Charles A. Lindbergh: The first “Man of the Year”

CAL TIME MAN OF THE YEAR

TIME magazine’s “Man of the Year” (more recently, “Person of the Year”) selection used to be an important cultural/political year-end milestone:  no other media outlet– whether another magazine, or a newspaper, or a radio or TV network– had so thoroughly cornered the market on “significance.”  The annual choice by this most popular and culturally influential newsmagazine was akin to the Oscars, or the Pulitzers:  Americans love to read about awards and about “Best of” lists; awards like the “Man of the Year” –such hubris!– used to have enormous cachet, before everyone got famous for fifteen minutes.  (SEE all of the Man of the Year TIME covers here.)

Early on, many of the Men of the Year were businessmen and industrialists, like GE’s Owen D. Young, or Detroit’s Walter Chrysler.  Soon, the selection settled into a fairly predictable lineup of presidents and world leaders, including FDR (three times), Hitler (1938) and Stalin (1939 and 1942).  There were occasional surprises:  Wallis Simpson was the first woman to be named (1936), the “American Fighting Man” was the first “generic” choice; the Ayatollah Khomeini, a controversial, but defensible, choice in 1978.  And there have been some gimmicky winners: 1982’s winner was “The Computer,” or “Machine of the Year;”  the winner in 2003 was “You,” that is, all of us creators of online content.

This year’s Person of the Year is–no surprise– President Obama, his second appearance, and it’s a terrific issue of the magazine, well worth a newsstand buy.

Charles Lindbergh was TIME’s first Man of the Year, appearing on the cover–since the magazine’s debut in 1923, in its trademark red border–on the first issue of 1928, more than six months after Lindbergh’s epochal New York-to-Paris flight.  The story goes that TIME’s editors were looking for a hook for selling more magazines in the usually slow January market, and that, additionally, they were somewhat chagrined that they had not yet featured a single cover with Colonel Lindbergh (as he was titled after returning from Europe to the U.S.) — a shocking omission, given the wall-to-wall U.S. media coverage of the young aviator hero since late May 1927.   But even if there had already been a long-established Man of the Year series, it’s hard to imagine how TIME could have chosen anyone else, so thoroughly had Lindbergh the Man– and Lindbergh the Mania–so thoroughly dominated the news of 1927.

The cover illustration is an attractive pencil drawing of the Lindbergh profile, signed by the aviator himself:  “The Man of the Year:  He defeated fame.”  The story inside is quite short, especially in comparison to the sprawling features in today’s Person of the Year issues.  It begins quite charmingly:

Height: 6 ft. 2 inches.

Age: 25.

Eyes: Blue.

Cheeks: Pink.

Hair: Sandy.

Feet: Large. When he arrived at the Embassy in France no shoes big enough were handy.

Habits: Smokes not; drinks not. Does not gamble. Eats a thoroughgoing breakfast. Prefers light luncheon and dinner when permitted. Avoids rich dishes. Likes sweets….

Characteristics: Modesty, taciturnity, diffidence (women make him blush), singleness of purpose, courage, occasional curtness, phlegm….

The article continues:

To date he has flown to France; Belgium; England; Mexico; Canada in the interests (his) of aviation progress and the interests (governmental) of international good will. In his own writings last week he pointed out the risks of flying over lonely Central American mountains. Remarked dissenters: “How much more lonely are the wastes of the Pacific; jungles below the Equator; tropic waterways of the East over which he must fly if his portfolio of Ambassador of Good Will is permanent.” Grumblers wondered if interest accruing to the national welfare by his flights is worth the calamitous crash of principal which would accompany his death. Col. Lindbergh is the most cherished citizen since Theodore Roosevelt. Thought they: “He is worth keeping.” One way to keep him is to keep him on the ground.

Others argued savagely that Lindbergh must fly for his life in the public eye; heroes age swiftly when seated at office desks; argued that by his very nature he must fly.

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