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Giving wing to the 20th century

[Smithsonian photo]
Charles A. Lindbergh with his Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. The plane is a popular exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum.

By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 28, 2002

In this year of the centennial of Charles Lindbergh's birth and the 75th anniversary of his trans-Atlantic crossing, it's important to remember how his rise to fame mirrored the best -- and the worst -- of American culture.

In the arc of a tiny plane that flew from New York to Paris in 1927 and in the arc of his extraordinary life, Charles Lindbergh in many ways embodied the 20th century.

This year is the centennial of Lindbergh's birth and the 75th anniversary of his historic flight across the Atlantic. On May 1-2 his grandson, Erik Lindbergh, duplicated the flight.

Charles Lindbergh's accomplishments in aviation are still landmarks, and he made his mark in many other ways: as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (in 1954 for The Spirit of St. Louis) and, late in his life, as an environmental activist. He also endured great tragedy after the kidnapping and death of his young son, and he was vilified as un-American for his opposition to participation in World War II.

He was a man who for good or ill lived most of his life in the spotlight, one of the most extraordinary examples of the 20th century's obsession with celebrity. Lindbergh became famous for that trans-Atlantic flight, but everything else in his life became public property because of that fame -- whether he wanted it to or not.

The young American

Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born in 1902 in Detroit. His mother was a high school science teacher, his father a lawyer who became a U.S. congressman. His parents' marriage broke up when he was 5, and his childhood was split between the family farm in Minnesota and Washington, D.C. He often said he had wanted to fly since he first saw airplanes pass over the farm when he was a boy.

He dropped out of college, trained as a pilot, worked as a barnstorming stunt flier and then became one of the first men to deliver mail by plane. It was a perilous job then -- of the first 40 pilots hired for the job, 31 died in crashes. Lindbergh, one of the lucky nine, pioneered the mail route between Chicago and St. Louis, but he wanted more adventure. He would get it.

At 25, he became the quintessential self-made American hero when he took off from a New York airfield on May 20, 1927, in a tiny monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Dozens of fliers already had attempted to win the $25,000 Orteig prize, offered by a New York City hotelier to whoever first flew nonstop across the Atlantic. Several had died or disappeared in the attempt.

Lindbergh believed some failed because their planes were too heavy, so he flew alone -- without a radio or parachute, perched in a tiny wicker chair in an unpressurized cabin. When he took off, he'd had no sleep for 23 hours; he carried a quart of water and five sandwiches. "If I get to Paris, I won't need any more," he told reporters, "and if I don't get to Paris, I won't need any more, either."

He expected so little fanfare that he carried letters of introduction.

A grueling 33 1/2 hours later, Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget airfield outside Paris amid a crowd of 150,000 cheering people. One of them, a Massachusetts woman named Julia Richards, wrote in a 1927 letter published in the May issue of Smithsonian, "I only hope they don't spoil the boy before they're done with him -- he seems such a decent, modest sort now."

But his reception in Paris was just the first burst of the fame that would change Lindbergh's life. He made his flight at the dawning of an unprecedented media age. Radio and newsreels, both still new, were hungry for stories like his. That plus some combination of the dazzling potential of aviation, the breathtaking daring of his flight, his good looks, intelligence and quiet self-confidence set the public imagination ablaze and launched him into a lifetime of fame.

Lucky Lindy

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When he returned to New York City, 4.5-million people turned out to cheer him. A dance was named for him, songs were written about him, he received millions of letters and telegrams. He was named Time magazine's first Man of the Year. It "could hardly have been more amazing," Lindbergh wrote later, "if I had landed on another planet."

The flight didn't just change Lindbergh's life; it helped to create the aviation industry. The mania over him led to the "Lindbergh boom" -- aviation stocks soared, and public interest in the new notion of commercial air travel did, too. He set out across the country in the Spirit of St. Louis on a tour to promote air travel, and his fame continued at fever pitch. He once had to crash-land in a Kansas corn field after an excited crowd ran onto the airstrip he was supposed to set down on.

Anne Morrow was the daughter of an American diplomat stationed in Mexico, and she met Lindbergh when his tour was extended into Central and South America. She told one interviewer that she captured Charles' attention at dinner by not trying to talk to him. She was the first woman who hadn't gone gaga over him since the flight, and he apparently found it irresistible. They married in 1929.

Lindbergh didn't expect his wife to sit at home while he soared. He taught Anne to fly, and together they mapped out commercial air routes across five continents, some of them still in use.

Under the microscope

Charles and Anne Lindbergh always disliked the intense public attention focused on them, but it would become much more of a nightmare than they had imagined. On March 1, 1932, their 20-month-old firstborn, Charles Jr., vanished from his crib at their estate in New Jersey. His absence was discovered about 10 p.m.; bulletins were on the radio by 10:30.

