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.

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.)

“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.

“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

Lindbergh Baby kidnapping newsreel, March 3, 1932

Eighty years ago, on March 1, 1932, the toddler son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh was kidnapped from the family’s new home in Hopewell, New Jersey.  Thus began what instantly became one of the most sensational news stories of the 20th century, culminating in 1936 with the electric-chair execution of the person convicted of the crime, Bruno Hauptmann.

That paragraph is about 60 words.  Within the first 24 hours after the kidnapping, one service alone–Hearst’s International– pumped out 50,000 words on the crime, the equivalent of a 200-page book.   The story of the kidnapping and the manhunt and the trial was certainly an avalanche moment of American journalism– in terms of sheer scale, if not in ethics or quality.  But it was through the radio, far more even than newspapers, that most Americans by 1932-36 were consuming–voraciously–a daily diet of news and sensationalism.   Radio coverage, coupled with dramatic newsreels such as this one from March 3, 1932, made the sad and lurid Lindbergh baby story the first great electronic media sensation in history.

[The newsreel clip here is from the “Critical Past” website (readily apparent by the watermark), and is about 3 minutes long, including the “Ride of the Valkyries” music that opens the clip.]

Lindbergh and the first Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua

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.”

“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:

Ticker-tape parade for NY Giants– and Lindbergh

The Super Bowl XLVI champion New York Giants will be greeted by a ticker-tape parade through what is invariably called the “canyons” of New York City.  These days, the “ticker-tape” is actually tons of confetti manufactured for the occasion (probably in China).

Charles Lindbergh, of course, received a famously extravagant New York welcome in June 1927, including a ticker-tape parade through the city, while sitting in an open convertible, accompanied by the city’s flashy major-domo, Grover Whalen.  The photo on the header of this blog is from that moment.

Lindbergh’s was not the first such parade– that honor belongs to General John Pershing and the US troops home from the Great War, who paraded in 1919.  Lindbergh’s parade was reputed to have attracted a million people (and quite a few horses, it appears)–far more, certainly, than the number who turned out the year before for English Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle, or those who showed up in later decades for Albert Einstein or Van Cliburn.  

Here’s a clip from the Lindbergh parade:

Dale Evans, “Angel Unaware,” 1953

You’re probably wondering why this blog about Charles Lindbergh has a post with that headline up there.  Let me tell you:  In 1953, six of the top ten non-fiction bestsellers in the United States were books with an overtly religious or spiritual theme.  One of them was Angel Unaware, an enormous success for country singer, movie star, and TV cowgirl Dale Evans, then at the peak of her TV-land popularity, shared with her husband and co-star, Roy Rogers.  The presence of so much religious feeling in the popular literary sphere in 1953 provides one of the contexts for assessing the impact of Lindbergh’s thrilling memoir/adventure story, The Spirit of St. Louis, which was also on that list of top ten books that year.  The Spirit of St. Louis was, in its way, another book of popular spirituality, a successor volume, in fact, to Lindbergh’s intensely meditative bestseller, Of Flight and Life (1946).   More on both of those, and more on the 1953 religious book boom, another time.

But now, what about Dale Evans?  Her 1953 book was–and still is–widely hailed as a breakthrough in public acceptance and understanding of children with mental disabilities. The “angel” of the title is Robin, the only biological child of Roy and Dale, born in 1950 with Down syndrome (“Mongoloid” or “retarded” in the parlance of the day), who died after a bout with the mumps in 1952.  Evans states clearly at the outset:  “Both Roy and I are grateful to God for the privilege of learning some great lessons from his tiny messenger,” and the rest of the book is suffused with Christian devotion.

I, too, was born in 1950, and as long as I can remember– say, from about 1954 on– I knew about (and idolized) Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.  I vaguely remember hearing about the Rogers’ family tragedies, unspecified at the time, but now I know.

One more Lindbergh-Dale Evans connection, though it’s not with Charles.  Dale Evans Rogers and Anne Morrow Lindbergh died on the same day, February 7, 2001.  Obituaries for both ran side-by-side the next day.  William Powers, writing in The National Journal, called attention to the pairing:

Dale Evans and Anne Morrow Lindbergh met all the requirements for obit nirvana. Each had been a cultural deity, and each lived to such an advanced age—Evans was 88, Lindbergh 94—that younger readers had but a faint (if any) awareness of them. Evans was “the Queen of the West,” as most of the obits noted. And Lindbergh was, in a way, the Queen of the East—the embodiment of an ideal to which a certain kind of elite East Coast woman aspired during the 20th century. Her 1929 marriage to Charles Lindbergh was the lead story on the front page of The New York Times. Later, she wrote a presciently feminist book, Gift from the Sea, which spent 47 weeks at the top of The Times‘ nonfiction best-seller list. 

Both women’s stories had built-in dramatic tension. They owed their success partly to their marriages, yet both were so talented on their own that the marriages seemed to rob them of full credit. The Lindberghs were global celebrities who hated fame; the kidnapping and murder of their eldest child was the original media shark feast. Known as a singer and a cowgirl actress, Dale Evans wound up wishing she’d found her second career—Christian evangelism—before the first.