True Tales of TWA Flight Attendants

By Judy Carmack Bross


Kathy Kompare in her TWA uniform by Ralph Lauren

Fasten your seatbelts and sit back and enjoy True Tales of TWA Flight Attendants, a rollicking compilation of memoirs and memories from the golden age of travel compiled by Chicagoan Kathy Kompare and Stephanie Johnson.  Filled with 200 true stories of attendants from the 1950’s until the early 1980’s, True Tales takes you to 35,000 feet with its stories of celebrity encounters, glamorous destinations and sometimes, enticing escapades. Called “hostesses” by TWA until 1973, the attendants were dressed by designers including Valentino, Oleg Cassini, Pierre Balmain and Ralph Lauren, prepared gourmet meals on board (“We were the only airline that cooked its steaks and lamb chops to order in first class you had to be careful about not over-grilling the lamb chops”), stayed in luxury hotels, and knew exactly what to do when, on a couple of occasions, they had to lead passengers to safety in a hurry.

“They had been chosen from hundreds of thousands of applicants who applied each year, and those who were lucky enough to be chosen were lucky enough to fly around the world,” Kompare writes.

Celebrity tales are as fizzy as the vintage champagne the attendants uncorked, and can you blame the three first class attendants who gathered in the seats nearby to watch Cary Grant sleep?

Howard Hughes greets Cary Grant.

Kompare told us:

“TWA was the airline of choice for Hollywood jet setters and the rich and famous. Howard Hughes, the provocative businessman, aviator, and motion picture producer and director promoted his airline in movie and entertainment industries,” Kompare said. “It was not just celebrities. Colleagues tell of playing cards with Harry Truman, hearing Ronald Reagan do a terrific Jimmy Stewart impression, meeting the stunning and gracious Princess Grace and her children, and praying with the Pope on chartered TWA flights given the nickname ‘Flying With the Angels.”

TWA featured the celebrities who flew with them. (photo from public domain)

Known for her addiction to neatness, Joan Crawford, who also loved to play cards with the attendants, always left the lavatory even more spotless when she visited it.  TWA Tales abounds with celebrity stories.

Audrey Hepburn and friend loved flying on TWA.

Elizabeth Taylor also flew TWA with her dog.

Kompare writes of the favorite celebrity she encountered on a TWA flight.

“Before saying goodbye to my roommates at 30 East 68th street in New York, I would say in a slow east coast accent, ‘You may contact me at the Brisson residence in Beverly Hills’.  This was the home of my favorite actress of all time, Rosalind Russell, who was married to Freddie Brisson.  I had just been flying for two months and while in Loa Angeles was told to get to the airport right away and arrived just as the door was closing. The flight service manager told me that I would be working the first class aisle and Rosalind Russell was in seat 1A.  It was a miracle!  She became so relaxed with me that she confided that she was going to New York for breast cancer treatment. Later the same disease would enter my life and I thought about her during my treatment. A beautiful, vivacious, quick-witted strong woman:  As she said in Auntie Mame, ‘Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”

Kompare today serves as a member of the Breakthrough Board  that works closely with UChicago Cancer Center leadership and cancer research advisors and funds cutting edge projects.

Kompare reports that flight attendants were thought of as “international correspondents,” sharing hotels and restaurants in a particular city and where to get the best deals on designer purses. “In Las Vegas, we just had to say that we were TWA attendants and we were given casino tickets by the stage, gratis of course. Shopping, touring and lots of eating were all part of the job experience.”

Taking off

With probable delays and crowds just ahead during this holiday season, we loved hearing about what traveling was like in the golden age. Kompare flew out of Chicago when the first 747s arrived with upper deck lounges and wide aisles. “I loved working in first class. We served Beluga caviar, fully cooked elaborate dinners, cheese and port and a dessert cart not to be believed. When I worked coach we pushed our liquor dinner cart and served full meals even if the flight was just an hour and twenty minutes,” she recalled. “In 1965 TWA hostesses handed out 1.5 million pieces of gum and 81,000 pounds of hard candy.”

Life magazine cover of TWA hostesses in front of the Eiffel Tower.

Kompare writes: “Imagine seats with lots of legroom and sleeping berths in the 1950s, reclining seats that didn’t cause a fight with the person behind you and blankets and pillows for all passengers and a bassinet available for infants.”

She added sadly:  “To add 50 more seats and make ‘x’ amount of more money airlines have taken away five inches from the seats, today everything is just so horribly crowded.”

Co-author Stephanie Johnson at Paramount Pictures. “They loved having us around. That’s my favorite livery of the 747 that I flew all over Europe, Kompare said.

When Kompare joined TWA in 1971 the title was hostess. It was changed to cabin attendant and then morphed into flight attendant following a lawsuit settled in 1973.  Men worked first as bursars and had to speak at least another language.  Both TWA and Pam Am had language requirements.

Ditching training

The book pays tribute to their colleagues and friends, pilots and passengers on the ill-fated flight 800 which exploded over Long Island shortly after takeoff in 1996.  Although the exact cause is still debated, many feel that a missile was shot at the plane.

The book highlights the tremendously well trained and quick thinking TWA flight attendants and contains stories of their bravery.  Readers will be riveted by Kompare’s “From Russia with Love.” 

“Our window shades were down for a movie and I got a call from the pilot telling me to get up to the cockpit and look outside to see if a Russian fighter jet was following us.”

To read this story and many other fascinating tales, learn more at: