By WILLIAM JACK SIBLEY
For five years in the late 1970s, early 80s, I was employed as a “Spanish speaker” steward for the coolest (at the time) airline in the world – Braniff International. Braniff was famous for inaugurating “The End of the Plain Plane” in it’s attention-getting, revamped transformation designed by Madison Avenue whiz kid Mary Wells Lawrence, second wife of Braniff CEO, Harding Lawrence.
We were nicknamed “The Jelly Bean Airline” because of the lime green, pumpkin orange, turquoise colors of the planes, the wild Emilio Pucci uniforms and the sassy/classy style of service embodied in the “Braniff strip,” where stewardesses changed their uniform several times during each flight. Andy Warhol appeared in print and TV “If You’ve Got It Flaunt It!”ads for Braniff. Sonny Liston, Salvador Dali, Playboy centerfolds — all were showcased in the airline’s zippy, audacious marketing campaign. In a first-ever industry venture, Braniff hired world-famous sculptor Alexander “Sandy” Calder to paint one of its DC8s and named it, “Flying Colors.” It was a highly original, brassy organization in every way, shape and Crayola-colored airplane sense.
And Braniff employees worked their high-altitude derrières to a fare-thee-well in order to make it so. A quick primer from the glory days of air travel: Braniff served beer, wine and cocktails immediately after takeoff (craving a Pisco Sour at 3 in the afternoon? We got it!), followed by a complete chicken dinner, in coach — from Oklahoma City to DFW! — AND, afterwards, a gratis cappuccino made with real brandy to enjoy with your gratis mini-pack of cigarettes that came on every meal tray. And that kind of professional, exhaustive service happened countless times a day, everyday, on a global scale from Amsterdam to Singapore, Buenos Aires to Montreal, Brownsville to Lubbock.
When U.S. President Jimmy Carter deregulated the airlines in 1978, Braniff’s route structure increased by 40 percent in one day – no other airline had ever grown so large, so fast. We became bigger than even the legendary Pan Am; we were the only American airline to fly the Concorde, our bright orange 747 “Fat Albert” established an industry world record, exceeding 30,500 flight hours in just under six years. And as in all chimerical dreams – the bubble wasn’t to last. But first, the 70s.
In 1977, Braniff bid adieu to the swinging 60s and inaugurated the cooler, more subdued beiges and taupes of New York designer Halston. Out went the minis, in came the just-below-the-knee jersey wrap dresses, polyester pantsuits and ultra suede overcoats. Flight attendants might have been paid subpar (stories were legendary in Dallas of flight attendants swathed in Halston cashing food stamps at Tom Thumb grocery stores), but damn, we looked great! I sailed into Studio 54 two weeks after it opened because the doorman recognized my mid-calf, ultra suede overcoat as Halston and apparently assumed I was somebody. (Well, everybody was somebody at 54!)
It was a heady time to be working for Braniff. I was in one of the last classes to graduate in the old Pucci uniforms. For the men, it was a classic, double-breasted blazer with gold buttons and one gold band on the sleeve – identical to the pilots uniform, but missing those extra “captain” sleeve bands. (We also wore black “pilot caps,” which I loathed because it made me look like some kid playing John Wayne in the film “The High and the Mighty.”) For the women, Pucci meant a fruit salad explosion of mini-skirted color and retina twisting motifs. With Halston, not only did the uniforms drastically evolve, the plane colors became darker, richer — chocolate, plum, malachite, cobalt. The silverware changed, the china changed, the stemware changed, the seats became all leather, both in first and coach (Braniff led the way on this now common feature. Rumor was it was the only way the company could get payment from another popular Braniff destination, economically challenged Argentina, via processed cowhides!)
Because I was satisfactorily fluent in Spanish (high school classes, college classes, two summers in Guatemala, a year studying in Puerto Rico), I got assigned “Spanish speaker” on flights to and from Mexico. as well as South American charters. Thus began my Acapulco residency, pretty much three days a week, every week, for three years at the beachside Princess Hotel (where Howard Hughes died the year before in the penthouse of the pyramid-shaped landmark.)
