The Improbable Life of Paula Zoe Helfrich
She was the daughter of a U.S. spy, an exile from Burma, a flight attendant in a war zone, and half of an epic love story. But how much of that was true?
The four Burmese officers who came to the apartment that morning in 1963 didn’t break down the door. They pounded hard, though, very hard. When Paula Zoe Helfrich answered, they told her in no uncertain terms that she would board an evening flight out of Rangoon. She would not be allowed to return.
A steely new regime in Burma was causing outsiders to scatter. Indian merchants were gathering what earnings could be salvaged from their teak and rice mills before heading west. White expatriates weighed England versus Australia. Deportations of foreigners grew increasingly common. Still, Paula had assumed that her father’s stature would ensure her immunity. He had worked with the highest powers of Burma’s postcolonial government; surely his 17-year-old daughter would skim above any discord like fat on milk.
Besides, she was a native. Her parents were from Illinois, but she had been born in Rangoon. She spoke Burmese. She reflexively knew the differences in climate, language, and culture between the country’s highlands and ports. She had ridden elephants in the jungle and wore longyis, traditional wrap skirts. She had a job at a tourism desk in Rangoon’s stately Strand Hotel and a room in the apartment of a family friend. After work she and her boyfriend, a handsome Burmese student with revolutionary leanings, walked along the shores of Kandawgyi Lake, where dense foliage furnished private nooks. She loved how the pink evening light reflected off the nearby gilded Shwedagon Pagoda onto the lake’s flat water.
Disorder, the result of World War II’s aftermath and simmering interethnic conflict, had afflicted Burma for as long as Paula could remember. Consequences were visible: People displaced from the countryside lived in shantytowns along Rangoon’s fringes. In 1962, the situation took a dramatic turn. The military staged a coup and expelled international organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the Asia Foundation. It banned Western-style dancing, horse racing, and nightclubs. That summer, troops stormed a Rangoon University meeting on democracy, killing dozens of people, according to human-rights groups. The next day, the regime blew up the campus’s student union. The situation became progressively dire as the months wore on.
The following September was when the officers came for Paula. She was ordered to leave because she had spent time with questionable people, namely her boyfriend. Her father didn’t put up a fight. She had less than 24 hours to pack her possessions, bid farewell to the love of her life, and stop for a bowl of mohinga, perfumed fish and noodle soup, on her way to the airport. When Paula told me this story, she described her deportation so vividly that I all but saw the officers’ broad shoulders in her doorway, the rutted roads jolting the car that ferried her to the plane, and her hands nervously gripping her knees as she rode.
She was heading to a place she’d never been and a family she’d never met: grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and cousins in Chicago. She would find the Windy City smelly and orderly, sometimes beautiful but too often cold. She had never experienced the sting of a Midwestern winter. She didn’t even own a coat.
I once spent half an evening as Paula’s daughter. We met at a 2014 conference in Bangkok of former Pan Am flight attendants; she was the keynote speaker and I was researching a book. In her speech, she talked about growing up in Southeast Asia and feeling out of place in the United States when she was plopped there in the 1960s. She’d lived a series of interlocking adventures: traveling the world with Pan Am, helping evacuate refugees during the Vietnam War, running for office in Hawaii, self-publishing a novel based on her life, returning alone to live in Burma, now called Myanmar, as a middle-aged woman. Paula’s voice was silvery, musical, and rich with laughter. She was in her sixties, she told the group, but she felt like she was thirty. Her two daughters still asked her what she planned to do when she grew up.
The conference’s final dinner involved a river cruise. We drifted past the Thai capital’s skyscrapers, drinking wine and listening to the wafting music of a sequin-clad Elvis impersonator under a sky that threatened rain. At one point, I found myself sitting next to Paula on a crusty vinyl stool bolted to the boat’s aft. I was younger than everyone in the crowd by three decades and had grown weary of explaining my provenance. Paula noticed.
“Wanna be my daughter?” she asked conspiratorially, leaning toward me in a quiet moment. Her smiling face, eyebrows raised, was an invitation. “Sure,” I answered.
For the next hour, as people swirled by to talk to Paula, she introduced me as her offspring. It wasn’t an impossible sell—we both wore our curly hair loose and natural; we both had strong opinions and loud laughs. I watched as she explained who I was with zero doubt or hesitation ruffling her features. The other women nodded in understanding. I caved when I ran out of platitudes based on my thin knowledge of her. I finally admitted that we were not, in fact, related, and everyone was amused. No one asked who I really was.
Paula struck me as magnetic and the rare person who, with no loss of kindness, acts first and considers how people might feel afterward. She seemed in full possession of herself, and what I felt that night was akin to envy, staring upward from my relative youth at this woman of boundless energy and verve. She captivated listeners with the details of life events that seemed stolen from fairy tales. Most striking was an epic love story: When she moved back to Myanmar, Paula told me, she found the teenage boyfriend that the deportation had cost her and married him.
What a magnificent coincidence, I thought, to anchor Paula’s story. The contours and formative incidents of her life, in Paula’s sweeping, confident telling of it, conformed with cookie-cutter precision to the grand currents of history in Southeast Asia. Burma’s independence coincided with her birth and imbued her upbringing with adventure. Its slide into authoritarianism displaced her physically but couldn’t uproot her identity or her affections. Decades later, the country’s reopening drew her into its ebullient orbit and engineered an improbable reunion with a man she’d thought she would never see again. The arc of a life, punctuated by remarkable love, loss, and deliverance—it was a saga that I wanted to write.
I also wished to be as curious and bold as Paula when I eventually married and, I hoped, became a mother. She became more than a potential interview subject; she was a candidate for some personal pantheon of spirited women I could locate in my mind on demand, perhaps even call on from time to time. Paula spoke of my coming to visit her in Myanmar as inevitable.
She was right: After a year of occasional correspondence, I flew to Yangon, as Rangoon is now known. It was September 2015. “Aaaaah! Julia, yes!” came the cry from her bedroom when her husband announced that I was at their front door. Paula gripped my arm when she saw me. She’d lost weight since I’d met her, and her hair was less curly. Even so, her gaze possessed startling immediacy. She was impatient and impetuous by nature, but when she looked at you, she seemed to scan everything she found and settle on something—the piece of you that interested her most.
