Jet Set's survey of '60s glamour runs out of runway

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Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years
By William Stadiem. Ballantine, 368pp, hardcover

Modern air travel may be a grind, but it wasn’t always that way.

In Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years, William Stadiem brings us back to that halcyon era when, for one brief shining moment at the dawn of the 1960s, the jet airliner was the pinnacle of the American aspirational consciousness.

As airlines filled the skies with gleaming 707s, the middle class suddenly realized that flying could be a lot more than a white-knuckle hop to Pittsburgh in a puddle-jumper. The future had arrived, and whether the destination was Hawaii or the traditional Grand Tour, serious travel had finally become an affordable luxury.

In telling the story, Stadiem comes at it from two sides. The first is through Igor Cassini, son of an Italian-Russian contessa and gossip columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain. He popularized the term jet set, and through his breathless tales of aristocrats, playboys, tycoons, and Hollywood stars, Cassini imbued jet travel with a sense of excitement and decadent glamour.

The other half of the equation is Pan-Am founder and CEO Juan Trippe—a Yalie, preppie, and old-money East Coast WASP, despite the ethnic-sounding name—a man who arguably did more than anyone else to democratize air travel. As head of the de facto U.S. flag carrier, Trippe had (for a while) the power and vision to best any foes, including Howard Hughes.

While Jet Set covers fascinating territory, it quickly takes a wrong turn. Stadiem, who has made a career out of writing tell-all biographies, here returns to what he knows best, concentrating on the effete debauchery of Cassini’s crowd while giving short shrift to the much more important and far-reaching Trippe. Perhaps characters like Cassini, Roger Vadim, Porfirio Rubirosa, and Christine Keeler make for saucier copy, but with Stadiem’s leering prose and double-entendres, there’s something slightly discomfiting about the whole thing.

It might make for good beach reading, but in the end Jet Set feels like a missed opportunity. The ingredients may all be there, but Stadiem can’t make them gel, at least not into anything worth consuming.

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