On the Trail of TWA Stewardess Mary D. McKnight
by Lisa McLaurin
When we found the beautifully constructed TWA stewardess uniform in the Center for the Arts costume closet, we wanted to know more about who wore it and where it came from. Labels inside the uniform gave us several clues to follow. An embroidered name label in the skirt told us the owner was Mary D. McKnight. A second handwritten label informed us the uniform had been custom tailored of Forstman virgin wool in September of 1944 by the Hamilton Tailoring Company of Cincinnati especially for Mary D. McKnight.
With those few facts, I began searching Ancestry.com for details about a Mary D. McKnight, possibly born in Rutherford County around 1924 with a two-year margin of error. Right away, a record from the 1940 US Federal Census produced Mary Dorothy McKnight born December 14, 1942 in Rutherford County, Tennessee. At the time, she was living in the household of her widowed mother, Lola M. McKnight, age 51.
With a birthdate and location, I was able to locate a 2003 Social Security Death Claim Application record that matched the information I already had about her. Her full name and the exact date of birth matched those on the Census form. Not only did I find her date of death on that document - March 12, 2003 - but also the name of her late father, James T. McKnight, and her mother’s maiden name, Lola M. McHenry.
Social Security death records also list other names by which deceased individuals have been known, and this opened a new line of inquiry. In September of 1941 she was known as Mary Dorothy McKnight. However, in September 1945, she was known as Mary Dorothy Lein. That pointed in the obvious direction of a marriage within a year of her having donned the uniform now in our collection.
Further searching resulted in a Ventura County, California divorce decree for a John Lein (born 1918) and Mary D. McKnight (born 1922). To further establish the connection, I searched Ventura County city directories and found a 1963 listing in Oxnard, California, for John Lein, a pilot for TWA, and his wife Mary D. Later records indicate that by 1993 Mary Dot Lein, born December 14, 1993, lived on Northfield Blvd. in Murfreesboro where she passed away 10 years later.
We do not know how Mary Dorothy McKnight’s custom-made TWA stewardess uniform came to be in the costume collection at Center for the Arts, but the one thing we do know is we are grateful to have this bit of history stored here and will do our best to preserve it. Further information about Mary Dorothy McKnight Lein is contained in the attached obituary.