The Stacks: How Charles Lindbergh Became the First Crackpot Celebrity
Charles Lindbergh became famous for flying solo across the Atlantic just when the star-maker machinery of mass media was revving up. Man and moment were made for each other.
When Charles A. Lindbergh flew from Long Island to France in 1927—the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic—he became an international sensation. His fame intensified five years later when his infant son was kidnapped and eventually killed in what came to be known as “the crime of the century.” The rise of mass media coupled with Lindbergh's shrewd maneuvers helped created a bona fide modern celebrity. Who better to parse through the myth with a clear, unbiased eye than John Lardner, who weighed in on “The Lindbergh Legends” with this long profile in 1949. Originally published in The Aspirin Age and featured here with permission, please enjoy Lardner's classic account of one of the Jazz Age's superstars.
In May 1927, a slim, comely man of 25 years flew an airplane from New York to Paris all by himself, without stopping. His performance was instantly recognized as the climactic stunt of a time of marvelous stunts, of an epoch of noise, hero worship, and the sort of “individualism” which seems to have meant that people were not disposed to look at themselves and their lives, in general, and therefore ran gaping and thirsty to look at anything done by one man or woman that was special and apart from the life they knew. The farther the hero went—whether he went upward, downward, sideways, through air, land, or water, or hand over hand on a flagpole—the better, provided he went alone.
The year 1927, which came about two thirds of the way through this time of escape from mass realities, was the perfect year for the perfect feat. It was the apex of the era, chronologically and emotionally. The young flier, Charles A. Lindbergh, did not know this. He picked his time by chance, as far as any ordinary reader of human instincts can say; though then and later he was so repeatedly and so overwhelmingly famous, and showed such a sense, friendly or not, of the rhythms and uses of notoriety, that many newspapermen of his period refuse to lay any part of it to chance. Newspapermen have always felt superstitious, among other things, about Lindbergh.
At any rate, he rang the bell at the top of the range, in that country fair of a setting. I do not want to belittle the skill and cool efficiency of Lindbergh's Paris flight, or his long-standing talent for flying in general, when I liken his deed of that time to such another as, say, Gertrude Ederle's swim across the English Channel a year earlier. With Lindbergh, it was all more so and better—everything was right. He was young, he was photogenic (as they came to say later), he was apparently modest and unaffected by the first wild sweep of fame, and so simple and understandable in what he said and did that the public turned handsprings in delight and self-congratulation. But basically the reaction was the same as to Ederle and the other heroes and heroines of the era. Its flavor was strong and sweet, and people took their time over it, drawing it out. But a one-day wonder can last weeks or months and still be, at bottom, a one-day wonder. Some men said Lindbergh's nonstop leap to Paris was a vital stimulus to aviation; those closest to aviation thought the growth was inevitable, in view of the more studious flights made before and after Lindbergh's, and will tell you today, looking back, that Lindbergh in 1927 had no noticeable statistical effect on the public's attitude toward flight. In short, he was one for the book; a world-wide love affair; confetti which cost sixteen thousand dollars to clean off the streets of New York.
And that, by every known precedent, should have been that.
But it wasn't. The end of the story was delayed, spectacularly, time and again. Lindbergh lived on in the world's interest in a recurrent series of reactions—Lindbergh's reactions to the public and the public's reactions to Lindbergh—some violent, some cold, some maudlin. One event which came a few years after the flight to Paris, the kidnaping and murder of Lindbergh's son, calls for no psychological explanation of Lindbergh; it was done to Lindbergh and his wife, brutally and as far as we know objectively, from outside. Yet by and large people have attempted to explain the phenomenon of Lindbergh—the phenomenon of the story that refused to die, that may be smoldering now for another burst into print—in terms of the man's character. I know that the temptation to psychoanalyze Lindbergh has been too much for many men and women in the last ten years. Harold Nicolson, the English writer who rented his home to Lindbergh and his family when they first fled America, later wrote about him as follows, reviewing the years after 1927:
“It was almost with ferocity that he struggled to remain himself. And in the process of that arduous struggle his simplicity became muscle-bound; his virility-ideal became not merely inflexible, but actually rigid; his self-control thickened into arrogance, and his convictions hardened into granite. He became impervious to anything outside his own legend—the legend of the young lad from Minnesota whose head could not be turned.”
If that sounds a bit portentous, remember that Nicolson was writing at a time when England was in danger and Lindbergh was openly opposed to saving her. Otherwise it is a fair specimen of the widespread effort to find the answer to the riddle of Lindbergh in Lindbergh himself, and nowhere else. There is as much truth in it, probably, as in many of the other analyses which rolled off angry lips and pens at the time of Lindbergh's isolationism when he opened a part of his mind to the world by fighting American intervention in the Second World War. Certainly Lindbergh was deliberately responsible to some extent for his continuing fame and notoriety after 1927. Loathing the blatant contactual phases of publicity, he showed nonetheless one of the truest gifts ever seen on this planet for attracting it, seeming sometimes to go out of his way to get It when otherwise it might not have been forthcoming. It almost appeared that he needed fame to subsist, to support his confidence in the role he had won. Here is the paradox that engrosses his analyzers: a man supernormally ingrown and aloof becoming with sure instincts a chronic public figure. Lindbergh once said of “interventionists” and “idealists” before the war that they were “men who were too far separated from fact and life.” No man of note was ever further separated from life and fact than Lindbergh. No man could be more reluctant to admit it.
