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'Lindbergh' by A. Scott Berg

The Highs and lows of Charles Lindbergh

Sunday, September 20, 1998

By Bob Hoover, Book Editor, Post-Gazette



By A. Scott Berg



Somebody had to be first to fly from the United States to Europe. Luckily for America, it was Charles A. Lindbergh. The year was 1927. Several well-financed attempts were under way to span the ocean, including one by Adm. Richard Byrd using a three-engine Fokker, one of the most-advanced airplanes of the era, and two by French war-hero aviators.

What egged them on was the $25,000 Ortieg Prize offered by a New York hotelier for a nonstop New York-to-Paris flight.

Lindbergh was a 25-year-old unknown, a barnstorming airmail pilot with no experience flying over water. His backers were several St. Louis businessmen, hardly high rollers.

His primitive plane was hand-built from wood, piano wire and canvas for $6,000 by a small San Diego company. To save weight, it had no radio or navigational aids except a compass. To read it, the pilot used a mirror from a makeup compact stuck to the dash with chewing gum.

It was no wonder he was called Lucky Lindy when he landed in Paris May 21, after 33 hours in the air.

Another nickname was “The Lone Eagle,” which brilliantly captured those American values that the prosperous nation of the 1920s was so proud of. Lindbergh represented everything a hero should be, from his shy good looks to his Midwestern roots.

The fact that this solitary young man with few resources defeated his stronger competitors was a ringing endorsement for American rugged individualism. In one transatlantic leap, Lindy had flown from an unknown to a god.

A. Scott Berg’s new biography shows just how fortunate the nation was to have Lindbergh, whose historic flight came close to failure more than once. In the days after Paris, he never made a wrong move. His personal life was spotless, his choice of Anne Morrow as his wife was perfect, and his efforts in launching America’s young airline industry brought nothing but international acclaim.

Lindbergh was not a god, of course, and his obvious strengths — self-reliance, self-confidence, responsibility and total control — proved to be flaws later.

The public events that whirled around the Lindberghs riveted the nation, which showered them with sympathy for the 1932 kidnapping and killing of their baby son and jeered them over the flyer’s role in the isolationist movement before World War II.

Berg’s descriptions of those best-known events are full and rich in detail. He presents the kidnapping and subsequent circus trial in straightforward fashion, but delves more deeply into Lindbergh’s antiwar attitudes.

Lindbergh was pro-German, but only because he was anti-Soviet, Berg claims. Lindy’s well-publicized visits to the Nazi court, which included the awarding of a medal, convinced him of the German military superiority. He viewed the Nazis as the only hope against Communist Russia.

Lindbergh was anti-Semitic, writes Berg, who unearthed expurgated passages from Lindbergh’s diary. It was the aviator’s antipathy toward Jewish support of American involvement in Europe that inspired his foolish speech in Des Moines in 1941, when he cited American Jews as influencing President Roosevelt’s support of Great Britain.

FDR then blocked Lindbergh’s attempts at military service once the U.S. went to war, although Lindy managed to see action against the Japanese as a civilian consultant on warplanes.

Lindbergh never recanted his positions. It seemed that once his mind was made up, there was no going back. He was a man of principle, but rigid principle. The determination that made him a skilled pilot also made him an inflexible human being.

That trait extended to his personal life as well. Berg finds no examples of Lindbergh expressing emotional pain, longing or regret. He upbraided his wife for her tears over their dead baby, leaving her to weep alone.

As the couple grew older, the Lindberghs spent more time apart. Frequently, Anne had no idea when her husband would return from a jaunt to Africa or the Pacific, and she was drawn into an affair with a doctor in the mid-1950s, Berg claims.

Berg was supplied with ample details of Anne Lindbergh’s private life, thanks to her fine memoirs and diaries. At times, he seems to be writing her biography rather than her husband’s.

But he remained a dutiful profiler of this remarkable man who seldom spent an idle moment. Lindbergh had many interests that he doggedly pursued, including major conservation efforts that occupied him until his death.

His was a rich and valuable life, perhaps too large for one book to capture. In these media-dominated days, it’s hard for us to imagine that one person depending only on his or her instincts can accomplish much.

That is why Charles A. Lindbergh, once the symbol of American greatness, is such an enigma to us today.

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