Paula still embodied the dichotomies that had initially drawn me to her: international and American, feminist and feminine, strident and warm, independent yet deeply connected to others. As I talked with her, interviewed friends and family, and explored documents pertaining to her past, another contradiction revealed itself, this one between fact and fiction. Put simply, not every detail of the stories Paula told me about herself was true. In some cases, veracity was less splendid, while in others it was more poignant. “Paula was a creative person,” her younger sister Mary Uyeda told me, “and there were times when that creativity exceeded reality.” Why was the truth of her objectively extraordinary life not enough for Paula, I wondered. Why did she need more?
Somerset Maugham, one of many writers to use Burma as a backdrop, once described it as having “a beauty not of nature, but of the theater.” When I met Paula, the country had become her stage for reclaiming the junctures of a life often shaped against her will. I didn’t know it yet, but I was part of her farewell performance.
In the archives of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, a samurai sword sits in storage, never before displayed to the public. It is believed to have belonged to Shojiro Iida, commanding general of the Japanese 15th Army in Burma during World War II. Aung San, the architect of Burmese democracy, gave it to Truman in 1946.
Memorandums between Truman’s office and the War Department reveal some hesitation over the president’s acceptance of the sword. To not take it risked alienating the man very likely to claim power in an independent Burma. To receive it would be to recognize his legitimacy while England still technically ruled the gangly country stretched alongside China and Thailand. In the end, Truman’s top military aide accepted the sword on his behalf.
Lieutenant Colonel Baird Helfrich was the emissary dispatched to gift the blade to the president. A lawyer by training, he had arrived in Burma in 1944, to lead a secret wing of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. He was tasked with infiltrating various groups of anti-English revolutionaries to identify those allied with the Japanese and cultivate others deemed susceptible to American influence. He fell in with Aung San, then a leader of Burma’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, and “displayed outstanding acumen, diligence, and daring in obtaining information vital to the United States Government,” according to his OSS personnel file.
After the war, Baird returned home to Illinois, where he married a woman named Patricia “Pat” King who’d been a code breaker in the Navy. They honeymooned in China, then returned to the Midwest, where Baird continued his law career. In Rangoon, Aung San was assassinated in July 1947, six months before Burma achieved the freedom for which he’d struggled. The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League vaulted into power nonetheless, with U Nu, an ally of Aung San’s, as prime minister. The new government quickly found itself navigating conflicts with ethnic minorities and political rivals fighting for their say in the country’s future.
By the early 1950s, civil war had ebbed. Burma had a lively media and a growing educational system. U Nu aligned himself with anti-communists on state visits, and under General Ne Win, the army became professional and unified, able to squelch border skirmishes with the Chinese. Foreign interest in the country swelled. Burma was rich in natural resources and strategically located amid the Cold War dominoes of Indochina.
Baird sensed opportunity: A few years in Burma investing in various businesses and his family could return to the United States with the funds and connections to launch his political career. (If he still worked for covert services, Baird slid under such deep cover that today the CIA will “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence” of records on his postwar activities.) His wife found Illinois “much too quiet to suit,” anyway. So they decamped. “It all sounds just a bit monumental an endeavor,” Pat Helfrich wrote in her first letter to her skeptical parents, describing various projects and plans that she and Baird would undertake in their new home.
Paula told everyone she knew, even her children, that she was born in Burma. For some listeners, she added a dash of intrigue: Pat delivered the Helfriches’ first child in Rangoon, but Baird wanted the infant to have a passport indicating that she’d been born on American soil. Not long after her birth, he walked a few blocks from his downtown office, where he represented John Deere and other American businesses seeking a foothold in Burma, to a warren of townhouses and department stores. There, in a small, discreet office, he had Paula’s first passport forged. It said she was born in Peoria, Illinois.
This is the first fable to fall away from the scaffolding of Paula’s life. Her mother’s letters, which Paula collected and intended to publish, reveal that she was born in the United States: in Peoria, on August 15, 1946, one year to the day after the Japanese surrendered in World War II. The Helfriches’ next three children—Ellie, Stuart, and Mary—were also born in Illinois. Paula was five when the family moved to Burma. “Paula has come through the whole thing as casually as though she were just crossing the road,” Pat wrote to her parents.
On the other side of that road lay Technicolor longyis, gleaming pagodas, spicy curries, and more than 135 ethnic groups that testily comprised the country. It’s plausible that Paula’s early memories of the Midwest faded quickly and forever. Or perhaps she claimed Burma as her point of origin, knowing it was not, because it felt truer than fact.
A family of six stands in front of a wood-gabled, Tudor-style white house with that colonial incongruity between European architecture and surrounding tropical foliage. It’s April 1952; the Helfriches have arrived on an ocean liner from California to learn that their new home at 26 Park Road in Rangoon is occupied by another family, the result of a miscommunication with a Burmese friend of Baird’s who rented the house to them from overseas.
The knowledge that her family would be sharing a house with the Nicholses, Americans who were leaving for Madras (now Chennai) in India that September, startled but didn’t displease Pat. She had people to introduce her to life as an expat housewife. In letters home, she wrote of new activities and routines. The children gaped at the snake charmer at the Rangoon Zoo, splashed around at the Kokine Swimming Club, and admired a cream-colored Packard owned by a friend of Baird’s, with a horn that tooted “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The humidity prematurely sealed Pat’s letters; bugs ate her books. Paula called the abundant lizards that flitted through the house “baby alligators.” Pat and Baird sat through daily Burmese lessons, but the words never stuck. The children took almost immediately to the language.
Paula attended classes for a time at a school called Methodist English, where her classmates included Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San’s daughter. I spoke with the now famous politician’s schoolmate and former personal assistant, writer Ma Thanegi, who told me that though she’d known of Paula, they weren’t friends. The foreign children socialized less with the native Burmese than they did with their own.
Pat claimed to hate segregation, the backbone tenet of colonial life holding that Western children should grow up free of the polluting influence of locals. In her letters, she wrote of her own unlearning of American-ness. Though a Burmese servant could have gone to the outdoor markets for her, Pat shopped for her family’s groceries herself, learning how the religious affiliations of the vendors—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim—dictated who sold what and when. She had a strapless gown made by a local tailor who used rattan cane in place of whalebone for the stays. Pat fancied herself a trendsetter.
