Flight Paths: Manhattan Beach native Daniel Riley jets back to the ‘70s in a debut novel of the South Bay, stewardesses and skyjackings

“Fly Me” tells the story of Suzy Whitman, who moves to the beaches of Southern California in 1972 to become a flight attendant. Image courtesy Little, Brown and Co.

“Fly Me” tells the story of Suzy Whitman, who moves to the beaches of Southern California in 1972 to become a flight attendant. Image courtesy Little, Brown and Co.

About three-quarters of the way through “Fly Me,” the excellent, just-released first novel from Manhattan Beach native Daniel Riley, Suzy Whitman makes the drive from the South Bay to Pasadena. It is New Year’s Day, so she is headed to the Rose Bowl to watch USC. And it is 1973, so Suzy and her companion, a towheaded beach bum named Billy Zar, start the tailgate with a pair of Coors pop-tops.

“Fly Me” is full of specific details not only of time but of place. It takes places in fictional Sela del Mar, and Sela, as the characters call it, is a close stand-in for Manhattan. The radio crackles with Bowie and the Eagles, and Suzy can hear it as she skates or bikes along The Strand. People cast ballots for Nixon or McGovern, and do so at a polling place erected in a lifeguard office. And Suzy, like many of the young women in the South Bay at the time, is a stewardess. (The modern, preferred nomenclature of “flight attendant” is uttered by no one; instead, everyone calls them “stews.”) She flies for the fictional Grand Pacific Airlines, and “Fly Me” is the story of time in the air, of skyjackings, plane crashes and drug smuggling. But mostly it is about the grounded hours in between, about finding one’s way in the world.

After a promising and precocious childhood, Suzy graduates from college and goes west, joining her sister Grace, and Grace’s husband Mike, in Sela. But though she is clearly having a good time — party scenes abound, including a delightful opening section set on the Fourth of July — she has her doubts about the place. Returning home to upstate New York on a visit to her family, she tries to explain what it is that makes her embrace less than full: “Being here all of a sudden makes me realize how strange it is that I’ve started to regard all that ridiculousness out there as totally normal,” Suzy tells her father.

That “ridiculousness” is one of Riley’s favorite topics: the “exceptionalism” of Southern California beach towns.

“What is it about the psychology of the place, Sela del Mar, Manhattan Beach or wherever, that anybody who visits there has a chemical change that makes them feel a certain way, either that they never want to go home again, or that they feel that they’re dead inside, that they’ve slowed to the point of being freaked out by it?” Riley said in an interview. “Or, if you are from there, growing up with this notion: who would leave?”

Writing about “the bubble” before it was a popular web comic, “Fly Me” is very much concerned with the way place influences path. At one point, Suzy is working a flight to Paris, and the glimpse of Europe at 35,000 feet makes her think back to Sela. “The very topography mimics a body in recline, a coastal hill range propped up on a beach towel, gazing at the water, back turned with stern indifference to the east,” she thinks.

Why the indifference? Does the pleasant character of Sela and the South Bay put those who live here, like Tennyson’s Lotos Eaters, under some spell of “dreamful ease”? Or perhaps that sun-worshipping focus is a mask for all the nervousness underlying American optimism — a sense that, as Joan Didion wrote of California, “Things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”

About the author

Daniel Riley grew up in Manhattan Beach before moving to New York and becoming a senior editor at GQ Magazine. Photo courtesy Daniel Riley

The Didion quotation serves as the epigraph “Fly Me,” and comes from “Notes from a Native Daughter,” an essay anthologized in Didion’s classic collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” It is a fitting one for a novel peppered with the classic New Journalism of the era, and for a writer who has launched his career around magazine writing. (Full disclosure: Riley and I graduated from Mira Costa High School together, and we remain close friends.) Riley moved to New York City after graduating from college in 2008. He got a job with GQ, and is now a senior editor at the magazine. While there he has interviewed a sprawling range of subjects, including a Formula One race car driver, a food critic and a TV showrunner. What unites pretty much all of them is that they are famous.

