Precisely when the subtitle became a calculated sales strategy in American book publishing is a mystery — perhaps some enterprising graduate student could make a thesis out of digging into the subject — but a strategy it most certainly is now, as has been noted in this space before. Subtitles are bursting forth these days like cherry blossoms in April, and getting longer and longer to boot. Consider by way of example the egregious, 13-word, three-comma subtitle attached to this book. “Jet Set” manages to make a near-total mess out of a subject that, more skillfully handled, could have made for an amusing and even informative book, so one can only assume that its publisher tried to use the subtitle to do what the author, William Stadiem, manifestly could not: give clarity and focus to a narrative that is woefully lacking in both.

Instead “Jet Set” is a chaotic stew made from the ingredients cited in its subtitle, ones that Stadiem manages to connect only in the most incidental ways. Instead he lurches around from topic to topic: here a bit of potted history of American commercial aircraft in the jet age, there a glimpse of the men who helped popularize European tourism, here a keyhole-peeping glimpse at the sex lives of the pampered rich, there a collection of thumbnail sketches of airline executives and hoteliers. It’s tempting to say that all this would please the editors of Vanity Fair, for which Stadiem has occasionally written, but whatever one may think of the people who parade through that magazine’s pages, its articles are far more tightly and skillfully concocted than this indigestible bouillabaisse.

You can get a sense of what this book is intended to be about, not to mention a sense of Stadiem’s fanzine prose, from this paragraph, which obviously is intended to set the scene for what follows but mainly establishes a mood of breathless confusion:

“There was no chicken/egg conundrum in the etymology of the phrase ‘Jet Set.’ First came the Set, then came the Jet. The Set was all about people, in the sixties called ‘the beautiful people,’ an elite of fine visage and deep pockets and great networks the ‘regular people’ thought had it made, because the Set were in all the right places, at all the right times, always together, always looking fantastic. They had always been around, but now they got around a lot more and a lot faster. The Jet was all about technology, a great scientific leap forward that enabled the Set to live even higher and larger at a pace and a scope theretofore unimaginable. But more important than propelling the Set to suddenly convenient exotic places for its conspicuous consumption, the jet propelled the mass public into a whole new level of aspiration. In the process, the Jet Set became far more than the sum of its celebrities.”

Thus we evidently are to believe that the Jet Set was more than a motley collection of occasionally beautiful but invariably contemptible men and women who fluttered around the world in quest of expensive if evanescent pleasure; no, it was the vanguard of a new age, beginning with the Boeing 707 and moving on up to the 747, in which global travel became not merely possible but desirable for the great unwashed, which is to say thee and me. So if Stadiem is to be believed, the next time you’re sandwiched eight across in economy class on a jumbo jet, chug-a-lugging plonk at $7 (or more) per mini-bottle, be sure to send up a prayer of thanks for Juan Trippe, Mary Wells Lawrence, Igor Cassini and all the others who made the world glow a bit more brightly back in the day.

’Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Romance in Aviation's Glory Years’ by William Stadiem (Random House)

Ah yes, Igor Cassini. Especially Igor Cassini, an odious man who made his career as a gossip columnist out of fawning over the wealthy and prominent. That repellent arriviste may have amounted to nothing more than a compulsive social climber and tush-kisser, but by Stadiem’s account he was a major mover and shaker whose only problem, as Stadiem sees it, was that the Jet Set, “at least as it was conceived by Igor Cassini . . . was simply too aristocratic for an increasingly democratic and meritocratic world.” Leaving aside the second part of that proposition — does anyone really believe that the world in the Age of the 1 Percent is “increasingly democratic and meritocratic”? — who on Earth is buying the notion that the Jet Set was “aristocratic”? Sure, the occasional count or countess washed up from time to time on the sands of St. Tropez, but mostly the Jet Set consisted of third-tier “celebrities,” shopworn playboys and their overpriced prostitutes, nouveau-riche moneybags and fawning journalists. The Jet Set may have flown first-class, but it hadn’t an ounce of class itself.

Apart from Cassini, Stadiem gives pride of place in this account to, among others: Juan Trippe, who constructed Pan Am out of whole cloth and eventually presided over its demise, though he was influential in opening international jet travel to those who sat in what he called “tourist class”; William Allen of Boeing, which built the 707, the Jet Set’s favorite plane, and then accepted Trippe’s challenge to build the 747, with its huge human payload; Mary Wells Lawrence, whose advertising campaigns made jet travel alluring and sexy; Ian Fleming, whose James Bond became the Jet Set’s favorite symbol; and a vast army of women who worked in those days as “stewardesses” and whose lives were celebrated and mythologized in 1967 with a book called “Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses,” which, Stadiem tells us in one of the few interesting pieces of information he has unearthed, “was actually written by a man, Donald Bain, whose day job was as a publicist for Pan Am.”

It is here, where Stadiem arrives at the sexual aspects of the Jet Set, that his prose soars wildly over the top. To wit: “Betty Friedan’s heretical ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ which called into question . . . suburban-housewife docility and bad-boy toleration, was not published until 1963, five years after the new jets had been enabling American men to sate their satyriasis in the compliant New World.” And: “No women of the era were considered more covetable sex objects than jet airline stewardesses, who were basically Hefnerian Bunnies and Playmates with wings, centerfold creatures who had ascended, quite literally, to a higher plane.” And, in his homage to Lawrence: “The Pussy Galore of Madison Avenue started out as a little fraidycat in smalltown Ohio.”

The prose of “Jet Set” raises once more the question that has nagged at me since I got into the book-reviewing business fully half a century ago: People wouldn’t pay good money to attend a concert by a “pianist” who can’t play the piano or buy a recording by a “singer” who can’t sing, so why is it that they seem perfectly willing to pay for books “written” by “writers” who can’t write? The utter, perhaps congenital, inability to construct a coherent and pleasing sentence rarely seems to prevent people from getting their books published and readers from gobbling them up. “Jet Set” proves the point as persuasively as any book to cross my desk in a long time.


The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years

By William Stadiem

Ballantine. 368 pp. $28