About jbrianh

I am an exhibit curator at the Minnesota Historical Society. The Over Here Project is a partnership with the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and the Oakland Museum of California. Together, this Project is developing a major traveling exhibition on America's role in World War One, and on the American home front, 1917-1919. The exhibition will open in 2017, the centennial of America's entry into the War.

A mass murder at a school– in 1927

A horrific crime in 1927, now largely forgotten, has some eerie parallels with the tragedy in Newtown CT last weekend.  Andrew Kehoe, a disgruntled school handyman and one-time  school district treasurer in Bath Township, Michigan, planted massive explosives at an elementary school and blew up the building, killing 45 people, 38 of them schoolchildren.  It remains the largest mass murder at a school in US history.

school3He had planned the crime for months, wiring the building and loading it with lethal explosives.  After killing his wife and blowing up his own house, he detonated explosives at the school, then drove to the school and blew up his car and himself and the school’s superintendent.

Why is this Lindbergh news?  Well, it isn’t, really. But the date of the Bath school explosion was May 18, 1927–just two days before Lindbergh took off on his historic flight to Paris, obliterating all other news stories in the day’s media.  The swift obscurity of the tragic news from Bath may also have something to do with the fact that it occurred in such a small town, in the nation’s “flyover” lands (before there were many people flying over it).  The immensity of the Lindbergh media phenomenon has a lot to do with the jumping-off point– New York City, center of the media universe–and the landing point:  Paris, the world’s most glamorous capital.  A mass murder of children in a small town in Michigan couldn’t compete with those sensational facts.

The death of a Hollywood child “star”–and the Lindbergh Baby

True confessions:  I read the New York Times Obituaries every single day, the first thing (sometimes the only thing) I read in the paper.  Naturally, I’m drawn immediately to the ones for people who are my age or younger, then I turn to the ones that look a little quirky.

Today brought “quirky” — and a mention of Charles and Anne Lindbergh.

It was an obituary for Claudine Mawby, age 90, the last remaining of a set of British “triplets” who were, briefly, child stars in Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Actually, as the article pointed out, they were a set of twin girls (Claudine and Claudette) and their slightly older sister (Angella) who strongly resembled them.  The story goes that the girls traveled with their mother to Los Angeles in 1927 for what was to be a short visit, but they were spotted by newspaper photographers and studio talent scouts, and they were soon making appearances in “the pictures.”  Their moment in the blazing sun of Hollywood celebrity was brief, however, since their parents–alarmed by the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in March 1932–whisked their sweet blonde “triplets” back to safety in England.

Ironically, England turned out to be deadly for one of the children:  Claudette was killed at age 19, caught in a German bombing raid of Brighton, England in 1941.

The “protective parent” reaction of the Mawby girls’ parents–while somewhat extreme–was, however, repeated over and over again across America in the early 1930s, as the sensationalist press machines went into overdrive in the wake of the “Crime of the Century.”

“Lindberghiana”– The Stuff of Lindbergh

The sheer number of individual things — we can call them knickknacks, bric-a-brac, souvenirs, chotchkes, ephemera — that were “branded” with the Lindbergh name in the wake of the 1927 flight is nothing short of staggering.

As with much of the Lindbergh story, it is the towering scale of this tidal wave of STUFF  that is so impressive, and also, incidentally, the fact that most gets in the way of appreciating it.  We have become used to the oceans of “personality tie-ins” that we are drowned in every day that we forget that there was a time when this felt new, when the face and the name of a famous personage would suddenly be ubiquitous, unavoidable, “branded” on literally thousands of things.  The explosion of Lindberghiana in 1927 coincided exactly with American commercial culture’s first character tie-ins–that is, toys branded with Disney’s new cartoon star, Mickey Mouse, and ray-guns and other things from the sci-fi comic-strip hero Buck Rogers.
Surely there is a finite number of Lindbergh things, though there is no “catalogue raisonne” in the antiques marketplaces.  Not even the world’s greatest collector of Lindberghiana is willing to make a guess.  I met today with Stanley King, born a year after the NY-Paris flight and raised in the Bronx.  He began amassing his Lindbergh collection about 1947 or 1948, when he was about 20.  In spite of the popularity of this particular collecting niche–there is, of course, an affinity group, called the N-X-211 Society, after the number on Lindbergh’s plane– no one has ever come close to cornering the market like Stan King, a textile designer and manufacturer (and noted jazz musician and collector).  But in 2002, Stan felt he had more or less exhausted the possibilities, and made the immensely magnanimous gesture of donating his entire collection to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.  Much of the collection is on display at NASM’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, and the rest is in storage.  Images of nearly 800 items from the King Collection are available online at the NASM website.

