by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Today, I finished A. Scott Berg’s absorbing Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 biography of Charles Lindbergh, the legendary “Lone Eagle” whose solo flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis in May 1927 was one of those very rare epochal events and which also instantly made the attention-averse aviator the most famous person on the planet.
The book was a fascinating deep dive, with total access to the papers of Lindbergh and his remarkable wife Anne Morrow, a writer of great distinction, into the highly complex, multi-faceted life of the aviator. Lindbergh worked on important scientific endeavors, advocated strongly for the promotion of aviation technology, fought in battles against the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II despite his highly controversial “America First” anti-war speeches and despite the fact that he was not in military service, lived and worked with indigenous people in Africa and Asia, and was a passionate conservationist, coming to sour on what his achievement and what aviation did to the planet.
As Berg sensitively discussed, his marriage to Morrow was extraordinarily complicated and his relationship with her and their five surviving children (the eldest, Charles, Jr., was kidnapped and killed in 1932 and which is one of the most dramatic elements of the biography) was marked by his frequent absences, his strictness, his often withering criticisms and other facets that were not publicly known. What Berg, or Anne or her children, did not know was that Lindbergh had six other children by three women, although there was an affair of a few years running by Anne in the later 1950s, as well.
What the book is an apt reminder of, among many things, is the issue of exalted celebrity juxtaposed with the frequently flawed but also often admirable qualities of Berg’s subject—a figure who accomplished a great deal in his 72 years, but, for many, was forever identified for his anti-Semitic remarks during his calls for American neutrality during the war.
Having put the book down just a little while ago, this seems a good time to share a set of four snapshots take from the stands at the Los Angeles Coliseum on 20 September 1927 when hordes of cheering admirers, with some sources stating 60-65,000 in attendance with most of them children, welcomed the hero during his months-long tour of the nation following his fabled flight.
The Los Angeles Times, in its coverage of Lindbergh’s day in the Angel City, proclaimed:
For seven, mad memorable hours yesterday Los Angeles and her adjacent sister cities put on their greatest show. A slim, modest, blue-eyed youngster—the stamp of illimitable distances and horizons on his face—was the cause. The lonely voyageur of the air lanes, bronze and scored, but with the same old smile flashing out now and then, was back after a six-months’ absence—back as Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, conqueror of the sinister Atlantic, America’s “lone eagle,” me[t]amorphosed in those six months from a relatively unknown pilot into the world’s most beloved modern hero.
The piece went on to note that old men threw their hats in the air and danced a jig, while women wept and everyone else cheered, roared and shrieked, while Lindbergh kept his poise and displayed the calm unruffled and modest demeanor for which he was rapidly becoming known during these early days of his apotheosis as a national (and world) hero.
The paper separately reported that, given the approximately 250,000 admirers who thronged the city to see “Lucky Lindy,” there were relatively few accidents. 16-year-old Walter Stanley was riding to the Coliseum for the big event there when his motorcycle collided with an automobile and the teen suffered a leg fracture, fractured skull and likely internal injuries and was not expected to survive. Two men, including a Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle officer, and five women were moderately injured because of accidents, though it was added that an American Red Cross station at the stadium was not used at all.
At the Coliseum, the Times reported, some 90% of the crowd was comprised of young people and “when the gates were thrown open at noon a tumbling, laughing throng of merry school children made a grand rush for the front seats,” so that, within an hour or so, “the great bowl was a veritable rainbow of color, with young America clamoring noisily for the arrival of their hero.” There was music from the Army 160th Infantry Band and the Roberts Golden State Band until a rumble was heard in one of the tunnels at about 3:30.
When Lindbergh arrived “on the flower-covered car carrying a small replica of his famous Spirit of St. Louis,” he was driven around the massive venue to the full-throated cheers of the crowd and then taken to a platform at the center of the field, where a system was set up for remarks to be broadcast on several regional radio stations.
Introductory remarks were made by “Mr. Los Angeles,” attorney and renowned local orator Joseph Scott, who declared that “this youth who is [a] model of American young manhood fought his way through darkness to the light, went along the hard trail of grinding and sacrifice for a service he believed in.”
Scott begged those in the stadium to support a municipal airport (Mines Field near Inglewood became the city airport and is now Los Angeles International) as well as the use of air mail, imploring the children to “go when you leave here to the nearest mail box and send [a letter] to grandpa, grandma or anyone else you can think of.”
