Ilona Duncan: Pan Am Stewardess, NYC Model, Actress, Teacher, Published Author, and World Traveler

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

I grew up in post-World War II Germany in a small town near Düsseldorf, attended the Helmholtz Gymnasium, and received a classical education with 9 years of Latin. My goal at the time was to become a medical doctor. I graduated at nineteen in 1964 with the Abitur in Latin and science. By then I’d developed a profound dislike for Germany, its recent history, the Holocaust, the lies, the shame. I hoped to divorce my country of birth. (Later I discovered that divorcing a person is easier than divorcing your place of birth.) I moved to Paris, France. Without prior French knowledge, I received my Advanced Level French Diploma ten months later, then went on to England to study English before coming to New York in January, 1966 to attend Columbia University. Because of problems with U.S. immigration, I had to leave within eight months. 

“By then I was fluent in German, Dutch, French, Italian, and, of course, English. Pan Am’s director had a better idea. Why not become a stewardess. He gave me a free pass to fly to New York for an interview. I was hired on the spot. For 10 years, I flew all over the world and met my husband, a Pan Am pilot.”

During those years, I had to overcome several obstacles. To begin with, my immigration documents arrived one day too late at the U.S embassy in London, and my visa was denied. I flew to NY anyway, as a tourist, hoping to be able to change my status. I was hired by Tiffany who sponsored me, and I enrolled in classes at Columbia. One month later, the apartment where I rented a room was robbed. I lost everything I’d brought with me. And when my immigration application and my work permit were once again denied, I was forced to leave the USA. I thought I would never return.

Back in Paris, I received my diploma as a French/German translator. More than likely, I would still live in France, were it not for an invitation to visit a friend in Bermuda.  One day, for lack of anything else to do, I walked into the Pan American Airways office in Hamilton and offered my services as a volunteer. By then I was fluent in German, Dutch, French, Italian, and, of course, English. Pan Am’s director had a better idea. Why not become a stewardess. He gave me a free pass to fly to New York for an interview. I was hired on the spot. 

For 10 years, I flew all over the world and met my husband, a Pan Am pilot, in 1971. We were married in 1974. 

I added Russian to my language qualifications after studying at Hunter College, New York, and in 1971 I participated in a Russian language study program at Moscow University. 

During those years, I also worked as a model for a NY agency. A stand-up poster of me in Pan American uniform was on display around the world in airports and travel agencies, and a 2-page ad with a photo collage appeared in the October 1971 edition of Playboy magazine.

After my children were born I stopped flying and became a stay-at-home mother. I took up playing piano again, and when I moved with my husband to Toulouse, France, where I learned how to play a pipe organ in one of Toulouse’s grand cathedrals. Music has been a great joy. I believe music has been created to cover up the world’s sorrows. 

After we moved to Miami in 1992 I taught French, German, and English at the Berlitz Language Center.

My memoir, My Jewish Great-Grandmother, describes all these events in detail. 

Since 2003 I’ve been living in Virginia where I teach piano and substitute for church organists, though Covid has made that difficult. Before the pandemic, I have acted in a local theater; my favorite role was Berthe in Marc Camoletti’s Boeing-Boeing. I also enjoy singing and am a member of the Chesapeake Chorale and the Stage Manager for the Northern Neck Orchestra.  

Can you tell me about your time as a Pan American World Airways stewardess?

I was proud to be part of the Pan American family, its famous name and global route structure. Many flights did not operate on a daily frequency, which allowed for stop-overs of several days. I made excursions to Agra and Kashmir during a sojourn in India, took in the pungent smell of the tanneries in the Souk of Fez in Morocco, and had dresses made out of Thai silk during a stay in Bangkok. Off the coast of Senegal I went fishing. I rested under the sun on Africa’s beaches and visited a game park.

“Air travel was a luxury then. We cooked elaborate meals, roasts, eggs to order. Even in economy, we dished food onto china plates that sat on a narrow metal extension table, suspended across the counters.”

There was time to water-ski in front of our hotel in Beirut, to visit archeological sites near Rome, to drive a bike around Ireland’s countryside, to ride horses in Scotland. I had a hairdresser in Rome, bought groceries in Paris, caviar and pistachios in Tehran, and gold in Hong Kong. Each place was of special interest. Whenever I departed New York on a Pan Am Clipper, I marveled that I was paid for the excitement of traveling. Each trip was a new adventure and provided the opportunity to meet people of all cultures.

Air travel was a luxury then. We cooked elaborate meals, roasts, eggs to order. Even in economy, we dished food onto china plates that sat on a narrow metal extension table, suspended across the counters. Any amount of turbulence caused the plates to shift and rattle. I recall Cornish hens stuffed with wild rice flying through the air during a sudden jolt. Oven fires were not an unusual occurrence in the early morning hours out of Tehran or Karachi when the grease from two hundred and forty lamb chops spattered inside the ovens while I tried to scramble twelve large containers of raw eggs. 

Maintaining our weight was essential. A supervisor could order a weight-check when someone’s uniform appeared too tight. The stewardess would then be ordered to slim down or her employment would be terminated. I never had a weight problem. 