Paula once described her mother’s letters as “chirpy,” but I sense tension in them, especially the ones from that first year: a bold young wife and mother in a far-off place writing home to her staid, well-to-do, disapproving “Mother and Daddy.” Pat described the dignitaries and business groups the Helfriches entertained; she effused about the government’s eagerness to adopt mechanized farming, which had helped Baird secure his John Deere contract. She wrote indignantly that clips her father sent her penned by a Chicago Tribune reporter—articles from that time describe Burma as a “land of sham” that “claims to be just about everything it isn’t,” where “officials can’t speak [their] own language”—didn’t match her observations. She’d met the reporter in the mere three weeks he’d spent in the country and found him chinless and haughty, like a British overlord. He couldn’t be trusted, Pat told her father. Still, she requested, please keep sending such “interesting—if ill-informed” articles.
Through all her writing ran two consistent threads: a commitment to adventure and unconventionality, and an acute awareness of how to shape the way other people viewed her life. Paula would inherit both qualities.
“By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me”
The first lines of “Mandalay,” Rudyard Kipling’s famous 1892 ode to colonialism, introduce readers to Moulmein, a port city in Burma some 200 miles overland from Rangoon. Moulmein is also the setting for George Orwell’s iconic anti-imperialist essay “Shooting an Elephant,” in which a British officer, who may or may not be Orwell himself, reluctantly kills an elephant that has rampaged a local market. “When the white man turns tyrant,” Orwell writes, “it is his own freedom that he destroys.”
By the mid 20th century, the city had bloomed into more than an object of literary appeal. It was an industrial hub, a signal of independent Burma’s economic rise. Workers floated felled logs down the Thanlwin River for the timber industry, and rice mills clustered along the waterfront. The Helfriches and their children—there were five by then—moved to Moulmein in 1956. Baird had business interests there and wanted to monitor them closely.
At his wood mill, two trained elephants worked from seven to four each day, scooping logs from the river and dragging them up the shore. The workday ended with the blaring of a horn. The elephants, accustomed to the sound, would stop lugging and stand still. In the evening humidity, which settled like a blanket around the shoulders, Paula and her siblings visited the animals. They’d touch them and giggle. Sometimes, Paula rode one and gave it orders to pick up planks of teak between its trunk and tusks. In her memory, “Moulmein was elephants,” she later told me. It was also the scent of fresh bread and coconut pancakes from an Indian bakery, and the Helfriches’ dark-wood longhouse on stilts. The children rode to school, which was run by Catholic nuns, in a rickshaw pulled by a donkey. Among some 2,000 students, they were the only Westerners.
Pat had invited her parents to visit Burma, at one point offering first-class passage on a luxury ship and sightseeing “from Moulmein to Mandalay to the Shan Hills.” Mother and Daddy’s rejection was not included in the cache of letters that Paula later collected. Another letter, though, indicates that the Helfriches booked passage back to the United States in 1957. They spent the summer visiting family and friends, road-tripping from Illinois to Virginia. They stopped in Europe on their way back across the globe. Pat was pregnant with her sixth child by then. En route to Rangoon, she suddenly went into labor. After an emergency landing in Iraq, baby Tommy was born at the American hospital in Baghdad.
Before reading the letters, I had asked Paula whether she’d been to the United States before her deportation. “Never,” she’d told me, firmly shaking her head. “We had been on one trip to Europe, we’d gone through Rome and to different places in the European continent, and Paris.”
Her cousin John Miller remembers meeting her in Virginia on the trip she claimed she didn’t take. Paula would have been 10 or 11. Miller told me that he was disconcerted at how much of the chicken served at one dinner the young Helfriches devoured—gristle and sinew, pieces and parts that American kids discarded—and how their eating habits contrasted with their prim British accents.
Back in Burma, the post-independence government began to fracture. “It had always been a hodgepodge of competing interests, ambitions and loyalties, held together by the partnerships at the very peak, between U Nu and his chief lieutenants,” writes scholar Thant Myint-U in his history of Burma, The River of Lost Footsteps. “There was no clear ideological divide or really even differences over policy. It was more the story of friends and colleagues who after twenty years living and working at close quarters, through war and peace, were getting tired of one another.” In 1958, a weakened U Nu ceded power to the military; he would reclaim control two years later through a popular vote. The U.S. embassy began warning Americans when it was prudent to stay indoors. Burma in the late 1950s was firm but wobbly, “like a bowl of Jell-O,” Rhoda Linton, an American woman who taught at a missionary school back then, told me. “You never knew what to expect. Things changed very fast or not at all.”
By then, the Helfriches had quit Moulmein for a farm up north in Burma’s hilly Shan State. Baird had overseen a rollout of John Deere tractors there some years earlier. Pat, intent on securing a good education for her eldest child, sent Paula to high school in Darjeeling, India, the summer resort of the British Raj. At Loreto Convent, a school where Mother Teresa had trained and Vivien Leigh had attended classes, Paula’s classmates included Nepali royalty and the scions of aristocratic families from Thailand and Bhutan. She learned to play field hockey and ride horses. She ranked among the top three students in her class, argued on the debate team, and acted in plays; she stepped into Bela Lugosi’s shoes to play the lead in Dracula and sang as Cousin Hebe in HMS Pinafore.
On vacations, Paula returned to Shan State. It felt prosaic beside Loreto, all farmland and a tangle of younger siblings. Cosmopolitan Rangoon, though, tugged at her, even as the political havoc there worsened. In 1962, a final coup entrenched Ne Win in power and landed U Nu, his ministers, and 30 ethnic chiefs in custody. The new military-run government abolished the constitution, disbanded parliament, and introduced the Burmese Way to Socialism, an ideology that prioritized state-run institutions and rejected outside influence. The government nationalized major industries, including rice farming, mining, and logging. Production quickly plummeted, and foreigners began leaving the country by the thousands, then tens of thousands, every month.
When she finished high school, Paula moved to the capital. Despite its tumult—or perhaps because of it—she loved the city. She enrolled in a typing course, where she sat at a small, flat desk amid rows of Burmese classmates, her wavy light-brown hair deflated by the tropical air. She learned shorthand and the feel of onionskin beneath her fingers. At night, wearing lipstick purchased at Bogyoke Market, she attended dances at the Strand under high ceilings with polished wood rafters and lilting fans. One day she met a charismatic young man, the life of every party. He waited for her outside her typing class on his motorcycle. The force of what she felt for him came as a surprise, and they hoped to elope, revising their plans on an almost daily basis in the constantly changing political climate.
Paula felt alive: loved and in love. She also felt invincible—until the day those four officers knocked on her apartment’s door.
Seventeen-year-old Paula continued wearing longyis after arriving in Chicago against her will. She eventually began to dress in Western styles, but she couldn’t kick her foreign accent. Social codes mystified her: wearing shoes on shag carpeting; the way people said “come over anytime,” then looked at her funny if she actually did stop by. She missed eating rice at every meal. Paula had an American passport, but she play-acted at being an American.
