This post is part two in a three-part series. The story told here is decades old, but in many ways it mirrors conversations going on today about fake news, removing monuments, vindictive presidents, and the choices we make about who we support.
To read part one click here, and check back Thursday for the final installment.
“No hero is immortal until he dies,” W.H. Auden
After Charles Lindbergh’s tour of the United States concluded
everyone’s favorite flier made goodwill trips to Central and South America. It was on these trips that he first became acquainted with Anne Morrow, the daughter of his financial adviser. A romance developed and on May 29, 1929 the two were married. Anne had taken a keen interest in aviation and quickly became her husband’s partner on many flights assisting on the flights as a navigator and radio operator. The couple’s regular airborne adventures charted potential air routes for commercial air lines and set more aviation records.
On October 24, 1929, the Stock Market crashed sending the United States into the Great Depression. Despite the country’s worsening condition as the 1930s began the Lindbergh’s remained media darlings and America’s favorite couple. The Lindberghs were popular in a way that would make the Kardashians jealous. In an era of newspapers and radio people were starved for news of their hero and his new bride. The mentality is best captured by the New Republic who at the time said that Lindbergh is, “ours. He is no longer permitted to be himself. He is the U.S. personified.”(1) Despite being public property the Lindbergh’s kept up their continuous flight schedule that would eventually take them to some five continents and spanned over 40,000 miles.
The summer of 1930 gave the world another dose of Lindbergh. On June 22, 1930 Anne Lindbergh gave birth to the couple’s first son, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. The birth of “The Eaglet”, as the Lindbergh baby was nicknamed, was yet another media extravaganza for the family. The New York Times went so far as to say that “Perhaps nowhere in the world, at any time in history, had a child been the object of such wide public interest.”
One historian had this to say about the birth of the Lindbergh’s first son, “It was reported that newspapers were offering substantial bribes to telegraphers and phone operators for information regarding the event. For their part, Charles and Anne decided against giving the press even the courtesy of an announcement of the birth… Desperate for news and photographs of the Lindbergh heir, some newspapers began floating disgusting rumors of a birth gone wrong, forcing Lindbergh at last to call a press conference and give details about the baby. For its own part, the press in general was beginning to sour on what many interpreted as the constant whiff of arrogance in the great transatlantic hero, and a sort of mini-backlash occurred, with columnists suggesting that Lindbergh was, in effect, biting the hand that fed him. All in all it was an unpleasant episode in the Lindberghs’ seemingly intractable ‘war with the press,’ but afterward, like fighters who have beaten each other into exhaustion, a kind of uneasy truce was declared—if not by Anne and Charles, then by the press—until the next round could begin. Around the same time, the Lindberghs were suffered to endure a shocking incident of reckless and inhumane invasion of privacy when gawkers managed to drive through the gate at Next Day Hill and run over Anne and Constance’s childhood pet terrier, Daffin, mortally injuring but not immediately killing the dog, and not even stopping to try and help.” (2)
The Dallas Morning News compared the birth to that of royalty and over the next few days carried several articles about possibilities for the baby’s middle name, and even a report about the sighting of the birth certificate. All of this attention was paid to the birth of a child when American’s were losing their jobs at record rates and had no internet or television to feed them information. The Lindbergh family functioned as a much-needed distraction from American’s ever-worsening reality.
In Dallas, Lindbergh Boulevard, believed to be one of the future main thoroughfares in Dallas, was expanding just as its namesake’s family. The street now stretched from Swiss avenue to Mocking Bird (the way it was spelled at the time) and there were continual calls to widen and expand it even more. Maybe someday the iconic Lindbergh family would even take a drive along this new road.
Life in the Lindbergh family was not as much a fairy tale as it must have seemed to their adoring and obsessed admirers. The press stalked the family from rooftops, and friends and family who visited were often offered bribes by newspapermen hoping to gain information on the family for stories. Col. Lindbergh had never been fond of the public eye, despite the impossibility of escaping it. After three years of almost non-stop scrutiny the intensely shy and private Charles Lindbergh hoped to finally give his growing family, Mrs. Lindbergh was pregnant with the couple’s second child, some peace and quiet. Largely insulated from the depression’s economic woes, the Lindbergh’s began work on a massive 390 acre estate near Hopewell, New Jersey. At last Charles and his family would finally be able to escape the constant eye of the public and the media.
In the place of peace and quite, however, the Lindbergh’s would only experience tragedy. In the late evening of March 1, 1932 twenty-month old Charles, Jr. was kidnapped from his upstairs room in the Lindbergh home. For a month and a half the entire country waited breathlessly for the drama to play out as everyone from the police to the mob tried to find the Lindbergh Baby, and his kidnappers. The unemployment rate was nearing 25% and still the nation’s newspaper headlines were focused on the search for the Lindbergh boy. The Lindbergh’s sought help from anywhere they could find it, but on May 12, 1932, the body of “The Eaglet,” as the baby was affectionately called by the press, was found in the bushes about four and a half miles from the Lindbergh home.
