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Jan Sterling: The Actress Who Escaped the Hindenburg Disaster and Became a Star

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Jan Sterling was an American actress known for her distinguished film, television and theater careers. Born April 3, 1921 in New York City, New York – and beginning her career in films such as 1954’s The High and Mighty and 1951’s Ace in the Hole – her career blossomed quickly by 1951 when she made a notable cameo appearance as one of only six passengers who survived the Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937 in New Jersey (she survived just by inches!).

A Passion for Acting

Jan Sterling
Jan Sterling

Sterling was raised in an elite environment by her wealthy advertising executive father and model mother. She attended private schools before leaving with her family to Europe and South America. While studying privately in Paris and London, Fay Compton’s dramatic school provided invaluable training that ignited a love of acting while developing an impressive British accent she later used in her performances.

She returned to Manhattan as a teenager and made her Broadway debut in 1938 as Chris Faringdon in Bachelor Born, followed by many more productions during the 1940s such as When We Were Married, This Rock, and The Rugged Path. At Ruth Gordon’s advice she changed her stage name from Jane Adriance to Jan Sterling – an act which would continue throughout her life and career.

A Close Call

In 1937, Sterling was living in London and planning her return to the United States to pursue acting. She booked a ticket on the airship Hindenburg – one of the world’s largest and most luxurious passenger airships designed and constructed by Germany’s Zeppelin Company and operated by German Zeppelin Airline Company; its name honored Paul von Hindenburg who served as president at that time.

The Hindenburg had made 10 trips to the United States in 1936, with plans for another 10 trips scheduled in 1937. It was the first airship ever to offer transatlantic service between Frankfurt, Germany, and Lakehurst, New Jersey; carrying up to 97 people- 36 passengers and 61 crew- it used highly flammable hydrogen gas as its lifting agent which rendered it vulnerable to fires.

On May 3, 1937, the Hindenburg left Frankfurt for its inaugural trip of the season, Lakehurst. Sterling was among 36 passengers aboard that first trip – among them celebrities, journalists, and wealthy travelers such as Al Capone. However, upon attempting to land at Lakehurst on May 6 after an inconvenient weather delay – sudden explosion of flames from its hydrogen core took place as it approached its mooring mast – with 200 feet falling to earth beneath her wings in less than 15 seconds as captured on film and radio by eyewitnesses who expressed shock and horror at what had just occurred at Lakehurst that morning!

Sterling was one of the lucky few who managed to escape the inferno of Hindenburg disaster. Later she would recall how she used up all her remaining money on some lingerie she saw in London store windows, spending it all before swapping out airfare for passage on a steamship instead. Only later did she learn of its disaster after reading news articles in newspapers; that decision may well have saved her life!

Out of 97 people on board the Hindenburg, only 62 survived; 23 passengers and 39 crew members. Thirty-six individuals lost their lives, including 13 passengers, 22 crew members, and one civilian member of the ground crew – leaving public trust shattered and marking an end to airship travel as we know it today.

A Star is Born

Sterling moved back to New York and resumed her acting career, making her film debut as Jane Darian in 1947’s Tycoon, then earning a prominent supporting role opposite Jane Wyman (who won an Academy Award) in Johnny Belinda (1948). Soon thereafter, Sterling became well known for portraying both tough and sensuous female roles across film noir and drama genres including Caged (1950), Mystery Street (1950), Union Station (1950), The Mating Season (1951), Ace in the Hole (1952), Flesh and Fury (1952), The High and the Mighty (1954/1955/1956 as well as High School Confidential (1958).

She garnered widespread acclaim and recognition for her work, particularly her portrayals as Kirk Douglas’ wife in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and as his cynical spouse in The High and Mighty; roles for which she earned critical acclaim as well as nominations for Golden Globe Awards and Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress.

Edie Fadi also made appearances on several television programs and stage plays, such as The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wagon Train, Perry Mason Bonanza The Untouchables and The Odd Couple. She married twice: first to actor John Merivale whom she divorced in 1948; and later Paul Douglas whom she wed in 1950 – remaining together until his death two years later in 1959 with whom they had one son together named Adams Douglas born 1955.

Sterling’s career began to decline during the 1960s as she struggled to find roles that suited both her age and image. While she continued acting occasionally on television and theater stages, she ultimately retired from film in 1988 due to suffering a series of strokes which ultimately took her life on March 26, 2004 in Los Angeles, California.

Jan Sterling was a gifted and versatile actress with an extraordinary life and career, which included being one of the only survivors from one of aviation history’s most tragic and unforgettable disasters – Hindenburg disaster. As she once stated: ‘I never considered myself a star; just an ordinary working woman.”

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