There was a good deal of glibness, in the heyday of the movement called America First a few years ago, about marking the parallel between Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., and his “isolationist” father. Possibly Lindbergh wanted to believe that such a parallel existed, but it didn't. His father seems to have been quite another sort of man.
Lindbergh's father was Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Sr., and the father of Charles Augustus Lindbergh Sr. was Ola Mansson born in Sweden and for twelve years a member of the Swedish Riksdag, or parliament. The present Lindbergh is, in fact, the only man of his line in three generations who has not held public office. Ola Mansson went about Sweden crusading against a number of things, including the whipping post, which he helped in the end to abolish. In the 1850s he changed his name to Lindbergh. In 1860, with his new wife and a new son (his first wife had died), he sailed to America, as a great many other people from a great many other nations were then doing. Eighty years later his grandson was to speak with marked disparagement of the immigrant as opposed to the home-grown American.
The Lindberghs went across the land by boat and train as far as St. Anthony Falls, Minnesota, and then by wagon another hundred miles to a homestead near Melrose, in the neighborhood of the Sinclair Lewis town of Sauk Center. The old man is said to have been a robust character who once axed himself in the forest and refused to leave off work. His son Charles went for a few years to a school conducted by a Roman Catholic priest in Sauk Center. In his free time he worked on the railroad cars as a newsboy and candy butcher, and when he was old enough he entered the law school of the University of Michigan, earning his way through by washing dishes and waiting on tables. He was practicing law in Detroit when he met and married a schoolteacher of chemistry and science, Irish by ancestry, the daughter of a Detroit dentist named Dr. Land. Their son was born in Detroit on February 4, 1902. Before the boy was two months old, his father took the family to Little Falls, Minnesota, and set up a law practice there.
Charles A. Lindbergh Sr., was known as “C.A.” to the people of Little Falls, some of whom are reported to have recognized him early as a soft touch for a loan and to have set in motion maneuvers which forestalled the possibility of his dying wealthy, although he was successful in his work and a rising force in the town, the state, and the region.
“He made money, but he was generous,” said his law partner, Walter Eli Quigley. “He seldom refused a farmer a loan.”
The farmers liked the elder Lindbergh, and the elder Lindbergh liked the farmers. He lost no time in making them the keystone of his liberal and freethinking—in fact, socialist—economic theories. C. A. Lindbergh was bookish but gregarious, a thinker and writer but a practicing politician. One of his interests was the creation of an insurance co-operative for farmers, to free them from the big insurance companies of the East. For a time he ran a magazine stumping for co-operatives, which failed, and he became increasingly obsessed by the situation which centered the nation's money in a few hands. He was anti-Morgan, anti-Kuhn, Loeb, anti-National City Bank—the champion of workers in farm or factory. His son never shared in all his life, as far as anyone has been able to detect, this anticapitalist bias. On the other hand, C.A., though an affectionate father, never shared his son's growing interest in mechanics, which passed through bicycles and motorcycles and Iceboats to jalopies and eventually to planes. C.A. staked his son to eight hundred dollars for his first plane, but he did not, according to Quigley, care much for the notion.
The father and son looked a good deal alike: lean, handsome faces with deep eyes and firm mouths. C.A.'s face, however, began in time to take on the lines of maturity and suffering which come, not unnaturally, to those who mature and suffer. One of the men who in later years made a hobby of publicly psychoanalyzing his son said that the latter's face never seemed to age or to reflect grief or any other experience, keeping a sort of cherubic aspect through its fortieth year.
In 1906 C.A. ran for Congress and was elected. He ran, it should be noted, on the Republican ticket. He was as yet a socialist in word and precept only, and the Farmer-Labor party, which he helped to found was still in the future. His son, five years old, went to Washington with him in 1907 and watched the swearing-in ceremony. C.A. remained in Congress eight years. During much of that time his boy Charles stayed in Washington too, helping with such office work as running errands and licking envelopes. For a time he went to the Friends' School there, along with the children of Theodore Roosevelt, and was part of a “drugstore” gang led by Quentin Roosevelt, which used to convene at the store and run up mild tabs in confectionery.
There was a panic in 1907, and C. A. Lindbergh swung into action with a campaign for investigation of his great enemy, the “money trust.” The newspapers began to work him over. He stored up thousands of clippings denouncing him as a demagogue, a “dangerous radical and dissenter.” He fought, fruitlessly, the Federal Reserve Bill of 1913 and published a book called Banking and Currency in support of his views. In 1915 he was in at the birth of the Farmers League, a political group which was launched in Minnesota, scored its first successes in North Dakota in 1916, and then turned and drove a wedge into C.A.'s home state with our entry into war. Lindbergh and the League, till then fundamentally progressive, socialistic, and anti-money, at once acquired an antiwar and anti-Britain following—still and always based, in Lindbergh's view, on the suspicion of collusion between British and Wall Street finance. They lined up a heavy farm and labor vote. C. A. Lindbergh ran for Governor of Minnesota on the Farmers League ticket in 1918, and it was a wild, bitter campaign.
He electioneered in his old car, his son driving. Mobs booed him, eggs and garden stock were thrown. This, mark you, was not a prewar campaign, like the younger Lindbergh's before Pearl Harbor. This was actually in wartime, and the elder Lindbergh, called pro-German by his rivals, worked against big pressures and heavy clubs. Department of Justice agents broke the plates of his old book on banking and his new one, Why Is Your Country at War?, in which he denounced the sale of Liberty Bonds as manipulated and forced by bankers and said at one point:
“Our purpose is humane; nevertheless I believe I have proved that a certain 'inner circle,' without official authority and for selfish purposes, adroitly maneuvered things to bring about conditions that would make it practically certain that some of the belligerents would violate our international rights and bring us into war with them.”