This is one of my favorite pieces from the collection– a painted tin “Amusing Aviation Game.”  You insert a penny in the slot, strike a lever to “raise aeroplane,” and see how high you can get up a ladder of professional accomplishment, which starts at the bottom with “Cowboy,” and proceeds upward (though not very logically) through “Dunce,” “Street-Cleaner,” “Ball-Player,” “Fireman,” “Tramp,” “Millionaire,” “Actor,” “Fighter,” “Doctor,” and — finally– “Lindy.”  

Ziegfield, “Rio Rita,” and Lindbergh

In the great post-flight frenzy that engulfed Charles A. Lindbergh in 1927, there was an insatiable demand for every bit of minutiae that could be conjured up about the man.  One of the factoids that entered the lore more or less immediately had to do with the smash 1927 Broadway hit Rio Rita, a “mammoth girl music spectacle” produced by the legendary Florenz Ziegfield.

 Lindbergh had been in New York for more than a week getting ready for  the right moment to take off on the flight, and had already started to attract a lot of attention, with his every move noted by swarms of reporters.  On the evening of May 19, 1927, some of Lindbergh’s new “handlers” planned to take the “bashful” aviator into Times Square to see the show, and — it was hoped– get some pictures of him surrounded by some “Ziegfield girls.”   But at the last minute the party received news of a break in the weather, and Lindbergh cut off the plan and headed back to his hotel to get some sleep (which, however, he did not manage to get).  The next morning, he did indeed climb into the cockpit of his plane, and the rest is history.

Upon his return to New York a few weeks later, it was earnestly hoped by the “Lindbergh Welcoming Committee” that the new hero would finally get a chance to see the show he had missed.  Ziegfield was in close touch with Grover Whalen, the city’s official greeter and head of the committee, and writes in this letter (preserved in the New York City Municipal Archives) from May 25, 1927:

 I know he wants to see Rio Rita, because he had arranged with me to attend the night before he hopped off to Paris, and he sent me word at the last minute exceedingly regretting the fact that he could not be present, as he had been notified that the weather had cleared, and he intended leaving in the morning.

I am very much gratified that he has not been carried away by the numerous offers he has received from vaudeville houses, motion pictures, and theatres, for his appearance in something entirely out of his line.  Although I was very anxious to get him myself for the Follies, I am very gratified to know that he is not going to be tempted to do something that he cannot do.  If he only would realize it, he can stay right in his own line of work—flying, and get a couple of million dollars in a year properly handled, and remain the great hero he now is.  Very sincerely yours, Ziegfield

For the record, Rio Rita was a predictably silly romantic comedy, with an exotic locale (the Rio Grande), Mexican bandits, and mistaken identities.  It was a huge hit, and was made (by Ziegfield himself) into one of the earliest and most lavish talking (and singing and dancing) pictures in 1929 by RKO.  It was the studio’s biggest hit until King Kong came out in 1933.  Here’s a lengthy clip from the 1929 movie, parts of which were filmed in Technicolor.

Buckley and Vidal– and Charles A. Lindbergh

The name of Charles A. Lindbergh has a remarkable persistence in American culture, cropping up in any number of unexpected places.  You may remember an earlier post, during the Republican primary season, when the names of Newt Gingrich and GOP bankroller Sheldon Adelson were linked to Lindbergh’s.   Lindbergh’s opposition to American involvement in World War II– his work for the “America First” movement– is the usual site of contemporary interest (though kidnapping stories are right up there, too).

Yesterday’s New York Times brought this story, occasioned by the death of novelist and pundit Gore Vidal, about the Vidal and his arch-nemesis (one of them, at least) William F. Buckley.  The two famously and bitterly clashed on national TV in 1968, but as the article points out, they actually had a lot in common, including a youthful enthusiasm for “America First” politics and Charles Lindbergh.  Click on the link above for the full story, or read the excerpts below:

It is also not surprising to learn that for all their animosity, the two men shared a distinct set of attitudes. Both were born in 1925 and came of age at a time, just before Pearl Harbor, when the most pressing issue was whether America should intervene in World War II. National opinion was divided — as it would later be over different wars — but in this early instance these two men, though they hadn’t yet met, stood on the same side in their fierce opposition to American intervention and to the “establishment” that was urging it.

This may seem odd. But for all their East Coast social connections both came from families rooted in the heartland and its isolationist legacy. Mr. Vidal’s grandfather was a United States senator from Oklahoma. Buckley’s father was a Texan who made his fortune in oil. In their teens both men idolized Charles Lindbergh, the tribune of the antiwar America First Committee.

Mr. Vidal helped organized the committee’s chapter at Exeter when he was a student there, and as late as 1998 he argued that Lindbergh had been tarred as a “pro-Nazi anti-Semite when he was no more than a classic Midwestern isolationist, reflective of a majority of the country.” Lindbergh, he added, was “the best that we are ever apt to produce in the hero line, American style.”