She lived at her grandmother’s house, the two-story brick manse in Winnetka where Pat had grown up and where certain doors remained closed at all times. Grammy, as Paula called her, was convinced that the ghost of her recently deceased husband flickered through the house, lingering in rooms that she forbade her granddaughter from entering. “I expect that the effort to make Grammy understand about Burma is a hopeless pursuit,” Pat commiserated in a letter.
Adulthood was thrust upon Paula. She found work as a Pan Am receptionist; she had flown the airline to and from India during her school days. By the summer of 1964, when Chicago was rocked by race riots in the suburb of Dixmoor, Paula had secured a job as a travel agent and discovered that she could eat rice and curries at an Indian restaurant in the city. Not the same as in Burma, but not terrible.
Letters from her parents grew melancholy. Pat and Baird urged their eldest child to be forbearing; they certainly had to be. The industries in which Baird had invested were decimated by nationalization. His missives to Paula included requests to borrow money from her small salary to help the family stay in Burma, even as everyone they knew was leaving. The demonetization of currency in 1964 wiped out savings across the country.
The same year, all remaining ethnic Indians, including those whose families had been in Burma for generations, were expelled. Hundreds of thousands boarded boats and planes with nothing but the clothing on their bodies. By 1965, the Burma Socialist Program Party stood as the country’s only legal political entity; dissent was not tolerated. “This Ne Win bunch,” Baird noted in a letter, “are surpassing even our wildest thoughts on irresponsibility and goodies for one’s friends—and jail for thine enemies.”
Paula traveled to Maryland that year to welcome her younger brother Stuart to America; he would live with family friends in order to attend high school while the rest of the Helfriches prepared to return. Baird flew in a few months later to procure a job in Washington, D.C., and a house in the suburbs. In 1966 came Pat and the younger children, including a new baby named Cathy. They arrived in New York on a coal steamer after a month at sea. One particularly gruesome ocean swell had sent Cathy rolling across the deck in her lifejacket.
Paula, Baird, and Stuart converged on Manhattan to meet the remaining Helfriches at the harbor. They were thin and shabbily dressed. All the possessions they’d packed into their Burmese baskets fit with them in two taxis, which Paula told me carried them to the Waldorf Astoria. A friend had lent them an apartment for a few days.
In one of the final letters Pat wrote to Paula before the Helfriches moved, she described traveling from the Shan State farm to catch a train to Rangoon for a wedding. There was rain and a bus headed for the wrong destination. She finally found a potato truck and hopped in the back with five Burmese passengers. Clunking through the rain, after small talk established who they all were and where they were going, after the sharing of fruit and snacks, the Burmese began to sing. “As I watched … beautiful scenery pass and flash by, listened to the music, and realized that I was riding on a potato truck,” Pat wrote, “I had a funny and weird feeling. I was perfectly at home.”
Now the Helfriches’ Burmese experiment, all 14 years of it, was over.
Back in Chicago, Paula told me, she enrolled at Northwestern University. Her attention, though, was elsewhere. In her novel Flying, which Paula described as a thinly veiled memoir, the protagonist, Zoe (Paula’s middle name), writes a brokenhearted letter every day to her Burmese boyfriend. He is a guerrilla, fighting the new regime. Eventually, the missives are delivered through a sequence of shadowy messengers, winding up in either Burma or Vietnam. She never knows for sure where her boyfriend is hiding, and she never gets a letter back.
Around her neck, Zoe wears a silver coin on a tattered string, a gift from her boyfriend. An anthropology professor identifies the coin as a pendant. He points to its Buddhist iconography and asks how she came by the piece. Zoe “kept the details to herself,” the book reads. “Who would believe it?”
When they met again many decades later, Paula discovered that her long-lost love still enjoyed dancing, as they’d once done together at the Strand. Now, though, he preferred to wear a longyi and nothing else. Her husband the warrior, she said, “who I can’t for the life of me get to wear a shirt.”
Marriage to someone else, someone not concealed in a jungle, must not have seemed like the worst idea. It offered a new beginning, a dive into an adult life of her own making. Paula met a man, a Chicagoan of Polish descent, and they soon wed.
The marriage didn’t go well, and it didn’t last long. He was abusive. She didn’t speak of him much to anyone, not then and not later, I was told in interview after interview with friends and family; she never mentioned him to me. I imagine the unhappiness of that marriage falling around her like a veil. The turmoil, the feeling of powerlessness, must have been at once familiar and new. It fell to her to get out. So she did.
Paula divorced and, within a few years, started working at Pan Am again, this time as a stewardess. She met every requirement for female employees in the airline’s golden age: fluency in English and another language, at least two years of college, height over five foot two, trim, beautiful, extroverted, quick on her feet. Also: able to walk down an aisle in heels without wobbling, culturally aware, flexible yet bossy, witty, and afflicted by wanderlust. Paula wanted to return to Southeast Asia and visit other faraway destinations.
Most of the women who signed up for Pan Am’s stewardess program had predictable language proficiencies: French, German, Spanish. Paula Zoe Helfrich, from Maryland, as she was listed in the training class of March 1970—all traces of Chicago and the Midwest erased—spoke Burmese. Later, on flight sign-in sheets where the women listed their languages before takeoff, those who came after Paula would glance up and look around in confusion. Who spoke Burmese? They didn’t expect to see this white woman, “cute as a bug on a pistol, obviously a very strong personality,” as one friend from that time described Paula to me.
The itinerant lifestyle suited Paula. A crew flew together for a week or a few, passing days in Paris and Monrovia and Singapore and Sydney, then splintered apart for time off. On vacations, Paula went to the Amazon, where she trawled caves thick with monkeys. She went to Timbuktu, just because she could. Pan Am kept strict rules for its stewardesses’ appearance, and in company photos Paula’s hair is neatly tied under a prim hat. She cocks her head and wears an arranged smile. In personal photos, though, her long hair is parted down the center and cascades down her chest. The more implausible the setting or action, the more comfortable she appears. At a zoo, she grins with her arms slung around a snake a foot wide and several times as long, curled across her neck and shoulders. Wearing a bikini, she leans against the post of a thatched hut in Guam, legs crossed, sipping a mixed drink. Atop a curved rock with the sand houses of Timbuktu clustered in the background, her hands pick at desert grasses.
