Bettie Brannen learned how to fly before she learned how to drive.
It was 1939, the year “Gone With the Wind” premiered. She was 16, had just moved to Atlanta and lived in a boarding house. With the help of a boss who supported her desire to fly, she took lessons at what was then called Candler Field.
Coca-Cola founder and one-time Atlanta Mayor Asa Candler had tried to bring the new sport of auto racing to the city, but Candler Field, the auto raceway, closed after one season. By the time Brannen arrived in Atlanta, aviation was a growing business, though, and Candler Field had been converted into an airstrip as part of the Atlanta Airport. Charles Lindbergh had made a historic visit to promote aviation, landing at Candler Field.
Brannen started flying lessons not long after Carole Lombard, Clark Gable and his “Gone With the Wind” co-stars flew into Candler Field for the Atlanta premiere. But Brannen wasn’t interested so much in celebrity. And she’d already met Gable and Lombard in California, where she’d lived for years with an aunt and uncle in a 40-room mansion overlooking the Pacific. The couple were neighbors.
Bettie Brannen just wanted to learn to fly. And so she did. She received her pilot’s license at 17.
As World War II got underway, she was one of thousands of women who wanted to help in the war effort. Brannen figured out how pretty fast: She could become a WASP — a Women Airforce Service Pilot.
By then, however, her Candler Field instructor was in the service himself, and there was no one to help her complete a meteorology ground course she needed.
“She did something very dramatic. She made a long-distance telephone call and said she wanted to take this course and become a WASP,” said Marilyn Somers, director of the Living History Center at Georgia Tech, where Brannen eventually took that course. “That was a big deal back then.” Women were just starting to enter Georgia Tech, and Brannen was among the first, said Somers.
“She had the best of times,” said Somers, “and the worst of times.”
Mary Elizabeth Breeden Brannen, known all her life as “Bettie,” died at Hospice Atlanta on Feb. 23, 2016. She was 92.
She was born Sept. 21, 1923 to Grace and Frank Breeden in Memphis.
The worst of her times came early, when she was six.
Her mother abandoned her, walking out with “the pretty child,” as Somers remembers hearing Brannen describe her three-year-old sister. According to an interview with Somers and stories she told to her son and others, the mother told Bettie to sit on her bed and not move until her father came home. He came home and cried as he read his wife’s note telling him she was leaving.
Father and daughter became very close. Soon, however, Frank Breeden contracted tuberculosis. Bettie could visit him only through a window at a sanitarium. Frank Breeden died when she was nine.
She went to live with grandparents until she was 12, then was sent to rich relatives in California. That was not all it was cracked up to be, said her son David Brannen.
The tragedies of her early life made Brannen into the determined, accomplished woman she became as an adult, said those who knew her. She practiced law for a short while, and she worked in the community, helping the Brookhood neighborhood gain designation as a historic district, said Somers.
“She was a remarkable woman,” said Somers. “I’ve interviewed more than a thousand people in my life, and there are only a few I’d want to write a book about. She’s one of them.”
Brannen loved to tell stories, said friend Barbara Brown, and she had hundreds of them. Brown, a friend of her son’s from childhood who reconnected with Brannen in 2000, said Brannen reminded her of “Auntie Mame.”
“She always had a story. She’d answer the phone and say ‘So, what’s the news?’ ” Brown said. One story that always struck her was when Brannen bought her first fur coat as a young working woman in Atlanta. She put it on lay-away, Brown said. “But she got the coat.”
She also saved enough money to buy a small airplane.
Brannen was promoted from clerical work to managing an office in large part because of her hard work but also because she had a photographic memory, said those who knew her.
She met and married her husband, John Roland Brannen, in the 1940s. They had two sons, David and Wes. Her husband died in 1988, and Wes died in 1989. From that time on, Brannen spent her time cruising around the world.
Sometimes David would travel with her, he said. “She circled the world 10 times. She’d be gone all the time. Sometimes, she didn’t even get off the ships anymore.”
Brannen told Somers that living on ships was less expensive than living in a nursing home. “ ‘And besides, I like to dance. I like good food,’ ” Somers recalled Brannen telling her. A favorite, said Brown, was oysters Rockefeller.
She made friends wherever she went, Brown said, and always came home with good stories. Friends loved her vivid descriptions and conversations. “We never had a moment of worrying about something to talk about.”
Brown admired Brannen’s intellect, insatiable curiosity and love of reading.
“We could talk about anything,” said Brown. “She really became like an aunt to me.”
A memorial service was held March 2 at H.M. Patterson and Sons, Oglethorpe Hill.
She is survived by her son, David Brannen, of Gulf Breeze, Fla., and many friends.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com