Lonely Eagle

updated 09/28/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/28/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As his silvery, single-engine Spirit of St. Louis crossed the Atlantic at the then-impressive airspeed of just over 100 mph, Charles Lindbergh had more to contend with than even he had prepared for. Armed with little more than his maps and a few sandwiches, he was attempting a voyage others had only imagined: the first solo, nonstop transoceanic flight. Yet as the hours droned on, the slender, 25-year-old airmail pilot found that his worst enemy was his own increasingly desperate need for sleep. To force himself awake, Lindbergh dipped the plane within feet of the ocean, allowing the icy salt spray to splash his face through the open cockpit windows. Finally, at about 10 p.m. on May 21, 1927, more than 33 hours after his takeoff from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, N.Y., the city of Paris came into view—"a patch of starlit earth under a starlit sky," he would later recall.

It was perhaps the last moment of his life when he could be simply Charles Lindbergh, pilot. After circling the Eiffel Tower, he landed at Le Bourget airfield northeast of the city. And as he taxied toward a bank of floodlights, he realized with horror that thousands of people—150,000, in fact, though he couldn't have known it—were girdling the field, ready to crush him in a wave of unrestrained joy.

Lindbergh's achievement set off jubilation all over the globe, instantly transforming him from man to myth—the "Lone Eagle"—mobbed wherever he went, his image spinning onto 7.4 million feet of newsreel film in just three weeks. From that moment on, Lindbergh would be a fugitive from an adoring, insatiably fascinated public. "He became the first modern media superstar," says A. Scott Berg, 48, author of Lindbergh, a definitive, 568-page biography out Sept. 21. "That car chase through the streets of Paris on the night Princess Diana was killed began on the night Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris."

Indeed, until his death at 72 in 1974, Lindbergh led a life without precedent—a kind of template of the 20th century's promise and pain. Berg's biography (Steven Spielberg has already bought the movie rights) and a lyrical memoir due in October, Under a Wing, by Lindbergh's youngest daughter, Reeve, 52, are sure to renew interest in this unique American hero—from his lonely Midwest boyhood to international celebrity, from the tragedy of his firstborn son's kidnapping and murder to the enmity he brought on himself as a pre-World War II isolationist whose views led many to regard him as a pro-Nazi anti-Semite.

Berg, a 1980 National Book Award winner, labored nine years on this latest biography, speaking with hundreds of sources, including even Anna Hauptmann, the now-deceased widow of the man executed for the Lindbergh kidnapping. But Berg's insight into Lindbergh, who collected every scrap of paper concerning himself and annotated every story written about him, was immeasurably enhanced when Lindbergh's widow, bestselling author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, now 92 and in fading health, gave Berg unrestricted access to the Lindbergh archives at Yale University. For the first time, a scholar was allowed to see Lindbergh's life through the man's own eyes.

A solitary dreamer, Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born on Feb. 4, 1902, the only child of Minnesota lawyer C.A. Lindbergh and Evangeline Lodge Land, a science teacher from a prominent Detroit family. Raised in virtual isolation on a Little Falls, Minn., farm, young Charles began a lifetime of wandering after his father was elected to Congress in 1906. A born tinkerer who dropped out of the University of Wisconsin to pursue his romance with aviation, Lindbergh was soon barnstorming throughout the Midwest and flying the St. Louis-to-Chicago mail route.

After his triumphant transatlantic feat, the shy, handsome Lindbergh became the popular personification of American virtue—modest, daring, practical and ambitious. Though besieged by lucrative offers—he turned down $500,000 from William Randolph Hearst to star in movies—Lindbergh never pursued wealth as an end in itself. Fame without purpose was pointless, he decided. And so he devoted himself to aviation, helping to launch TWA and Pan Am, traveling the world to develop airports and passenger routes. "America has found her wings," he wrote, "but she must yet learn to use them."

On a goodwill trip to Mexico City in 1927, Lindbergh met his future wife, Anne, daughter of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow. They tried to keep their romance a secret, but coverage of their engagement rivaled that of the presidential election. Even during their 1929 honeymoon at sea, they were pursued by a photographer in a motorboat.

The Lindberghs' marriage turned out to be a wedding of opposites. Small, shy and contemplative, Anne soon discovered that Charles could be remote, compulsive and cruelly self-absorbed. "The romance was a complex case history of control and repression," says Berg. Instead of providing the stability Anne craved, Lindbergh began a lifelong pattern of moving her to secluded homes to avoid public contact, then leaving her to manage alone while he roamed the world. "I must harden my heart," Anne would later confide in her diary, "not because I don't love him but because I do."

