It's not hard to become an idol in America. Sports figures, astronauts, film stars, even murderers can grab the brass ring on the media merry-go-round.
But it's tough to hold on to.
Charles A. Lindbergh made one of the most public slides from hero to wretch. Called the "Lone Eagle," Lindbergh was the first aviator to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. His 1927 feat dwarfed everything else in the Roaring '20s, an era fond of publicity stunts. He returned to a ticker-tape parade up Fifth Avenue.
Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were America's sweethearts until 1932, when their first child was kidnapped and slain in one of the most sensational cases of the century. Most of the nation wept in sympathy, but ironically the case marked the beginning of Lindbergh's transformation into one of the most disliked, even hated, men in America.
In his play, making its world premiere, this weekend at the Sanford Meisner Center in North Hollywood, filmmaker Larry Cohen tells the story of that dark aftermath of Lindbergh's days of glory. He calls his play, which he also directs, "Fallen Eagle."
Cohen, for a number of years one of Hollywood's busiest screenwriters and directors, has been interested in the subject of fallen heroes since the beginning of his career. His 1973 film "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover," with Broderick Crawford, detailed the seamy underside of the life of another American icon. Cohen's career has included directing 20 feature films, writing another 34 produced screenplays and creating seven network TV series. He continues his kinetic schedule. He recently guided the feature thriller "The Ambulance," with Eric Roberts and James Earl Jones.
As a matter of fact, Cohen explains, "Fallen Eagle" began as a screenplay, which he developed with Oliver Stone. Stone, an old friend, was encouraging but chose to do a film on Nixon instead. Both men, it seems, are interested in fallen heroes.
Cohen says Lindbergh's decline began just after the kidnapping. An insatiable media kept the story on the front pages, fueling public speculation to the point that some suggested the Lindberghs had murdered their own baby and burned the child in an incinerator. Lindbergh, he says, believed that the national spotlight was the cause of his woes.
"He was on a self-destructive path," Cohen says. "He wanted to destroy himself, to punish himself. He wanted people to hate him, because being loved brought him nothing but a dead child. He thought being hated he would be left alone. All his efforts in the America First movement, and all that stuff, was basically designed to turn everybody against him. He didn't realize how far it would go."
From icon to pariah, the author-director says, was a journey Lindbergh was impelled to take. To make matters worse, Lindbergh made no bones about his pro-Nazi stance during the 1930s.
"Lindbergh was never really forgiven for what he did," Cohen recalls. "He was stupid to do it. It's a phenomenon of our time, that anybody who's a celebrity of any kind seems to become an expert on politics, and get up and makes political speeches. Lindbergh spoke out and said the most unforgivable things. He didn't believe we should go into the war, and he singled out the Jews as being a group that was trying to get us into the war."
The hero's writer wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, didn't suffer the anguish her husband did. The gentle philosophy of her books kept her insulated with public affection. Lindbergh himself tried to salve his own conscience by flying secret, unofficial missions against the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. But Roosevelt stripped him of his military commission and Gen. MacArthur ordered the former idol back to the States. Cohen says the young Army Air Corps pilots Lindbergh was helping were the same age his slain son would have been.
His furtive flying missions were private therapy. Lindbergh never apologized publicly for his political actions.
"Lindbergh never thought he was confused. He always had that same mental fix he had when he was flying the Atlantic in 1927. He would never turn back, never admit he had made a mistake. He had supreme confidence in everything he did, even when he was doing something wrong. Even if he took off in the wrong direction, he could not turn back."
Cohen says it is that side of Lindbergh he is trying to explain in "Fallen Eagle." He quotes, with a bittersweet smile, Will Rogers' admonition: "The thing about a hero is he's got to know when to die. Living too long has ruined more heroes than anything."
* "Fallen Eagle," Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, 5124 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 15. $12. (818) 509-9651.