Lawrence of Arabia and Charles A. Lindbergh

No, it’s not as far-fetched a connection as you might think.

I’m watching the great 1962 David Lean movie at this moment on TCM–an homage to the recently departed Peter O’Toole, of course–and I am reminded that that was not the first time that the Lawrence Legend had dominated American popular culture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the fall of 1927, T. E. Lawrence’s thrilling Revolt in the Desert was going head-to-head with Lindbergh’s “We” on the U.S. non-fiction bestseller lists.

Revolt was an abridged version of Lawrence’s massive Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published in England in 1922–a book more known about than actually read by anyone. Publishing  Revolt was a brilliant marketing stroke–a lean, exciting narrative of manly Western adventure in an exotic land, a book that brought Lawrence worldwide fame.

In fact, of the top 10 bestsellers in the non-fiction category in October 1927, most of them were biographical or autobiographical, and several were–like Lindbergh’s and Lawrence’s books–tales of heroic, questing adventure, including two by the perennially popular Richard Halliburton (This Glorious Adventure and The Royal Road to Romance) and Emil Ludwig’s epic biography of Napoleon.

The search for L’Oiseau Blanc continues

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.
800px-Carte_postale-Nungesser_et_Coli-1927The 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.

“Lindbergh Lands in Paris,” May 21, 1927: The Story about the Story

This is the day that Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris, after 33+ hours alone in The Spirit of St. Louis, the day that changed his life and the world forever.

mpls journal 052227 headlineNewspapers all over the world trumpeted the news in banner headlines, but I’ve always been partial to this one, from the Minneapolis Journal (which no longer exists, like most papers from 1927), published the next day (May 22), of course.  The reason I’m fascinated by it is that stack of headlines on top and off to the left.  The “news” here is not just that Lindbergh had landed in Paris the night before, but that here, right here in THIS newspaper, he “tells own story.”   Those are key words:  Lindbergh will be doing the telling, and it will be his OWN STORY–not the words of some breathless ghostwriter.  Then   another layers of headline:  “World’s First Flier To Hop Ocean in One Flight Tells His Story.”  Then another:  “Lindbergh, in U.S. Ambassador’s Pajamas, Recounts Adventures.”  (more telling).  Then another:  “The Journal herewith presents Captain Charles A. Lindbergh’s own story of his epic flight . . . as told this morning to the American ambassador, Myron T. Herrick.”

Lindbergh was indeed in pajamas when he told his story at the American embassy to a small group of reporters, but later he would telling even more of it in an exclusive deal with the New York Times.  What’s interesting here is that the newspaper is selling the fact–repeatedly–that it has THE story, and that its Lindbergh’s own.  Clearly, readers of newspapers in the scandal-ridden days of 1920s “ballyhoo” had come to expect quite the opposite–flamboyantly embroidered stories of celebrities and crime.  Here, the paper announced, was going to be the Real Thing.

Playing–and not playing–Lindbergh in the movies

The Spirit of St. Louis–the movie, not the book or the airplane–was in the obituary news last week.

John Kerr, a movie-star heart-throb in the 1950s, died at the age of 81. In 1955, Kerr was reportedly offered the part of Charles Lindbergh in the planned big-budget version of Lindbergh’s 1953 Pulitzer-winning autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis.  Kerr’s boyish good looks and age–he would have been 25 during the making of the movie, the same age Lindbergh had been in 1927–would seem to have been a perfect match with America’s “favorite boy.”

John Kerr and Mitzi Gaynor in "South Pacific," 1957

John Kerr and Mitzi Gaynor in “South Pacific,” 1957

But Kerr turned down the role, telling the New York Post:  “I don’t admire the ideals of the hero,” referring to Lindbergh’s pre-war admiration for the Third Reich.  (Kerr did go on to co-star in the wildly successful 1957 movie musical South Pacific, playing doomed young aviator Lt. Cable.  After that, however, Kerr’s movie career went into a fairly permanent stall.)

jimmystewartMeanwhile, Jimmy Stewart had been lobbying vigorously for the role; Lindbergh had been his boyhood hero, and had inspired the star to join the Air Force.  But in 1957, the year the picture was released, Stewart turned 50 years old–exactly twice Lindbergh’s “New York-to-Paris” age.   The age discrepancy, as well as the actor’s by-then totally familiar, totally “Jimmy Stewart” mannerisms, makes the movie–directed by none other than Billy Wilder, and produced by Leland Hayward–actually kind of embarrassing to watch.  You can watch the trailer below.