The circus atmosphere that surrounded the Lindberghs did not subside, even in grief. A photographer broke a window in the morgue so that he could photograph the dead child. Copies of the picture were produced and sold on the street. The grieving father concluded that a funeral and burial would only bring on more gawkers and scoundrels, so he made the decision to have his young son’s body cremated.
The Federal Government responded to the tragedy by making kidnapping a federal crime punishable by death. Despite debate over the issue, the nation wanted the blood of whoever was responsible for the tragedy. The search for the killer or killers continued. In August of that year Anne Lindbergh gave birth to the couple’s second son, Jon.
Two years after the kidnapping the man who allegedly perpetrated the crime was arrested. A highly sensationalized trial followed. It was the first “Trial of the Century”, and the public appetite for the proceedings was such that H.L. Mencken, one of America’s foremost authors of the time referred to the trial as “the greatest story since the Resurrection.” Charles Lindbergh attended the trail every day of its six weeks. Both Charles and Anne Lindbergh testified at the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death on February 14, 1935.
Later that year the car that the couple’s second son, Jon Lindbergh, was riding in on his way home from nursery school was forced off the road by photographers who wanted a snapshot of the boy. A mental patient escaped a local asylum and Charles discovered him looking in the windows. Then rumors of threats to kidnap Jon reached the ears of America’s beleaguered, grieving, and beaten-down hero. “Charles began carrying a .38 revolver wherever he went. People made so many death threats against their son Jon that Lindbergh had to have him escorted by a bodyguard armed with a sawed-off shotgun whenever he was out of the house.”(3) The intensity with which life had collapsed on the Lindbergh family was overwhelming, and Charles Lindbergh had had enough. Hauptmann’s case was still on appeal in December of 1935, when Charles, Anne, and Jon Lindbergh left the United States. The man whose fame came from making a dangerous airplane flight to Europe, moved his family across the ocean on a ship looking for safety.
Many in the United States sympathized with Lindbergh’s decision, while others maligned America’s favorite son for fleeing to the old country. Americans tend to like fighters, and right or wrong, to many it looked as though Lindbergh was just fleeing. The Dallas Morning News carried letters from its readers with both sentiments, but Lindbergh’s popularity with the American public didn’t take much of a hit. Lindbergh might have left the country but his namesake road in Dallas continued to expand north, now reaching all the way to Lover’s Lane.
The Lindbergh family first moved to England, and then to an island off the coast of France. Ever the trailblazer, Lindbergh moved from being an innovator in transportation to be an innovator in health care. The move to France was so that Charles could be closer to Dr. Alexis Carrel as the two worked on the idea of an artificial heart.
While Lindbergh was busy trying to save lives, the rest of the world was sliding ever quicker into another global conflict that would be responsible for the deaths of millions. The United States military had requested that Lindbergh use his celebrity as an excuse to visit Nazi Germany and gather information on the Nazi air force called the Luftwaffe. Lindbergh’s first visit to Germany came in 1936 during the summer Olympic games as the special guest of Field Marshal Hermann Goering. Goering was second in command in Germany only to Hitler and the commander of the Luftwaffe. Lindbergh was even given the rare opportunity to fly the best Germany bombers and fighters.
Lindbergh was also given the same opportunity in Communist Russia. His trip to Russia at the end of 1938 actually caused a small international scandal as the Russians claimed after he left that he erroneously told the British that the Russian air force was weak. The Russians were apparently more offended that they might have been thought of as weak, than that Lindbergh could and would tell the British and Americans everything he had seen in Russia.
Over a three year period from 1936-1938 Lindbergh visited Berlin a totally of three times. Each time Lindbergh gathered information for the United States and by extension Britain and France. On each return trip Lindbergh relayed more and more discouraging news. The German’s had built the most lethal air force in the short history of military aviation. Lindbergh came to believe that led by the Luftwaffe the Nazis would be unstoppable as a military force.
On the last of these trips in October of 1938 Lindbergh was presented with the German Eagle, the highest German aviation decoration, for his contributions to the field. Lindbergh had received medals and awards from nearly every country on the globe, but this one was different because it was from the Nazis. Word of the Nazi persecution of the Jews was beginning to trickle out of Germany, and now the man who Time magazine would refer to as “The Twentieth Century’s First Hero” had been decorated by the Nazis. Lindbergh believed it would have been a tremendous affront to refuse to accept, or even to return the medal, but the acceptance of that medal was the beginning of more turbulence than Lindbergh had seen in our out of the air. When Anne Lindbergh saw the medal that night she referred to it as “The Albatross.” Her first impression would prove to be prescient. In Dallas, the first calls began to be heard from citizens wanting Lindbergh Boulevard to be renamed. A Nazi sympathizer (whether he truly was one or not) didn’t deserve a street in Dallas. Those calls were not enough, however, to cause the City Council to act.
(1) Groom, Winston. The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight (Kindle Locations 4092-4093). National Geographic Society. Kindle Edition.
(2) Groom. (Kindle Locations 4418-4432).
(3) Groom. (Kindle Locations 4792-4793).