriage contract, that she be free to have affairs of the heart. Undoubtedly Putnam loved her, for her fame among other things. For both of them to stay on top, she needed to keep breaking records. But eventually, in a high-risk business, the law of averages rules.

Butler's biography, which supersedes Mary Lovell's and Doris L. Rich's 1989 accounts, is certainly the single best book that we now have on Earhart's life. It tells the story remarkably well, though not gracefully. It is strong on detail and on narrative drive. For Earhart enthusiasts also interested in cultural history, it might best be teamed with Susan Ware's "Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism" (1993); that work's relentless, judgmental emphasis on the cultural context of Earhart's story is useful. Still elusive as a personality, Earhart comes into sharper, more realistic focus through Butler's lens; this is especially true of her relationships with Putnam, with Vidal and with her Midwestern family, above all her alcoholic father.

She was a driven and driving lady, gutsy, strong-willed, charmingly companionable, determined to use her talents and her fame for personal success and to highlight the capability of women to do all the things men do. And she did these things gracefully, with a sincere and soft touch. Butler's account of the fatal 1937 flight rings true. She is almost certainly right in concluding that Earhart's plane ran out of fuel and crashed, that her bones are at the bottom of the sea. But the Earhart "mystery" is part of the mystique that made her famous in the first place. The world loves a glamorous mystery, and this one has helped keep Earhart's fame alive -- and in print. The reviewer, who has written lives of Dickens and Henry James, is now writing one of Gore Vidal.