Acapulco then, unlike today’s crime cartel miasma, was a kind of pinnacle of tropical chic, understated elegance and “beautiful people” brio. Even today, it is still one of the most romantic, breathtaking bays in the world. A near perfect semi-circle of sandy beaches, palapa bars, seaside cafés and barefoot beach vendors hawking fresh coconuts, beer, cheap jewelry and sunglasses. On the far edges of the bay, magnificent villas perch high atop the rocky cliffs, looking like gigantic bird nests. Henry Kissinger, the Shah of Iran’s sister, Hollywood actress Merle Oberon, the “World’s Best-Dressed Woman” Gloria Guinness, Dolores Del Río, Lana Turner, Johnny Weissmuller, John Wayne, etc., all had homes here or rented them during the 70s.
I always worked the first class section of each flight, the “Spanish Speaker” being the one to make announcements in both languages from the fore entry P.A., handle transit documents and spray the entire length of the plane with insecticide before takeoff. (Incredibly no one ever once complained about being assaulted with Raid. Today there’d be a dozen lawyers greeting your arrival stateside for attempted asphyxiation.)
I got to greet everyone: movie stars, TV personalities, politicians, dukes, earls, barons, Marchesas, Principessas, honeymooners, surfers, moms and dads on a spree, preachers, teachers, gamblers, hookers – you name it. Everyone off to see the sybaritic, glamorous, hedonistic – thoroughly non-puritan – Acapulco.
Dolores del Río never ate a thing, carried a huge stack of the latest magazines and always wore orange pancake makeup (I was told by a Braniff agent that all the old Mexican film stars did this, as it concealed wrinkles when photographers took black-and-white photos of you arriving at the airport.) Lady Bird Johnson always liked one margarita, the closer we got to landing. John Sebastian from the Loving Spoonful sat all by himself in an almost empty first class and told me he was meeting a producer that wanted to buy some of his songs.
Sloan Simpson, a fulltime Acapulco resident, model, TV personality and former wife of New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer, was on a number of Braniff flights and we became friends. She was known locally as “The First Lady of Acapulco,” and, basically, if Sloan didn’t appear at your party, it never happened.
I flew Tina Turner back to the United States after a New Years Eve spectacular she’d performed at. Not sure who was suffering more on that flight, me or her. Also Grace Jones, Lynn Wyatt, Joan Collins … too many to remember them all. For a while there it was a Who’s Who of “somebodies” on each and every flight.
For some reason the Italian dolce vita cognoscenti took a great liking to Acapulco then. Every beach bar, restaurant and hotel lobby was filled with good looking, gente meravigliosa, gesticulating wildly, laughing uproariously, smoking like belching stacks on the Andrea Doria and swaggering madly about as only fearless Italians ever seem to pull off with any success.
The French weren’t far behind. On saw Baron de Rede Rothschild and his wife, Marie-Helene only in passing, their comings and goings apparently so exclusive no one was ever invited to accompany them. But I did meet a comte (earl) or a vicomte (viscount), not sure which, lounging by the pool at the Princess who told me he’d been awaken at dawn by a small earthquake, his first, and he ran excitedly to the window to see if the palm trees were falling on the golf course and broke his toe on a passing chair. Cauchemard! Quite an interesting guy. Sadly, the aptitude for lounging with a complete stranger and talking for hours about absolutely nothing in a perfectly serious way is an utterly lost art.
One flight coming down from Dallas I met a middle-aged gentleman from New York who was apparently somebody big in the fashion business. We had brief chats between my fellow flight attendant and I hauling the hors d’oeuvre cart, the salad cart, the chateaubriand cart, the dessert cart (with billowing creme de menthe vapor scenting the cabin from a large brandy snifter stuffed with dry ice.) By the time we got to the fruit and cheese cart, it was obvious practically everyone in first class was friends with Mr. Fashion Business. They were all having a big party for him that night and would I be interested in attending? I thought about it for maybe three seconds and said “Sure, I’d be delighted. Eight o’clock? See you then.”
The taxi pulled up to a charming villa beneath the legendary Las Brisas Hotel, called Ocho Caballos (Eight Horses), and sure enough there were eight terra cotta horses prancing along the top of the outer security wall. Not finding an entrance door, I felt my way around the side wall until I stumbled onto a small wooden gate in the rear. Stepping inside, I was suddenly in the kitchen patio, where a middle-aged woman was sitting on a stool having her hair shampooed and set by a Mexican lady. Meet Pauline Trigere, French by birth, a renowned-in-her-day New York dress designer who inexplicably took an instant delight in slicing me into bite-sized pieces.