When Lindbergh stepped to the microphone, however, he “made it plain to his hearers that his present tour is not one of the conquering hero, but one to foster a science to which he had dedicated his life, that of making flying the foremost transportation of the day.” He told the crowd,
This tour you have heard so much of was conceived and is being carried out for the one and only purpose of promoting commercial aviation in this country to a practical basis.
Commercial aviation should be distinguished from pioneer aviation . . . commercial aviation chiefly deals with passenger, express and mail carrying, the latter being the only well-developed division . . . While the pioneering division includes development of designs, testing and experimentation, the latter coming under the category of hazardous flights.
It is not pleasant to look back upon tragedies that have followed in the wake of aerial transportation development . . . the risks of pioneering are materially insignificant in comparison to the results which will have been attained when America has placed her air lanes on a practicable basis.
Commercial aviation is comparatively safe and compares favorably with other forms of transportation which have been in service for years . . . and while casualties will continue, they will have no effect whatever upon the future of commercial aviation.
The aviator hoped that transoceanic air travel on consistent schedules would be achievable in his lifetime, provided that the commercial aspect on land was improved so that “the people come to depend upon it as the fastest form of transportation.” The former took some time, but movement in passenger air travel proved to be rapidly pursued and initiated, while air mail service expanded dramatically.
He echoed Scott by stating that a municipally owned airport in every major city would assist markedly in broadening commercial aviation’s development and reach. After airports, the most important component was “the construction of passenger and express air liners. Obviously, Lindbergh could hardly envision that, by the time of his death just under a half-century later, we would have supersonic jets, much less space travel to the moon.
In his popular column, “The Lancer,” Times journalist Harry Carr remarked that Lindbergh “is, no doubt, a great flyer; but he is also a mighty fine boy. If America can produce enough of his kind, it doesn’t matter much whether or not they know how to fly.” He professed that “it is a great deal easier to get into an airplane and fly to Paris —with a 100-1 chance of getting there alive—than for a young boy to keep his head and charming modesty in the midst of all this hullabaloo.”
Because of the broadcasting of his speech, those who didn’t venture into Los Angeles to see the “Lone Eagle” in person could tune in via radio and the Covina Argus, for example, reported that big crowds gathered at the city’s music store and radio shop to listen to the reception and Lindbergh’s approximately 300-word address.
As for the effect he had on his hearers, the Van Nuys News noted that Dick Holloway, captain of the local high school football team, substituted for his father as one of the welcoming committee members from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. The teen wrote to the paper saying that he thought the aviator would be fixated on his aircraft, but noted Lindbergh’s calmness as he shook hands with dignitaries, including Holloway. Calling him “just a perfect example of American youth,” the high schooler added,
I never realized what a young looking fellow he is. His hair was short and mussed up, and carried the characteristics of a typical young fellow of about eighteen. He impressed me like no other personage has ever done, and I consider him America’s greatest hero.
Notwithstanding, Holloway’s limited experience in life, he was, of course, hardly alone in placing the aviator on a pedestal, where Lindbergh largely remained for about the next fifteen years, until his vocal opposition to the war, along with his anti-Semitic remarks and lack of criticism for Nazi Germany (Hitler gave him an award in 1938 just before the outbreak of World War II, but Lindbergh refused to return or disown the honor) turned many Americans against him.
To the end of his life, Lindbergh mostly avoided involvement in commemorations of his historic flight, though his second book on the subject (We was hurriedly published in summer 1927 and the flyer was not happy with the results), 1954s The Spirit of St. Louis, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a 1957 film directed by Billy Wilder that garnered mixed reviews and underperformed at the box office.
Though he was fascinated by and very supportive of the space program and got to know astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins well, Lindbergh, with his mounting concerns for the conservation of Planet Earth, expressed reservations about the long-term effects of aviation for the natural world. Reading Berg’s superb biography helped provide a broader understanding of the hero figure, which Lindbergh strived to downplay, with a deep analysis of his complex subject.
These photos, taken while Lindbergh was at the apex of his fame and trying to figure out how he would deal with the adulation, are especially interesting having heard more of the story and as we approach the centennial of the trans-Atlantic flight. One wonders what 2027 will bring in terms of commemoration?