The graceful, angular man in the dark beret would open the door to his blue Volkswagen Beetle, arise to peer in each direction, and then walk up the steps to the home. He returned here year after year for two decades.
He was there to visit his children. He had fled from America as he had done for most of his life. His sojourns were an escape from a heroic life he seemed to have craved and created before it all but consumed him.
There were two houses in Germany – in both Munich and Baden-Baden – and he built another in Grimisuat, Switzerland. Three homes. Three families. Three mothers (two of them sisters) and their seven children lived in those three houses. All seven were his.
Even now they bear his features. They were his polygamous secret. He doted on the children; and they adored him. They called him “C.” It was the signature on all of his love letters to their mothers. But these families were the ultimate, deepest secret of a remarkable life lived both in a searing spotlight and then in the shadows of subterfuge.
He was the 20th century’s enigmatic holder of secrets, most of which he wrapped around his soul and took with him to his death in 1972. The 15 biographers whose books attempted but largely failed to uncover him tried their best, but heremained a phantom even to the end. Only time had the power to reveal who he was. He could not. But the details of his life gave us little understanding. We still do not know for sure. Who was he? We only thought we knew.
But we didn’t. To the end, Charles Augustus Lindbergh remained “The Lone Eagle.”
Until Rudolf Schröck’s 2005 biography, “The Double Life of Charles Lindbergh” revealed the doppelganger duplicity of “Lucky Lindy,” the most famous flying adventurer in American history had largely controlled the story of his life.
He was the world’s first all-encompassing media star. Before Lindy, there never had been an American as famous, as exalted, or as adored as he was. Controlling both life and fame were nearly fetishes for Lindbergh. He was freakishly addicted to organization and determined the last drop of gas needed aboard his Spirit of St. Louis transatlantic crossing of 1927. He ordained specific instructions for his deathbed ritual. Only Anne Morrow Lindbergh, his wife and mother of his six “revealed” children, could be present, and she should kiss him just after his last breath, not before. She complied.
His interviews of the time are mostly perfunctory banalities. But he eventually exposed his sophisticated feelings and philosophies in six mostly autobiographical books, notably in the “Spirit of St. Louis”, the story of his flight and the name of his place. But Lindbergh’s books hide more than they reveal.
Though beloved as a swashbuckling hero and most eligible bachelor in the world, he was Puritan, controlling of others, and sternly aloof. He had no talent for politics if it involved compromise. He was a man of unbendable perceptions and rules, except those that applied to his own personal conduct.
He was a devotee of eugenics, the discredited theory of upgrading humanity with carefully controlled mating rules. He even acknowledged that he found Morrow, the daughter of America’s ambassador to Mexico, on an organized “wife-seeking tour.” He was only 25 and a largely unknown U.S. Mail pilot when he seized the world’s heart by skimming solo across the Atlantic. Pilots regularly died trying. There was prize money available to the first conqueror of the 3,600 miles, but much more than that, the feat would confer immortality.
It was very clear that Lindbergh wanted to be famous. He had professional “handlers” even before the fight from Roosevelt Field on Long Island to Paris, where 300,000 frenzied fans awaited his triumph. It was a technological stunt in an age when adventures seized American imagination. The world wanted “Lucky Lindy” to make it. It craved a hero, and Lindbergh delivered. The TIME Magazine cover story that hailed him as the publication’s first “Man of the Year,” saw “Slim” this way:
A million people lined the streets of New York City on the morning “Lucky Lindy” returned to America. How we loved him, and we had not loved a citizen quite so well in our entire history.
It was frenzied adoration, and the nation would not expend such emotional energy again until the day World War II ended in 1945. For the first time, one event and one human would become a cultural vortex. Lindbergh would never again find the comfort of anonymity in America.
Capitalism, media, and national adoration would crash into one another like meteors. Now we know how media stars are born inside marketing novas, but that experience was largely unknown in 1927. It was the first year that Disney licensed the image of Mickey Mouse. Everything is branded now, but 1927 was the age of ingénues.
Lindbergh gave us modernity. He was not only a darling of movie newsreels, radio, and print, the world was awash in Lindberghiana. Collectors now estimate a million products were launched in his name. He was the most-photographed person of the century, and he used his fame to become the nation’s official ambassador for airpower. He founded Trans World Airlines. He was rich.
The Minnesota farm kid seemed to have gained control of the beast. But all that ended on March 1, 1932. His toddler son was kidnapped from the family’s new home in Hopewell, N.J. Thus began what instantly became the most sensational news story of the 20th century, culminating in 1936 with the electric-chair execution of Bruno Hauptmann. It was described by journalist H.L. Mencken, as “... the biggest story since the resurrection.”
Media of the day hounded him. Lindbergh bought fame with his daring, but would never again escape it. Modern media was aflame with obsession, and Lucky Lindy was the perfect fuel for the furnace. It was an unannounced, unplanned war for which he never forgave them. For four years, radio – far more than newspapers – cooked up a daily diet of news and sensationalism. The Lindbergh baby story became the first great electronic media sensation in history.
Lindbergh despised the intrusion. He demanded privacy and was ignored. The family fled the publicity into "voluntary exile" in Europe. They sailed in secrecy from New York under assumed names in late December 1935 to “seek a safe, secluded residence away from the tremendous public hysteria” in America. They did not return until April 1939.
Author Reeve Lindbergh is the last child of Charles and Anne Morrow. She’s 68 now. Her memoirs about growing up inside the lush, but tense, Lindbergh cocoon are revealing and sad. She went privately to visit her European siblings, if only to calm her heart. It was a joyous reconciliation.
She wrote: “When the story about the secret families turned out to be true, I became furiously angry, as angry as I have ever been in my life. I was not angry with my ‘new,’ living relatives, no more to blame for the circumstances of their birth than I am, but with my long dead father. I raged against his duplicitous character, his personal conduct, the years of deception and hypocrisy.
“The story of the secret families had me raging, thinking, writing, and trying to be honest for about a month. Then something changed. On September 4, 2003, I wrote only one sentence in my journal: “God help me, I’m beginning to get used to this!” …
“I am watching so many of my long-held assumptions dissolve into a new reality, like dreams in daylight: the assumption that my parents had a complex, but traditionally ‘faithful’ marriage; the assumption that my father always wandered the world alone and unloved, a kind of roving monk, until he came home to us; the assumption that my father was by his very nature unable to deceive.
“I still miss him, sometimes, and still remember him in detail, but the detail is less sharp now. Of all the people I have known and loved, my father is the one I found most impenetrable.”
Lindbergh proved that luck is not eternal, and even a man of history and greatness can be defeated by fate.
We still do not know who he was. His heart remains a mystery. But that seems oddly fitting. Even at the very end, Lucky Lindy chose to fly alone.
David Rutter is the former senior editor at five newspapers, including the Lake County News-Sun. He is the editorial director at Quintessential Media Group.