Buckley agreed. “It takes great courage to give up what Lindbergh has and for this courage he has been called a fifth columnist,” he said in an oration delivered at his boarding school, Millbrook, in 1941, the same year Buckley attended a Lindbergh rally in Madison Square Garden. And like Mr. Vidal he continued to champion Lindbergh many years later. In “Saving the Queen,” Buckley’s first Blackford Oakes spy novel, published in 1976, he described Lindbergh as “the great advocate of the American peace.”

Woody Guthrie’s “Lindbergh”

Today is Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, and I’m reminded that he wrote a scathing  song about Lindbergh and his opposition to American entry into World War II.  Oddly, Guthrie’s song wasn’t written or recorded until about 1944, long after Lindbergh’s outspoken efforts for the “America First” movement in 1940 and 1941.  The song was recorded by the  folk-music legend Moses Asch and released on his Folkways label; it was included in the Smithsonian’s famous 4-volume set of Guthrie songs in the late 1990s.

The song’s lyrics are worth revisiting, and the tune– with its catchy refrain, “In Washington, Washington”–is a memorable one. You can hear the song on this Youtube video, accompanied by some fairly strange footage.

Mister Charlie Lindbergh, he flew to old Berlin,

Got ‘im a big Iron Cross, and he flew right back again

To Washington, Washington.

Mrs. Charlie Lindbergh, she come dressed in red,

Said: “I’d like to sleep in that pretty White House bed

In Washington, Washington.”

Lindy said to Annie: “We’ll get there by and by,

But we’ll have to split the bed up with Wheeler, Clark, and Nye

In Washington, Washington.”  [Wheeler, Clark and Nye were congressmen who supported America First]

Hitler wrote to Lindy, said “Do your very worst,”

Lindy started an outfit that he called America First

In Washington, Washington.

All around the country, Lindbergh, he did fly,

Gasoline was paid for by Hoover, Clark, and Nye

In Washington, Washington.

Lindy said to Hoover: “We’ll do the same as France:

Make a deal with Hitler, and then we’ll get our chance

In Washington, Washington.”

Then they had a meetin’, and all the Firsters come,

Come on a-walkin’, they come on a-runnin’,

In Washington, Washington.

Yonder comes Father Coughlin, wearin’ the silver chain,

Cash on his stomach and Hitler on the brain.

In Washington, Washington.

Mister John L. Lewis would sit and straddle a fence,

His daughter signed with Lindbergh, and we ain’t seen her since

In Washington, Washington.

Hitler said to Lindy: “Stall ’em all you can,

Gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan.”

In Washington, Washington.

Then on a December mornin’, the bombs come from Japan,

Wake Island and Pearl Harbor, kill fifteen hundred men.

In Washington, Washington

Now Lindy tried to join the army, but they wouldn’t let ‘im in,

‘Fraid he’d sell to Hitler a few more million men.

In Washington, Washington

So I’m a gonna tell you people: If Hitler’s gonna be beat,

The common workin’ people has got to take the seat

In Washington, Washington.

And I’m gonna tell you workers, ‘fore you cash in your checks:

They say “America First,” but they mean “America Next!”

In Washington, Washington.

“Striking Ireland”

Tomorrow night, I’m going to be on my way to Ireland, retracing (more or less) the flight path of the Spirit of St. Louis 85 years ago, and heading to a conference in Dublin to give a paper on my  Lindbergh research.

On Lindbergh’s 33-hour flight between Paris and New York, there was no more dramatic moment than, in the 28th hour, his sighting of land for the first time:

The southern tip of Ireland! On course; over two hours ahead of schedule; the sun still well up in the sky; the weather clearing!  . . . I spiral lower, looking down on the little village.  There are boats in the harbor, wagons on the stone-fenced roads.  People are running in the streets, looking up and waving.  This is earth again, the earth where I’ve lived and now will live once more.  Here are human beings.  Here’s a human welcome.  Not a single detail is wrong.  I’ve never seen such beauty before–fields so green, people so human, a village so attractive, mountains and rocks so mountainous and rocklike…..

Striking Ireland was like leaving the doors of a theater– phantoms for actors; cloud islands and temples for settings; the ocean behind me, an empty stage.  The flight across is already like a dream.

Lindbergh liked that last passage so much that he chose it as one of the few–very few– excerpts that he read on tape for use in the original exhibits at the Lindbergh Boyhood Home historic site.

From The Spirit of St. Louis (1953)

The photo, by the way, is supposedly the last picture taken of Lindbergh’s plane (with him in it) before photographers (in a chase plane) lost sight of him as he headed out over the Atlantic.