Celebrities traveled on Pan Am. I met Sophia Loren, who traveled with her adorable boys on a flight from Paris to Rome. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton booked the entire first-class cabin from JFK to Rome, but spent most of the flight inside the cockpit. Charles Lindberg preferred to remain incognito and sat in the economy section. Maureen O’Hara always fancied a seat in the cockpit to be near her husband, a Pan American captain. People of all races and backgrounds traveled on Pan Am. Poor Armenian refugees, scared and unable to speak English needed help filling out arrival documentation. A Muslim passenger asked me half way across the Atlantic about the direction of Mecca so he could place his prayer rug in the correct position.

I still wonder if any of the American tourists in Russia learned to play the balalaika they carried on board in Moscow. And I will never forget the happy faces of children thrilled to be invited to the cockpit on many long flights before regulations for security demanded otherwise. 

Where are the different places you have lived around the globe? Where has been your favorite place to live, and why?

Besides growing up in Germany, I have lived in Paris, London, Bournemouth, Bermuda, and Manhattan. Together with my husband, I have traveled around the world, to every continent except Antarctica. We’ve resided in New York, Connecticut, Sydney, Australia, Toulouse, Miami and now Virginia. 

My favorite place has always been France. I love the food, the French culture. Plus I developed a passion for the French language. Compared to the dissonance of harsh Germanic and Dutch sounds, and the illogical structure of English, French embodied a refined elegance. I likened the French language to a flow of harmonious chords in a symphonic poem. 

I was especially fond of Toulouse and the beautiful French Southwestern countryside when we moved there in 1988. Exceptional restaurants, year-round cultural events, music, opera, dance, art festivals. My idea of heaven.  

Still, I consider myself a citizen of the world and am grateful to have seen many of its wonders. Travel has been a passion. In 1999, my husband and I bought a custom-built bus and became nomads. For over two years we traveled to the far reaches of North America. Mountains, meadows, rivers, and desert became our home. And despite inevitable disputes and countless mishaps (humorous in retrospect), we discovered nature’s spiritual and uplifting beauty. 

What inspired you to become a writer, and can you tell me a bit more about how you became a published author?

In 2003, I moved to the relative quiet of the Northern Neck of Virginia, and in my spare time enrolled in a writing class. This inspired me to tell my story, resulting in a memoir “My Jewish Great Grandmother” The book allowed me to examine my family, my beliefs, my background, and I helped me coming to terms with Germany, my country of birth. 

I have come to enjoy the process of writing, to make order out of chaos. In my second book, “At Home on the Road,” the reader can follow my husband’s and my adventurous journey through North America. In 1999, against all odds, (bets were places our marriage would not survive) we bought a Marathon Coach and took to the road. Informative humorous and entertaining this book is more than a travel log; it probes marriage and parenting, shows how confinement tests a relationship (my husband and I have different conceptions of time and silence), and how love can prevail. 

My Jewish Great Grandmother is available on Amazon in print and e-book. At Home on the Road is available in print on Amazon and any bookstore. 

What are some of your future goals and aspirations? 

At my age, seventy-five, my aspirations are small. I still would welcome some traveling, though that may not happen anytime soon, and I feel fortunate to have seen most of the world when this was still possible. I would like to attend another night at the opera or the symphony. Last spring, before Covid, I had hoped to attend a performance of Beethoven’s ninth last spring at the Kennedy Center. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to give another piano recital, play some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or a few slow movements from Mozart’s sonatas.

For now, I am reading a lot and working on another book. And as long as my health allows, I hope to nourish my mind, to show interest in people and other cultures, to find the courage to move on and have a new plan when things turn bad, and to never lose my sense of curiosity. 

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6 thoughts on “Ilona Duncan: Pan Am Stewardess, NYC Model, Actress, Teacher, Published Author, and World Traveler

  1. Great story ! Jim you hit the jackpot with Ilona……….but I wanted to read about you as well.

    Good health & happiness to you both..God Bless for many wonderful journeys together. Let me know when you return to Bermuda as I have Family there.

    GO BIDEN !

  2. We have had the opportunity to meet and dine with this amazing couple! Their stories are nothing short of wonderful. How lucky we are that our paths crossed!

  3. Remarkable Lady!

  4. Très belle trajectoire Ilona
    nous espérons vous revoir à Toulouse tous les deux
    prenez soin de vous
    affectueusement
    Isabelle

  5. I LOVE IT ILLONA, YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL AND VERY ELEGANT AND YOUR STORY VERY INTERESTING, WHAT A GREAT LIFE YOU HAD.
    BIG HUG DEAR.
    NINA

  6. Barbara A. Miller-Stacey October 19, 2020 — 10:43 am

    Ilona….YOU truly were the face and epitome of PAN AM…as your cutout would greet me at the Hangar at JFK reminding me of that ‘perfection in a uniform’! Thank you for that and what a wonderful life you have lead!
    Best
    BA Miller-Stacey
    MiA, IAD, JFK✈️

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