A. Scott Berg’s biography critically examines one of the 20th century’s most fascinating individuals.
By C.V. Glines
Many books have been written about Charles A. Lindbergh, but none has been researched as deeply as A. Scott Berg’s Lindbergh (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1998, $30). The author of award-winning biographies of Max Perkins and Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., Berg was granted exclusive access to Lindbergh’s files by the pilot’s wife, Anne, and he interviewed family members and others connected with the famous flier.
While the details presented are impressive, readers will not find new information about Lindbergh’s flying adventures. Instead, there is a collection of trivia that often seems superfluous. On the other hand, one will be awed at the volume of minutiae that the author has unearthed–facts that he claims help to “flesh out the man.”
The son of a U.S. congressman who spoke out against American involvement in World War I, Charles was an undisciplined student. The only part of life at the University of Wisconsin he liked was the Reserve Officers Training Corps. He left after two years and enrolled as a flying student at the Nebraska Aircraft Corp.
After barnstorming for a time, he enlisted in the Army Air Service in 1924 and won his wings and a commission in the Army Air Service Reserve Corps the following year, then began flying the U.S. mail. In 1926, he decided to compete for the $25,000 Orteig Prize offered to the first pilot or pilots to fly nonstop between New York and Paris.
As we all know, Lindbergh succeeded where others failed. From the moment he arrived in Paris, his life changed forever. He declined more than $5 million worth of endorsements but agreed to a three-month tour of the United States in Spirit of St. Louis to promote aviation, then made a nonstop flight from Washington, D.C., to Mexico City. There he met Anne Morrow, the U.S. ambassador’s daughter, whom he later married. Their marriage survived many trials, including the kidnapping and death of their first son–a tragedy widely referred to as the “Crime of the Century.”
After Bruno Hauptman was captured, tried and convicted of the kidnapping and murder of their baby, the endless hounding by the news media eventually caused the Lindberghs to escape to England in 1935. During the next three years, they traveled to Germany, where Lindbergh observed the developing Luftwaffe. He concluded that German military developments would soon pose a threat to other European nations. Because he seemed to be making excuses for Adolf Hitler’s increasingly aggressive excursions and he accepted a German decoration, he was branded as an antisemitic Nazi sympathizer in America.
Lindbergh volunteered for active duty when the United States became involved in the war, but he was turned down because President Franklin Roosevelt apparently considered him an “appeaser.” Lindbergh resigned his reserve commission but was determined to serve his country. He finally persuaded the U.S. Marine Corps to let him go to the South Pacific in 1944 as a “technician.” He flew 50 combat missions and scored one victory.
After the war’s end, Lindbergh was gradually welcomed back into public favor. Although his behind-the-scenes contributions to aviation are well-known, this biography also reveals his wide-ranging interests in other areas, including medical research and the study of African and Philippine cultures.
Berg discloses that the man revered by the public was less than perfect in his relations with his wife and children. “He provided little understanding when challenges went unmet,” Berg reports, “and he would not listen to excuses for work left undone. As his father had with him, Lindbergh often teased his children to tears.”
Lindbergh’s inflexibility toward his children seems indefensible, as does his treatment of Anne. Those of us who grew up with the image of the “Lone Eagle” as a pilot’s role model may not want to believe what Berg writes. But it is a biographer’s duty to tell about his subject’s foibles as he finds them, and Berg certainly does. While Berg’s depiction of Lindbergh’s dark side may shock some readers, on the whole, Berg concludes, “for us living in a tinny age of celebrity, here is a solid gold hero” and “one of the most fascinating human beings who has ever lived.”