Monday Book: Down-to-earth tale of a flying hero
LINDBERGH BY A SCOTT BERG MACMILLAN, pounds 25
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Monday 02 November 1998
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.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Germany sees 'visible rise' in support for far-right extremism in response to perceived 'Islamisation' of the West