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The Lindbergh Syndrome:
Heroes and Celebrities in a New Gilded Age

History Abhors a Vacuum

What kind of a day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our time…

Walter Cronkite, You Are There, CBS-TV, 1953–1957

Over the course of 144 Sunday afternoons between 1953 and 1957, CBS presented You Are There, half-hour recreations of historical events. Viewers lived out history through actors such as Paul Newman, James Dean, E.G. Marshall and Kim Stanley, who appeared as historical personages. The host was Walter Cronkite, later to become known as "the most trusted man in America," who wrapped up every segment with the rhythmic coda shown above, ending with "…and YOU were there."You Are There spanned history from the Trojan Wars in the 12th century B.C. to the breaking of the four-minute mile barrier in 1954. It told of martyrs like Joan of Arc and Mahatma Gandhi, rascals Aaron Burr and Jesse James, acknowledged heroes such as Christopher Columbus and Nathan Hale…and even faux heroes like Paul Revere and Henry M. Stanley.

A curious omission from the roster of heroes and knaves was Charles Lindbergh, whose 1927 flight from New York to Paris had been easily the most exciting story of the Roaring Twenties, coming at a time when New York City seemed to hold a ticker-tape parade for somebody once a week. In fact, if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had never landed on the moon in 1969, Lindbergh’s heroic deed would stand as the signature technological achievement of the 20th century. It combined scientific progress with human drama in a way seldom seen before or since. But Lindbergh never once appeared on You Are There, even as the producers reenacted lesser moments from the ‘20s, including the final stage performance of actress Sarah Bernhardt, the mystery of explorer George Leigh Mallory’s disappearance on Mount Everest, and the opening of King Tut’s tomb.

Lindbergh’s accomplishment altered and illuminated our time. Bernhardt, Mallory, and King Tut did not. Why, then, was Lindbergh’s flight never chosen for broadcast on You Are There? Walter Cronkite, even at that early stage of his career, would have recognized a true hero and a defining moment for history.

Historical events don’t occur in a vacuum. Did the producers of You Are There intuit something different about the Lone Eagle and his tiny plane, Spirit of St. Louis, that couldn’t be fairly encapsulated in a 30-minute anthology segment? Did they understand that the historical significance of the flight had been fatally diluted by its aftermath, insofar as Lindbergh was transformed overnight from a genuine hero of science into a pure celebrity?

Wouldn’t CBS have been intellectually dishonest to treat Lindbergh’s flight as the crowning achievement of his life, given everything that followed later, including his son’s kidnapping and his friendship with Nazis before World War II that had marked Lindbergh as a traitor? Was CBS loath to "go there"?

The producers at least confronted an enigma. For 150 years before Lindbergh’s flight, American heroes had been identified from the ranks of explorers, inventors, soldiers, and statesmen. In virtually every case, their heroism had first been recognized near the ends of their lives, even after their deaths. Nobody knew about Daniel Boone while he was opening the Kentucky frontier; the fates of Lewis and Clark are still being debated after 200 years. Morse’s telegraph presaged even greater advances in communications technology. Lincoln was widely hated while president but revered as a noble soul after being martyred by an assassin, and the failure of Congress to enact Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points after World War I made Wilson a visionary when World War II began 15 years after his death.

Men and women of note accumulate historical credits in a linear progression: Explorations open new frontiers for settlers who follow later, inventions serve mankind in ways not contemplated at first, battlefield sacrifices prove to have saved other lives and preserved freedom, and a statesman’s historical standing is adjudicated by historians only in retrospect. Heroism takes time to sink in.

Lindbergh’s experience followed the polar-opposite pattern. The good news came first…a first-ever New York-to-Paris flight, the $25,000 Orteig Prize that went with it, and the obligatory ticker-tape parade up Broadway. Then began a tabloid carnival, which lasted 14 years: his romance with Anne Morrow; a wedding held in secret in 1929 and a honeymoon on a yacht that was pursued by reporters as if the Hood were stalking the Bismarck; his infant son’s kidnapping, which became the crime of the century, and the circus-like trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann; Lindbergh’s inspection of the Nazi air machine and acceptance of a German Cross; and his isolationistic America First speeches and ongoing feud with Franklin D. Roosevelt.

With the exception of selected Olympic and professional athletes, one can search history in vain for another example of a virtual unknown who burst forth like a quasar through a heroic deed at age 25, and although the achievement itself remained untainted, declined in public approbation over the course of 47 years. Lindbergh’s case was exceptional; in the twinkling of an eye, his heroism was beclouded by his celebrity, which in turn magnified his human failings into notoriety.

