Triumph and Tragedy
Richard Bak
He certainly captured our hearts --- for a while, until the truth of his beliefs caught up with him. He was a lazy, handsome student, a mechanic genius who could fix anything. When he made his first flight in the barnstorming 20s, knew he had found his calling:

    My early flying seemed an experience beyond mortality. There was the earth spreading out below me, a planet where I had lived from which I had astonishingly risen. It had been the home of my body. I felt strangely apart from my body in the plane. I was never more aware of all existence, never less aware of myself. Mine was a god's-eye view.

"Beyond mortality." "I had astonishingly risen." "Apart from my body." "Never less aware of myself." Despite being a fine tall quiet young man, we had here someone who was into escape, one who --- like many schooled in midwestern Calvinism --- had to get away from the body, from this form he was saddled with. He once told reporters, when contemplating marriage,

    A girl should come from a healthy family, of course. My experience in breeding animals on our farm had taught me the importance of good heredity.

Breeding, good breeding, healthy animals for breeding. Bodies were instruments, things to be shaped by eugenics, that pseudo-science grew out of a twisted Darwinism, the belief that we could breed out all the misfits, rid ourselves of the insane, the dark, and the dirty though the appropriate science of applied copulation. It was no accident that his second love after flying was not his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, but his work in creating "an artificial heart" by means of pumps and incubators:

    Air hissed through tubes and into the rotating valve, whose concavities forced gas to flow into the glass apparatus in alternating pulses, pushing artificial blood up from the base of the machine into the organ.

Hearts, kept alive, artificially, for twenty-one days. There was no reason, he said, "why hearts could not be sustained indefinitely." Certainly an improvement over the imperfect human heart, those sloppy instruments that caused him so much trouble.

§     §     §

A strange boy he was. They took his laconic way of speaking as humility, but it was more that he was at war with himself and his humanity and the imperfection of words. His great by-himself thirty-six-hour across-the-ocean plane ride was the act of a restless, delinquent boy. Harold Nicholson in discussing his pre-WWII speeches, wrote on his turn against Democracy, and the hints of anti-Semitism:

    Let us not allow this incident to blind us to the great qualities of Charles Lindbergh. He is and always will be not merely a schoolboy hero, but a schoolboy.

A schoolboy, one who liked the company of men, whether in the air, or on the battlefields. He was known as a practical joker. Strange turn of phrase; there was nothing practical about the joke, when he was living in his inlaw's stylish old-money mansion in New Jersey, where he "poured mouthwash into a decanter of rare Burgundy wine," something sure to drive them to distraction, not unlike his habit of blowing his nose without a handkerchief, and of spitting. Nothing could be more irritating to this rich, aristocratic, careful Morrow family that he married into. The schoolboy, always a little awkward at the table, always out-of-place except when sitting alone 10,000 feet above the rest of us.

When he was circling Paris, looking for Le Bourget, just after sunset, he couldn't find it because there was this black mass below that wasn't on his map. That mass was a surging crowd, hundreds of thousands of new fans from whom he had to be saved. They would have torn him apart, in fact, almost did (they ripped up "The Spirit of St. Louis.") The crowds, 150,000 in London, six million in New York, the hundreds of thousands who saw him around the nation on his "good-will tours." Good will? For what? To tell people, he always claimed, "that aviation had a brilliant future, in which America should lead." But there must have been more to it than that. 147 speeches, visits to fifteen Latin American countries, then on to England, to Germany, where he met with the Nazi air force chief Hermann Göring, and received a special medal cast for him (with its circle of four swastikas). He let everyone know that he was a "private" person, so reserved, almost unwilling. Yet he wouldn't stop exhibiting himself, the restrained Yankee on the platform, pretending that he was just working for the "future of aviation." John Lardner said that "he needed fame to subsist, to support his confidence in the role he had won:"

    Here is the paradox that engrosses his analyzers: a man supernormally ingrown and aloof becoming with sure instincts a chronic public figure.

Soon enough he returned home to New Jersey, to go through the ordeal of the kidnapping and murder of his son, the very public "trial of the century." And it was not long afterwards that he went to work with Alexis Carrel on a book about selective breeding, forced sterilization, where undesirables, "should be humanely and economically disposed of in small euthanistic institutions supplied with proper gases."

The boy, the eternal simplistic boy, riding inside the man, who so many judged to be superhuman. His growing scorn; his speeches about "the White race," his mordant attacks on "the Jewish element, with their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government." A schoolboy turned bad. Very bad. Only coming free when they let him be an aviator again, during the Korean war --- zooming in on the enemy, from on high.

In Lindbergh: Triumph and Tragedy, Bak has put together a fair summary of the life of Lindbergh --- although sometimes his pedestrian style and factual overreaching ("he would remain a virgin until he married") can get in the way. The pictures, of which there are over a hundred, are excellent. The sheet music (four out of over thirty from Bak's personal collection shown here) is a gas.

--- Lolita Lark

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