“America’s first real celebrity”

Gossip columnist Liz Smith knows a thing or two about celebrities, and in a column today from Huffington Post she writes:

I have a theory. Gossip and celebrity are the great luxuries of true democracy. They’re the tawdry jewel in the crown of free speech and expression. Gossip about the famous or infamous is for leisure, for fun, for entertainment, for relaxation — that has been true since the first real American celebrity, who was named Charles Lindbergh.

Of course, as soon as anyone makes a claim for somebody being the first “anything” there will be a chorus of voices nominating other, more worthy candidates for the title.  And the prize for “the first celebrity,” even with that vague qualifier (“real”) from Liz Smith, is no exception.   There is even a (small) academic field of “celebrity studies,” I’m told, and scholars there are reaching back to the 18th and 19th centuries in the quest for “firstness”– to the likes of Benjamin Franklin, or actress Fanny Kemble, or singer Jenny Lind, or opera superstar Adelina Patti.

But Lindbergh’s fame was certainly of historic, epic proportions, and it exploded in the midst of 20th-century mass culture; in fact, the staggering dimensions of his fame were made possible by the engines of modern mass culture– by photography and photographic reproduction, by newsreels and the movies, by newspapers and slick gossip magazines, by radio, especially during the infamous kidnapping case of 1932-36.  The height of his fame came especially in the period from 1927 (the year of his NY-Paris flight, the year he became “the most photographed man in history”) to 1941 (the year of his anti-interventionist “Des Moines speech,” after which he was called by one magazine “the most hated man in America”).

And even though television wasn’t around for any of this, that medium, too, eventually discovered Lindbergh, whose storied life became the basis of any number of documentaries, especially during the “memory boom” decade of the 1990s.

More on that another time.

Illustration: Theodore LeBonte, “Lindbergh on Top of the World,” 1928, Missouri Historical Society

Lindbergh Baby kidnapping newsreel, March 3, 1932

Eighty years ago, on March 1, 1932, the toddler son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh was kidnapped from the family’s new home in Hopewell, New Jersey.  Thus began what instantly became one of the most sensational news stories of the 20th century, culminating in 1936 with the electric-chair execution of the person convicted of the crime, Bruno Hauptmann.

That paragraph is about 60 words.  Within the first 24 hours after the kidnapping, one service alone–Hearst’s International– pumped out 50,000 words on the crime, the equivalent of a 200-page book.   The story of the kidnapping and the manhunt and the trial was certainly an avalanche moment of American journalism– in terms of sheer scale, if not in ethics or quality.  But it was through the radio, far more even than newspapers, that most Americans by 1932-36 were consuming–voraciously–a daily diet of news and sensationalism.   Radio coverage, coupled with dramatic newsreels such as this one from March 3, 1932, made the sad and lurid Lindbergh baby story the first great electronic media sensation in history.

[The newsreel clip here is from the “Critical Past” website (readily apparent by the watermark), and is about 3 minutes long, including the “Ride of the Valkyries” music that opens the clip.]