A hero is (known for) "achievements and noble qualities." A celebrity is "one who is celebrated" (for whatever reason). One can be a hero or a celebrity, but not both at once…at least not when advances in technology converge with a tabloid press. Heroism is a deliberate process, but celebrity may occur overnight.

You Are There couldn’t have covered Lindbergh’s flight without acknowledging a bitter truth. Their own media brethren had denied him the right to be recognized for heroism as a scientist…as Bell, Edison, Curie, and the Wright Brothers had been. Lindbergh fended off reporters’ questions about his personal life and insisted his flight was a step in time for aviation; but the press turned the boyish aviator, who had never even been on a date in 1927, into a matinee idol from the moment he landed on the tarmac at Le Bourget Field outside of Paris. They asked him "celebrity questions": "Do you like girls?" "Do you dream in color?" "What’s your favorite vegetable?"

Instead of being temporary abstractions resulting from the giddiness of the occasion, the insatiable demands of reporters and newsreel cameramen weighed permanently on the unsophisticated Lindbergh. The harder he tried to fight the system, the worse things got. His response to "Do you like girls?" was, "If you can tell me what that has to do with aviation, I’ll answer the question." That didn’t satisfy the press; it was argumentative, not responsive. So reporters persevered: "Do you have a girlfriend?" Lindbergh was too polite to say, "None of your business!" and he lacked the savoir-faire to answer, "Not at the moment. Do you have somebody in mind?"

Lindbergh was ill prepared for dealing with aggressive reporters, but he’d had no choice in the matter. Spirit of St. Louis took off from the New York suburbs, and New York was the center of the media universe during the boom years of the ‘20s. Lindbergh flew from their turf. When he landed in Paris, where heroes are celebrities by custom, he found local newspapers caught up in aviation fever…two heroic Frenchmen of the late world war, Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, had vanished aboard their own bi-plane, L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird) less than two weeks earlier, while attempting the same crossing in the opposite direction. The hysteria had only just begun, in fact; when Lindbergh came home, every big city in the United States welcomed him as the reincarnation of Rudolph Valentino. Lindbergh had landed in Paris as the apotheosis of American manhood, but he crash-landed into a new celebrity system he hadn’t known existed, like a befuddled Phileas Fogg descending through dark clouds in a balloon.

Lindbergh had spent the years from 1922-1927 indulging a passion for flying, logically enough for the grandson of an experimental dentist and great-grandson of a pioneering osteopathic physician. He performed stunts in air shows and signed on as a mail pilot for the government. The public’s interest in aviation in the Roaring Twenties began as simple curiosity and evolved as an extension of its desire for entertainment. That’s what the decade was all about…fun and games, not science.

Lindbergh was bright, but his intelligence was left-brained; he lacked the intuition to sense that in the ‘20s, societal forces diluted heroic acts by elevating personalities over achievements, frivolity over a work ethic, and the material over the spiritual…all according to a historical pattern that had begun after the War Between the States. Mark Twain is credited with naming the 1870s the "Gilded Age," stigmatizing the public’s obsession with money and material wealth and its relative absence of a social conscience.

But those years had been a cathartic response to the memory of four years of internecine war…with brothers fighting brothers and Americans against Americans. Similarly, the Roaring Twenties became society’s backlash against bitter memories of World War I; it was history repeating itself, but no textbook writer took note of the phenomenon.

A generation later, Lindbergh would reach middle age in a post-depression, post-World War II milieu of consumerism, nuclear families, and anti-intellectualism. If it sounded familiar, the hear-no-evil Fifties were the Roaring Twenties with a paternalistic twist added, as men who had just saved the world from Nazi domination returned home to pick up their lives as returning heroes and, presumptively, as do-no-wrong fathers. Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation provides a present-day retrospective of the era; but the TV show Father Knows Best, a weekly staple in the ‘50s, perfectly portrayed the hear-no-evil culture in real time…never mind that Father was a real-life alcoholic, his son was a real-life juvenile delinquent, and his younger daughter was a real-life abused child.

Amid the existential world of the ‘20s an ambitious crowd of pioneering aviators, including Clarence Chamberlin, Commander Richard Byrd (of North Pole fame), Noel Davis, and Charles Nungesser competed with Lindbergh for the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 carrot provided by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig for the first successful New York-Paris transit in either direction. The Atlantic Ocean had been crossed first by English fliers Alcock and Brown as early as 1919, but from Newfoundland to Ireland; New York to Paris was almost twice that length.

