How Bessie Pittman Became Famed Aviatrix Jackie Cochran

Amy Shira Teitel
The Vintage Space
Published in
16 min readApr 15, 2020

This is part of my Virtual Book Tour in support of Fighting for Space. For more information, see the bottom of this article. I’ll be discussing Bessie Pittman in a livestream on my YouTube channel Thursday, April 16, at 1:30pm PST.

Jacqueline Cochran was known for many things. She was the first woman to break the sound barrier. She led the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots in the Second World War. She was a record-setting, award-winning aviatrix, confidante to presidents, drinking buddy of military brass, and cosmetics maven to boot. Her story is even more incredible when set against the context of her background: she was an orphan raised in abject poverty in the Florida panhandle. She never knew her real birth name or family, and against all the odds became an historically significant person.

At least, that’s the story she told. It was a story that endeared her to America when she wrote her first memoirs in 1954 ahead of a congressional campaign. It was a story she repeated until her death in 1980. It’s a great story, but it isn’t entirely true. Jackie did grow up poor, but she wasn’t an orphan. She was born into a large, loving family who helped raise her son. And she did know her birth name.

This is the story of how Bessie Pittman reinvented herself into Jacqueline Cochran.

Candid Jackie Cochran c. mid-1930s. Eisenhower Presidential Library.

The Jackie Version

I am a refugee of Sawdust Road… Until I was eight years old I had no shoes. My bed was usually a pallet on the floor and sometimes just the floor. Food at best consisted of the barest essentials… My dresses in the first seven years of my life were usually made from cast-off flour sacks.

That was how Jackie Cochran introduced her past in her memoirs, The Stars at Noon. She followed that up with another story. When she was maybe six years old, Jackie overheard a conversation between her “mama” and a neighbour that revealed the secret she wasn’t meant to know: she was an orphan, a foster child thrust on the family that neither wanted her nor had the means to care for her. Accidentally hearing such an admission would be traumatic for most children, but for young Jackie, it felt like emancipation. She hated her parents and siblings and never quite felt like she fit in. Learning that she wasn’t a blood…

Amy Shira Teitel
The Vintage Space

Historian and author of Fighting for Space (February 2020) from Grand Central Publishing. Also public speaker, TV personality, and YouTuber. [The Vintage Space]