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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing