Crash Course: Judy Blume Revisits Her Elizabeth Childhood

In her new novel, Judy Blume recalls the scary days when airplanes seemed to rain from the skies over her native Elizabeth.

Chart-topping author Judy Blume culls childhood memories of three tragic plane crashes in Elizabeth for her latest adult novel, "In the Unlikely Event."
Chart-topping author Judy Blume culls childhood memories of three tragic plane crashes in Elizabeth for her latest adult novel, "In the Unlikely Event."
Photo by Elena Seibert

On the afternoon of December 16, 1951, a passenger plane bound for Tampa caught fire shortly after takeoff from Newark Metropolitan Airport. The number 10 cylinder of the right engine had failed. Smoke trailed the plane as it dove toward the city of Elizabeth and crashed into the Elizabeth River, killing all 56 on board.

Five weeks later, on January 22, 1952, a Newark-bound plane from Buffalo, New York, lost contact with the control tower shortly before landing and plummeted through the fog into an apartment building one mile south of the first crash site—3.4 miles short of the runway—killing all 23 on board and another seven on the ground.

Three weeks after that, when the propeller on a Miami-bound plane from Newark reversed moments after taking flight, causing the aircraft to dive. The plane sheared off the top floor of a four-story apartment building in Elizabeth before crashing into a playground—one mile north of the first site. The third crash, just after midnight on February 11, raised the death toll from the three incidents to 119.

Newspapers quickly dubbed the densely populated Elizabeth “Plane Crash City” after the bizarre series of events, which also led to the closure of Newark Airport for nine months.
Best-selling author Judy Blume was a teenager living on Shelley Avenue, not far from the first crash site, when the tragedies occurred.

“I was in the car with my girlfriend and my parents on Sunday afternoon when we heard it on the radio,” she says. “It was a very nasty and cold day.”

Blume, who has sold 85 million books in 32 languages and is known for boldly exploring topics such as menstruation, religion and racism in her coming-of-age novels, writes about the Elizabeth disasters in her new adult novel, In the Unlikely Event (Knopf).

An eighth-grader approaching her 14th birthday when the first crash occurred, young Blume was mostly interested in day trips “across the river” to New York City, reading 25-cent Nancy Drew novels and listening to her family’s jukebox in their newly finished basement. But her memory of the reaction to the tragedies is “very, very clear.”

The crashes, she recalls, put everyone on edge. At school, her friends talked endlessly of aliens and UFOs. They wanted to make sense of the crashes, but had little to go on. “Nobody ever talked to kids about anything of consequence, really,” she says. “It was a time, I think, when parents had come through [the war], and they wanted to protect their kids from bad things. It’s not the best way to raise kids.”

This lack of communication between parents and children is a theme in many of Blume’s novels. In the Unlikely Event recreates debates among kids at school blaming the events on aliens, a “commie” attack or sabotage. “Korea is a distraction,” one character thinks to herself.

Speculation about the crashes mounted after the second incident, the cause of which was never determined. “I was in the sabotage club,” says Blume. “We wanted it to be something. I don’t know if it was the fear or because we were kids and we wanted the drama, but then the second plane, and the third plane.”

Blume, now 77, doesn’t remember reading about the crashes in the paper or seeing the wreckage. Her mother probably avoided the sites while driving around Elizabeth. Still, Blume summoned substantial detail for her novel, weaving fact and fiction for a journey back to that fearful time.

Imaginary newspaper clippings set the stage at the opening of many chapters. Based on real articles, the clips document actual events that followed the crashes, bringing a horrid sense of reality to Blume’s tale.

One article mentions how Allied pilots gave the first aircraft—a C-46—the nickname “the flying coffin” because of its wartime record. Another describes the third plane, cracked in half, as a “swollen cream puff,” as its wreckage hung from trees outside the Janet Memorial Home for orphans.

As the novel unfolds, Blume’s characters relive the crashes one by one. Their stories mingle with fictionalized accounts of real people killed in the doomed planes and on the ground.

