The search for L’Oiseau Blanc continues

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.
800px-Carte_postale-Nungesser_et_Coli-1927The 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.

“Keeper of the Flame” (1942): Tracy, Hepburn… and Lindbergh

Keeper Of the Flame posterI just caught a showing of George Cukor’s 1942 Keeper of the Flame, a somewhat unconventional vehicle for Hollywood stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

It’s only their second movie together (out of a eventual total of nine), and unlike most of the others–like Pat and Mike or Woman of the Year–it’s not a romantic comedy.  Keeper of the Flame tells the story of a famous and affluent hero of the Great War, who, before the movie starts, has died in an accident.  “Robert Forrest’s” widow (Hepburn) is keeping some secrets about her husband, and a reporter (Tracy) sets out to find the real story. Turns out that this nationally admired hero was actually a Fascist, who was intending to mount a right-wing takeover of the US government.  In the words of the Turner Classic Movies synopsis, the Hepburn character confesses to Tracy that “the masses’ worship of her husband transformed him into an arrogant, power hungry monster intent on smashing democracy.”

TCM’s Robert Osborne said that some people believed the (never-seen) character of Forrest was based on Charles Lindbergh, though others saw echoes of William Randolph Hearst.  At least one “reviewer” on the Internet Movie Database website goes further with the Lindbergh comparison, and writes that the character–who was said in the movie to have considered running for president–provided a “prototype” for Philip Roth’s Lindbergh in The Plot Against America:

Keeper Of The Flame never really makes Forrest an exact copy of Lindbergh. After all, the “Lone Eagle” was still alive in 1942, and capable of suing MGM. . . .  But the unpleasant experience of Lindbergh’s American First crusade, culminating in his notorious “Des Moines” speech where he hinted at Jewish influence to push the U.S. into war, was sufficient to make the character of Forrest stand for only one other American.

It seems to me a little thin:  there really is very little about the character or his family or the few details about his wartime heroics that suggests anything but the slightest resemblance to Lindbergh.  To me, the movie reflects a rather more generalized (and, by late 1942, somewhat outdated) fear of the presence of a “Fifth Column” of secret traitors in the government, and a skepticism about heroes that was becoming more and more widespread in American culture.

Playing–and not playing–Lindbergh in the movies

The Spirit of St. Louis–the movie, not the book or the airplane–was in the obituary news last week.

John Kerr, a movie-star heart-throb in the 1950s, died at the age of 81. In 1955, Kerr was reportedly offered the part of Charles Lindbergh in the planned big-budget version of Lindbergh’s 1953 Pulitzer-winning autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis.  Kerr’s boyish good looks and age–he would have been 25 during the making of the movie, the same age Lindbergh had been in 1927–would seem to have been a perfect match with America’s “favorite boy.”

John Kerr and Mitzi Gaynor in "South Pacific," 1957

John Kerr and Mitzi Gaynor in “South Pacific,” 1957

But Kerr turned down the role, telling the New York Post:  “I don’t admire the ideals of the hero,” referring to Lindbergh’s pre-war admiration for the Third Reich.  (Kerr did go on to co-star in the wildly successful 1957 movie musical South Pacific, playing doomed young aviator Lt. Cable.  After that, however, Kerr’s movie career went into a fairly permanent stall.)

jimmystewartMeanwhile, Jimmy Stewart had been lobbying vigorously for the role; Lindbergh had been his boyhood hero, and had inspired the star to join the Air Force.  But in 1957, the year the picture was released, Stewart turned 50 years old–exactly twice Lindbergh’s “New York-to-Paris” age.   The age discrepancy, as well as the actor’s by-then totally familiar, totally “Jimmy Stewart” mannerisms, makes the movie–directed by none other than Billy Wilder, and produced by Leland Hayward–actually kind of embarrassing to watch.  You can watch the trailer below.

“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.

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.”