This theory of “maneuver” was in the mouth of the younger Lindbergh twenty-two years later, but not “Our purpose is humane.” Our purpose had become stupid to him, a waste of supermen and white Western civilization. There were no “supermen” or “yellow breeds” in C.A.'s vocabulary. Since we were at war, C.A. favored seizure and state ownership of mines, trains, plants, and resources to stop profiteering. He had no personal opposition to Woodrow Wilson, and Wilson scolded mob tactics against Lindbergh. When C.A. lost the election he was offered a place on the War Industries Board by Bernard Baruch. Conservative circles in Minnesota killed this appointment, Baruch withdrawing the offer politely and C.A. going his way a little more bitter than before. He was a Farmer-Laborite by 1920, campaigning for Henrik Shipstead, and in 1923 an author again and for the last time—with The Economic Pinch which showed him still obsessed by the evils of big money but brimful, too, of gentle socialist slogans and advice against such things. as the exploitation of children.
His own child was a flier by then. In 1923, in a campaign for a special Senatorial primary, the young Lindbergh flew campaign literature and speakers for his father, and once, only once, flew his father too.
Afterward, C.A. said to his partner, Quigley, “I don't like this flying business. See if you can't get the boy to come into our office, study law, and join the firm.”
Quigley mentioned it to Charles, and the son smiled, shook his head, and said the law was not for him. C. A. Lindbergh died of a brain tumor in 1924. His son, then in the Army, was able to visit him once during his illness, but his leave was up before his father died. Quigley saw the young man off on his way back to camp in Texas, and he recalls: “I could see he was deeply moved, but outwardly he was stoical.”
One day in 1925 Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., carried out a request his father had made before he died. From a plane he scattered C.A.'s ashes over the old Lindbergh homestead near Little Falls by the Mississippi.
In a letter to the younger Lindbergh when he was training for his army commission as a flier, an old college classmate asked, among other things, how Lindbergh's love life was coming along. Lindbergh answered: “In this respect, I am situated in about the same position that I was in at Madison—i.e., no prospects, past, present, or future.”
He was quiet and in-dwelling from early boyhood on. Some who knew him in those years called his manner “grim,” and there is no doubt that there was a feeling of withdrawal in him, a discomfort when he came into the world outside planes and mechanics, that made him awkward socially. He seems to have found relief from this social strain and repression chiefly in practical jokes—and they were the sort of practical jokes, complicated, strenuous, and “virile,” about which a monograph might be written in connection with American life. The prank called the “snipe hunt,” for instance, is apt to cost the jokers themselves a full night of sleep and miles of walking, running, and crawling. Lindbergh arranged a snipe hunt at least once, at the expense of a fellow pilot. Another time he went to great pains to introduce a cow into the neighborhood of an airplane mechanic who had a mortal fear of bulls, and again, he filled the ice-water pitcher at the bedside of a roommate, one Bud Gurney, with kerosene. His jokes are what his early comrades remember best about him; those, and his eating. The young man known to everyone as “Slim” was a spectacular performer with a knife and fork. Apparently he took a shy pleasure in the sociable kidding which he earned by this gift. He would sometimes put away six eggs plus a steak or a chop for breakfast, and later, at Curtiss Field on Long Island, when he was waiting to fly to Paris, he hung up local records at the hot-dog stand.
If he looked grim, it is pretty certain that Lindbergh was content in his life and work and an amiable enough fellow by his own lights. He lost little time in finding the work, the pleasure, that suited him above everything else. After graduation from high school in Little Falls—where he once wrote an elaborate and not uncomical satire on the finicky methods of his English teacher—he took three semesters in engineering at the University of Wisconsin, where the only thing that seemed to interest him much was shooting (he made the rifle team). Then of his own accord he organized a clean break with the past and enrolled at a flying school in Lincoln, Nebraska. Within four years he was known from Chicago to the West Coast by the narrow but shrewd circle of men in his own profession as one of the country's best fliers. Seldom has any man shown a quicker and more natural aptitude for flying a plane.
Lindbergh barnstormed a little at the age of twenty-one, but he needed to know more. The Army was the great practical school of flying at the time, so Lindbergh enlisted in March 1924 in what was known as the “War Department's Air Service,” and was commissioned a second lieutenant the following spring. After some more barnstorming he joined the 110th Squadron of the 35th Division, Missouri National Guard, winning the reserve commission of captain in December 1925. His flying had already given him associations in St. Louis. He went to work there early in 1926 for Major William B. Robertson, whose company had just been licensed to fly the mail between St. Louis and Chicago.
For this job Lindbergh got $350 a month in salary and another $100 a month in flying allowances. He also became the outstanding member of the Caterpillar Club. The Caterpillars were Army or Army Reserve fliers who had parachuted from their planes—strictly of necessity, no daredevil stuff. Lindbergh was never an easy leaper. “He was likely to stick with a plane in trouble longer than the average good flier,” said another pilot on the run. Yet Lindbergh made four jumps in the year 1926. Once, jumping near St. Louis when his controls jammed, he dislocated a shoulder. Twice he went over the side when his gas ran out in bad weather and “walked the mail in”—locating his plane on foot, salvaging the mail, and arranging to have it trucked the rest of the way to its destination. Lindbergh broke into print for the first time, as far as I know, through his Caterpillar Club record. A slightly sob-sisterish story of the time referred to him as “a supple, young, blond giant just past twenty-four.”
