Charles Lindbergh exploded onto the world scene in 1927, flying his single-engined monoplane The Spirit of St. Louis nonstop from New York to Paris. To a postwar world mired in cynicism and hungry for heroes, the modest young flyer from Minnesota seemed the answer to a prayer. Lindbergh was immediately lionized as no man of modern times had been before. His appeal transcended celebrity. He became an icon, a shining beacon of human enterprise and courage in an age of machines. For Lindbergh himself, however, fame would prove to be as much a curse as a blessing, and he would struggle with the smothering effects of his own legend for the rest of his life.
A. Scott Berg’s Lindbergh is an ambitious attempt to understand the man behind the myth. This is no easy task, for even those closest to Lindbergh found him something of an enigma. Berg, moreover, is no literary magician, able to achieve the impossible. At the end of his book, the great flyer still remains something of a mystery. Yet Berg comes closer than any previous biographer to explaining his elusive subject. His book is especially valuable because he was the first scholar allowed unrestricted access to the Lindbergh papers. As a result, he is able to add much new detail and nuance to a familiar story, and his work will likely be the standard biography of Charles Lindbergh for years to come.
Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born on February 4, 1902. His father, Charles August Lindbergh, was the son of Swedish immigrants and a prosperous lawyer in Little Falls, Minnesota. His mother, Evangeline Lodge Land, was the daughter of the man who had pioneered porcelain dentistry; she met her husband while teaching school in Little Falls. Unfortunately, Lindbergh’s early years were not happy. His parents’ marriage proved to be a failure. Charles August Lindbergh allowed friends to persuade him to run for Congress in 1906. At least part of the attraction of the race was the prospect of escaping his home. He won the election, and the first of five consecutive terms. The ensuing years would be a blur of homes and schools for his son, who was shuffled between his father and mother, between Washington, D.C., and Minnesota. Lindbergh grew up intensely shy, more comfortable in the company of his pets than that of other people. He also learned to be extremely self-sufficient and self-reliant, qualities that would later undergird his greatest successes but that would also frustrate those closest to him.
Lindbergh early demonstrated an affinity for machines, especially automobiles. For this reason, his father tapped him to be his driver as he ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1916. In his years in Congress, the elder Lindbergh had been a fiery champion of the Progressive wing of the Republican Party. As a candidate for the Senate, he ran as an opponent of American intervention in World War I. His message proved unpopular in a country already girding itself for war, and he was heavily defeated. Even more disastrous was a 1918 campaign for the governorship of Minnesota. Charles August Lindbergh’s antiwar sentiments now seemed treasonous to many, and he was regularly harassed and even, on occasion, threatened with lynching. Lindbergh watched the destruction of his father’s career, and he imbibed long-lasting lessons about politics, politicians, and the passions unleashed by war.
A more traditional education continued in a somewhat haphazard fashion. In the fall of 1920, Lindbergh entered the University of Wisconsin. Less than two years later, he flunked out. His parents’ marriage was now irretrievably broken, and neither possessed the means to support him. Lindbergh thus had to strike out on his own. He chose to indulge a dream that had been growing within him: He decided to learn to fly. He took some commercial lessons, then honed his skills working with pilots barnstorming across the Midwest. Lindbergh became an aerial stuntman, walking wings and testing parachutes. Eager to fly more modern machines than the war-surplus planes available to him, Lindbergh enrolled in the Army’s Air Service Advanced Flying School in 1924; the next year, he graduated first in his class. The Army did not need many pilots, so Lindbergh found himself in the Reserves and in need of employment. He barnstormed for a period, then settled in St. Louis and accepted an offer to become a pioneer of the fledgling air-mail service. His route to Chicago was considered one of the most dangerous in the country because of the tempestuous weather. Lindbergh survived two crashes, becoming known as “Lucky Lindy” in flying circles.
In St. Louis, Lindbergh began pondering the possibility of flying nonstop from New York to Paris, a common dream for airmen of his day. In 1919, Raymond Orteig had further spurred interest by offering a prize of $25,000 for the first men who accomplished the feat. Until the mid-1920’s, such a flight had seemed a technical impossibility. Yet as the decade wore on, new planes...