“Who are you?”
“Well, I’m a guest tonight. I guess I’m early.”
“You can say that again.” I was wearing what I thought was a cutting-edge party shirt that had Arabic writing on it that I’d bought on the street in New York. She pointed to my shirt accusingly, “Do you know what that means?”
“I do. It’s disgusting. What’s your name?”
“Bill? Like Bill Holden, Bill Buckley — what do you do, Bill?”
“I work for the airline.”
“Of course you do! Do you speak French?”
“Of course you don’t. Why are you here?”
“I was invited …”
“Go swimming, you’re early!” The Mexican lady finished her styling and Madam Trigere stood tugging at her bathrobe and shooting me eye daggers. “Never wear anything you don’t know what it means, comprendre?” She turned and hastened off to some far end of the villa, hopefully to take a long, long nap.
No such luck.
After a blissful swim in the carved-out-of-solid-rock pool jutting into the sea, the best margaritas ever, ceviche and tiny lobster hors d’oeuvres and chatting it up with some of the nicest, funniest, most fascinating people ever – guess who I was seated next to?
“It’s Bill Holden, yes? Eleanor, have you met Bill Holden … he speaks Arabic,” Pauline purred. On the other side of me sat another New York icon, fashion PR genius and creator of the International Best Dressed List, Eleanor Lambert. I wanted to crawl under the table and ride away on a tiny camel.
“Arabic? You don’t look Arabic. You don’t look like Bill Holden either. What ar-r-re you wearing?” The shirt that launched a thousand accusations. Wish I still had it. In spite of the few stiff necks in attendance that evening, it was a classic Acapulco party. Beautiful surroundings, beautiful people, beautiful night redolent with intrigue and adventure. Propriety takes a holiday! And then, as always, there was my 6 a.m. check-in.
When I conjure up Acapulco glamour then versus today’s Kardashian-by-the-numbers, it feels a little like comparing Tinkerbelle with Spongebob Squarepants. How? Why? Then, I still see Ali McGraw and husband, Studio Chief Bob Evans, strolling hand-in-hand out the front door of the mountaintop restaurant, Madeiras, followed by a trio of strolling guitarists trailing behind. Then, I see the gorgeous Farrah Fawcett and the lucky Charles Grodin holding up airport traffic as they shoot a scene in front of the Acapulco terminal for their film that no one saw, “Sunburn.” Then, I’m walking through the lobby of what was once J. Paul Getty’s private estate, the Pierre Marques, and seeing the most heart-stopping sunset of my life and thinking, “Remember this, you have to remember this!”
Braniff folded in 1982 – a result of growing too fast, spending too much and planning too little. Like Pan Am, Eastern, Northwest, Continental, TWA, US Air, Northeast, National, Mohawk, Allegheny, Trans Texas, Muse, Mexicana, etc., etc. – these former giants of industry are as vanquished now as the once shimmering, intoxicating heyday of Acapulco.
I’m reminded of a story my friend, San Antonio socialite and longtime Acapulco habitué, Jeanette Longoria, used to tell: She’d occasionally be invited to dinner at actress Merle Oberon’s grand villa, El Ghalal, and the guests would mill and drink and nibble endlessly, but no Merle would appear. More drinking, more appetizers – and still no Merle. Finally, just as the guests were eyeing the front door, a vision in a long gauzy Indian caftan would silently appear on the first landing of the stairs and pretend to be studying the floral arrangement there. The gathering below would by now be spellbound by the stylized pantomime. Then suddenly, as if startled by a gust of wind, she’d turn with a shy smile and beam in delight at the gathering as if it were the happiest day in her life. Down the steps she’d float, radiant, an entrance Cecil B. DeMille might’ve directed.
And it never failed to wow. Make your entrance kid, seize the moment! Braniff, Acapulco … then, now. It’s true — we’re only given so many days to bask in the sunshine before night, before expiration puts a date on whatever light that once burned so incandescent, so memorable in the past.
As they say: Acapulco, el problema no fue hallarte, el problema es olvidarte! (Acapulco, the problem wasn’t finding you, the problem is forgetting you!)