Then Monsieur Raymond Orteig moved into his life, or, rather, Lindbergh moved into M. Orteig's and the world's.
Writing about the American Middle West recently, an Englishman, Graham Hutton, said that most of the Middle Westerners he talked with thought, among other things, that Lindbergh was the first man to fly the Atlantic. Quite possibly people think so all over the country and all over the world. Actually, the Atlantic had been flown several times from 1919 through 1926, nonstop or otherwise, by dirigible and plane. There were various transatlantic flights in various stages of preparation in late 1926 and early 1927. This was partly the responsibility of M. Orteig, who had offered $25,000 to the man or men who would fly from New York to Paris or vice-versa. Some people spoke unkindly of M. Orteig's offer as homicidal in effect if not in spirit. I know that this elderly landlord burned with desire for Franco-American good will and was so well disposed toward mankind that he once gave me the freedom of the Hotel Lafayette's kitchen, and the best eating in downtown New York, in return for a very small favor. At any rate, his $25,000 was on the line. Talk of flying the Atlantic was in the air. Toward the end of 1926, Lindbergh set out to hustle himself a stake.
He was not ideally equipped for salesmanship. He could not work up interest among the usually farsighted editors of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The rival Globe-Democrat, however, listened to his plans, and eventually, in early 1927, money was forthcoming, mostly from Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight, widow of a St. Louis stockbroker. At San Diego, California, in the spring of the year, Lindbergh was camped at the Ryan aircraft plant supervising the final touches on a silver monoplane built to his order, which he named “The Spirit of St. Louis.” He had for some time been practicing staying awake for thirty to forty hours at a stretch.
He had never had much to do with newspapermen except for his cash-finding campaign in St. Louis. Now he made proposals to the San Diego reporters which they were to think back on a few weeks later with some irritation. He wanted the press to work for him. He asked the reporters to keep quiet about himself and his plans and to keep him posted on what they heard from the East of the moves of his competitors—principally Clarence Chamberlin and Charles A. Levine in their Bellanca, and Richard E. Byrd and his big, distinguished crew in their Fokker.
The reporters said sure. A few days later they said, “So long,” and Lindbergh was off. Being the flier he was, he at once made American air history with the longest nonstop American flight recorded up till then, San Diego to St. Louis, and the fastest over-all time from coast to coast. He arrived at Curtiss Field at 5:33 on the afternoon of May 12, 1927.
The public and the papers were aware of him now, but doubtful. Once, during the week that followed, the Post-Dispatch of St. Louis rang up a man at the Times of New York to ask if he thought Lindbergh, of St. Louis, was going to amount to anything. The Times man could not give a definite answer. Lindbergh himself was not certain how he stood in the matter of news value, but he knew he was going to take off; so he subscribed, in the neat, private, foresighted way in which he did everything else for this flight, to a press-clipping service. Then, with no pontoons on the plane to weigh her down, he took off at 7:51 on the morning of May 20 and headed a little north of the sunrise, while his rivals remained on the ground to wait to be sure about weather.
Probably excitement never grew with more terrible momentum, from a puff of curiosity to an earth-shaking tension, than it did through the night of May 20 and the morning of May 21. Probably everyone who knew of the flight remembers today where he was or exactly what he was doing at some moment in the course of it. There was a fight that night in a baseball park in New York between Jack Sharkey and Jim Maloney; I remember that Joe Humphreys, a little announcer with a bow tie and a voice of brass, arose in the pool of light in the center of the darkness and called for silence and prayer, and his words were maudlin, moving, and eloquent.
It was not a flight that can be spoken of in detail. That was the happy thing about it in the end: nothing happened, except that the plane was sighted now and then, true on its course and making good time. What went on in the flier's mind the flier might have said, but the chances are he could not. He wrote a book afterward called We, in which he told some things about the flight to Paris. He spoke of the preparations he made, the food and water he took along, sandwiches, Army concentrated rations for five days, an Armbrust Cup, “which,” wrote Lindbergh, “is a device for condensing the moisture from human breath into drinking water. The cup is cloth-covered and contains a series of baffle plates through which the breath is blown.” In those sentences is the detachment, the cool, scientific preoccupation, the avoidance of bravado or any sense of great adventure, which make We the best memento we have of the man who made the flight.
Lindbergh flew 3,610 miles to Paris in 33 hours and 29 minutes, landing cleanly at Le Bourget field on the evening of May 21. A sea of Parisians flowed out to the field, broke down steel fences, swept over the runways. Lindbergh, escaping to some pilots' quarters “identified” himself—“I am Charles A. Lindbergh”—and showed letters of introduction to Ambassador Herrick and others. He was whisked away from the joyous mob, and the line began to form for more mobs in London, Washington, New York. From that moment, which seemed to be the beginning of the end of the most glorious story of the era of glorious stunts, two forces—circumstances and Lindbergh's character—set to work to prevent such an ending. At the very time he seemed to be trying most desperately to efface himself, Lindbergh unerringly prolonged his fame and shaped himself for new stories to come. At no time in the next fifteen years did circumstance fail to lend a hand in this process when a hand was needed.
Eight months after the Paris flight, a New York editor wired a reporter who was covering Lindbergh on a good-will tour through Latin America: “No more unless he crashes.”
