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Monday Book: Down-to-earth tale of a flying hero

CELEBRITY IS the most capricious of masters. It bestows glory and attention beyond a man's dreams. But it attracts unwanted attentions as well, leading to intolerable invasion of privacy, even criminal outrage. And celebrity demands the highest standards. Woe betide he who slips from the Olympian pedestal. Thus, in a nutshell, the life of Charles Augustus Lindbergh.

There have been celebrities before and since, but none - with the possible exception of Diana, Princess of Wales - of the magnitude and staying power of Lindbergh. In 1926, he toiled in obscurity as a stunt aviator and pilot for the new US Air Mail service. But his first solo flight across the Atlantic, between 20 and 21 May, 1927, made him in an instant the best known man in America, probably in the world.

No matter that, at the very same moment, two Britons were attempting an even longer air trip, from London to Karachi; it was on Lindbergh's shoulder that the devil angel of eternal fame alighted. He was handsome, modest, and a brilliant flier who had parachuted out of crashes no less than four times. "Lucky Lindy" was the perfect poster boy for aviation's heroic era, the perfect candidate to launch the age of the global celebrity.

Lindbergh had expected no special reception when his humble monoplane, The Spirit of St Louis, landed at Paris after his 33-hour flight from New York. But 150,000 people were there to greet him at Le Bourget airfield. That throng was the spiritual ancestor of the swarm of paparazzi which, 70 years later, would pursue Diana's Mercedes into the tunnel by the Pont d'Alma.

The trial of OJ Simpson may have been billed the "trial of the century", but those old enough to remember know better. The biggest trial of the century, as measured by column inches, mob journalism and public interest, was that of Bruno Richard Hauptmann in 1935 in Flemington, New Jersey, for the kidnap and murder of Lindbergh's infant son, 20-month-old Charles Jr.

For four years, the "Lindbergh case" was a world-wide obsession. Public sympathy was overwhelming, and for Lindbergh the limelight became, if possible, even more dazzling. His prestige scaled even greater heights. Although some of the evidence was dubious, once Lindbergh had gone into the witness box to identify the voice of the German carpenter as that of the man to whom he delivered $70,000 in ransom, Hauptmann's fate was sealed.

The trial forms the psychological pivot of A Scott Berg's rivetting and meticulous biography. Berg was granted unprecedented access to 2,000 boxes of Lindbergh's papers, and to the private diaries kept by his widow, Ann Morrow Lindbergh. His portrait of one of the most fascinating Americans of this century will surely be definitive. The Lindbergh who emerges is composed and methodical, comfortable in the company of kings - yet also shy, oddly childish and, it would soon transpire, disastrously gullible.

Had the Charles Lindbergh of 1935 vanished forever into a monastery, he would have been a saint for all time. He had handled fame with superhuman aplomb, turning down endorsements worth $5m (a staggering sum at the time) and giving away his trophies free to a museum in St Louis. Even through the hysteria of the trial he had managed to preserve his dignity. But then perfection began to crumble, and celebrity brooks no deviation from the image it has created.

Death threats and endless, suffocating publicity convinced Lindbergh to seek refuge in Britain. Even there, he could not find "closure" - to use today's fashionable term - since Hauptmann went to the electric chair maintaining his innocence. Berg, incidentally, sheds little new light on the that controversy. But like most who have studied the case deeply, he is sure Hauptmann was guilty, either alone or with an accomplice.

In Europe, Lindbergh's judgement departed. Convinced that Britain and France were weak and defeatist, he came to admire Hitler's Germany, detecting in the Third Reich "a spirit I have not seen in any other country", and lamenting what he saw as the Jewish grip on the US media. In 1939, he went home to join the isolationist movement America First, warning against "entanglement" in a European war, and suggesting, in August 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, that "co-operation with a victorious Germany need not be impossible".

Lindbergh's reputation was ruined. Though he did fly some missions against Japan late in the Pacific war, and later wrote a Pulitzer-prize winning account of his 1927 flight, America could never look on him in the same way again. Perhaps despairing of his fellow humans, he threw himself into environmental causes. His marriage to Anne, by now an author in her own right, was by the end little more than in name, and he lived out his closing years in a remote house he had built on the Hawaiian island of Maui. He died in 1974, the first, and perhaps the most intriguing, truly global superstar of our celebrity-besotted century.

Rupert Cornwell