The Vietnam War was in its fifth year when Paula started working as a stewardess. Pan Am contracted critical support to the U.S. military, blurring the line—as it had during World War II—between private, profit-seeking business and government entity. At one point, providing services for the war effort in Saigon was Pan Am’s largest global operation. A stewardess had to be able to relate, as more than one who’d worked for the airline told me, to celebrities and CEOs, but also to refugees and immigrants boarding a plane for the first time, and to servicemen on their way into combat, holding in their chests the sharp knowledge of what they’d been drafted to do. The women carried identification cards designating them as second lieutenants in the armed forces; in the event of capture, they were to be treated according to the terms of the Geneva Conventions. After meal service, they would listen to tales of combat or play cards with soldiers heading for a stint of R&R. Sometimes, disembarking from a flight, they would glimpse bullet holes in the plane’s fuselage.
The early 1970s was also an era of skyjackings and political bombings; a stewardess had to remain composed on the knife’s edge of danger. All were trained in emergency procedures and casual diplomacy, taught to conduct themselves as surrogate ambassadors to the United States. In Flying, Zoe, who becomes a stewardess like Paula, knows how to tell a passenger to fuck off with “a ten-dollar sentence,” so long as she adheres to protocol and smiles.
When she had enough seniority to choose, Paula requested Pan Am’s Honolulu base as her home. She lived near the beach, and when she wasn’t flying, she spent time with surfers and musicians and Army vets. Then a tragedy took her to the very edge of the war.
Operation Babylift was supposed to be a series of flights paid for by the U.S. government to evacuate orphans from Saigon as North Vietnamese troops threatened the city in early 1975. Various humanitarian and adoption agencies would help place the infants and young children in homes across America. Similar missions had brought children from Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, from Korea in the 1950s, and from Cuba after the Bay of Pigs.
On April 4, minutes after an Air Force cargo plane carrying the first group of orphans took off from a base in Saigon, the flight crashed, killing dozens of children and adults. It would be over a week, the Pentagon reported, before another flight could depart. Horrified by the disaster, American businessman and philanthropist Robert Macauley mortgaged his New Canaan, Connecticut, house to cover the fee of chartering a Pan Am 747 to get the survivors and a few hundred additional orphans out of the country. A second plane, paid for by an adoption agency, would follow.
In Hong Kong, several stewardesses were informed that their plane would be departing for Vietnam, not continuing on its scheduled route. They were all offered the chance to stay behind rather than fly into a war zone; a few quietly took their leave. The night before the flight, the remaining women slept at a Hyatt hotel—or didn’t sleep at all, as one told me. On the bus to the airport they were silent. Among them was Paula.
In the air on the way to Saigon the next day, Paula mixed formula and set up cardboard cribs. The plane must have seemed cavernous: the cold, canned air with so few bodies to warm it, the rows of metal and fabric seats, the sense of a clock ticking toward inevitable pandemonium.
As it neared Saigon, the plane dove steeply to avoid possible mortar fire, causing the women’s stomachs to plunge. On the runway, the plane taxied past the wreckage of the Air Force C-5A. The stewardesses had been told to keep away from the windows, not to look at the charred gray metal set against waving palms and rice paddies.
The plane stopped. The doors were opened, and a blast of heat entered. Then people were rushing up the stairs. Children’s limbs were bare, their faces streaming. Soon the women who held the orphans had damp faces, too. “You didn’t know if it was sweat or tears,” Tori Werner, the plane’s purser, told me. The stewardesses helped pat the infants down to check for bombs and converted the upstairs cabin of the 747—where they usually served lobster thermidor and cherries jubilee to first-class passengers—into a makeshift sick bay. The children wore bracelets with their names and those of their prospective adoptive parents on one wrist, medical bracelets on the other. The Pan Am women read off diseases: polio, hepatitis, tuberculosis, chicken pox. Doctors from a Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Saigon who had been enlisted to fly with the children wanted to bring their nurses, but the women hadn’t been granted permission to leave the country. “We strip-searched the nurses and stowed them in the lavatory until after takeoff,” Werner told me.
The stewardesses loaded infants into cardboard bassinets and pushed them under the seats. They strapped in whomever they could. With some 400 children packed in, the pilot took off. The scent of vomit and loosened bowels filled the plane’s air. “That’s the smell of freedom,” Paula would remember crowing as the flight ascended, banking high in the sky.
After delivering the children to the United States, the flight’s crew was given two weeks off. Paula rested in Honolulu. Just one day later, though, she received a phone call. “Would you like to fly another babylift?” the voice on the other end asked. A flight had been chartered again.
This time the crew didn’t make it to Vietnam. Controversy had sprouted around the mission; children with living parents had been discovered among the rescues. Within a month, a federal class-action lawsuit would be filed alleging that many of them hadn’t been orphans. Years later some of the children would seek out birth mothers in Vietnam. Others would call the Pan Am stewardesses, by then retired, on Mother’s Day.
Paula signed on for other potential evacuations from Saigon in the waning days before the city’s fall. For two weeks, according to one fellow stewardess, Paula and a Pan Am crew waited at a base in Guam for assignments. Flights had to make it in and out of Saigon before nightfall; if they didn’t leave by 3 p.m., they wouldn’t leave at all. At three, the pilots and stewardesses could start drinking the tension away, before reliving the same anticipation the next day.
During those two weeks, on a flight to evacuate some Americans, Paula told me, she smuggled Vietnamese refugees on board. Because it was unofficial, you’d be hard-pressed to find their names in a passenger manifest. In Flying, she writes about a U.S.-chartered flight for a dozen aid workers; Zoe, enraged at the waste of so many empty seats, marches “in cold fury” to the Vietnamese Pan Am agent and invites him to put refugees on the plane. The plane returns to Guam with 100-odd Vietnamese bar girls and their half-American children. “A different kind of Babylift,” Paula writes. “They were all survivors, hard-edged and glittery, beautiful and absolutely fierce in their determination to make a new life—it did not much matter where.”
No one from Pan Am with whom I spoke remembered young Vietnamese women being evacuated on such a flight. Werner, though, recalled Paula getting off a plane in the Guam heat one day “just so upset. The crew had taken out only 22 people. They could have taken 150. People were desperate to get out. She thought it was very selfish.” In her fiction, it seemed, Paula had righted the wrong she’d been unable to prevent in real life.