It was the first suggestion—and only one man's suggestion—that the point of surfeit had been reached in the first of the great Lindbergh stories. There is no telling how many tons of newsprint were consecrated to the Lone Eagle (to use the sobriquet which pleased the flier best, or offended him least) in those eight months. His effect on the world had been orgiactic and orgastic. He returned to America to find 500,000 letters, 75,000 telegrams, and two freight-car loads of press clippings awaiting him. He was decorated in swift succession by the President of France, the King of England, and the President of the United States, who also commissioned him a colonel. His laundry disappeared every time he sent it out, and he could not write checks because people kept them instead of cashing them. Of the many sentimental songs which were written about him, the most popular, as I recall, was “Lucky Lindy.” This was an epithet which Lindbergh hated in each of its parts and in toto. He set to work at once to destroy any impression that he was either lucky or “Lindy.” It was a sort of battle no other quick celebrity had ever put up, but Lindbergh did not mean to be a quick celebrity. He aimed to perpetuate his fame and what he considered his dignity at one and the same time. His resistance to any other kind of attention was fanatical, skillful, and wholly successful.
Lucky? He promptly flew through all the forty-eight states, through Mexico, Central America, South America, and the West Indies, always alone, touching on sixteen different countries, covering 7,860 miles, without a slip or a flaw.
Lindy? He had been Slim, a good, hard, technician's name, to his old friends. To his new ones—and they were all new now; his social life broke off cleanly and began along fresh lines in 1927—he was Charles, a hard man to talk to but a man to be respected at the highest levels; No vaudeville junkets, no movie contracts, no testimonials, no clasping of the hands above the head in response to the yells of the crowd. His new friends were ambassadors, statesmen, high-ranking officers, scientists, executives, almost exclusively men of capital. Lindbergh became a scientist, an executive, and a man of capital himself. But his sense of public relations, unconscious or not, did not fail him. Among the premiums spread before him, he chose the cleanest, the most respectable: a Guggenheim charter, a government prize of $25,000 for his Latin American flight (the Orteig prize which spawned his Paris trip and his fame was a little more sensational in nature, but, of course, inescapably his), the Woodrow Wilson Medal, writing payments (his articles were staid and objective) from the New York Times and the Saturday Evening Post, advisory positions and stock in Pan American and Transcontinental Air Transport, the second of which became “TWA, the Lindbergh Line.” He could not keep the masses from calling him Lindy, but he convinced them that he was not the Lindy type. No publicity genius could have charted a campaign better. The public changed its first frank, friendly love for awe and admiration—but Lindbergh stayed in its mind and stayed pre-eminent, instead of dwindling to a line or two of fine type in the World Almanac.
Two years after Paris he married Anne Morrow, whom he met in Mexico while her father was American Ambassador there. She was then twenty-one, a year out of Smith College, a dark, shy, quiet girl with a fine mind and a small but pure and valuable gift for putting her thoughts and fancies about the earth, sky, and sea on paper. Their first son, Charles, was born in June 1930. In the next year Lindbergh and his wife flew together to Canada and Alaska and then to Siberia, Japan, and China. Lindbergh, in his book We, preserved for the future a record of what was best and most honest in his own native character. His wife, writing about their flights and adventures in such books as North to the Orient and Listen, the Wind, set down with a richer literary talent something of the high romance and exaltation that were implicit in Lindbergh's life in the air.
During the years when he was enforcing his resistance to precedent, to the fate of the skyrocket, a small group of men was developing a resistance to Lindbergh—and doing it all alone, in silence. To many people it may not seem important that Lindbergh was antipathetic to newspapermen, and they to him. Yet it is a curious fact, worth noting; for reporters were the key to the fame that sustained him. Knowing the power of his position, Lindbergh seemed to feel that he could point up his hatred of nonprivacy—which is an entirely different thing from publicity—by taking it out on the working press. The working press tried time and again to show him the way to privacy: Swallow your medicine, the shouts and the fury, at a quick gulp, like a good patient, and then go off and stop being public. But with strange perversity Lindbergh continued to gag at the medicine and invite the disease.
He once, in the early days of his celebrity, flew coast to coast in record time. The flight was advertised as a record attempt, through the channels Lindbergh thought proper; in short, it deliberately invited reporting. Yet Lindbergh flew into a rage at the men who met him to report its consummation firsthand.
It's hard to say when this cycle of frictions began. It was soon. On his first stop in San Francisco after the Paris flight, Lindbergh took to a hotel room and the press gathered in the corridor outside. Lindbergh sent out word that he would not be available for some time. The reporters waited. Presently a dark and genial face peered out from behind a mustache, through another door in the corridor, and its owner, Señor Alvaro Obregón, of Mexico, said, “If you're waiting for Colonel Lindbergh, why not wait in here?”
Inside Señor Obregón's room the press got a lively speech on Señor Obregón's plans to be President of Mexico in 1928, and quantities of liquor to wash it down with. When Lindbergh's emissary finally traced the reporters, with the news that the Colonel was ready to talk, he found them agreed that the story was not Lindbergh but Obregón. That is what the papers showed next day.
There are many such episodes accessible for the record, though few of them ended the same way, for, as I said, Lindbergh's position was powerful, and the press was seldom able or willing to sacrifice the public's curiosity to its own irritation. To the overwhelming bulk of the public, in the words of a writer commenting on Lindbergh in 1930, he “remained Godlike.”
It might be borne in mind, however, that from 1930 on Lindbergh's closest friend was Dr. Alexis Carrel. The doctor was, first, a scientist and technician. But he was also a colorful and persuasive writer, with certain “philosophical” ideas. These ideas, not unheard of before 1930 or since, had to do with the natural supremacy of the white race, the rule of the weak by the strong, and the breeding of supermen.
