Jacqueline Cochran, born Bessie Lee Pittman in the Florida Panhandle, was the youngest of the five children of Mary (Grant) and Ira Pittman, a skilled millwright who moved from town to town setting up and reworking saw mills. While her family was not rich, Cochran's childhood living in small-town Florida was similar to those in most other families of that time and place. Contrary to some accounts, there was always food on the table and she was not adopted, as she often claimed.
Bessie Pittman married Robert Cochran, a young aircraft mechanic from the nearby naval base at Pensacola, at an early age. They were married in Blakeley, Georgia on November 13, 1920. She gave birth to Robert Cochran Jr. four months later. The couple and child moved to Miami where they lived for four years. Filing for divorce, Cochran moved back to northwest Florida, settling in DeFuniak Springs, where her parents were then living. Not quite five years old, Robert Cochran Jr. died a tragic death after he set his clothes on fire while playing alone in the backyard.
Cochran then became a hairdresser and got a job in Pensacola, eventually winding up in New York City. There, she used her looks and driving personality to get a job at a prestigious salon at Saks Fifth Avenue. Somewhere along the line, she chose to change her name from Mrs Bessie Cochran to Miss Jackie Cochran.
Although Cochran denied her family and her past, she remained in touch with her family and provided for them over the years. Some of her family even moved to her ranch in California after she remarried. However, they were instructed to always say they were her adopted family. Cochran apparently wanted to hide from the public the early chapters of her life and was successful in doing so until after her death.
Only later did Cochran meet Floyd Bostwick Odlum, founder of Atlas Corp. and CEO of RKO in Hollywood. Fourteen years her senior, he was reputed to be one of the 10 richest men in the world, Odlum became enamored with Cochran and offered to help her establish a cosmetics business.
After a friend offered her a ride in an aircraft, Cochran began taking flying lessons at Roosevelt Airfield, Long Island in the early 1930s. She learned to fly an aircraft in just three weeks. She then soloed and within two years obtained her commercial pilot's license. Odlum, whom she married in 1936 after his divorce, was an astute financier and savvy marketer who recognized the value of publicity for her business. Calling her line of cosmetics Wings, she flew her own aircraft around the country promoting her products. Years later, Odlum used his Hollywood connections to get Marilyn Monroe to endorse her line of lipstick.
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