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LINDBERGH.\o7 By A. Scott Berg (Putnam: 640 pp., $30)\f7 ; UNDER A WING: A Memoir.\o7 By Reeve Lindbergh (Simon and Schuster: 256 pp., $23)\f7

September 20, 1998|BENJAMIN SCHWARZ | Benjamin Schwarz is a contributing writer to Book Review and a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly

From the moment Charles Lindbergh descended from the sky at Le Bourget airfield in Paris, the world, and particularly his American homeland, took possession of a new god. At the age of 25, Lindbergh became, as A. Scott Berg amply demonstrates in one of the most important biographies of the decade, "the most celebrated living person ever to walk the earth." Lindbergh, the first solo flier to cross the Atlantic, had anticipated and planned for every aspect of his historic 33-hour flight from New York to Paris, with the significant exception of his arrival. With characteristic modesty, he had assumed that since he was ahead of schedule, no one would be greeting him as he landed, and he hoped to find a fellow flier at the field who could help him get a ride into Paris, where he would find a cheap hotel. Instead, as he taxied on the landing strip, Lindbergh found that, as he famously recounted in the last line of his memoir of the flight, "the entire field ahead is covered with running figures!" From that moment on, Lindbergh's life would be far more complicated than he ever wished or expected it to be.

Ironically, Lindbergh and his plane had survived the longest and most difficult flight in history (every previous attempt had ended in death) only to be threatened by the crowd that celebrated the feat. The stampede to meet him caused the greatest traffic jam in Paris history, and the throng swallowed "The Spirit of St. Louis," Lindbergh's tiny plane. It was, a witness recalled, "as if all the hands in the world are . . . trying to touch the new Christ and the New Cross is the Plane." The adoration was both exuberant and violent--a combination that was to mark the public's relationship with Lindbergh for the next 20 years. Souvenir hunters began to rip "The Spirit of St. Louis" apart, and Lindbergh was dragged out of the plane and carried about in a frenzy. Only the intercession of French military fliers prevented the most famous plane in world history from being destroyed and Lindbergh from being rapturously mauled.

Although Lindbergh himself was almost unbelievably courageous, honorable and honest, his story is not a bright and inspiring one, for more than anything else it illuminates the menace that accompanies adoration. Worshiped by the globe, Lindbergh was above all America's hero, and in this country he was also prey to the public, the press, maniacs and criminals--even the Roosevelt administration. Although Lindbergh showed to the world his country's best self, he also aroused within America many of its ugliest aspects.

In illuminating this phenomenon, Berg's book is an extraordinary achievement. Sensibly enough, he does not devote the greatest space in his chronicle to the 1927 flight, which, after all, has been recounted so well by others, Lindbergh included. Rather, Berg concentrates on the most sensational and controversial features of Lindbergh's life--the kidnapping of his first child and his career as an "isolationist" during the most important foreign policy debate in American history, which is to many today the most noteworthy aspect of his story. Indeed, Berg, who is Jewish, revealed in a recent interview that when he told his grandmother that he was at work on a Lindbergh biography, her reaction was "What do you want to write about him for? He was quite awful about the Jews."

Luckily for his readers, Berg didn't listen to his grandmother. Granted, anyone looking for a work of analysis or interpretation or for a book that places Lindbergh's life in a historical or social context must go elsewhere. The satisfactions of "Lindbergh" (Steven Spielberg has already purchased the rights) are altogether different. In his authoritative chronicle, Berg has allowed the inconsistencies, nuances and tribulations of Lindbergh's life to speak for themselves without judgment or speculation. In doing so, he has given us the definitive account of a dramatic and disturbing American story.

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