Lindbergh's baby son, Charles, was kidnaped from the flier's home in New Jersey on March 1, 1932. He was found dead seventy-two days later in a patch of woods in the same neighborhood after Lindbergh, with a plea to the police and the newspapers to help him by keeping their hands off the case, had paid ransom money to the unknown and unseen kidnaper. The crime was at once so cold-blooded and so violent that it would have had nationwide publicity no matter who the victims were. Since the victims were the Lindberghs, the impact upon the press and the public was tremendous; the law of the land itself was affected. Within a few months of the murder, long before the arrest of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Congress enacted the so-called “Lindbergh Law,” which gave Federal agents national freedom in the pursuit of kidnapers.
This second Lindbergh story was so “big” that it was seldom out of the newspapers for even a day during the next four years. Nor did the papers see any reason, especially after the baby was found dead, to tone it down or to miss such a sterling chance to play cops-and-robbers. Every manner of reporter and cop, official and unofficial, from Walter Winchell down, or up, took a hand. Naturally enough, a score of newspaper “characters” sprouted on the fringe of Lindbergh's fame and tragedy.
Most of them are forgotten, or at least half forgotten, today. There was Dr. John F. Condon, a mild, sententious old Bronx schoolteacher, nicknamed “Jafsie.” Young reporters used to see and hear him at an annual schoolboy reunion party that sometimes made the papers on dull days. Now he enjoyed a front-page run for a while as a far from backward negotiator between Lindbergh and the kidnaper, who lived in Jafsie's neighborhood. There was Ellis Parker, a rural New Jersey detective with a nationwide reputation for hawkshawing, who involved himself in the case and wound up in the Federal penitentiary for kidnaping and torturing the wrong suspect. There were Irving Blitz and Salvy Spitale, New York underworld operators, who were called in by the police for the not unsympathetic assignment of trying to find out if someone in the “profession” had done the kidnaping. Every reporter in New York worked on some part of the case at some time. I trailed Mr. Blitz through lower East Side tenements and was one of those eventually summoned to the handsome apartment of Spitale to take a statement. It was plain that the name and prestige of Lindbergh reached far, wide, and deep.
“If it was someone I knew, I'll be god-damned if I wouldn't name him,” said Spitale. “I been in touch all around, and I come to the conclusion that this one was pulled by an independent.”
Bruno Hauptmann, a Bronx carpenter of German birth, was arrested in 1934. He was convicted of the Lindbergh crime in 1935, after a trial in which the renown of Lindbergh, who was a witness, and the furious public interest in the case had the result of sending those connected with it, lawyers, writers, state executives, and witnesses other than Lindbergh, into a mad spin of histrionics and hysteria.
It has been said by more than one person that the killing of his son and the blatancy of the hunt and the trial which followed not only drove Lindbergh out of his country but formed in his mind the somber ideas which he gave to the world a few years later. That is probably, like so many other easy opinions, the truth but not the whole truth. The details of the crime tell what its effect on the father and mother of the baby must have been, and it is certain that Lindbergh's appearance in court, where his son's clothes were spread before him, brought a shock to his sense of what was private, fitting, and decent. He had another son now, born a month before Charles was found dead. A picture of the second son appeared in a newspaper. There is no doubt that the kidnaping and its sequel, including this last detail, were directly responsible for the fact that the Lindberghs sailed secretly for England on December 22, 1935, three months before the execution of Hauptmann.
But Lindbergh had long since shown dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in America and his own relations with it. He had a problem: He could not enjoy the things he wanted, and these included fame and respect as well as work and privacy, in the way he wanted. Even the kidnaping, in the end, seems to have become fused in his mind with dislike for a “state of affairs,” not for one man or for any single evil. In the next several years—the years of the clash between fascism and democracy—he spoke of America more than once in private conversation as “immoral” and “disorderly.”
Sir John Ervine wrote a plea for privacy for the Lindberghs in England, when they arrived there. It was not heeded at first by the British press, which put on a pursuit race and a public picnic, but after a few days the English reporters followed the formula which American reporters had so frequently offered for procedure between themselves and Lindbergh, and which Lindbergh himself was so often loath to accept: “Get it over with and the veil is yours.” They gave him plenty of privacy—more of it, some who knew him said later, than he wanted. Time appears to have grown heavy on his hands after a few months at Long Barn, the Kentish house rented by him from Harold Nicolson and Victoria Sackville-West.
The villagers answered when he said hello, and the Vicar of Weald came to dinner and described him as “a thorough good fellow”; but not long afterward the Lindberghs were dining with the King (later the Duke of Windsor), in company with the Stanley Baldwins and the Ernest Simpsons. Then Lindbergh dropped over to Ireland, where he flew, as was his custom, with the highest ranks available, De Valera and the Free State Army Chief. Coming home, he gave England a taste of the whimsy that had sometimes jangled the nerves of American newsmen. Instead of flying to the airport where he was expected, he came down at a small coastal field to spend the afternoon and night, asking the army men there not to report his presence. For a day and a night there were scareheads in the press of the world: “Lindbergh Lost.” The government sent word to its ships at sea to be on the lookout, and the ships looked in vain.
