The cost of being Charles Lindbergh


I spend a lot of time reading, and my first choice in reading is always biographies. I will often read two on the same person, at the same time, to compare the writers’ take on the person. I don’t have to agree with the writer to get a lot out of it, biographies can be subjective. I rarely read about one-sided people, and I avoid the work of writers who want to portray complex people as either all good or all bad. People and life are not comic books like that. The word “dilemma” is of Latin origin, involves a decision which cannot be easily made. My interest is mostly about how complex people face issues that have no good or easy solution. That is where character is revealed. The insane and the zealots never doubt their own path, their stories reveal nothing. The life of the person who has questions and doubts is worth reading.

Several years ago, Bono, the lead singer from the band U2, made an outstanding documentary film about Elvis Presley. He started it by explaining that he, himself, had become a superstar in the 1980s, a millionaire, proceeded to lose everything, and then went on to recreate his career 20 years later. Bono pointed out that none of this was new, it was just following a blueprint that had been done long before by Elvis. His point was that Elvis himself was the man who was “lost” and had no precedent or plan to follow. Bono said, “Elvis was shot into space,” as a way to express how alone he was in dealing with fame, fortune, and all the ways it can poison a person’s life. Bono also pointed out that America voyeuristically watched Elvis’ life, most often praising him as a demigod, or judging him harshly, neither position acknowledging that he was just a very lonely human being who had lost or broken most of the people he loved, a person in a terrible struggle for his life, a battle he eventually lost.

Bono is very clear on one point: The young, youthful, beautiful Elvis, was not the real person. This was the media image, the one that was easy to love and simple to understand. You can go to YouTube and look up “Elvis Unchained Melody 1977” and see concert footage that Bono felt was the man actually revealing himself; his appearance has devolved to match the self-image he always had, he has experienced enough pain in life that it pours out of him with the sweat. It’s not nice, but it is very real. Consider the following comments from Bono:

“Jerry Schilling, the only one of the Memphis Mafia not to sell him out, told me that when Elvis was upset and feeling out of kilter, he would leave the big house and go down to his little gym, where there was a piano. With no one else around, his choice would always be gospel. He was happiest when he was singing his way back to spiritual safety. But he didn’t stay long enough. Self-loathing was waiting back up at the house, where Elvis was seen shooting at his TV screens, the Bible open beside him at St. Paul’s great ode to love, Corinthians 13. Elvis clearly didn’t believe God’s grace was amazing enough….. I think the Vegas period is underrated. I find it the most emotional. By that point Elvis was clearly not in control of his own life, and there is this incredible pathos. The big opera voice of the later years — that’s the one that really hurts me. Why is it that we want our idols to die on a cross of their own making, and if they don’t, we want our money back?”

All of the above is a long lead in to my point. To my perspective, Elvis was not the first global superstar created and then attacked by society and media. Charles Lindbergh was. The pattern was the same, only in the case of Lindbergh, it was amplified many fold, it involved the murder of his child, and his public adoration being quickly converted into hatred over his alleged pro-nazi feelings. It was a long way to fall in a short time, especially for a man who foolishly believed that honestly speaking his mind would protect him against very skilled publicity people in need of a scapegoat or a tabloid story. This brings out the question, who was the real Charles Lindbergh?

It took one week for Lindbergh to go from average airmail pilot to world’s most famous human. How do you prepare for that? If it happened to you, would every action of yours hold up well under a microscope? Would the things said about you be true and accurate representations of you? How smart and valid was everything you thought when you were 25? Are you glad no one was there to record it?

I have read a lot of books about Howard Hughes, and I think he was a very interesting person and a great aviator. The interesting comparison between the lives of Hughes and Lindbergh: Both had the before/after event in their lives. With Lindbergh it is the kidnapping and then the murder. With Hughes, a number of skilled biographers have made the case that he had two massive head injuries in plane crashes (1943 & ’46), either of which could have been fatal. His personality was altered and/or exacerbated by these injuries.

Today, people are just beginning to understand the long reaching effects of Traumatic Brain Injury. For Hughes, empathy and understanding, far less treatment, didn’t yet exist. Although he was never “normal,” he declined dramatically in his ability to function in the years following the crashes. When I think about Hughes, it is mostly of the early years, flying around the world or chasing Jean Harlow. My contention is that Hughes had a massive physical trauma, and Lindbergh had an emotional one. I don’t have to like the later things they did, but it gives some understanding of the forces that changed them.

