Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Coffee, Tea or Me? (Norman Panama, 1973)

(Click here for information on the 2013 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As three of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the July selection, Coffee, Tea or Me?) 

Si-igh. Well, this month’s book will serve as our necessary periodic reminder that mid-20th Century America was not just about men wearing hats, and women wearing hats and gloves, and glamorous full-service airline travel with champagne and lobster tails. A lot of the time the Good Ol’ Days were just gross and rapey and racist.

Coffee Tea or Me?

Published in 1967, Coffee, Tea or Me?: The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses, can be considered as part of the cycle of swingin’ single girl memoirs that were published in the wake of the success of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. Books like Jeraldine Saunders The Love Boats (yup, it was a book before it was a TV show) and Jeri Emmett’s Point Your Tail in the Right Direction (and really, even Gloria Steinem’s magazine exposé “I Was a Playboy Bunny”), brought the Career Girl narrative into the age of The Pill.

Coffee sold over 5 million copies. The fact that you can’t go to a thrift store or use book shop and not find a pile of paperbacks is a testament to its one-time popularity; a revised edition from 2003 remains in print.

It is also a total scam, and two “stews” credited on the cover never even existed, the creation of American Airlines’ publicity man Donald Bain, who invented the entire thing out of thin air, and penned three sequels with progressively more groan-worthy double entendres in the titles.

The book doesn’t start out half bad, as narrated by “Trudy”, as she describes scandalizing her parents upon her graduation from high school with the announcement that she’s breaking off her engagement to the medical student she’s been dating in order to go to Stewardess School and see the world. The gregarious Texan meets the much more reserved Rachel at school and they become fast friends, and eventually coworkers at the unnamed airline, renting an apartment in Manhattan’s East 60s (known as the “Stew Zoo” for its population of flight attendants) and going to all the hip and happening places, like PJ Clarke’s and TGI Friday’s.

Once they get in the air, Trudy and Rachel discover a whole new world of sexual harassment, as the male passengers constantly attempt to pinch, poke and smoosh their anatomy, and the pilots constantly scheme to trick them into resting their bosoms on their heads. Seriously, Donald Bain has some kind of weird fetish about it.

Unsurprisingly, the book takes a rather casual attitude toward sexual assault; when Trudy and her roommates are sitting around swapping gossip on their day off, she opens with “You’ve been very quiet over there. Haven’t you been raped lately or anything?”

The whole thing really goes south at chapter 10, entitled “They Looked So Normal”, which is literally an entire chapter about how Trudy wishes they could ban “fags” from flying on their airline:

We’ve found that most effeminate men on our flights are extremely passive. They generally posses a high degree of intelligence, are witty, too polite, and offer no trouble to a stewardess. But despite these apparent advantages, their very presence is unnerving and disconcerting.

Oh, yeah, you know how back in the 60s, gay dudes were constantly calling attention to themselves and their gayness, creeping up on normal, red-blooded, American men and trying to infect them with Gay Cooties? You know how that was a thing that totally happened? What, Trudy totally has an anecdote!

“I’m gonna have to ask you to put that magazine away, young fella,” the captain drawled. “It’s… well, it’s indecent, if you follow what I mean.”

“Indecent?” the faggy fellow echoed in an annoyed whine. “You’re indecent, Captain Marvel!” he broke into a high-pitched giggle and blinked his eyes at the bewildered captain.

Before I left the cockpit, I took a moment to look at the magazine. It was some sort of official publication for homosexuals. It was the sickest magazine I’ve ever seen.

Also, THEY CAN FLY! Well, at least hover:

It’s a fairly safe bet to say, “Here comes a fay one,” when the subject of your comment floats up the loading ramp, his feet six inches off the ground, twinkle-toes past you and lightly settles in his seat, one leg daintily crossed over the other in the best feminine fashion.”

