Journalist and writer Julia Cooke
Photo: Patrick Proctor. Courtesy Julia Cooke

The Words and Music Author Julia Cooke Is Escaping Through Right Now

The Vermont-based journalist and writer shares her favorite books, magazines, and podcasts.
By Kathryn O’Shea-Evans
March 6, 2021
5 minute read

In the era of Covid-19, you might think that Julia Cooke’s book Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), out this week, was inspired by a longing for air travel, but you’d be wrong. “What I really wanted to do was write about spies,” the Vermont-based journalist says about the origins of her research. It began after she met stewardesses from the iconic, now-shuttered Pan American World Airways seven years ago, during an event at Kennedy International Airport’s TWA Flight Center in New York, and decided to immerse herself in their former lives. “Everyone talks about how Pan Am was intricately connected with the U.S. government,” Cooke says. “It sent a lot of women to sensitive areas of the world, from Vietnam to Moscow.” (Such international destinations led to rumors that flight attendants worked for the C.I.A.)

Her book details the glamour and liberation of Pan Am’s female staff—who, between 1966 and 1975, had to speak two languages, hold a college degree, be under 26 years old, and weigh between 105 and 140 pounds to be hired—by telling the stories of their journeys. “They were magnetic,” Cooke says of the women she interviewed. “They talked with total authority about prime ministers as if they’d had martinis with them the day before.” To find out how the author travels, we recently asked Cooke about the media she packs in her carry-on, and what she’s reading, watching, and listening to now.

How do you start your mornings?

I get to work as soon as I can. By work, I mean an uncluttered space to write, with a pit stop for tea. I keep an office on our main street in town, and I’ll walk there while listening to music. I find the act of walking while listening to music to be really meditative and helpful, and I’ll often keep walking until something occurs to me that I want to write about.

I listen to music that has to do with whatever I’m writing. For my new book, I made a sixties and seventies playlist that had a lot of The Monkees, the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, and some less well-known stuff, like the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra.

Any daily go-to reads?

Other than The New York Times, to see what fresh disaster the day has wrought, I don’t have any. I find podcasts easier for digesting the crazy news cycle of today, so I listen to politics explainers on The Daily, and the London Review of Books’s Talking Politics. I really like The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, where fiction writers choose stories from the publication’s archives and talk about them. I find it amazing to hear writers reflect on other writers.

I also read a couple of newsletters, mostly by women writers. I love [author and journalist] Sarah Menkedick’s newsletter Terms of Endearment for its honesty and lyricism. She talks about the challenges of today in a way that’s not overwrought but doesn’t shy away from reality. Also, [author, historian, and writer] Alexis Coe’s newsletter Study Murray Kill connects the past with the present in a vivid, unpredictable way.

What are you watching or reading for fun?

During the pandemic, my husband and I have watched movies in thematic bursts. We started with films about New York in the eighties. Then we watched comedies about people moving to the country. The film Baby Boom could go in either category, because it’s funny but also real. And I love [the late actor] Sam Shepard in comedy roles.

I read Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, which was really fun. When I don’t have a long attention span, which is common recently, I read magazines. We get The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New York Review of Books, and my husband gets GQ. We also started randomly getting a lot of shelter magazines, including Dwell and Domino, which I love flipping through. I’ll put my 20-month-old in my lap and show him all the pictures.

Any guilty pleasures?

My entire TV-watching experience is a big guilty pleasure, but I don’t feel guilt over it. I can intellectualize why I love TV soap opera dramas, and talk about how to project my desire for high drama outside my actual life onto a little screen. I like almost any dramedy, whether it be a period thing like The Crown or Call the Midwife, or something contemporary. I’ve watched Grey’s Anatomy multiple times since its debut. I also love Killing Eve.

What media do you bring with you on an airplane?

Just my phone, computer, and headphones for music. I love writing and working on airplanes; it’s my favorite place in the world to do that. That said, there’s nothing better than David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive album for a nighttime landing. Sit by a window, watch the lights, and it’s heaven.