The Lindberghs toured Germany, France, Italy, Egypt, and India. They dined or flew with Crown Prince Friedrich, Hugo Eckener, Italo Balbo, the Viceroy of India, and the new King and Queen of England. Balbo and the Crown Prince aroused Lindbergh's deepest suspicion by trying to take snapshots of him. He went to Denmark with Dr. Alexis Carrel to demonstrate the “mechanical heart,” or Lindbergh perfusion pump, on which the two had worked together in America—a device to promote life and circulation in an organ divorced from the body. By 1937 Lindbergh was calling England “stupid,” and by 1938 he had added France, where he lived for a summer and winter, to the now threefold list, with the adjectives “frivolous” and “corrupt.” A pair of visits to Hermann Goering had brought him criticism from anti-Nazis in America. Apparently Lindbergh did not realize that such a school of thought existed, until he heard of the criticism. It angered him so much that he told friends he would go to Berlin to live the following winter, 1938-39. He was dissuaded by the same friends. The Jewish purges of 1938 were at their height in Germany.
Obviously the mere catalogue of Lindbergh's voyages and visits between 1935 and 1939 does not explain what was happening in his mind, what had led him to reject, at any rate to doubt, the future and the character of three nations in rapid succession. Two men influenced him strongly: one, Dr. Carrel, whose association with Lindbergh, as an intimate friend, was now more than half a dozen years old; the other, Goering, whose knack of salesmanship helped turn Lindbergh's notions about power and war and polities in the same direction as his thoughts about man and society.
“The most highly civilized races, the Scandinavian, for example, are white,” wrote Dr. Carrel in 1935, in a book called Man the Unknown.
“Caesar, Napoleon, Mussolini…” mused Dr. Carrel in the same book. “All great leaders of nations grown beyond human stature.”
It seems a fair inference that the doctor's thoughts and private talk were of a piece with his published philosophy. Born in France, he had been a distinguished physician since 1906 in the fields of suturing blood vessels and transplanting organs. He won the Nobel Prize in 1912, and his scientific work, including that with Lindbergh, was undoubtedly valuable. But in the sciences of philosophy and ethnology, which were not his own, the doctor went along with the most superficial, dime-magazine eugenic theories and the racist cant of the Count de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. These men, whose works have been discredited by every objective technical study and all recorded statistics, are important in that they influenced, among others, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler and inspired Mein Kampf. Their views are reflected in Dr. Carrel's book.
Dr. Carrel and Lindbergh summered on adjoining tiny islands off Brittany in 1938, often strolling on the beach and talking together, and in the early part of 1939 Lindbergh wrote (in the Atlantic Monthly): “No system of representation can succeed in which the voice of weakness is equal to the voice of strength.”
And, speaking of aviation in the Readers Digest: “[It is] one of those priceless possessions which permit the White Race to live at all in a sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown.”
Lindbergh, with his wife, first went to Germany in July 1936, at Goering's invitation. The German air chief, delighted by the opportunity, dined and feted the Colonel and spread his planes, his plans, and his experiments before Lindbergh's eyes. There was another more extensive tour in 1938, when Goering escorted Lindbergh through the plants of Messerschmitt, Heinkel, Junkers, and FockeWulf and showed him the best of his activated squadrons. At a stag dinner given by Ambassador Hugh Wilson, Lindbergh was assisting in the reception line when Goering, pausing in front of him, deftly and unexpectedly decorated him “in the name of the Führer” with the Service Cross of the Order of the German Eagle, with Star. Lindbergh never returned it to Goering. His attitude was that he did not care to embarrass any of the parties to the gathering crisis.
The Colonel went in the same year to Russia for an air fete at Tushino Airport. He saw little except gross and hopeless inefficiency (and he knocked down, at one point in his stay, a police agent who was detailed to guard him and whom he mistook for a newspaperman). Lindbergh still clung at this time to the hope that British stupidity was not so crass as to reject the prudent moral he had drawn from Goering's flashy display of air power. He was every inch the salesman of German strength that Goering thought he might be when he went to Baldwin, then Prime Minister, with the tip that Germany was strong, Russia inept, and England and France far behind in preparations for air war. The course he then urged on Baldwin, and on anyone who would listen, is no secret; he stated it openly in a speech in 1941:
“I said that war in the west [of Europe] would result in German victory or a devastated and prostrate Europe. I therefore advocated that England and France build … their military forces … but that they permit Germany to expand eastward into Russia without declaring war.”
Baldwin gave Lindbergh a courteous brush-off which, according to his acquaintances, annoyed the Colonel profoundly and reinforced his disgust with British “stupidity.” As it happened, he was a better salesman than he knew, for at Munich, France and England followed his prescription almost to the letter, at Russia's expense. But Lindbergh went away, home to America at last, thinking only of Baldwin's bullheadedness.
A year later, again in a public speech, Lindbergh dropped neatly into the same bracket to which he consigned Baldwin when he said, arguing that America was safe from attack, “An air invasion across the ocean is, I believe, impossible at this time or in any predictable future.”
In fact, in the role he now chose to play, Lindbergh exactly opposed his father's published thought: “The world is in constant change.” Behind his position he put all of his personal prestige. That prestige was based on skill and foresight in terms of aircraft, and in this very sphere he made what his warmest admirers could only describe, in the light of the record through 1945, as one wrong guess after another. Each guess or prediction involved a denial that any real change was in store for the world through the channels of the air.
Lindbergh's homecoming to the United States in April 1939 was unobtrusive. Shortly after his arrival he made private reports to the War Department and Congress—the factual substance of these could not have been too important, as an American military attaché had accompanied him throughout his inspections in Germany—and embarked on a four-month tour of Army study. When the war began in Europe in September he suddenly—and surprisingly—accepted a suggestion by a radio commentator that he state his views over the air.