Orteig first offered the money in 1919, but the realities of Roaring Twenties life put the race on the back burner for a while. It was expensive to build a plane that could fly 3,500 miles without stopping, and because the public preferred entertainment from its aviators, stunt flying and air shows absorbed the capital that otherwise might have been invested in a trans-Atlantic crossing. By 1927, the mood had shifted somewhat, and several teams had raised the needed funds. Among the fliers, Lindbergh was the least familiar to the public; his financial backers were in St. Louis and his airplane was being built in San Diego. The New York press, which covered the Atlantic race as a kind of sporting event and didn’t know him at all, called Lindbergh a "former mail pilot from St. Louis" even though he’d never lived there. As we know now, they made up for their passivity toward Lindbergh in spades. From a public relations standpoint, it would have been better for him had he taken off from, say, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright Brothers had first made aviation history 24 years earlier.


The aviators saw themselves as friendly competitors, if one takes their public remarks at the time at face value. For each man, science superseded fame and fortune, and all were in the race together, as if seeking a single cure for a dread disease or exploring the cosmos in neighboring spacecrafts. Only one could win the $25,000 prize, but there existed a camaraderie among the aviators that conformed each to the dictionary definition of a hero, "a man admired for achievements and noble qualities."

But where Charles Nungesser and his navigator Francois Coli were concerned, there existed a subtle geo-political dimension to the race for the Orteig Prize. The traditional friendship between the United States and France had cooled, largely on account of World War I, when hubris restrained the French from publicly acknowledging an obvious truth: American doughboys had saved their necks from Kaiser Wilhelm II. Something in a Frenchman’s psyche tends to find heroism and gratitude mutually exclusive.

Americans learned that the French don’t send thank-you notes, any more than a Gallic lover says merci to his latest conquest over a cigarette. In 1919, the first year following the armistice, France was but a short generation removed from vainglorious generals who chose to let the accused traitor Dreyfus rot in prison rather than expose the army to embarrassment. The new animus was a shame, because a Franco-American detente dated back to the 18th century, when Marquis de Lafayette had been a hero of the American Revolution and Thomas Jefferson watched the French Revolution burgeon from his Paris apartment. In the 19th century the Louisiana Purchase opened the West, Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1837 and paid tribute to its experiment in democracy, and 50 years after that France gave us the Statue of Liberty. Americans had always stayed out of European wars, but officially, at least, our isolationism had always coexisted with trans-Atlantic respect, even affection.

Now, in the 20th century, the bonhomie had turned to sniping. Worse, a generation of artistic young American expatriates had quickly tired of the postwar Gilded Age mood that favored flagpole sitting, bathtub gin, flappers, and in the big cities, a mad pursuit of money, stock certificates, and material goods (the farm belt suffered mightily in the ‘20s). Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John dos Passos, e.e. cummings, Dashiell Hammett, and Isadora Duncan relocated to Paris, where there was no Prohibition and they could sip wine and cast bitter aspersions toward the hedonism they’d left behind. Earlier emigrants to Europe remained there, including Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Edith Wharton, and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Ms. Stein spoke for all expatriates with a famous comment, "Paris was where the 20th century was." The sense of estrangement on the part of the elitists of haute culture delighted the French even as the Philistines back home cried, "Good riddance!" The collision of values became a cultural divide as broad as the Atlantic Ocean itself. The United States and France were at loggerheads.

To paraphrase Walter Cronkite, "That was the way it was" on May 8, 1927, when 35-year-old Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli boarded a Levasseur bi-plane, L’Oiseau Blanc, for their date with destiny, and the hearts of the French people went in the cockpit with them.

Nungesser was a man of average height and suave bearing, handsome and supremely self-confident, a Gallic dandy with an insouciant je ne sais quoi who leveraged a brilliant war record (he survived grave wounds as an infantry soldier early on to become the third-ranking ace of Lafayette Escadrille) and an abortive extramarital romance with notorious German spy Mata Hari into a postwar reputation comparable to a Dumas hero. It even included a career in early silent films, and if nobody confused Nungesser with Valentino, it didn’t matter to the adoring French public.

Coli was the prototypical sidekick, as if provided for the occasion by central casting. A black patch covered his long-since-vacated eye socket, which suggested a character out of Treasure Island; Coli was short, stocky, and hardly a matinee idol, but Nungesser knew him to be a valued navigator who would compensate for his own rustiness. World War I had ended almost eight years earlier, and Nungesser’s flights in the interim had consisted of relatively simple trans-Mediterranean jaunts.

The Frenchmen had been cautioned against flying east to west, against the prevailing Atlantic winds. The shortest available route skirted the Arctic Circle, passing over the approximate spot where the White Star liner Titanic had sunk 15 years earlier. Flying further south to avoid icy winds would have meant burning too much gasoline; as it was, L’Oiseau Blanc would have to do without a radio and orthodox landing gear to lighten the load and conserve fuel. That meant no communication with the ground, of course, and also that Nungesser would have to land the plane in New York Bay on pontoons.

