Philip Roth, Lindbergh and Donald Trump

In a lengthy interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times just a few months before his death in 2018, novelist Philip Roth spoke about his interpretation of Charles Lindbergh in his The Plot Against America, specifically addressing the comparison that many people had been making between Lindbergh and Donald Trump since the shocking outcome of the 2016 presidential election:

C.M. Your 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America,” seems eerily prescient today. When that novel came out, some people saw it as a commentary on the Bush administration, but there were nowhere near as many parallels then as there seem to be now.

P.R. However prescient “The Plot Against America” might seem to you, there is surely one enormous difference between the political circumstances I invent there for the U.S. in 1940 and the political calamity that dismays us so today. It’s the difference in stature between a President Lindbergh and a President Trump. Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 — an authentic American hero 13 years before I have him winning the presidency. Lindbergh, historically, was the courageous young pilot who in 1927, for the first time, flew nonstop across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Paris. He did it in 33.5 hours in a single-seat, single-engine monoplane, thus making him a kind of 20th-century Leif Ericson, an aeronautical Magellan, one of the earliest beacons of the age of aviation. Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.

Lindbergh Lands in Paris, May 21, 1927

Eighty-seven years ago today, Charles Lindbergh, age 25, landed his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, in Paris, 33 and 1/2 hours after taking off from New York City–the first nonstop, solo flight across the Atlantic.

A few weeks later, Lindbergh–now the world’s most famous man, hero to adoring millions– moved into the Long Island mansion of aviation enthusiast Harry Guggenheim in order to have the privacy and focus that would allow him to write a book about his feat.  The move was something of a last-minute decision.  A manuscript for the book, which would eventually be called simply “We” (always written with the quote marks), had actually already been produced, start to finish, by a ghostwriter, New York Times reporter Carlyle MacDonald (sometimes spelled Carlisle) who had accompanied the aviator on his trip back from Paris to America on a specially dispatched American destroyer.  “Lindbergh” (almost surely all MacDonald) had been by-lining daily stories starting just a few days after the landing in Paris. For the man who was responsible for bringing out the book, publisher George Palmer Putnam (who would later become the spouse of aviatrix Amelia Earhart), the surest solution to his problem was to continue the relationship with MacDonald.  Lindbergh was handed–not a manuscript, but the entire book set in galleys, and was expected to sign off on it.   After going over it for a few days, he got exasperated and rejected the whole idea, and pledged to deliver his own manuscript on a tight deadline.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


The cramming session at “Falaise” (the Guggenheims’ French medieval-style “cottage”) was concocted.  The photo here is of the relatively tiny room where Lindbergh holed up and wrote “We,” all day, every day, for just about three weeks.  Lindbergh’s manuscript, along with the ghostwriter’s galleys, are in the collections of the Missouri Historical Society.

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.”

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 Sendak-Lindbergh connection

Several obituaries this week for children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak have revealed a connection between Sendak and Charles Lindbergh.  According to the obituary in the Washington Post, “Sendak was shaped foremost by a sickly and homebound childhood in Depression-era Brooklyn, the deaths of family members in the Holocaust and vivid memories as a youngster reading about the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son.

Sendak’s book Outside Over There, about a girl named Ida who tries to rescue an infant sister who has been stolen by goblins, was based on the Lindbergh kidnapping.

But other children in Sendak’s books also face danger.  Not just Ida, but also Max in Where the Wild Things Are and Mickey in In the Night Kitchen together represent the fearful idea that parents are unaware of the crises their children face.  The Lindbergh kidnapping–which happened when Sendak was not quite 4 years old–was to him “the fullest expression of the danger that children live in — the fear that we could be taken away.”

Spike Jonze’s 2003 interviews with Sendak for an HBO documentary revealed “Sendak’s strange obsession with death, that he feels that death has always been a part of his life, and talked about the profound effect seeing a picture of the corpse of the Lindbergh baby had on him as a young child.”  (The baby’s body was found about 6 weeks after the March 1, 1932, kidnapping. Some newspaper reporters and photographers bribed their way into the morgue where the baby’s decomposed body was taken, and shot some gruesome photographs.)

“America’s first real celebrity”

Gossip columnist Liz Smith knows a thing or two about celebrities, and in a column today from Huffington Post she writes:

I have a theory. Gossip and celebrity are the great luxuries of true democracy. They’re the tawdry jewel in the crown of free speech and expression. Gossip about the famous or infamous is for leisure, for fun, for entertainment, for relaxation — that has been true since the first real American celebrity, who was named Charles Lindbergh.

Of course, as soon as anyone makes a claim for somebody being the first “anything” there will be a chorus of voices nominating other, more worthy candidates for the title.  And the prize for “the first celebrity,” even with that vague qualifier (“real”) from Liz Smith, is no exception.   There is even a (small) academic field of “celebrity studies,” I’m told, and scholars there are reaching back to the 18th and 19th centuries in the quest for “firstness”– to the likes of Benjamin Franklin, or actress Fanny Kemble, or singer Jenny Lind, or opera superstar Adelina Patti.

But Lindbergh’s fame was certainly of historic, epic proportions, and it exploded in the midst of 20th-century mass culture; in fact, the staggering dimensions of his fame were made possible by the engines of modern mass culture– by photography and photographic reproduction, by newsreels and the movies, by newspapers and slick gossip magazines, by radio, especially during the infamous kidnapping case of 1932-36.  The height of his fame came especially in the period from 1927 (the year of his NY-Paris flight, the year he became “the most photographed man in history”) to 1941 (the year of his anti-interventionist “Des Moines speech,” after which he was called by one magazine “the most hated man in America”).

And even though television wasn’t around for any of this, that medium, too, eventually discovered Lindbergh, whose storied life became the basis of any number of documentaries, especially during the “memory boom” decade of the 1990s.

More on that another time.

Illustration: Theodore LeBonte, “Lindbergh on Top of the World,” 1928, Missouri Historical Society

“Plane Crazy”– Mickey Mouse meets Charles Lindbergh

“Plane Crazy” is the first animated cartoon to feature Mickey Mouse.  It was released as a silent film in May 1928, but was quickly withdrawn.   Sound and music were later added, and it was re-released, but by this time three other Mickey Mouse cartoons had been completed and released, including the famous “Steamboat Willie,” officially considered Mickey’s “debut.”

Much of American society was, indeed, going crazy for aviation in 1927 and 1928.  Lindbergh’s New York-Paris flight in the Spirit of St. Louis on May 20-21, 1927 was, in a way, symptomatic of this rush of enthusiasm as it was to become the cause of so much more of it, rather immediately in fact.

The Mickey Mouse cartoon, produced and animated by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney (who was, coincidentally, just two months older than Charles Lindbergh), depicts an impish Mickey building and flying his own plane.  He uses a big manual called “How to Fly,” which features a full-page portrait of his hero, “Lindy.”  Mickey even tousles his hair (mouse fur?) to look more like Lindy.  Very quickly it becomes clear that Mickey expects the plane to be a babe magnet; he soon entices a girl mouse (whose name we will come to know later as Minnie) into flying with him and even kissing him.  Quite risqué.

Watch the whole six-minute cartoon here: