One of the longest and most startling of the new poems was "Falling," whose lines, broken into word clusters by spaces, stretched from margin to margin. The "walls of words" presented a rhapsodic, slow-motion account of a stewardess's fall to earth. Although Dickey would deny it, his eccentric spacing owed something to the idea of a "breath unit"-the number of words spoken naturally in a single breath—that had been formulated by two poetic schools he regularly derided: Charles Olson’s Black Mountain poets and Allen Ginsberg’s Beats:
[. . . ]
As Dickey describes it, the stewardess's striptease in midair is a "last superhuman act" that arouses the reproductive energies in the boys, girls, and fields of Kansas.
The idea for the narrative, Dickey revealed, derived in part from Flannery O'Connor, who sometimes found ideas for short stories in newspaper articles. Dickey had read in the New York Tmes an account of a stewardess who had fallen out of an airplane. To stymie the fact checkers, he conveniently left out dates, names, and places from the quotation that he used as an epigraph. In an interview Dickey recalled that the stewardess "was a French girl who had come to this country to live. And she was a bit too old for a stewardess, something like twenty-eight or twenty-nine, so she wasn't with the major airlines. . . . This girl had been undergoing psychoanalysis for several years [this was untrue] and—this is the thing that caps the climax—her main fantasy, her obsessional nightmare, was that she was a bird." In Dickey's poem, however, she became more fertility goddess than bird, and by the end of the poem, she flew without any plumage.
Dickey had gleaned the facts, which he later mythologized, from two articles in the New York Times. The first appeared on Saturday, October 21, 1962, the second on October 22. The articles told how Francoise de Moriere, a stewardess on an Allegheny flight from Washington to Providence with stops at Philadelphia and Hartford, had been sucked from the airplane when the rear emergency door suddenly opened. Problems with the door had developed near Philadelphia. Because wind whistled around it, crew members stuffed a pillowcase into the crack. As the plane approached Bradley airport in Hartford around 8:50 P.M., Moriere began to announce landing preparations. A sudden decompression at an altitude of four thousand feet broke open the door. "Ladies and gentlemen, we. .." were Moriere's last words. When the passengers looked back, they saw the door flapping on its hinges. Two men grabbed another stewardess, who had been in the lavatory, and prevented her from falling out the door. Moriere's body was found twenty miles southwest of Bradley Field. She had fallen into a rocky meadow on the outskirts of the sparsely populated town of Farmington, Connecticut. State police reported that several people in the vicinity had heard a scream for thirty seconds, then silence.
Four-and-a-half years after the accident, Dickey found out much more about the stewardess from one of her closest friends, Andrew Sherwood, a portrait photographer living in Paris. On February 23, 1967, Sherwood wrote a seventeen, page letter in response to a copy of "Falling" sent to him by his mother. He informed Dickey that since the accident he had been unable to visit his friend's grave or mention her death to anyone. Now he poured out the details of her life. Francoise-Marie-Gabrielle Chabiel de Moriere, he said, was descended from an ancient Poitou family of petite noblesse dating back to Charlemagne. As a girl she vacationed at her family's chateaux and lived the sort of life her aristocratic lineage allowed. During the austerities of World War II, she changed into a somber, frail, sensitive child. Studying in the intensely competitive Academie Julian to become a fabric or interior designer, she suffered a nervous breakdown. For the next three years she shuttled from sanitarium to sanitarium and rarely spoke. On one occasion she ran around her parents' garden, flapping her arms and screeching like a bird (that was her only memory of her silent period). Subjected to numerous psychiatrists, she grew to loathe them. Despite Dickey's claim about her having been in psychoanalysis, she had vehemently refused to enter analysis later in her troubled life. Her identification with the bird was simply a childhood memory.
As Moriere recovered from her illness, she painted, played the piano, taught small children, and got a succession of jobs as governess, cosmetics salesperson, and eventually stewardess. Because of her age and false teeth, the major airlines rejected her applications. Allegheny Airlines finally hired her and flew her between Hartford, New York, and Washington, D.C. In New York she often dined with her friend Sherwood. She also dated and sometimes traveled with a businessman she had once worked for at Lord & Taylor's. The man fell in love with her and proposed, but Moriere dreaded the idea of marriage so much that she considered retreating to a Dominican convent in Sao Paulo. The businessman, who had taken a job in Denmark, promised to arrive in New York around October 19, 1962, and whisk her off to Europe and marriage. On the night of October 20 she fell, unceremoniously, through the cold Connecticut air.
In "Falling," Dickey imagines Moriere preparing for a marriage with the soil rather than with a man. On her prolonged descent through the warm air above Kansas (Moriere's favorite place name, oddly enough, was Wichita, Kansas), she strips off her girdle, stockings, bra, and all her other clothes. As Yeats had done in his own poem about high-altitude sex, "Leda and the Swan," Dickey relied on his sexual and mythical fantasies for the poem's material. He knew little about the actual stewardess (in fact, Moriere was so slim that she never wore a girdle). Sherwood informed Dickey that his voluptuous American sex goddess differed markedly from the prim, short-haired, narrow-hipped, flat-breasted Moriere, but the elegy for her death still moved him to tears. To show his appreciation, he had his mother send Dickey the original of one of two drawings that Moriere had made for him, and he invited Dickey to visit him in Paris. On May 7, 196 , Dickey thanked him and said he had hung Moriere's artwork in his office.
When "Falling" appeared in the New Yorker, it generated more mail than any other poem Howard Moss had published.