It is a curious thing that never before in the 12 years during which the people of the world had known Lindbergh had they seen him open his mind or speak his thought. When they did, it was on topics no one had associated with him in 1927 or 1932: international politics and the state of civilization. As always, the reaction of press and public to the name of Lindbergh was immense.
He broke his lifelong public silence from Station WOL in Washington, two weeks after the war's start. Three networks carried the speech, which, written painstakingly by his own hand, favored “strong neutrality” for the United States. Lindbergh said we should make defensive rather than offensive weapons. This form of neutrality, applied to the facts of the moment, markedly favored Germany at the expense of England and France. Lindbergh spoke of the folly of involving ourselves in the problems of alien “breeds,” “yellow” people, “Moors and Persians.”
As one speech followed another—he made five in 1940 and nearly a dozen in 1941—Lindbergh began to attract criticism both literate and violent, and as he did so his own talks became less dry and measured, more bitter, personal, and revealing. Plainly sincere, he was having trouble dissociating himself and his program from crackpots and ax-grinders. Lindbergh's embarrassment over such teammates as Joe McWilliams and Gerald L. K. Smith was intense. He did quite stoutly share the views of Lawrence Dennis, author of The Coming American Fascism, who wrote to a known German agent, “I saw Lindbergh last week and will see him often from now on.” But Lindbergh offered, on the platform in Madison Square Garden, to go down and eject the curly spellbinder McWilliams from the crowd of twenty thousand, which had shouted, in response to Lindbergh's own remarks, “Hang Roosevelt!” and “Impeach the President!”
He soon satisfied himself with the respectability of America First, a movement which included several U.S. senators and the president of Sears Roebuck and Company, General Robert Wood. America First, of course, was hugely pleased to have Lindbergh. But there were phases of the partnership which pained and annoyed other prominent isolationists. Membership multiplied, but it was noticeable that the crowds began to leave the hall as soon as Lindbergh's talk was over—and at no mere trickle. How many came to see the dream prince of 1927, and how many to save America?
Lindbergh denounced the presidential election of 1940 as dishonest: Both sides were interventionist. He spoke of “Jewish financing” of the war. He resigned his Army commission when President Roosevelt, in April 1941, called him a “copperhead”—an allusion to the Northerners in the Civil War who did not think the South could be beaten.
Visibly stung, Lindbergh retorted, “A refugee who steps from the gangplank and advocates war is acclaimed as a defender of freedom. A native-born American who opposes war is called a fifth columnist.”
Translations of his speeches were turning up everywhere in the official propaganda of Germany, Italy, and Spain. Japanese planes dropped them over Chungking. Less than four years before Okinawa, Lindbergh said that “modern aviation made it impractical, if not impossible, for an expeditionary force to cross an ocean and land successfully on a hostile coast against strong enemy air power.” He was speaking every two or three weeks now, in St. Louis, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Hollywood, San Francisco. He had planned a speech in Boston for late December 1941. But on December 7, America was attacked, and a thick, damp muffler fell on America First and on Lindbergh.
It is true that ten days after Pearl Harbor, at a private dinner, he made a speech, widely quoted afterward by those present, regretting that the white race was divided in this war instead of banded together against the Mongolian. A little later Henry L. Stimson, the elderly Secretary of War, watched and listened coolly when Lindbergh, in Washington, expressed his willingness to serve the Army in any way he could. Stimson glanced at one of his aides. The aide said carefully that he thought it might be better if Mr. Lindbergh served the Army, or the country, as a civilian. Stimson nodded. Lindbergh also nodded, and left the meeting. In the early spring of 1942 he went to work as a planner and adviser in the Willow Run plant of Henry Ford.
Most of the news stories that came between the two great wars can be looked back on with pleasure, amusement, or nostalgia, but certainly with detachment. They are over and done with. Lindbergh's story is not, because it is the story of a man's life and character, and he is still living and his character is still at work. I think it is impossible to write with detachment about Lindbergh at this moment. I don't pretend to have done so.
During the war it was only strict Army press censorship that kept Lindbergh off the front page again, when he went along with a P-38 escort on a bombing mission over Borneo and apparently shot down a Japanese plane. General George Kenney, air commander of the area, said later, “I couldn't swear on a stack of Bibles he didn't do it.” Probably he did. There is little that much younger men can do in the air today that Lindbergh at forty-six cannot do. Navy fliers the Pacific, to whom Lindbergh as a civilian gave valuable technical advice in 1944, were cold to Lindbergh at first for his isolationist crusade, but they conceded that no one could untie a mechanical knot more surely. In the summer of 1945 he was in Germany doing technical work again for the Navy and for the United Aircraft Corporation.
For years, however, Lindbergh's aviation talents have gone hand in hand with a strong compulsion to influence people to see the world as he sees it, and his fame and mechanical gift are the tools he uses to make himself heard. He is still at it. Months after the end of the war Lindbergh was shut in a hotel room with a band of Midwest congressmen, giving them his recipes: Keep the atom bomb completely secret ... Put no confidence in the United Nations … The war we fought against the Nazis cut directly across Lindbergh's social and racial views, and his feeling of what constitutes civilization. He was never a man to change his mind, and since the flight to Paris in 1927 he has not been a man to undervalue himself or to overvalue obscurity.
There is still time—and there seems to be a growing opportunity—for a fourth Lindbergh Story.