Blume writes about the second pilot, who lived only blocks from where his plane crashed. He was considered a hero by some for turning the aircraft at the last second to avoid hitting Battin High School, which had dismissed its students just 45 minutes earlier. She describes how the boys from Janet Memorial rescued survivors from the third crash as they hung from tree branches, still strapped in their seats. She tells the stories of the Syracuse University students who were killed, and of Robert Patterson, former War Secretary under Harry S. Truman, who died in the second crash.

Blume often infuses her characters with bits of herself. One major player in this drama, Natalie, much like a young Blume, is a strange but imaginative child whose father is a dentist called to the scene of the crashes to identify bodies through dental records. Blume’s own dentist father, Rudolph “Rudy” Sussman, performed the same gruesome task after the crashes, although she says “nobody ever talked about it at home,” and she was never able to discuss it with him.

For the book, Blume reinforced her childhood memories with years of research. “My husband keeps saying to me, ‘You know Judy, this was 50 years ago, and to a lot of people that’s like the olden days,’  but to me it was just yesterday,” she says. “I just feel so much in the story and in the book and in the time. I can close my eyes and I’m there, I can see it.”

The story lived inside Blume for decades—a tale she seldom talked about. It didn’t occur to her to write about the events until 2009, when a speaker at a literary seminar described a book she wrote based on her mother’s memories.

In an instant, says Blume, all of the characters and plotlines came to her. For months, she shuttled between her home in Key West to the Elizabeth Public Library to peruse the archives of the Elizabeth Daily Journal and the Newark Evening News—both now defunct. She explored the archives of the Civil Aeronautics Board and revisited the crash sites. The process took five years. “I’m never doing a long novel again, truly,” she laughs. “But I’m very glad I did it.”

Blume credits her parents for encouraging her to feed her imagination with books and giving her the freedom to see plays and explore New York City while growing up in Elizabeth.

“I had the freedom to be a kid—a lot more freedom than kids today,” she says. “And the greatest thing my parents gave me was that they were both readers and I had the freedom to read. I think from books, that allowed me to satisfy my curiosity about the adult world.”

The crashes faded long ago from the headlines in Elizabeth. The Elizabeth River continues to flow beneath the bridge at Westfield Avenue where the remains of the first flight scattered and burned. Magic Fountain Ice Cream and Grill now sits at the intersection of South and Williamson streets near where the second plane slammed into the ground. The Dr. Orlando Edreira Academy No. 26 public school has replaced the Janet Memorial School for orphans (demolished in 1996), where the third plane came to a halt in the playground behind the dormitory.

The city of Elizabeth still hunkers beneath the flight path for jets in and out of Newark Liberty International Airport. Thankfully, there have been no air crashes in the city since the three successive tragedies 63 years ago.

As for Blume, she lives in Key West with her husband, nonfiction writer George Cooper. No, she isn’t afraid to fly—actually, her daughter is an airline pilot; her other child, a son, is a filmmaker who adapted his mother’s novel, Tiger Eyes, into a feature film released in 2013.

Blume is vice president of the Authors Guild and sits on the boards of the Key West Literary Seminar, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the National Coalition Against Censorship. She travels the world to meet with fans and discuss her beloved books.

In the Unlikely Event, her first adult novel in over 15 years, hits stores on June 2. Fittingly, she began her month-long book tour on June 1 in Elizabeth. She will continue to tour across the Unites States and return to the Garden State on June 22 for a book signing event at the Barnes and Nobles in Paramus.

Blume, whose parents were born in Elizabeth, has grown increasingly nostalgic about New Jersey, and especially her old hometown.

“Elizabeth is hugely important to me,” she says. “I have a great T-shirt that I received at the New Jersey Hall of Fame when I was inducted. It says—it makes me choke up—it says, ‘I’m a Jersey tomato’….I am. I am a Jersey girl and proud of it.”

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