The celebrity profile has become a delicate task in the Internet age. In December 2015, writer Clover Hope published a widely read article on the website Jezebel deriding the growing trend of the “Fanboy Profile.” Magazine writers, Hope wrote, are increasingly forced to fawn over their subjects, because of the way the Internet has shifted the calculus about access: where once famous people needed newspapers and magazines to get the word out about their latest movie or album, and had to submit to the stern gaze of a writer for it to happen, now they can just drop a line to their millions of Instagram followers. At the same time, the Internet has shrunk the profit margins of legacy media. The result is a population of writers hesitant to criticize — or, in Hope’s writing, tell the truth about — their famous subjects for fear of being shut out.

The ready counter to this argument is that the Internet’s default tone of vituperative snark has fed a desire for the worst sort of exposé, and with it the cynical belief that anything that is not a takedown is a puff piece. This concern about oversimplification is especially relevant for long-form journalism of the kind Riley practices, that today is dispiritingly likely to be brushed off with “tl;dr” (itself an abbreviation for “Too long; didn’t read”). In an age when people skip the content and head straight for the comments section, what makes a magazine writer worth reading?

Riley’s stories are mostly positive, in the sense that they are filled with people who are revealed to be deeper than they are popularly perceived, or good at something for which they are not famous. (In a 2014 story about Emily Ratajkowski, the model and actress who rocketed to scantily clad fame in the music video for Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Riley finds himself pondering her claim that “The Corrections,” not “Freedom,” is the superior Jonathan Franzen novel.) But he also manages to sift new treasures from thoroughly excavated ground. In a profile of soccer megastar Cristiano Ronaldo, whom he interviewed amidst a “coven of handlers,” Riley briefly manages to get Ronaldo to admit to a preference for scoring goals over team wins, before the Portuguese forward retreats to the team-above-all “party line.” The moment makes Riley smile at the prospect that he has “glimpsed the truest version” of Ronaldo. And, in the most complimentary way possible, it made me think of what Didion reminds readers of in her introduction to “Bethlehem”: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”

Tapping the source

The United Airlines graduating class of stewardesses in Cheyenne, Wyo. in July, 1951. Photo courtesy Ethel Pattison

Even in New York, the beaches of Southern California continued to shape Riley’s work. In 2013, he wrote a reappraisal of the popular TV show “The OC,” which was filmed in and around the South Bay while we were in high school, including some scenes at Mira Costa. The thoughtful blend of autobiography and analysis provided a hint of what was to come in “Fly Me.”  Early on in the book, for example, Suzy sits on the sand and watches planes take off over the ocean, squinting at the paint jobs, guessing where they are headed. Only in the South Bay is it possible to literally have one’s head in the sand while being reminded so clearly of the broader world. Riley did the same thing, aided by his mom’s experience as a travel agent.

But there are thousands of other delightful details that cannot possibly have come from Riley’s own life. Suzy refers, at one point, to a pre-flight weigh-in, a ritual of the de jure sexism with which airlines operated until public pressure and court rulings forced a change in policies. For these, Riley turned to the stews themselves.

First among them was Ethel Pattison, a longtime Manhattan Beach resident and the cousin of Riley’s grandmother. Pattison spent just 14 months flying the friendly skies with United Airlines, but aviation has been a part of her life for more than 60 years. Not long after retiring, Pattison was one of eight former flight attendants hired to lead tours of the airport. (The city of Los Angeles wanted to pass a bond to expand the airport and, following the path developed by Madison Avenue, realized that voting parents could be influenced by children who took the tours.) She became a historian of Los Angeles International Airport. Today, she is the founding director and airport information specialist at the Flight Path Museum and Learning Center, which opened just off Imperial Highway in 2003.

