“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.

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.”