Lindbergh himself took control of the investigation from the beginning, with the star-struck cooperation of Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf of the New Jersey State Police (father of the Persian Gulf War leader). The story, dubbed the "crime of the century," dominated the national news. Thousands of reports of sightings of the baby and tips about the crime poured in from around the world, and several intermediaries claimed they were in contact with the kidnappers.

One of them, John F. Condon, accompanied by Lindbergh, delivered $50,000 in ransom to a mysterious figure in a graveyard, who escaped after giving Condon a note purporting to reveal the baby's whereabouts. The note was a ruse. Seventy-two days after the kidnapping, the decomposed body of a baby was found in woods 4 miles from the Lindbergh home. Charles Lindbergh identified the child as his son. The boy had probably been dead since the night he disappeared.

It would be 1934 before police, following serial numbers from bills used in the ransom, arrested a German-born carpenter, Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Now the crime of the century was the trial of the century, and the focus on the Lindberghs, though sympathetic, was even more relentless. Although the case against him was controversial (his widow, Anna Hauptmann, who died in 1994, maintained his innocence and spent almost 60 years trying to clear him), Hauptmann was convicted in 1935 and executed in 1936.

After the media circus of the trial and threats against their second son, Jon, born a few months after the kidnapping (they would have two more sons and two daughters), the Lindberghs left the United States in 1935, first for a remote village in England, then for an even more remote island off the coast of France. Their youngest daughter, Reeve Lindbergh, has written that her parents always blamed the media attention to their family for Charles Jr.'s kidnapping.

Fall from grace

Though he had chosen to exile himself from the United States, Lindbergh had not retired. In addition to his work in the development of commercial air travel, he helped research and invent an early version of an artificial heart. His associate in the work was a Nobel Prize-winning French surgeon, Dr. Alexis Carrel. Carrel's writings on race were disturbingly similar to those of Adolf Hitler, who at that time was building Germany's air power.

Lindbergh soon got a first-hand look at the Luftwaffe: In 1936, the U.S. military attache in Berlin asked him to visit Germany, where because of his fame he was given unprecedented access to factories and airfields.

Lindbergh was impressed with the Germans -- so much so that his reports of their air superiority greatly distressed U.S. ambassadors in England and France. He even made plans to move to Berlin. And the Germans were impressed with him. In 1938, Air Marshal Hermann Goering awarded him, on Hitler's behalf, the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his contributions to aviation. Anne Lindbergh dubbed the medal "the albatross," and she would prove to be right.

The Lindberghs returned to the United States in 1939, with war imminent across Europe. Lindbergh spoke out against American involvement in the war, in 1941 joining the America First Committee, a broad coalition of people, ranging from pacifists to Nazi supporters, who opposed U.S. participation.

Not only his own politics but perhaps also his background moved Lindbergh to isolationism: His father, while running for governor of Minnesota in 1918, had opposed American entry into World War I and was derided as a traitor, shot at and hanged in effigy.

President Franklin Roosevelt, the target of much of Lindbergh's criticism, in turn called him a defeatist and "sunshine patriot." Lindbergh resigned his commission as a colonel in the U.S. Air Corps Reserve in anger.

In a speech on behalf of America First that he gave in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941, Lindbergh said he would "name names" of those groups he considered most dangerous in pressing the United States toward war, then named the British, Jews and the Roosevelt administration.

The speech was a bombshell. The Lone Eagle plunged from grace, as even other isolationists renounced him and the press and public attacked him. "The voice is Lindbergh's, but the words are the words of Hitler," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. If 1927 had been the height of his fame, 1941 was its nadir.

Less than three months after the Des Moines speech, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Lindbergh volunteered to serve two days later, but Roosevelt refused to allow him to return to the military, issuing a statement that Lindbergh couldn't be expected to lead men if he believed his country to be defeated before it entered the war.

Through his friendship with Henry Ford, Lindbergh worked as a civilian aviation consultant and, in 1944, went to the Pacific Theater of the war as an observer. There he worked to improve the effectiveness of U.S. air power and persuaded his superiors to allow him to fly 50 combat missions, shooting down at least one enemy plane.

Moving on

After the war, Lindbergh's opposition to it seemed to be consigned to memory. Historian Arthur Schlesinger said, "I think people forgot it rather quickly. Perhaps they figured that aviators, like movie stars, can't be expected to understand politics."

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower restored Lindbergh to the Air Force Reserve as a brigadier general, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Spirit of St. Louis, his memoir of his historic flight.

From the 1960s, the Lindberghs spent much of their time at their home on Maui, in Hawaii, and he became involved in environmental causes. He stepped into the spotlight one more time on behalf of such groups as the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy.

Reeve Lindbergh wrote in an essay in 2000 for Time magazine, "When I knew him best, late in his life, he was flying around the world again, as he had done in the early days, but this time on behalf of endangered species, wild places and vanishing tribal peoples. He believed the aviation technology he loved was partly responsible for the devastation of modern warfare and the degradation of the natural environment. "If I had to choose,' he said, "I would rather have birds than airplanes.' "

Charles Lindbergh died in Maui in 1974 of lymphatic cancer. He was 72. He left the hospital 10 days before his death and, still in command, orchestrated his last days, even persuading the doctor to sign and fill out his death certificate ahead of time, except for the date. Lindbergh was buried near his Maui home in a plain pine box, wrapped in a Hudson Bay blanket and wearing his gardening clothes.

It was a quiet end for a tumultuous life. It seems many of the best and worst currents of the 20th century moved through Lindbergh -- exhilarating discovery and scientific progress, deeply divisive politics, the first stirrings of the environmental movement and, above all, the pervasive thrill and devastation of fame.

It was a force that made him a planet's hero and perhaps killed his child and that still holds him in its glare, in the vision of that tiny plane crossing the sky alone.

Lindberghs online

The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation maintains a site about the nonprofit foundation's support for research that promotes a balance between technological advancement and environmental preservation. It includes biographies and other information about the Lindberghs.

The Charles Lindbergh Home Page, created by Minnesota aviation fan and pilot Pat Ranfranz, covers Lindbergh's life and times in detail, with lots of links to other sources.

The American Experience: Lindbergh is the Web version of the PBS biography of the aviator, with additional material such as the texts of articles and speeches.

The X-Prize site offers detailed information about Erik Lindbergh's re-creation this month of his grandfather's trans-Atlantic journey, the X-Prize Foundation's support for private research and development of space travel and more.

Another Lindbergh crosses the Atlantic

On May 1, another Lindbergh launched himself into the sky to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Charles Lindbergh's grandson Erik Lindbergh made the flight to commemorate his grandfather's accomplishment and to draw attention to causes dear to both of them.

Erik, 37, is the son of Jon Lindbergh and Barbara Robbins. He lives in the Seattle area, where he grew up, and is an accomplished sculptor in wood. Many of his subjects are aircraft, and, he says, one of them inspired him to make the trans-Atlantic flight.

"About two years ago," Lindbergh said in a telephone interview a couple of weeks after the flight, "I was working on a sculpture in wood of the Spirit of St. Louis, the first one I had done of it. I was looking at the wings.

"It was a salvaged piece of old-growth cedar with a beautiful wavy grain, and I realized that it looked like waves on the ocean. And as it took shape, I felt it flying in my hands, and I began to think, what was it like for Grandfather?"

He had thought of making the flight before, he says: "I think most pilots think of doing it. But most sane pilots dismiss it.

"I think for me it was a matter of investing myself into the shape of the Spirit. That really made me see the connection between the organic nature of the world around us and the technology. Those were very strong themes, related themes in the latter part of my grandfather's life: that interplay between technology and environment."

Lindbergh says that when he was a boy, his life was not much affected by his grandfather's fame. "I lived a very secluded life on the West Coast" growing up, he says. "I was really apart from all that."

Though his grandfather died when Erik was 9, he remembers the Lone Eagle well. "He was really fun to be with. Though some adults might not have felt that way. He was always right; he was very precise, very intense," Lindbergh says. "But he was great with kids. Kids don't need anything but attention. Adults often need something different from someone like that."

Erik Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic May 1-2 from the New York area to Paris in 17 hours and 7 minutes, about half as long as his grandfather's flight took. With the support of numerous sponsors, he piloted a Lancair Columbia 300 with a 36-foot wingspan -- actually a smaller plane than the original Spirit of St. Louis, but considerably more high-tech.

It was an adventure he couldn't even have considered 16 years ago, when he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. "I didn't know if anything was possible in my life" after that diagnosis, he says. "Walking, anything else was extremely painful."

But a few years ago a new biopharmaceutical treatment changed all that. "We live in such an extraordinary technological time, that it could give me a second chance at my life," Lindbergh says.

His flight will benefit the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation (of which he's a director), the Arthritis Foundation and the X-Prize Foundation, which supports private research and development of commercial space travel, another cause he champions.

On May 20, the anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's flight, the History Channel premiered Lindbergh Flies Again, a documentary about Erik's journey. He hopes his feat honors his grandfather and brings attention to ideas important to both of them: "I want to give people a chance to see -- kids especially, because they are the future -- the positive possibilities of our future."

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