by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The intersection of the fantastic rise of popular culture, the dramatic growth of technology in aviation, and America’s belief in its exceptionalism all converged in 1927 through the towering achievement of Charles A. Lindbergh, whose solo flight in the “Spirit of St. Louis” across the Atlantic in the spring set off an unprecedented spasm of patriotism, hero worship, and self-congratulations that manifested in Los Angeles when the “Long Eagle” made a triumphal visit here on this day in 1927.
Naturally, the public image of Lindbergh made it all but impossible for him to sustain the ideals it engendered and, despite tremendous sympathy for him and his family in the horrible tragedy involving the kidnapping and murder of his namesake son in 1932, he later became a highly controversial figure for his frequent visits to Nazi Germany, his anti-Semitism, and his public advocacy for the United States to remain neutral in World War II.
In 1927, however, in the glare of the red-hot spotlight which shone on the intrepid aviator, that future was, obviously, unforeseen. Instead, American basked in the glow of Lindbergh’s signal achievement, the aviator continuously showed a refreshing humility and modesty as he toured the nation, and Los Angeles pulled out all the stops in its welcome on the last day of summer that September day when the Long Eagle was feted in the City of Angels.
The Homestead’s collection has several artifacts connected to the Lindbergh trip, including a photograph of the aviator riding in an open car during a downtown parade, a Pacific Electric Railway flyer advertising reduced fares to travel to see the hero during the parade and a public reception that followed at the Coliseum, and a series of clippings from the Los Angeles Express relating to Lindbergh’s visit.
The flyer offered patrons to “See and Welcome Colonel Lindbergh to Los Angeles” and to do so to “avoid intense traffic”, offering reduced fares to the city. These ranged from 60 cents from Whittier would pay 60 cents, to 75 cents from Covina, to $1,00 from Pomona and $2.25 from far-flung Redlands. It noted that the downtown parade was at 2:30 p.m., starting from First and Broadway, going south on the latter to 12th Street, then west to Figueroa, and south to the Coliseum. The public reception to the aviator was an hour later. The rank of colonel, incidentally, was bestowed on him in July 1927 as a member of the air corps of the Officers Reserve Corps of the United States Army.
The half-dozen clippings include a few articles, an editorial and two advertisements. The latter are from Sears, Roebuck and Company and The May Company, two of the largest department stores in the city, welcoming Lindbergh, with the Sears ad issuing its welcome “to the one flyer who has made an indelible impression in aviation history for the world—daring, courageous, skillful, yet humbly retiring from self-glorification.” The May Company referred to the aviator as the “Flying Pioneer of the Atlantic” and an “Ambassador Without a Portfolio” in its “enthusiastic welcome—warmly sincere as though we clasped your hand in greeting.”
One of the articles reported that the radio station KNX, “the Evening Express station,” would broadcast an address by Lindbergh at a banquet in his honor at the Ambassador Hotel Auditorium. Moreover, KNX “opened up its panel . . . giving all other stations in the city an opportunity to tie in with the broadcast.” There was also a commercial tie-in, as it was reported that Standard Oil Company of California, “which “has done a great deal toward the furtherance of aviation,” was the provider of Red Crown aviation fuel used in the historic transatlantic flight. It was also stated that a phonograph recording of Lindbergh’s earlier visit to Washington, D.C., including an address by President Calvin Coolidge and the aviator’s speeches would be broadcast.
The second article was a reprint of an Associated Press report from late October after Lindbergh’s three-month cross-country tour in 82 cities among the 48 states with some 30 million people seeing him was completed, in which the hero stated that he had no immediate future plans, aside from some rest and a short trip to Michigan. He denied rumors he was planning to seek political office or work for the Department of Commerce and he also noted that “The Spirit of St. Louis” was ready for an overhaul, adding “it isn’t destined for a museum yet. Eventually, but not now.”
Finally, there was the editorial, titled “Our Hero’s Return,” which referred to the fact that Lindbergh was in the region before he made his famed flight. It noted that “Colonel Lindbergh’s tour of the country however is not for the sake of making a spectacle and receive applause.” Rather, it was because “he has devoted himself to aviation” and that “flying is destined to greatly influence man’s future,” so his trip through the country was to see that aviation had “the confidence and support of the American people, so that its development may go forward.”
As to his visit locally, the Express avowed:
Los Angeles did not await Col. Charles A. Lindbergh’s return to give him her heart. He possessed it already. She was amongst the first to confess him her hero. She had aided to send him forth to conquest of space and the elements and the affection of the peoples of the world, and today welcomes him back and rejoices in the success of his quest . . . the welcome he is receiving in Los Angeles today is his by right. He is an heroic hero . . . Los Angeles claims more than a mere host’s interest in this very welcome guest. The attachment of earlier acquaintance makes the pleasure of receiving him the greater and the welcome the warmer.
Finally, the photograph is an unusual circular close-up of Lindbergh riding in an open car decorated profusely with flowers and showing the aviator seated next to Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer (wearing the glasses to Lindbergh’s left). A cadre of police officers are in the background and behind them are some of the masses of well-wishers who lined the streets to see the Lone Eagle.
One of the little-known legacies of Lindbergh’s achievement and visit to Los Angeles was that, while he was in the city in September 1927, the new city hall, built on the site of the Temple Block built by the brothers Jonathan and F.P.F. Temple, was in construction. When completed the following spring, the 28-story structure, the only allowed to go beyond the 11-story limit imposed for aesthetic reasons, featured an aviation warning light officially dubbed the “Lindbergh beacon.”
The beacon operated every night from the official opening of the civic structure on 26 April 1928 until it was removed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thirteen years later. Remarkably, the beacon was found in a city warehouse over a half-century later. It was restored and placed back atop City Hall, where it remains in operation today.
It is hard for us to imagine today the impact of the Lindbergh achievement. The moon landing fifty years ago this summer was certainly a parallel in terms of cultural impact, but the glory was a shared one among the astronauts, NASA and others who were involved. With the transcontinental flight in spring 1927, it was Lindbergh’s sole project, hence the moniker “The Lone Eagle.”
His monumental cross-country tour, during which he flew himself from place to place, and then was viewed by an astonishing 25% of the entire population of America, if the numbers provided by the Associated Press article were accurate, was unprecedented and remains a remarkable phenomenon.
Lindbergh’s modesty and humility was frequently noted and it was observed, as well, that his main objective, as the editorial stated, was to promote aviation, his true passion in life. Though there were commercial connections of all kinds made, they were not by him. He didn’t seek endorsement contracts, come to Hollywood to make movies, or pursue opportunities others might have.
There was a book, We, which was rushed into publication and appeared in late July 1927 becoming a best-seller and making Lindbergh some quarter of a million dollars (a copy has been frequently exhibited in the bedroom of Edgar Temple in La Casa Nueva over many years), and the aviator received a specially-approved Medal of Honor (usually reserved for those who were in combat) and was TIME magazine’s first “Man of the Year”, both occurring in 1928. That year, he went on a “Good Will Tour” of Latin America and the Caribbean.
After the terrible ordeal of his son’s kidnapping and death and the drain of relentless publicity, Lindbergh and his family spent most of the late 1930s in Europe. His pro-German sympathies and isolationist advocacy damaged his reputation and it was later learned that he had children with three European women in the 1950s and 1960s.
He spent his last years on the island of Maui in Hawaii, having embraced conservation of the natural environment which was becoming a growing movement. Lindbergh died in 1972 and was buried in a simply marked grave in a churchyard on Maui.