When Amelia Earhart (b. July 24, 1897) disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, she left behind a legacy shrouded in legend, glory, and modern-day mythmaking. Celebrated as a pioneering aviator and the first woman to cross the Atlantic on a solo flight, she was also a smart businesswoman, a generous caretaker, and a relentless champion of education. She applied her remarkable tenacity to everything she took on, demanding a great deal of herself and never failing to live up to it, in public or in private.
Though she grew up in a troubled home, financially strained and with an alcoholic father, that tenacity would come to define Amelia from a young age. Firmly set on getting an education, she saved up money and eventually sent herself to the Ogontz School, a junior college in Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1916. She was twenty-one, significantly older than her classmates, but she compensated for the missed years by taking on an exceptional amount and array of academic work. In her correspondence with her mother, young Earhart outlines her scholarly voraciousness, which would later translate into her drive for aviation:
I am taking Modern Drama Literature, German and German Literature outside. French three and five in which latter we are reading Eugénie Grandet. And Senior arithmetic and logic if I can. Besides reading a good deal and art, Bible, etc. etc. I am elected to write the senior song, but you know the more one does the more one can do. […] Despite my unusual activity I am very well organized to do more the more I do.
But during her Christmas vacation in 1917, Earhart was moved by the wounded soldiers returning from WWI and decided to volunteer at a military hospital, performing arduous nursing duties after receiving training as a nurse’s aid from the Red Cross. She found a profound calling in the life of service and, having received her mother’s permission to leave college without graduating, she returned to the hospital in 1918 to nurse the war wounded full-time. In the fall of 1919, she enrolled in Columbia University as a premed student.
But Amelia soon found her faith in the skies. In 1920, she fell in love with flying and the rest, as they say, is history. Eight years later, in June of 1928, made her first transatlantic flight as a passenger, and four years after that, she flew across the Atlantic as a solo pilot.
One of the most astonishing, little-known facts about Earhart’s life — a testament to her tenacious spirit and capacity for self-transcendence — is that she accomplished all of her feats despite debilitating chronic sinus pain, for which she was hospitalized multiple times and which was only exacerbated by the open-air cockpits that exposed her to harsh winds, high pressure, and extreme cold. Still, like fellow reconstructionist Frida Kahlo who made art history despite severe chronic pain, frequent hospitalizations, and more than thirty operations, Earhart achieved what she did without complaint or cry for pity, driven by optimism and dedication to her calling.
Despite her passion for the skies,however, Earhart always kept education, especially the education of women, a primary focus of her relentless dedication, lecturing in universities around the world and even inspiring a course in “household engineering” at Purdue University, where 1,000 of the 6,000 students were women. She also counseled young women on their careers. At Purdue, she advised graduating girls to try a certain job but not be afraid to make a change if they found something better, adding:
And if you should find that you are the first woman to feel an urge in that direction, what does it matter? Feel it and act on it just the same. It may turn out to be fun. And to me fun is the indispensable part of work.
Her views on marriage, too, were incredibly ahead of her time and would be considered progressive even today — yet another expression of Earhart’s singular gift for navigating new cultural territory with courage and conviction.
Few artists have done more to reconstruct the course of contemporary culture than Patti Smith (b. December 30 1946). Celebrated as the “Godmother of Punk,” her musical influence reverberates across acclaimed artists from Garbage to Morrissey to Madonna, and Michael Stipe famously cited her as the core inspiration for founding R.E.M. As a poet and visual artist, she has explored with lyrical poignancy issues of irrepressible urgency, ranging from foreign policy to mortality.
Among Smith’s greatest feats it the systematic demolition of the the perilous and artificial divide between “high” and “low” culture. In 1978, her song “Because the Night” from the groundbreaking album Horses reached #13 on the Billboard 100 chart; in 2010, her remarkable memoir Just Kids earned her the National Book Award. William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud have inspired much of her music, which has moved generations of hearts and bodies across dance floors and mosh pits. In 2005, she was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture; in 2006, she brought down the house at CBGB’s with an extraordinary 3½-hour masterpiece of a performance. The following year, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Allen Ginsberg once bought her a sandwich in the East Village after mistaking her for “a very pretty boy.”
In the decades between Horses (1975) and Banga (2012), Smith recorded nine other studio albums, delivered countless poetry readings, and authored a number of books, including the breathtaking The Coral Sea, which chronicles her grief over the loss of her onetime lover, lifelong friend, and comrade-in-artistic-arms Robert Mapplethorpe.
In Just Kids, which documents how Smith found her creative voice during her early life with Mapplethorpe when both were aspiring artists in New York City, she articulates the singular duality of her muse:
It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.