How about a side order of racism with your misogyny and homophobia? An entire chapter is devoted to rating men by nationality and occupation, giving us witticisms such as:

JAPANESE: Miniaturization just doesn’t seem to have an advantage where sex is concerned. TV sets and radios, yes- but never sex.

Roger Sterling, is that you?

Or, you can just mash together racism and misogyny AND homophobia and come up with:

ARABS: Arab men are all sexually unhappy, no matter how large their harem. Women of Saudi Arabia are not attractive by any stretch of the imagination. So, when an Arab has the chance to get out of the world’s biggest sandbox, he tries to cram as much action as possible into his sex life. His sex life is actually so unsatisfactory that many Arab men prefer clean, fair-skinned boys to their own women.

The book concludes with a lengthy chapter about Trudy and Rachel’s fancifully apocryphal Flight From Hell, which starts when they get snowed-in in Rochester (uh, represent?) over Christmas and they hear the news that one of their Stewardess School classmates has been killed in a plane crash. When they finally are cleared to fly back to New York, the flight suffers through one mechanical failure after another, while Trudy fends off the advances of a particularly disgusting (even for this book, which is really saying something) drunken passenger. When they finally arrive at JFK, they end up having to disembark the passengers via the emergency slides, and the drunk grabs Trudy by the tits and rides her down the slide like some sort of inflatable beach toy.

Trudy just can’t understand why the experience brings her down on her job! The ever concerned airline sends her to a psychiatrist, and these scenes play out like an interminable edition of Playboy’s Party Jokes.

Trudy and Rachel decide to give stewardessing “one more year”. The end. Thank God.

Six years after the book’s publication, the rights were optioned by CBS for a movie of the week. However, even in 1973, they weren’t willing to make a movie that was basically a 90 minute infomercial for sexual harassment, so only the title was retained. The new story by longtime Paramount Studios hack Norman Panama, was equally stupid, if marginally less offensive, than the source material.

The new story deals with two new “Stews”, the scatterbrained Carol (played by Karen Valentine of “Room 222” fame ) and perpetually stoned-looking Susan (Louise Lasser of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, also the second ex-Mrs. Woody Allen), and Carol’s hilarious case of bigamy.

The movie opens with a chorus singing the relentlessly peppy theme song, which includes such lyrics as: “We fly, fly, fly/ Your ever-loving stewardii!”

(Aside: stewardii?)

The chorus also sings us back from commercial breaks, commenting on the action for those of us who may be too stupid to follow that Carol has one husband in London and another one in Los Angeles: “What’s going on here?/Why do you have two husbands?/That is one too many, girl.”

Anyway, Carol is married to a struggling medical student in L.A. as well as a struggling British painter (whom she saved from committing suicide off of the Tower Bridge, so, golly she just HAD to marry him!)

Eventually the two husbands end up on the same floor of the same hotel in San Francisco, so most of the movie consists of Carol running back and forth between the two rooms, changing her clothes and wedding rings, while the room service waiter does double takes.

And then she discovers that she is pregnant! Oh-ho, that IS a farcical complication!

Never fear, morality is eventually restored when Louise Lasser gives everyone a firm scolding and the chorus explains to us: “Now you have one husband/ Like a normal person/ Now this story is satisfactorily resolved.”

Stray Observations:

Yellow Submarine-style animated scene transitions in the movie feature an airplane, and that airplane has a face, and that face looks stoned out of its mind.

Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones make a cameo of sorts, as an intercom announcement on one of the flights.

And Donald Bain? He turned the fake Single Girl  memoir into a veritable cottage industry, ghostwriting a dozen similar books featuring swingin’ nurses, teachers, and secretaries. None of these had the same success as the original.

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3 Responses to Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Coffee, Tea or Me? (Norman Panama, 1973)

  1. Pingback: Announcing the 2016 Edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

  2. Pingback: Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: The Love Boats By Jeraldine Saunders | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

  3. Pingback: Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Sheila Levine Is Dead And Living In New York By Gail Parent | Lost Classics of Teen Lit: 1939-1989

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