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
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.)
Meanwhile, 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.
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.
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.
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.