The man in the top hat and 1920s “ballyhoo”

Today’s a big day in Lindbergh History: Eighty-five years ago, the “conqueror of the Atlantic” was welcomed back to New York by something like a million people lining the streets, amidst showers of confetti and ticker-tape.  In terms of the number of spectators and in volume of paper released onto the parade route, the Lindbergh extravaganza remained unsurpassed in New York history until 1945, and the VJ Day parade marking the end of World War II.

The orchestrator of this pinnacle moment of Lindbergh “ballyhoo” (a great 1920s word) was Grover Whalen, who can be seen sitting in the convertible with Lindbergh in the banner photo on my home page, and in the photo above, although in this one he’s sitting in front of Lindbergh, yielding his waving duties to another top-hatted dignitary, flamboyant New York mayor Jimmy Walker.

Grover Whalen, the glad-handed “official greeter” of the city, seemed instinctively to know when to smile for any camera.  Whalen (who would go on to greater fame as  commissioner and promoter of the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40) held his only-in-New York post from 1919 to 1953, during which time he was said to have engineered no fewer than 86 ticker-tape parades.  Albert Einstein was feted with one in 1921—the only scientist so honored–and the U.S. Olympic Games team rode in one in 1924.  In just one summer–1926–New Yorkers showered the following with tons of tickertape:  a group of Roman Catholic cardinals from the Vatican; Commander Richard E. Byrd, following his North Pole flight; Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth after their own polar exploits; Mrs. Clemington Corson, a Channel swimmer; Miss Gertrude Ederle, the record-breaking Channel swimmer; golfer Bobby Jones on his return from England; boxing champ Gene Tunney on his arrival from Philadelphia; and finally, the “supreme moment,” the arrival of the much heralded Queen Marie of Rumania.  (Laurence Greene, The Era of Wonderful Nonsense, 1939)

Laurence Greene interpreted the “ballyhoo” of the 1920s as a natural journalistic reaction to the end of World War I as a “best-selling story.”  The American press was required to find a story to fill the gap, and so inflated beyond all reason a great many trivial happenings, endowing with “momentary greatness any number of shabby and unimportant persons.”

Lindbergh sits down to write a book, June 1927

From the opening of my chapter on Lindbergh’s first book, written in 1927, along with a photo of “Lindbergh’s Room” at the Guggenheim mansion in Sands Point NY, known as “Falaise”:

The “French eclectic” mansion was straight out of a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. Built in 1923 on 90 acres on Long Island’s Gold Coast in Sands Point—the real-life stand-in for The Great Gatsby’s “West Egg”—“Falaise” was built for millionaire philanthropist and aviation enthusiast Harry F. Guggenheim and his third wife, Alicia.  In spite of the house’s size and architectural pretensions, many of its spaces are quite intimate.  In fact, “cramped” would not be an inappropriate description of the room into which, in June 1927, the house’s most famous guest, Charles Lindbergh, crammed his 6 foot, 2-inch frame, his feet no doubt reaching over the end of the room’s narrow bed. 

It feels like a dorm room at an old college, fitted out with that bed, a dresser, a mirror, creaky floorboards, no closet to speak of, a hard wooden chair, and a writing table not three feet wide.  This was where Lindbergh–the triumphant hero returned from his epochal transatlantic adventure, tickertape parades and public hysteria temporarily behind him—would sit for three weeks, every day, all day and into the night writing, in longhand, what would become his first book, which his publisher had decided would be called “We”.  

I made the pilgrimage to Falaise not because of its gaudy architecture or its Gatsby associations, but precisely because of its place at the beginning of the “tale of Lindbergh,” or at least quite near that beginning.  It was in this place that the 25-year-old Lindbergh began the transformation, effected through the printed page, from a callow aviator-mechanic to worldly celebrity and memoirist.  

“Lindbergh Lands in Paris”

By this time (about 1 pm CDT on May 21) eighty-five years ago, Charles A. Lindbergh was just a few hours away from landing in Paris on his historic nonstop, solo flight across the Atlantic.  He had been airborne (and awake) for more than 30 hours, and he had finally caught sight of land–the southwestern tip of Ireland–for the first time since passing over Newfoundland and out over the open ocean.

In The Spirit of St. Louis (1953), Lindbergh writes about flying over a little Irish village in nearly ecstatic terms.

People are running out into the streets, looking up and waving. This is earth again, the earth where I’ve lived and now will live once more.  Here are human beings.  Here’s a human welcome.  Not a single detail is wrong.  I’ve never seen such beauty before–fields so green, people so human, a village so attractive, mountains and rocks so mountainous and rocklike.  . . . I haven’t been far enough away to know the earth before.  For twenty-five years I’ve lived on it, and yet not seen it till this moment.  . . .  During my entire life I’ve accepted these gifts of God to man, and not known what was mine until this moment.  It’s like rain after drought; spring after a northern winter.  I’ve been to eternity and back. I know how the dead would feel to live again.