"I might have been born in a hovel, but I determined to travel with the wind and the stars."
Jacqueline Cochran (born Bessie Lee Pittman sometime in the first decade of the 1900’s) went to great lengths to hide her humble beginnings. Growing up in an era when women were supposed to be Madonna-like, as well as educated and the perfect house wife, Jackie did not fit. She was the youngest of five children born to a skilled millwright Ira Pittman and his wife Mary, and spent her first decade traveling throughout Florida, Georgia, and Alabama as he set up and reworked saw mills. She had only two years of education and could not read well. Later in life, she claimed to have been an orphan fostered to this family in exchange for a track of land, and that she didn’t have a pair of shoes until she was eight and often slept on pallets on the floor. In the affluent fifties of America, this self-described poverty seemed alien and mysterious. But in reality, most children of the early 1900’s didn’t own shoes and did have very little education. As the Great Depression crippled the country, most children were sent out to work at an early age. It wasn’t until after her death in 1980 that some of the truths were revealed.
Bessie began working in the cotton mills before she was ten. Reports of the year she was born range from 1906 up to 1913, but records show that on November 13, 1920 in Blakeley, Georgia, Bessie married Robert Cochran, who was an aircraft mechanic at the naval base in Pensacola, Florida. Four months later, she gave birth to Robert, Jr. and moved with her husband and child to Miami for the next four years. She filed for divorce and moved back to live with her family, who were now living in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. Robert Jr. died in a tragic accident before his fifth birthday. His clothes caught fire while playing alone in the backyard.
Over the next five years, Bessie became a hairdresser and also trained to become a nurse. She chose hairdressing over nursing because it didn’t deal with blood and at the end of the day, she could give her customer what they wanted. She became one of the first women to master the newly invented permanent wave. She eventually wound up at Antoine's in the Saks Fifth Avenue stores in New York City in 1931 and changed her name from Bessie to Jacqueline. Contrary to her stories, it was her first name, not her married name of Cochran which she picked from a phone book.
The next five years launched Jacqueline Cochran. She began a cosmetic firm called the Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetic Company with a factory in Roselle, New Jersey and an office in New York and met Floyd Odlum, a multimillionaire. It was Odlum who encouraged her to begin flying lessons. In 1932, after only three weeks of lessons, Jacqueline earned her pilot’s license. (She had to take the test orally since she could not read sufficiently.) Her line of cosmetics was called “Wings” and Odlum had hoped that she could promote the products by flying around the country. Even though Odlum eventually got Marilyn Monroe to endorse her line of lipstick, the promotional idea worked just the opposite. Jacqueline discovered her true “wings” were on airplanes. She was a natural born pilot. The next decade was filled with “firsts”.
1934 She and Amelia Earhardt petitioned and won the right to be the first women to enter the Bendix Trans-continental Race
1935 She founded the Jacqueline Cochran Cosmetic Company. She also established an orphanage near her New York apartment.
1936 She married Odlum after his divorce.
1937 She set three major flying records
1938 She became the first woman to win the Bendix Trans-continental Race
1939 She wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to promote the idea of women pilots taking over non-combat military flying so that men would be freed to fly into combat if and when the US became involved in the European conflict. The letter strongly implied that she could command this new force.
Although this letter was initially ignored, the concept behind it came to fruition, largely in part to Cochran’s tenacity. She continued writing letters and eventually rallied twenty-five women pilots who went to England (first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic 1941) and trained with the Royal Air Forces’ Air Transport Auxiliary. While she was in Britain, General Arnold formed the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) stateside under the direction of Nancy Harkness Love. Cochran hurried home and convinced Arnold that women could do more than just ferry aircraft. He sanctioned the creation of the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), headed by Cochran. In August 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD merged to create the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran as director and Nancy Love as head of the ferrying division.
In 1945, Cochran was the first woman to be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. She was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1948.
This first woman to receive the Distinguished Service Medal did not stop flying at this point in her life; Jacqueline Cochran was just beginning to crest the clouds.