Here is fact verifiable by the existence of her two daughters: In Hawaii, Paula married a fellow Pan Am employee. She stopped flying in 1976 and shifted to a position in management, then hopscotched to catering and, finally, to operations. Her husband tried to convince her to move to California, and she gave it a shot, but the mainland never stopped feeling foreign. They returned to Hawaii, a sort of middle ground between the country on her passport and the one she considered home. In 1980, Baird and Pat moved to Hawaii, too; most of the Helfriches would eventually converge there. Pat cooked Burmese food in her kitchen. When the menu included curry, her children would descend on her house.
Baird died in 1981. Paula told me she took some of his ashes and scattered them in Moulmein, though how and when is unclear. In the 1980s and 1990s, Myanmar was one of the most isolated countries in the world. Agitation and crackdowns were common. Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won elections handily in 1990, but the military nullified the results and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for much of the next two decades.
To Paula’s two daughters, born in the early 1980s, Myanmar was a far-off place of wondrous tales whispered to them at night before bed. The elephants at the teak mill; lions that lived under the house in Moulmein; their uncles hunting deer or boar in Shan State. They also heard stories of the boarding school in Darjeeling, where the prince of Nepal had given their mother a rose. In winter, Paula told them, she would steal out of her dorm bedroom when she heard jackals howling at the moon, her feet light on the sharp chill of stone floors, her hands pushing a high window open. The windowsill was wide and sturdy, and she’d sit on it. The big, bright full moon hung above her. She would howl with the jackals.
Paula and her husband divorced when she was about 50. She went back to school for anthropology and took her daughters to visit the convent in Darjeeling. Inspired by her involvement in the Transport Worker’s Union in her Pan Am days, she began to work for senator Daniel Inouye and soon became executive director of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. She had a knack for fundraising, event planning, and public advocacy. After a decade in politics, Paula decided to run for local office in Hilo. Her bid for county council was rebuffed; she lost to a lawyer after, as her daughter Laurien Helfrich Nuss put it, “being kicked around a bit” by the old boys’ club.
She retreated into daily life in Hilo. She had a boyfriend, daughters in and just out of college who visited regularly, and correspondence with Rebecca Sprecher, an old stewardess friend, with whom she jointly wrote chapters of what would become Flying. Still, the world beckoned.
In Myanmar, a series of 2007 protests incited a violent crackdown but also persistent rumors of infighting within the junta. Meetings held with United Nations officials and Suu Kyi presaged an opening. That year, Paula and Mary, her younger sister, signed up for a volunteer medical mission to the country: Mary was a nurse, and Paula served as a translator. On the plane, Paula stood up at one point and walked to the bathroom. When she returned, Mary told me, Paula announced that she was going to stay in Yangon after the mission.
She’d met someone in the back of the plane in line for the restroom who had offered her a job teaching English at an international school. He could help her get a visa. The long-ago deportation, apparently, wouldn’t pose a problem. She’d finished the heavy work of parenting, Pat had passed away in 2000, and she was no longer married. Why not go?
After the plane landed, Paula composed emails to her daughters: “Hey what do you think, your mom’s gonna move to Burma.” Laurien told me that she wasn’t surprised.
Some things from Paula’s childhood were familiar: the smells of burning wood and diesel fuel, of mohinga stalls on the streets; the multitude of ethnic groups sharing the same space. New, though, were the government minders who tracked Paula’s whereabouts. Whenever she saw them outside her apartment, she invited them in for tea. They never accepted.
Her first few years in the country coincided with increased sanctions and mass incarcerations of dissidents. Then, as though the bubble of strain hanging over the country had become so large that it could not help but quiver and burst, change began to happen. In 2010, Myanmar held its first elections in 20 years, leading to a shift from military rule to military-backed civilian rule. Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. In 2011, the government released thousands of prisoners and signed a law allowing unions and strikes. The next year, the NLD won 43 legislative seats—by the numbers not much power, but recognition of legitimacy nonetheless. The new president introduced economic reforms, liberalizing foreign investment and reducing state control over a swath of industries. International sanctions began to dissolve.
Paula taught English to children and translated for monks. She helped to reinstate a local Rotary Club and attended biannual reunions with Loreto Convent alumni. Occasionally, she wrote articles for a Burmese business magazine. She was involved in the Pan Am network through which I met her and gave a weekly talk at the posh Governor’s Residence Hotel, lecturing about Burmese history to guests sipping gin and tonics. She always wore a flower in her hair.
And then there was love. Paula had not moved back to Myanmar with the intent of finding it, but she did. She told Sprecher, her Pan Am friend, that she encountered the object of her affection—the man she told me was her teenage boyfriend—at a horse race in Bagan, an ancient town known for its temples rising like a toothy crown into the sky. Their relationship bloomed around a campfire. It was comfortable and new, daunting and exciting.
Her father had often referred to Myanmar as a “missed opportunity.” Paula didn’t want the same to be said of her own life. “She was going to fulfill that dream of marrying a Burmese man,” her sister Mary told me, “which she could not have when she was 16.”
In July 2015, Paula wrote me an email. “Hurry! I will return to Hawaii Dec with husband… this may be it as I have health issues. Nothing fatal but serious and $$$ challenges, dammit.” For several months, we’d been talking of meeting again; this would be my only chance.
I quickly booked my ticket and flew to Myanmar. I knew I would be chasing Paula’s past down streets renamed by the regime that kicked her out, looking for her childhood in crumbling buildings. I would also be tracing the blurry line between truth and fabrication in a mind given to embellishment.
After landing, I rode into Yangon watching its famous round pagodas glint above the trees. I saw glass and steel buildings that had been constructed in just the past few years, since the loosening of trade sanctions. On traffic medians, clusters of children played soccer, their limbs flashing under the streetlights.
The next morning, I hired a driver to take me on a tour of the city, a haphazard combination of nationally relevant locations and places Paula had frequented: the Strand Hotel and the sprawling university complex where she’d canoodled with her husband way back when; Suu Kyi’s house and her father’s enormous red tomb. The driver, Than Lwin, sketched out stories of student protests, like those in 1988 that percolated from the university out to monks, housewives, taxi drivers—seemingly everyone. He didn’t tell me about the thousands of people the government killed when it retaliated. At Suu Kyi’s home on Inle Lake, Than Lwin explained how an American man—“Fifty! He was fifty!”—swam across to meet the Nobel Peace Prize winner while she was detained. There was no sensationalism in his telling of history, just action and reaction plainly related, with human idiosyncrasy sprinkled in.
I had arrived in the lead-up to a general election, and Suu Kyi, still leader of the NLD, was running. I saw few campaign posters, but in Yangon’s endless, messy traffic, cars were plastered with NLD bumper stickers and flags. Privately owned vehicles, which had more than doubled since the loosening of import laws in 2011, offered the opportunity to mount an opinion.
