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.

Lindbergh’s “Nazi medal”

Lindbergh and the “Nazi Medal”

On October 18, 1938, at dinner party at the American Embassy in Berlin, Nazi Air Minister Hermann Goering presented the guest of honor, Charles A. Lindbergh, with a surprise gift: the “Verdienstkreuz der Deutschen Adler,” or “Service Cross of the Order of the German Eagle.”   He actually received two identical medals: one in a leather case, one on a silk ribbon. The elegant medal–a Maltese cross surrounded by eagles and swastikas–was awarded principally to foreigners who, incidentally, were also considered sympathetic to the Third Reich.  Among other recipients were Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Thomas Watson (the head of IBM), and automobile magnate (and notorious anti-Semite) Henry Ford.

Charles A. Lindbergh’s “Nazi medal,” as it was quickly and exclusively called in the press, proved to be, in Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s own words, “an albatross.”   He was roundly and harshly criticized for even accepting it, though simple decorum would seem to have militated against such a breach in etiquette, or returning it after the US entered the war against the Axis. Lindbergh–a master of conflict-avoidance, compartmentalization, and disregard for public approbation–simply put the incident out of his mind and sent the medal to the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, the repository of all of the honorific objects and awards he had received since 1927.  After being tucked away in storage for decades, it was put on display there in a major exhibit in 2002 after a careful vetting of the issue with the local Jewish community and other groups.  Along with the rest of the exhibit, the medal is being removed from display for conservation and storage later this month.