An article in today’s Times details the continuing search for answers to one of aviation’s most persistent mysteries: What happened to “L’Oiseau Blanc”? The “White Bird,” piloted by the dashing French flying ace Charles Nungesser and his one-eyed partner François Coli, disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic–or maybe in Maine, or maybe off an island near Newfoundland–around May 8 or 9, 1927.
The aviators–both were already national heroes in France for their death-defying heroics during World War I–took off May 8 from Paris en route to New York City, in a daring bid to win the Orteig Prize. The prize– $25,000– was to be awarded to the first team or individual to pilot a plane nonstop from New York to Paris, or in the other direction.
After takeoff the pilots jettisoned the landing gear and wheels to save weight on their single-engine biplane. They intended to bring the the somewhat bulbous plane down–gently–in the waters next to New York’s Statue of Liberty.
For a brief moment, the names “Nungesser and Coli” (I wonder how people pronounced them) were on every American’s lips. (The guys were older and a good deal more glamorous than the wholesome All-American Boy, Charles Lindbergh. Check out the postcard of the pair with their dangling cigarettes and Coli’s rakish eye-patch.) The Frenchmen had stolen the lead for the Prize from the other announced contestants, including polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd, as well as Lindbergh, the young “Flying Fool,” who was cooling his heels in New York, waiting for the right moment to make his “hop” from New York to Paris. When Lindbergh finally found his moment, on May 20, 1927, the French aviators had been missing for nearly two weeks. Everyone, including Lindbergh, kept up a brave face about the fliers, saying things like they were praying for their safe return. Having made it to Paris on May 21, Lindbergh even made a condolence visit to Nungesser’s aged mother.
But soon all hope was abandoned.
Many theories have been advanced over the years about their fate, and the latest focus is on a tiny island (still part of France, oddly enough) off the coast of Newfoundland, where some evidence points to a Nungesser-Coli catastrophe nearby.
I just caught a showing of George Cukor’s 1942 Keeper of the Flame, a somewhat unconventional vehicle for Hollywood stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
It’s only their second movie together (out of a eventual total of nine), and unlike most of the others–like Pat and Mike or Woman of the Year–it’s not a romantic comedy. Keeper of the Flame tells the story of a famous and affluent hero of the Great War, who, before the movie starts, has died in an accident. “Robert Forrest’s” widow (Hepburn) is keeping some secrets about her husband, and a reporter (Tracy) sets out to find the real story. Turns out that this nationally admired hero was actually a Fascist, who was intending to mount a right-wing takeover of the US government. In the words of the Turner Classic Movies synopsis, the Hepburn character confesses to Tracy that “the masses’ worship of her husband transformed him into an arrogant, power hungry monster intent on smashing democracy.”
TCM’s Robert Osborne said that some people believed the (never-seen) character of Forrest was based on Charles Lindbergh, though others saw echoes of William Randolph Hearst. At least one “reviewer” on the Internet Movie Database website goes further with the Lindbergh comparison, and writes that the character–who was said in the movie to have considered running for president–provided a “prototype” for Philip Roth’s Lindbergh in The Plot Against America:
Keeper Of The Flame never really makes Forrest an exact copy of Lindbergh. After all, the “Lone Eagle” was still alive in 1942, and capable of suing MGM. . . . But the unpleasant experience of Lindbergh’s American First crusade, culminating in his notorious “Des Moines” speech where he hinted at Jewish influence to push the U.S. into war, was sufficient to make the character of Forrest stand for only one other American.
It seems to me a little thin: there really is very little about the character or his family or the few details about his wartime heroics that suggests anything but the slightest resemblance to Lindbergh. To me, the movie reflects a rather more generalized (and, by late 1942, somewhat outdated) fear of the presence of a “Fifth Column” of secret traitors in the government, and a skepticism about heroes that was becoming more and more widespread in American culture.