After retiring, Pattison became the president of Clipped Wings, an alumnae group for United stewardesses. At the Flight Path library, past editions of the Clipped Wings Quarterly form the backbone of a collection of scrap books and flight manuals that could launch a dozen dissertations. I searched through some of the materials recently, and found a contact sheet for LAX-based stewardesses for Western Airlines in the mid ‘50s. Almost every single woman listed an address in Manhattan or Hermosa Beach.

Pattison grew up in Los Feliz, and graduated from USC. She was working in public relations for a Los Angeles hosiery company when a sorority sister told her about working as a stewardess. Pattison signed up, and graduated from “stew school” in 1951. She was based out of Seattle, and lived with four other stewardesses in the Queen Anne Hill neighborhood. Working 20 years before the time in which “Fly Me” is set, Pattison’s description of stewardess life resonates through the ages: young women, out of college but not yet ready for adulthood, not fully Bohemian but living in ways they knew would not last. (As was common at the time, Pattison explained, she and her roommates paid for living expenses out of a shared “kitty.”)

“It was a very good experience. We always had such fun doing things as a group,” she said.

Per regulations at the time, Pattison had to retire when she met her husband. With a lengthy set of guidelines about height, weight, pregnancy and more, stews at the time had far less freedom than flight attendants today.

“Today’s women can’t hardly understand it,” said Dauna Semon, who worked as a flight attendant for United in the late 1960s and also volunteers at the Flight Path Museum. “We just accepted it. It was what it was. We didn’t even have the opportunity to think about it.”

Back to the base

Though it takes place over only eight months, “Fly Me” feels packed with history. It hits the Rolling Stones American Tour of 1972, the terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer Olympics, the last Apollo mission and, of course, the 1973 Rose Bowl.

Riley told me that early on he crafted a list of things that he wanted to “get to,” and defended their inclusion through the writing process. It was a case of details mattering for reasons other than sheer verisimilitude.

“It was the kind of thing where my editors said, ‘Is this part necessary?’” Riley said of the game. “I told them, ‘I know what you’re saying, and I’ll cut it back.’ But certain things, if I’m going to write, maybe I only get one shot to write about Los Angeles and the beach towns. And I don’t know how you avoid them.”

After Suzy and Billy return to Sela from Pasadena, they hit the town. The description of a night out on a long weekend will be familiar to any denizen of Manhattan’s bars but for one thing: it’s all locals. Walk around downtown Manhattan Beach on the sunny days — and they are invariably sunny — before or after New Year’s, and you will see gaggles of Midwesterners, walking around and shedding layers of Big 10 apparel, as if they had left their hotel rooms, despite meteorological urging, not quite believing that it could be 75 and pleasant at such a distance from summer.

These people may marvel at the weather and gawk at the surfers, but one of Riley’s great insights is that the area is somehow most impressive to those who experience it every day. In one of the book’s best passages, as true now as it was 45 years ago, he recounts the ability of sunset to stop us dead in our track.

“The sky went blue and orange and red and black, and then it was as though the sun had never existed — but for twenty minutes, right there on the edge, they stopped, up and down the Strand, on balconies, on bikes, surfers and stews and bassists and acolytes, they all stopped and looked and it was as though nobody had ever lived anytime or anywhere ever before.”

That the Midwesterners appear only at the game and not back in Sela is, to Riley’s credit, a matter of historical accuracy. There was no Marriott, no Radisson, and certainly no Shade for them to stay in. But it is also a reflection of how Manhattan has changed.

“Fly Me” evokes a Manhattan Beach with train tracks instead of a Green Belt, bungalows instead of McMansions, and VWs instead of Range Rovers. But the novel is too careful, too aware, and even too skeptical to be an exercise in pining for the past. Riley points out that, despite the changes, the town does a good enough job of that on its own.

“There are very few places that are as nostalgic for their own specific past era as beach towns in Southern California,” he said. “In spite of all the new buildings, the new development, the evolution, so much of that stuff is still just hanging in the trees.”

Daniel Riley will read at {pages}: a bookstore at 904 Manhattan Ave. in Manhattan Beach tonight at 7 p.m. See more of his work at danielvriley.com.


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