One alternative for the pilots had been to transport L’Oiseau Blanc to New York on a ship and fly home with the wind at their backs. No doubt they considered it, and surely Nungesser imagined himself stepping from the cockpit at Le Bourget like a modern-day Count of Monte Cristo, blowing kisses to adoring Parisiennes whose eyes he’d always managed to catch while strolling the Champs-Elysees since the war. But as winter passed into spring on the Continent in 1927, it became clear that the time expended in an Atlantic ship crossing wasn’t Nungesser’s and Coli’s to waste, because the international press corps had caught Orteig Prize fever, and the likes of Chamberlin, Byrd, Davis, and a man named Charles Lindbergh were revving their engines. The race was on.

It was now, or never. Nungesser shrugged off the weather warnings as only a Gallic hero could. Cheered on by a huge mob, he and Coli lifted off from Le Bourget safely; several hours later L’Oiseau Blanc was noticed passing over the coast of Ireland.

After that, the plane was seen only in Newfoundland. A dozen provincial denizens, or "Newfies" in the deprecatory idiom of folks from Toronto and Montreal, testified to having seen a plane fly over in the direction of Boston and New York, but far too low to get that far. Was it low on fuel? Where had this plane come from? In Newfoundland, news travels slowly, and Newfies pride themselves on telling tall tales, so when L’Oiseau Blanc passed over the southeastern corner of the province on the morning of May 10, the locals who saw it had a hard time convincing people "from away" about what they’d seen. All we can say with conviction today is that the last person who saw L’Oiseau Blanc above the ground was a Newfoundlander who had never seen an airplane before.


The historical anonymity that enveloped Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli after 1927 stands in glaring contrast to their earlier prominence and polar opposite from the attention focused on their flight before the fact. For three consecutive days after their takeoff on May 8, The New York Times placed the flight of L’Oiseau Blanc in front-page headlines. Despite lingering tension between the United States and France, the Times’ stories carried an undertone of goodwill toward the fliers. Americans were rooting for one of their own to win the Orteig Prize, but not to the extent of rooting against the Frenchmen. So pleasure yachts began assembling in Upper New York Bay in anticipation of their landing, even as Nungesser and Coli headed into the Atlantic darkness beyond the Irish coast. Meanwhile, stockbrokers were gathering confetti to throw from their office windows in the parade up lower Broadway that would follow a successful landing.

Because the bi-plane carried no radio, there was no way for reporters to track its progress. So like children in bed on Christmas Eve waiting for sleigh bells on the roof, breathless New Yorkers and Parisians existed in the moment and dreamed of imminent joy. Nine time zones to the west of Paris, Charles Lindbergh taxied the Spirit of St. Louis out of its San Diego hangar; he was also living in the moment and thinking of his immediate future. Lindbergh’s good wishes for the Frenchmen’s success were sincere, untarnished by trans-Atlantic enmity.

Paris dailies were faced with the same news vacuum as the Times, but not surprisingly they were less restrained by journalistic discipline. In the absence of direct reports from the cockpit of L’Oiseau Blanc, French papers took romantic license. They simply invented a happy ending to the plane’s journey; readers at home were thrilled to learn that the newest French heroes, Nungesser and Coli, had landed safely to the accompaniment of boat whistles, then accepted the plaudits of New Yorkers on Broadway. The strains of La Marseillaise could be heard above the din, so the story went. Paris went bonkers. When the truth became known several days later the French media accused American news sources of misleading them. It was quite predictable.

As French glee turned to disbelief and then to anger, The New York Times wrote of search planes then combing the Eastern seaboard and of erratic weather that hampered their efforts. The intended route of L’Oiseau Blanc hadn’t been published, but Nungesser and Coli might have detoured to escape inclement weather and/or conserve fuel, anyway. The U.S. Coast Guard and volunteer pilots spared no effort to find the plane. It was a classic needle-in-a-haystack quest.

A week later, Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island on the overcast morning of May 20. He’d flown in from San Diego a few days earlier and studied weather forecasts by the hour while giving polite but noncommittal answers to queries from reporters who crowded the lobby of the Garden City Hotel. Lindbergh didn’t get a lot of sleep Friday night; by then he’d decided it was a go on Saturday.

The rest became history. But most of that history consisted of events Lindbergh would rather have forgotten. In the hear-no-evil 1950s, the producers of You Are There decided it was safer to ignore both the good and the bad.




Where have all the heroes gone?

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