Paula wasn’t answering her phone or email. She hadn’t come to meet me at my hotel as we’d planned. When I went to the Governor’s Residence to try to get her address, I was told that she hadn’t given her usual talk in weeks. I knew she lived in Thanlyin, a city of just under 200,000 people across the Bago River from Yangon. Than Lwin picked me up on my second day to go find her. As we sat in traffic on a bridge, he pointed out condo towers rising on the far bank; the 135-acre complex was financed mostly by a Singaporean firm. According to legend, he added, shifting easily to the ancient past, this was the same spot where Prince Min Nandar had been swallowed by a crocodile.
In Thanlyin, we went to the market, the municipal water office, two Buddhist complexes, and the local immigration office searching for signs of Paula. Than Lwin translated or spoke on my behalf. Finally, a pink-lipsticked immigration bureaucrat, one of 12 uniformed women in a room thick with wobbly stacks of manila folders, thumbed through a list of foreigners in Thanlyin—all on business, social, or meditation visas—and found Paula’s address.
My palms were sweaty when we pulled up to a concrete house with high white walls and metal gates. Her husband answered the door. So this was him, the stuff of romantic legend. He was tall, fit, and shirtless, just as Paula had described him. He chewed betel nut impassively as Than Lwin introduced us, and he spoke very little English. I saw behind him two suitcases splayed open on the floor at the edge of the nearly empty living room. Their departure from Myanmar was imminent.
Paula’s husband retreated into the house and waved me in. I stood in the living room with Than Lwin for a moment, then heard Paula’s high, loud voice as she walked in unsteadily to greet me. “We were just saying, When is Julia coming to visit?” she exclaimed. She was much sicker than she had let on in her email. Her legs had slimmed enough that, without the cane she used, they appeared unable to support her.
Her husband dusted off what little furniture remained in the living room—they’d sold or given away the rest in preparation for their departure—and we sat down to talk. “I don’t know that I know,” I said, turning on my recorder, “how you two first met?” Finally, I would learn the full arc of their love story, of rekindled infatuation and the improbability of entering into a marriage they’d plotted as lusty teenagers.
In an instant, the myth crumbled. Paula said they’d met for the first time not long after she arrived in Myanmar. He was head of security at the school where she first taught English. Paula interrupted herself to speak in Burmese to her husband, who disappeared and reemerged with a glass of water and a pillow for her feet. “He’s Karen,” she continued, referring to an ethnic minority that has been fighting the government since the 1940s. He had once been a soldier in the Karen National Liberation Army.
I wanted to press her—I also wanted to do anything but press her. Paula was so ill, her home so bare, her husband so attentive, and my arrival so hasty. Our conversation drifted. Then, as if it could suffice, I returned to the topic of her marriage and kept my approach simple: So she hadn’t wed her teenage sweetheart, I clarified.
“Ah no,” she said brightly, as if she’d forgotten having said otherwise. “That was Allan.” He was Chinese-Burmese and had moved to Australia years before. She’d seen him once or twice when he’d come to visit Myanmar; he had five children of his own.
Her third husband’s name was Saw Phillip. He was a few years younger than her and handsome, with a broad, open smile. He was a fan of American country music, an avid cook of local delicacies like snake and eel, and a horse trainer. They spent four years circling one another, attracted but not interacting much, until they found themselves together at the horse race in Bagan. After they began to date, Saw Phillip didn’t wait long to suggest marriage; as a Christian, he didn’t approve of cohabitation before marriage. We’re too old to mess around, he told Paula as he proposed. In photos from their 2011 wedding, they wear velvety flower leis, stitched together by Paula’s daughters.
Paula and I spoke for an hour and made plans for interviews over the coming days. As Than Lwin and I drove back across the river, my mind felt thin and reedy. I tried to wrap it around the details of her life that Paula had shared and the fractures running through them. Perhaps, I thought, I could find mooring in Myanmar itself, something physical and true. Than Lwin and I headed back to Yangon, to 26 Naut Mauk Street, which used to be 26 Park Road, Paula’s first house in Myanmar.
It looked nothing like the photos I’d seen. A high fence had been erected around the house, and fancy cars sat in the driveway. Nearby, the occasional well-preserved colonial-era home faced others with walls so deteriorated that they resembled latticework. During the bad decades, I learned, the elite had allowed their houses to rot. An unpainted exterior let them live comfortably inside while seeming to remain equal with the population outside: a true facade. Now they were shells.
The remnants of Paula’s past were equally gutted in Mawlamyine, as Moulmein is now called, where Than Lwin and I drove on a sunny afternoon a few days later. We found Baird Helfrich’s teak mill, or what remained of it. The languishing structure had sat empty for years before it was finally bulldozed not long before we arrived. A towering smokestack, lumpy earth, and hunks of gray stone remained. Two stray dogs nosed the dirt. None of the neighbors knew what was going to be built on the empty land, but fresh orange bricks stacked in a pile augured some new structure.
I wondered what had happened to the elephants Paula so loved. As the economy worsened, I learned, elephants working at mills were sent into the wild to fend for themselves. But they’d lived so long in captivity that they starved. Supposedly, mossy hunks of elephant bones still litter the jungle around Mawlamyine.
There is another version of how Paula left Burma in 1963, less dramatic but no less devastating. The Chinese invasion of northern India the year before had put a stop to her classes in Darjeeling ahead of a holiday break; students had descended from the mountains on a train line clogged with munitions for the Indian army. When classes resumed in the new year, Burma’s government had tightened restrictions on foreigners’ movement across the country’s borders. Paula never graduated from Loreto Convent. She moved to Rangoon, took a typing course, and worked at the travel desk at the Strand—that’s all true. She was in love with Allan and she wanted to stay in Burma, even as it was falling apart around her.
In this version, the real one, triangulated from letters, the memories of family and friends, and her own contradictions, Paula was sent away—simple as that. Pat and Baird made the decision. Her parents needed permission from the government; any foreigner trying to leave the country would have had to fill out the proper paperwork. They did so, and then they put her on a plane to Illinois. Her younger siblings were told that she needed to expand her opportunities. She also needed to meet, as her sister Mary put it, other fish in the sea.
“We knew America was going to be a big change for you and that all of us are going to have to do some adjusting to get back into the swing of American life,” Baird wrote in a November 1963 letter to Paula, just a few weeks after she’d left. “We also think that some of your initial impressions will modify slightly, and hope that things are gradually settling down for you,” chimed Pat in the next missive.
