Sun, May 18, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Looking back at the lowdown

The force that breathed life into the image of airline stewardesses was actually a publicity stunt

By Joe Sharkey  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Coffee, Tea or Me?
By Donald Bain
To be published June 3, 2003
Penguin USA

A jet-setting book called "Coffee, Tea or Me?" got a huge amount of attention after it was published in 1967 and was billed as a racy memoir by two saucy Eastern Airlines stewardesses, the attractive Trudy Baker and the beautiful Rachel Jones.

OK, I know there are five objectionable adjectives in that sentence. Please bear with me. The book got rave reviews and sold over a million copies. "Gives the lowdown on stewardesses; reads like a footnote to `Human Sexual Response,"' burbled Look Magazine.

I know Look Magazine ceased regular publication in 1971, and Eastern Airlines went ignominiously belly-up once Frank Lorenzo got through with it in 1991.

I also know that "Coffee, Tea or Me" and its three sequels are regarded collectively as the force that breathed life into the image of airline stewardesses as free-spirited party girls living exotic lives in endless pursuit of men and adventure. I know that a generation of actual flight attendants rolled their eyes whenever the book -- published right on the cusp of the women's movement -- was mentioned.

But I didn't know until the other day that the book was actually written by a man, Donald Bain. The real stewardesses who were billed as the authors of "Coffee, Tea or Me?" and its sequels were actually hired by the publisher to travel the country promoting it on television and in newspapers, which they did to spectacular effect. Their real names were not Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones.

Back in fashion

Long out of print, the book is being re-issued in June by Penguin Books. In the new edition, which features the same 1960s-vintage Playboy magazine-style girly cartoons that graced the original, Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones are still listed as the authors -- though this time the words "With Donald Bain" appear below theirs.

Oddly enough, despite the miseries and wholesale layoffs in the airline industry, stewardesses -- who became known as flight attendants partly in the reaction to "Coffee, Tea or Me?" -- are in some sort of cultural vogue these days.

Flight attendants feature prominently in recent two movies, View From the Top, with Gwyneth Paltrow, and Catch Me if You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the celebrated 1960s criminal imposter Frank Abagnale, whose cons included a brief stint posing as an airline pilot as a ploy to provide cover to kite checks and, incidentally, date sexy stewardesses.

Curiously enough, Abagnale, the great imposter himself, is quoted in the publisher's promotions about the re-issue of "Coffee, Tea, or Me?" He hails it as "the original tale of the glamorous world of flying and the women who made it so" and adds, "Oh, how I miss those days."

Bain, meanwhile, is the ghostwriter of more than 80 books, including the 21 tomes in the Murder, She Wrote series, in which he shares a byline with the main character, Jessica Fletcher -- who is, of course, fictional. He is more than happy to account for himself.

"Sometimes you get lucky," he says in his autobiography, Every Midget Has an Uncle Sam Costume (Barricade Books, 2002).

But luck had little to do with the success of the stewardess books that launched his ghostwriting career.

In a telephone interview, he explained that he got involved with the stewardess project while working as a young public relations executive with American Airlines in New York and hoping to start a writing career. He already had a lot of experience as a business traveler -- during a time when most business travelers were male.

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