On March 1, 1932, Lindbergh's worst fears were fulfilled when the couple's golden-haired, 20-month-old baby, Charles Jr., was taken from his crib in the Lindberghs' home in Hopewell, N.J. Ten weeks later, his body was found in a shallow grave nearby. Kidnapping for ransom was rampant during the Depression, and, Berg writes, the Lindberghs' "fame and wealth cost them their firstborn child." Although they went on to have five more children, "I know the loss was immeasurable and unspeakable," writes Reeve in her memoir.

Once again, Lindbergh became grist for the front pages, as the press and public tracked the so-called Crime of the Century with a consuming interest only matched, a half-century later, by their obsession with the O.J. Simpson trial. Lindbergh received up to 100,000 letters each week, and a galvanized Congress passed the Lindbergh Law, making interstate kidnapping a federal offense. Some have argued strenuously that Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the immigrant German carpenter who went to the electric chair for the kid-nap-murder, was railroaded. But Berg believes that the evidence leaves no doubt about Hauptmann's guilt. "I think they got the right guy, and this should end the speculation," he says.

To escape the maelstrom, and perhaps his own grief, Lindbergh plunged into medical research at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City and played a decisive role in furthering the work of pioneering rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard. Lindbergh even invented, with Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Alexis Carrel, a blood-perfusion pump to keep tissues and organs alive while they were being repaired. Carrel once wryly commented, "The world will hear from this young man someday."

In the late 1930s, the American public did hear from Lindbergh again—in ways that would forever cast a shadow on his name. On behalf of the U.S. government, he inspected Hitler's Luftwaffe several times, socializing with Nazi leaders and pronouncing German military aviation the world's finest. Later, with Nazi forces overrunning Europe, Lindbergh became increasingly vocal in his conviction that the U.S. should not enter the war and that Germany's destruction would gravely harm the West by paving the way for Soviet expansion. Speaking in September 1941, Lindbergh charged that the British, the Jews and the Roosevelt Administration were "pressing this country toward war." The speech, which Republican leader Wendell Willkie called "the most un-American talk in my time," turned much of the public against Lindbergh, who never recognized the anti-Semitic implications of his words. Reeve was shocked when she read the speech years later. "He was not a hater," she writes. However, she adds, "I could never forgive him for it."

After Pearl Harbor and Germany's declaration of war on the U.S. in 1941, Lindbergh was eager to serve the Allied war effort. But an unforgiving President Franklin D. Roosevelt, vowing, "I'll clip that young man's wings," did not allow him to serve in the Army Air Corps. Nonetheless, Lindbergh eventually got to the South Pacific as a technical adviser and in that guise flew 50 combat missions, downing at least one Japanese fighter in a hair-raising dogfight. He also devised a method of conserving fuel that allowed U.S. aircraft to strike deep into enemy territory.

After the war, Lindbergh's reputation was gradually rehabilitated. In 1954, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis, and in 1962 was received with honor at a White House dinner; he later inscribed a book for 18-month-old John F. Kennedy Jr.

At home-in Darien, Conn., daughter Reeve recalls, her father was forever the taskmaster, with his knife-sharpened pencil and inevitable lists, lecturing the family about the need for readiness. When skiing, they would kid him about never falling down. "In my profession," he'd say, "you only fall once."

Until the end, Lindbergh remained obsessively active, campaigning for the preservation of wildlife and aboriginal tribes in the Philippines with whom he had spent much time. "Where civilization is most advanced, few birds exist," said Lindbergh, who died of lymphoma on Maui in 1974. "I would rather have birds than airplanes."

Still, he would surely have appreciated the reaction of his grandson Ben, 11, when Reeve took the boy to see the Spirit of St. Louis at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., last year. Arriving early, the Lindbergh family members were invited to ride in a cherry picker and get a close look at the famed aircraft, which hangs from the ceiling next to the first Wright Brothers airplane, close by the Apollo 11 space capsule. Running her hand across the skin, of her father's plane for the first time, Reeve found herself moved to tears.

"Oh, Ben, isn't this exciting?" she cried. "Yeah!" the boy agreed. "I've never been in a cherry picker before!"

Bruce Frankel
Ron Arias in Hollywood and Eric Francis in St. Johnsbury, Vt.

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