It is almost impossible now, in these days of cheap global air travel, laser-guided weaponry and routine trips to outer space and back, to conjure up the astonishing glamour and fascination of aviation's early days. Hard too, when thousands of airline pilots are being made redundant around the world, to envisage the aloof, almost superhuman allure of the figure of the aviator.
Part demigods, part daredevils, the first flyers achieved a renown and provoked an awe-struck reverence in the public that now seem almost incredible. These were real men and women who risked their lives in a medium previously closed to human endeavor and in machines that seemed to counter every natural law. And the fact that they were the first truly modern heroes, with the ancient values of fortitude and temerity yoked to the very latest technology the 20th Century could produce, perhaps explains why the mix was so potent and the idolatry so febrile and impassioned. Not until the first astronauts came along would the aviator as modern hero be displaced from his pedestal, but even then it was only by another form of pilot.
The most famous aviator of the early decades of the century, and arguably the most famous aviator of all time, was Charles Lindbergh who, in 1927 at the age of 25, flew his single-engine plane The Spirit of St. Louis nonstop from New York to Paris. This considerable feat, while impressive, does not however fully explain why Lindbergh should become one of the great, iconic figures of his time. The answer--and this intriguing biography attempts to delineate it--must lie in a curious combination of historical circumstance and individual personality.
The world creates the heroes it wants in a way that has little to do with rationality and more to do with collective imagination--Why Charlie Chaplin and not Buster Keaton, for example?; Why James Dean and not Montgomery Clift?--and there was something about the gauche youthfulness of Lindbergh that sent crowds wild. Here was a tall thin Minnesotan barnstormer who didn't smoke and didn't drink and loved his domineering mother. There was no vainglory, no false modesty and, apparently, no undue cupidity either. Whatever the blend was--a combination of naivete and technological skill, a kind of "aw, shucks" mentality coupled with massive determination--it worked, and after his historic flight Lindbergh ascended to a plateau of international fame enjoyed by very few this century. Fortune, honors, reputation, personal happiness followed. The young man married a shy, pretty heiress, Anne Morrow, and the couple became the focus of media attention in the Western World and seemed permanently at home among the great and the good.
But of course if that were all there was to it, the Lindbergh name would eventually have dimmed and his celebrity would have occupied its due niche in aviation history. But along with clouds of glory, great fame trails more noxious vapors. When Lindberghs' baby son was kidnaped and held for ransom in 1932, Lindbergh was plunged into the dark side of the Faustian contract that all who become famous unwittingly sign.
Lindbergh himself supervised the various agencies--police, FBI, private sleuths--involved in the hunt for his baby son and in the farcical negotiations with the kidnapers. The discovery of the baby's decomposing body a few hundred yards from the Lindbergh home brought no end to the trauma. The ransom money had been paid and it was only by chance that a sequence of marked notes turned up and led the police to the prime suspect, an immigrant German called Richard Hauptmann.
Joyce Milton devotes much space to the details of the kidnaping and its ramifications and, inevitably, it proves to be the most compelling episode in this joint biography. Somewhat against recent trends, she firmly and very effectively makes the case that Hauptmann was in fact guilty of the kidnap and murder and was not, as some commentators have suggested, a convenient scapegoat. She suspects that he did not work alone and, more tentatively, suggests possible accomplices.
The exemplary drama that was Charles Lindbergh's life still had a few acts to play out, however. Having come from obscurity to huge fame, having known scandal and tragedy (all carried on in a blaze of publicity), Lindbergh now seemed willfully to court opprobrium and disgrace. A longtime believer in "air-mindedness" (a vague philosophy that air travel could foster peace and international understanding), Lindbergh saw those values enshrined in the new Nazi state in Germany.