As I read these letters, sitting on my couch in New York on spring mornings that were longer and brighter every week, I considered how something as objective as the sun in Chicago must have betrayed Paula. She’d never experienced seasons, other than dry and rainy. She wouldn’t have been used to the way daylight up north gets thinner as September moves to November, and how the sun races across the sky in December. The loss of light, along with the cold, would have felt foreign, perhaps like an alternate reality.
Autobiographical memory is among the trickiest of all psychological materials. The emotional content of an experience affects the way it becomes imprinted in the mind, which then erodes with age. Research also shows that the emotions we feel when looking back on an experience, along with the reasons we want to remember it, shape which details surface and which are forgotten. There’s other sculpting that occurs between an experience and its recollection. “Knowledge acquired after an event, and changes in our feelings toward and appraisals about an event, can lead to biases in how we recall emotional details,” psychologists Alisha C. Holland and Elizabeth A. Kensinger wrote in a 2010 study. Memory, then, can be factually inaccurate but also the truest window into how a person perceives her life.
The stories people believe about themselves depend on audience reception, too. Storytelling, as an evolutionary mechanism, is how humans transmit facts, using sticky emotional content to amplify instructive potential. In Paula’s narration of her life, I discerned call and response: People’s fascination with specific details, their evident desire for shock and awe relieved by romance and justness, influenced the tales she spun. I was one of these people who, with a needy ear, unwittingly encouraged her. “Mom knew so much about the world, fact-wise,” her daughter Laurien said. “She had this ability to tell stories and embellish or create them in such a way that they became these legends.”
Pain also played a part. “Coping mechanisms in dealing with emotional disappointment … can also influence memory,” Holland and Kensinger wrote. Laurien noted that her mother “found comfort in being able to almost psychologically reframe her trauma through telling a truth that felt right to her versus what was literally fact.” When I compare the facts of Paula’s life that I discovered with the version she told me, where there are inconsistencies there is also survival instinct, a need to persevere through chaos, to rationalize mistakes made, love sacrificed, and stability lost. Each creative retelling of her past enabled Paula to take a step forward, bridging gaps in official narratives she did not write. Stories allowed her to generate fissures in the flat surfaces of power structures that she could not control.
One of those structures was Myanmar itself, whose government all but erased the first decade of her life. The regime didn’t talk about or teach the history of the 1950s, except to say that the civilian authorities of the day didn’t care about nationalism and were risking the country’s future. State propaganda still paints the fleeting decade between colonialism and military rule with the same black brush; it is sometimes called the “time of trouble.” Than Lwin told me that he wanted to study history, but the university in Yangon was closed for much of the 1990s, when he was of student age, for fear of an uprising.
Only recently have efforts to preserve memories and revive open discussion emerged. Last year a collection of Burmese and Western academics relaunched the Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship. Christina Fink of George Washington University told me about an oral-history project conducted in 2010 for the NGO Internews: Several dozen elderly Burmese were interviewed about the postcolonial era. Their testimonies varied, but they spoke overwhelmingly of freedom of speech, vibrant media, and the aftermath of civil war. Each interviewee put different conditions on the publication of his or her interview: “not to be released until I die,” for instance, or “not to be published until full democracy is achieved.” The interviews have not been released.
Paula’s idea of home was plastic out of necessity. She remembered it one way, experienced it another, and lived, in her mind, somewhere in between.
“I’m making a list!” Paula exclaimed when I walked into her house for lunch on my last day in Yangon. At that point, I’d spent hours listening to stories in which dates shifted and anecdotes played out first in one setting, then in another. I had resolved to ask no more questions, only to be present. “A list of all the places I’ve been for you,” she continued. “I loved anything to do with weird places and blood and guts and gore.”
She numbered the list in shaky block letters. She started with the Yucatán, where she’d climbed pyramids and thought of Burma’s jungles, and then the Amazon. The Marquesas, Nepal, Huahine in French Polynesia, Syria. Just as she wrote “East Africa” next to number nine, her pen ran out of ink. I told her not to worry about it. She was writing on the back of an undecipherable lab report from Pun Hlaing Siloam Hospitals. It was stained with soy sauce from a feast Saw Phillip had prepared for us, which we had just devoured.
I left Yangon two days before Paula and Saw Phillip were scheduled to depart for Hawaii. I spent my last sunset in Yangon walking its crooked sidewalks, sidestepping rusty splotches of betel-juice spit. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party would win the election the following month, smiled down on me from posters that had finally sprung up during my stay. I ate a bowl of mohinga at a restaurant downtown. When he drove me to the airport that night, Than Lwin gave me a fossilized hunk of wood from his native village as a parting gift. “Maybe I am a reporter, too,” he said gravely as he shook my hand.
My arms had started to itch at dinner, and by the time I landed for a layover in Hong Kong, my entire face had swollen into a fair, if unpurpled, approximation of someone who’d lost a fistfight. I found a doctor, got a few shots, and remained in Hong Kong for 24 hours, until the swelling went down. The allergic reaction was minor, an entirely solvable bit of bodily treason, and yet the symmetry struck me—the taste of what Paula must have felt many times in her life: isolation, fear, and throbbing unreality, and then, when order was restored, a chasing sense of luck, confidence, even fearlessness.
Less than a day after I arrived home in New York, Paula landed in Hawaii with Saw Phillip. Her daughters met her at the airport and took her straight to the hospital. Within a day and a half, she had died. Liver disease was the cause. Rebecca Sprecher, her Pan Am friend, called and told me. The news struck me as both unbelievable and fitting: Paula’s death was sudden and tragic to those who knew her, but she had hurdled into it telling her own story.
The impact of a story—its spell—is unique to every listener. Different people were drawn to different aspects of Paula’s life. “She was an actress and a politician, too,” her sister Mary told me. “She was truly passionate.” Sprecher admired the combination of intellect and daring, how Paula read T. E. Lawrence and “had me reading the Raj Quartet long before Masterpiece Theater [adapted it]. She went everywhere, she had read everything, she knew everything…. I was in awe of her.” As perhaps the last person to hear Paula tell her story in full, I was rapt by the Herculean effort of remaining a woman who moved through the world with daring and panache even when outside forces threatened to disable those impulses.
“There is no Myanmar word for goodbye,” Paula wrote in the prologue she’d planned to publish with her parents’ letters. “One simply announces a departure.”