After the “Crime of the Century” Lindbergh’s life goes on, but I have a hard time believing that he ever felt he was in control of it. A series of things happened that worked against the public ever understanding him. Many people today say they are disgusted with the media. No human on earth ever had greater claim to this than Lindbergh. Once he no longer sold papers for them as a hero, they were glad to have him as a victim, and then they got some mileage with him as a traitor. He was never able to effectively counter this, and after the murder it led to fleeing to England. After December 7th, 1941, there was nowhere he could go to avoid many people accusing him of being some sort of traitor. It is not exactly fair that on December 6th, 65% of Americans were against entering WWII. They were all allowed to change their minds without repercussion. Lindbergh was given no such latitude.

Many people expected that Lindbergh’s opinion on a wide variety of subjects outside of aviation would have some special significance. Why was he expected to be clairvoyant on world politics by age 35? His father was one of the very few politicians who voted against U.S. entry into WWI. This was no small matter; after the Sedition Act of 1918, many prominent people in the U.S. were jailed for simply speaking out against U.S. involvement. This is very ironic because Wilson won the presidency in ’16 with a promise to keep the U.S. out of the war, reversed this 180 degrees in 20 months, and went along with jailing people who held true to his campaign promise. The freedom we have to protest conflict did not exist yet. Lindbergh’s father felt that international banking interests made money off conflicts, and his son largely utilized his father’s opinions in the absence of his own developed ones. In many families this is a method of honoring one’s father. Lindbergh also was befriended and influenced in the 1930s by industrial titans like Henry Ford. The things Lindbergh said on behalf of staying out of WWII were things he really believed. Ford held and anonymously published in his private newspaper anti-semitic beliefs that were PG versions of the Third Reich’s propaganda. When war came, Ford made vast sums on government contracts. No one ever called him on this except Alexander P. de Seversky. It didn’t stick, and Ford skated into icon-hood and Lindbergh, who didn’t have a publicity machine, went down in flames.

In recent years, it has been revealed that Lindbergh had post-war German mistresses and fathered children there. His wife was not the saint the public demanded either. The posthumous release of her diary hinted at a love affair with French aviator/writer/hero Antoine de Saint-Exupéry before his death in 1944. If the Lindberghs didn’t have a storybook marriage, then maybe they were just humans. I have a hard time imagining most marriages living through what theirs did in the 1930s.

Today, celebrities and athletes talk about how hard it is when their 15 minutes or few seasons are up. Nothing that has happened to such a person can compare to Lindbergh’s going from hero to zero between 1939-41. There are many things to admire about FDR, but his use of political power to make a public pariah and an example out of Lindbergh, and his moves to block Lindbergh from rehabilitating his public standing, are not his finest side. Later, Ike treated Lindbergh very differently, but time had passed, and America largely didn’t care about Lindbergh any more.

One of the things that Lindbergh wrote that caught my attention was his private thoughts about the Japanese who fought to the death in the islands of the Pacific. He saw this up close and personal. In his diary he mentioned that no one wanted to consider it, but the doomed island defenders were something like the 300 Spartans or even the garrison of the Alamo. He wrote this 60 years before the film “Letters From Iwo Jima” explored the same idea. I grew up in Asia and was well aware that the Japanese military frequently committed atrocities without the slightest remorse; Lindbergh knew this but could also see their other actions. He did not admire them but could understand how their own countrymen would.

Divide his life as the period before his child is kidnapped and murdered and afterward. I think he is fairly easy to admire before the “Crime of the Century” was inflicted upon his family. Afterward, perhaps the man could be judged less harshly in light of this. He never really wanted to be the most famous person in the world, he didn’t crave attention, fame nor money. He got those things for flying the Atlantic, but it also made his family the target of a sociopathic murderer who killed his child. In the wake of it, even the harshest critic would concede that Lindbergh would have given up everything achievement brought him to have had his son grow up instead.

In the end, he was none of the exaggerated personas the public wanted or needed him to be. He was just a human. He was granted wealth and fame, the things most people’s dreams are made of, in unfathomable quantity by the ripe old age of 25. In five more years he learns that neither of these are going to do a damn thing to bring his kid back. It was the first of a long series of bitter lessons, where Lindbergh, a naive optimist at heart, would learn that there was little a man could count on in life. His beliefs in peace and war, love and marriage, justice and law, politics and public friends all had bitter days ahead. I don’t think he ever thought of himself as a hero, and maybe this was a blessing that lowered the height of the fall when he found himself far short of being the ideal husband.

Out of all of this, a very vital message remains, something Lindbergh can directly share with you, and I think it is the most important thing to understand about his life: The only real peace he knew in life was aloft and alone. His faith in the simple magic of flight never wavered. The quote from the previous story is really him, it is the essential truth of a very far-reaching and dramatic life, and ironically, it is one of the few things that you can explore for yourself. Lindbergh never gave up on flying, it was the only thing in his life that was never poisoned, manipulated or corrupted. Let him teach you that this, the truth that flying is one of the few things you can count on. Understand this and you have learned something that cost that man very dearly. -ww

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: