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.
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.
Newspapers 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.
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.
There’s a wonderful new anthology of American writing on aviation and spaceflight called Into the Blue, compiled and edited by my old friend (and former exhibit collaborator and co-author) Joe Corn. It’s part of the distinguished Library of America series and was published last October. Read an interview with Joe Corn about the book here.
It’s a splendid and often surprising collection, with passages from the famous and the obscure, the expected and the unexpected. In the latter category one might put Gertrude Stein, whose Everybody’s Autobiography is excerpted here with a typically quirky passage about her first flight (in 1934, back in the United States on a lecture tour). Other impressions of flight are offered by Ernest Hemingway, Harry Crosby, Amelia Earhart, Ralph Ellison, John Dos Passos, Samuel Hynes, and — of course– Tom Wolfe, from The Right Stuff.
Both of the Lindberghs, Charles and Anne, are included in the volume. Anne Morrow Lindbergh is represented by a concluding passage “Flying Again,” from her landmark bestseller North to the Orient (1935), about her and Charles’ flights on the “great circle route” in 1931. The selection from The Spirit of St. Louis is from Part II of the book, in the chapter recreating the 25th hour of his 33-hour flight from New York to Paris in 1927. He has just seen a porpoise in the ocean below — the first living thing he had seen since flying over Newfoundland hours earlier– and writes:
The ocean is as desolate as ever. Yet a complete change has taken place. I feel that I’ve safely recrossed the bridge to life–broken the strands which have been tugging me toward the universe beyond. Why do I find such joy, such encouragement in the sight of a porpoise . . . . This ocean, which for me marks the borderland of death, is filled with life; life that’s foreign, yet in some strange way akin; life which welcomes me back from the universe of spirits and makes me part of the earth again.
Researching the way Lindbergh was depicted in editorial cartoons in the 1920s, I ran across this terrific website prepared by Michael Schroeder, professor of history at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, about the Sandino Revolution in Nicaragua.
One section of the website– “AirToons”-– is a gallery of editorial cartoons, mostly from US newspapers, criticizing the air war conducted by US armed forces in 1927 and 1928 against the rebels in Nicaragua, led by Augusto Sandino. Many of the cartoons reference Lindbergh, usually in an ironic way, drawing a contrast between the uplifting “aviation achievements” he represented and the gruesome destructive power of aerial bombardment of rebel-held towns by US Marine aircraft. [The cartoon here is from the Louisville Courier-Journal, 21 July 1927, and is entitled “Another American Aviation Achievement,” and refers to the Marine aerial bombing of Ocotal days earlier. The sign at the bottom says: “200 Nicaraguans Killed.”]
Charles Lindbergh actually visited Nicaragua at the height of the rebellion in January 1928 as part of his “Goodwill Tour” of Central America and the Caribbean. The “aerial diplomacy” tour was a public-relations extravaganza conceived by the American ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow, in the wake of the ecstatic welcome Lindbergh, flying the Spirit of St. Louis, had received during his August-September 1927 tour of all 48 states. (Morrow was the father of Anne Spencer Morrow, who met Lindbergh during his sojourn to Mexico CIty, and later became his bride.)
In this cartoon, from the January 6, 1928, edition of the Detroit News, a US Marine is telling a “Nicaraguan citizen” who is fleeing in terror from an approaching airplane, that “Lindy doesn’t carry bombs.”
One of the greatest of all silent films– and one of the great World War I films of all time– is being re-released in what is reportedly a spectacular restoration. William Wellman’s Wings, generally recognized as the winner of the first “Best Picture” Oscar (it wasn’t called that in 1929, and the Academy Awards weren’t called “Oscars,” either) is a thrilling movie, a huge, big-budget blockbuster, following the exploits of a couple of American flyboys in France during the Great War. It stars Richard Arlen (a St. Paul native, by the way), Charles “Buddy” Rogers (who married Mary Pickford and lived to the age of 95), and Clara Bow, the biggest Hollywood star of the day. A very young Gary Cooper shows up in just one scene, then his character heads out and promptly dies in a plane crash. (There are lots of plane crashes in the movie.)
Wings is well worth checking out, especially for the breathtaking flying sequences, all done with real planes and real people–with even the actors themselves doing a lot of the flying. As New York Times critic David Kehr writes: “The modern Oscar winner that Wings most closely resembles is James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic: a grand entertainment in the something-for-everyone tradition that has been lost in the more recent era of niche marketing.” Kehr notes that Wings was not the first movie epic about the War, since The Big Parade and What Price Glory had been released a few years earlier, but it was the first about the war in the air. Kehr sees Wings as “perhaps inspired by the national wave of enthusiasm that accompanied Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight.” The movie’s immense popularity in 1927-28 was probably stoked by the public frenzy over Lindbergh’s flight and his subsequent “Goodwill Tour” in the Spirit of St. Louis (more that another time), but the movie itself was planned and filmed before Lindbergh’s flight. In fact, it appears that its first showing was on May 19, 1927–the day before Lindbergh took off from New York for Paris. The premiere (if that’s what it really was) was in San Antonio TX– probably a special showing for the military at Fort Sam Houston, where the movie’s outdoor and flying scenes were filmed.
Check out this terrific “trailer” (made by a recent fan of the movie, not the original trailer).