“The Entertainer”: Lyle Talbot meets Charles Lindbergh

Margaret Talbot, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has written The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century, a biography of her father, the “little-remembered” Hollywood and stage actor Lyle Talbot.  It’s a terrific read, a surprising page-turner, and a splendid cultural history of 20th-century theater, the early (and middle) days of the movies, and television family sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s.

BooksI picked this up in the bookstore because of its subtitle, and it really does deliver.  But to my surprise, it has added relevance to my work on Lindbergh on several counts.  I’ve always been interested in the life courses of people who were of Lindbergh’s generation: men and women born around the turn of the last century, who came of age in the 1920s–a little older than the “greatest generation,” in other words– and who went on to become figures of cultural or political importance in American history:  Walt Disney (born 1901), Clark Gable (1901); Louis Armstrong (1901); Humphrey Bogart (born Christmas Day, 1899), Margaret Mead (1901); Lillian Hellman (1905), John Steinbeck (1902), Langston Hughes (1902); Richard Rodgers (1902), William Wyler (1902); David O. Selznick (1902).

Lyle Talbot was not, as even his daughter/biographer would admit, someone who might comfortably appear on such a list of eminences.  Lyle Talbot and Ann DvorakBut for me, at least, he was born at just the right time:  February 8, 1902, making him just four days younger than Charles A. Lindbergh.  Talbot was born in Pittsburgh, but his parents were from the small-town Midwest, and he would grow up in and around Brainard, Nebraska.  Lindbergh was born in Detroit, but his parents moved him back within months to their small town in the Midwest–Little Falls, Minnesota.

The young Talbot and the young Lindbergh also shared an erratic history of what is today known as “parenting.” Talbot was “kidnapped” as a baby by his grandmother after his young mother died, and he was raised away from his father, though they reunited later.  Lindbergh’s parents became estranged when he was less than five, although they never divorced and they even put on something of a public appearance of being happily married.  None of these facts–in either Lindbergh’s or Talbot’s families–was ever discussed, or questioned, or examined, and they were certainly not aired in public.  As Margaret Talbot writes perceptively about her father:

He was born in 1902, and grew up in a time and place–small town Nebraska–that was in some sense pre-psychological, a time in which people did not customarily explain one another’s actions and motives with the kinds of concepts–repression and projection, anxieties and drives–that would become so familiar to people a couple of decades later.

More (early) similarities:  Both the boy from Brainard, Nebraska and the boy from Little Falls, Minnesota, propelled themselves out of their small-town lives by sheer force of will, and both of them did so by means of performance.  In Lyle Talbot’s case, he joined the circus, briefly, as a teenager; then did a stint as a performing hypnotist’s assistant; then performed with a small traveling theatre troupe–all by the time he was 20, all before Hollywood beckoned in the 1930s.  For his part, Lindbergh roared off to college in 1920 on his motorcycle, but not before allowing himself to be photographed doing so, of course, posed as a prototypical rebel without a cause.  Failing at college, he headed off to the Army Air Corps to improve his flying skills, then toured with flying circus and aviation shows–billed and misspelled as “Daredevil Lindberg”–in the early 1920s.  Throwing his hat in the ring for the Orteig Prize in 1927–to become the first person to pilot a plane from New York to Paris non-stop–was another gesture toward performance, as well as the fame and glamour that attended it.  Lindbergh was not naive or ignorant about these probable outcomes; he loved the movies, and entertained aspirations in that direction, up to and even slightly beyond his transformational moment in May 1927.

And there was another odd intersection of Talbot and Lindbergh “paths,” and that was in 1932, when Talbot appeared in a Warner Brothers’ gangster and dames movie called Three on a Match, co-starring Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and–in a small role–Humphrey Bogart.  A significant subplot of this racy story involves the  kidnapping and threatened murder of a child of one of the leading characters–an astounding plot point in the same year as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder.    An administrator at the movies’ production code office–then without the censoring power it would have later–wrote with some distress to Darryl F. Zanuck at Warner Brothers, that “while there has been no signed agreement among the studios not to make child-kidnapping pictures, the general impression here is that no one would follow the Lindbergh tragedy with a picture dealing with the kidnapping of a baby for ransom.”  (quoted in The Entertainer, p. 184).

The photo above is a publicity shot for Murder in the Clouds, a 1934 aviation flick with Lyle Talbot and Ann Dvorak.  As the Turner Classic Movies article on this movie summarizes:

Typical of many aviation films of the period, the film depicts commercial flying as a high-stakes game perfect for hot-heads like Talbot’s Bob ‘Three Star’ Halsey, who keeps getting grounded for daredevil stunts but always comes through when they need someone for a life-risking assignment. In addition, it offers a brief yet fascinating glimpse of air travel in an era before in-flight movies and luxury class accommodations.

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.

“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.”