(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

One flaw in this otherwise delightful biography of a great American figure is its unchronological presentation of events. The foreword opens in 1934, introducing the biography’s British author, a newspaperman, and flashing back to his early life and his first glimpse of Lindbergh. After touching briefly on the kidnaping, Mosley reports a conversation he had with the baby’s Scottish nurse, Betty Gow, and a memorable statement she made to him: “Colonel Lindbergh is the most honest man I ever met. He cannot tell a lie even if he knows it will hurt the hearer, and he expects other people not to lie to him.” The Prologue opens with Lindbergh on the eve of a trip around the world, while the first chapter skips to a view by the flier of his boyhood home in Minnesota in 1971. After this somewhat confusing beginning, the account settles down to a traditional, generally sequential organization.

Realizing the public’s impression of Lindbergh as an ignorant Swede farm boy elevated to fame, Mosley has taken care to present the flier’s background. His father, Congressman Charles A. Lindbergh, was a lawyer who served four terms in Washington. After his first wife died of a tumor, he married a Detroit girl, Evangeline Land, who had come to teach in Little Falls, Minnesota. At the same time that he offers a vivid picture of the Lindbergh couple, Mosley reports such everyday details from young Charles’s childhood as his grandfather’s gift to the six-year-old boy of a rifle; the boy’s hunting trips with his father; the family’s purchase of a Model-T Ford when Charles was ten; the child’s fondness for tinkering with motors; and his aristocratic mother’s disapproval of the dirty farm boys down the road as playmates for her son.

It was his mother’s pressure that made young Lindbergh enter the University of Wisconsin, and it was his reading of Edgar Wallace’s charming short stories about an aviator in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, published in book form as Tam o’ the Scoots by Small Maynard in 1919, that made him, as a college dropout, resolve to take up flying. After taking free flying lessons offered by a Nebraska aircraft company to prospective purchasers, he became a Flying Cadet in the United States Army in March, 1924. Of a class of 104, only eighteen completed the course; Lindbergh was on top, “respected, but not popular,” as one classmate noted.

1925 was a good year for American fliers, and Lindbergh was offered two jobs: one flying the mails for a small St. Louis firm, and the other flying for a Denver circus that performed exhibitions at fairs. Because of the circus’ disregard for its pilots’ lives, he accepted the first offer, and in April, 1926, began flying letters between St. Louis and Chicago.

Something better soon tempted him. Raymond Orteig, a Frenchman with several hotels in New York, reannounced his offer of a $25,000 prize for the first nonstop flight between New York and France. Several famous aviators were already preparing, and Lindbergh interested a number of St. Louis businessmen to put their city on the map by allowing him to fly the Spirit of St. Louis. He was lucky enough to find a small San Diego firm, the Ryan Aircraft Company, willing to build a plane for the $15,000 he raised. A huge Sikorsky was already being readied for Captain René Fonck, and two other French war fliers were assembling their plane in France. Byrd, back from Polar flying, was awaiting a Fokker plane, and the U.S. Army was backing two of its officers.

Mosley’s account of the frantic cooperation of everyone in the Ryan factory to complete Lindbergh’s plane, and of the bad luck that seemed to dog all his competitors, makes suspenseful reading. The Sikorsky crashed in testing, the army plane and its crew were lost at sea, and the Fokker craft fell and injured Byrd, just as the Spirit of St. Louis was being rushed to its starting field in New York to begin fueling. Anyone who has seen the small plane in the Smithsonian Institution, or one of its many facsimiles, can appreciate one viewer’s description of the aircraft as a “seal balancing a board across its neck”; but on the morning of May 20, 1927, flier and plane were at Roosevelt Airfield in Long Island, ready to face a 3,610-mile flight, loaded with just enough fuel to make the trip. Many accounts are available of the tense thirty-three hours, twenty-nine minutes, and thirty seconds that elapsed before Lindbergh landed successfully near Paris.

Today, few people are familiar with the facts of Lindbergh’s life subsequent to his historic flight, except for the incident of his young son’s kidnaping. If fame is defined as “the sum of misunderstandings that cluster around a new name,” Lindbergh’s career certainly provided abundant material for misunderstanding. From the beginning, the world’s desire to learn every detail about its national hero clashed with Lindbergh’s craving for privacy. His love affair with Anne Morrow, second daughter of financier Dwight Morrow, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, was his first upsetting exposure: despite all his efforts to keep their engagement secret, the press ferreted it out. Their secret marriage was discovered on May 27, 1929, and any facts that were available, whether private or not, were laid bare by the media. Charles was five years Anne’s senior, and by comparison relatively poor; he was also her intellectual inferior. The world was told that his favorite poet was Robert Service, and that he had little knowledge and less liking for music. However, Anne apparently saw much more of value in her new husband than newspaper statistics could ever explain to...

(The entire section is 2319 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXIV, May 8, 1976, p. 412.

Los Angeles Times. May 2, 1976, Books, p. 12.

New Statesman. XCII, September 23, 1976, p. 380.

New York Times Book Review. April 11, 1976, p. 4.

Spectator. CCXXXVII, August 28, 1976, p. 15.

Time. CVII, March 29, 1976, p. 72.

Times Literary Supplement. November 12, 1976, p. 1432.