“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.

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.

Lindbergh in “Hitlerland”

Hitlerland, the new book by Andrew Nagorski (Simon & Schuster, 2012), is subtitled “American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.”  Naturally, I expected to find Charles Lindbergh within its pages, and sure enough, here he is–visiting the country five times during the 1930s, being taken on tours of military aircraft factories and airfields, producing his frank assessments of German air power at the behest of his American host, Truman Smith, the U.S. military attaché at the American Embassy.

Nagorski writes:

Lindbergh’ subsequent vocal campaign to keep the United States out of the war in Europe, his involvement with the isolationist America First movement, and his conviction that the Soviet Union represented the real threat to European civilization–and that, in a war between those two powers, “a victory by Germany’s European people would be preferable to one by Russia’s semi-Asiatic Soviet Union”–only confirmed how well he had been played by the Nazis.  His critics were right that he had become, in effect, an apologist for Hitler.  Ironically, though, the flyer’s political blindness also allowed him to to help Smith and his team gather more data on the Luftwaffe’s modernization and ambitions than any of their counterparts in other embassies.  For his part, Lindbergh was pleased to be part of this effort; as he saw it, this information on Germany’s growing strength only bolstered his argument that the United States should wavoid any new conflict with that country.

While Hitlerland doesn’t contribute anything especially new to the Lindbergh-in-Germany narrative, the book is valuable for filling in the larger context:  on-the-ground witnesses to events in pre-war Germany.  Many of these Americans–reporters, embassy officials, exchange students, and athletes competing in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin–were, like both Charles and Anne Lindbergh, surprisingly sanguine about the direction the country was taking, though most also remarked on the Nazis’ suppression of political opposition and their virulent campaigns of anti-Semitism.

“Into the Blue”: New anthology of writing about aviation and spaceflight

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.