An orphan, Cochran's exact birth date is uncertain. Possibly, Jacqueline Cochran, born Bessie Lee Pittman, in 1910 in Muscogee, Florida. While she was raised with the name of her foster family, Cochran later picked from a phone book the name she would make famous.
Early years offered little comfort. Cochran recounted in her autobiography Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography how she didn't have shoes until buying her own when she was eight. "Food at best consisted of the barest essentials-sometimes nothing except what I foraged for myself in the woods of the Northern Florida sawmill towns my foster family called home. .. . I've often heard that if you want someone to really enjoy the pleasures of heaven, then just pitch her into hell for a spell. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed my life to the brimful. "
Cochran attempted to leave the squalor of her childhood by running away with the circus. The circus left without her, but it wasn't long before she found another way out. In her early teens she moved in with a Jewish family that owned hair salons.