Since becoming friends with Jim Newton (1905—1999), one of Charles Lindbergh’s closest friends, I have developed a fascination with Lindbergh. My first in-depth exposure to this man of ideas was an out-of-print book, Of Flight And Life (1948), which Jim had entrusted to me (even though it was personally autographed to him by the famous aviator, and hence, quite valuable).
In it Lindbergh said: “I have seen the science I worshiped, and the aircraft I loved, destroying the civilization I expected them to serve.” Unintended consequences. Second thoughts. 20-20 hindsight. As a slow learner myself, I can relate and learn a lot from this man’s experiences.
Charles Augustus Lindbergh (1902–1974) was a very complicated man, even though the world has preferred to think of him in very simplistic shorthand. No matter what he accomplished in his 72 years of life, he complained, “The old ladies keep flying me to Paris.” Their one-dimensional view saw him only as the world’s most famous aviator; but he took equal pride in being an author, inventor, environmentalist, explorer, military officer, and social activist.
His father was Charles August Lindbergh, a Little Falls MN lawyer, and Minnesota’s Sixth District Congressman from 1907-1917. Like his son two decades later with a different conflict, he was one of the few members of Congress who tried to prevent America’s entry into the First World War. His mother, Evangeline Lodge Land, was a chemistry teacher from Detroit and a graduate of the University of Michigan. Although he visited his father in Washington DC frequently, Lindbergh spent most of his first 18 years in Little Falls.
After completing high school in Little Falls in 1918 and spending another two years running the farm, Lindbergh enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1920. During his second year of studying engineering there, he succumbed to the long-felt attraction of flight and entered a Lincoln NE flying school in 1922. He first served as a mechanic, wingwalker, and parachute jumper. Then, after purchasing a war surplus Jenny trainer in 1923, he made his first solo flight and barnstormed himself for about a year. For Lindbergh, flight represented everything he loved: the outdoors, adventure and mechanics.
In 1924, Lindbergh entered a US Army flying school at San Antonio TX and graduated first in his class the following year. In 1926 he became the first air mail pilot between Chicago IL and St. Louis MO. While in St. Louis and looking for another challenge, he convinced a group of businessmen to back him in an attempt to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize which had been offered since 1919 for the first non-stop flight between New York and Paris.
Lindbergh helped design a monoplane, built by Ryan Airlines of San Diego CA, in which he would make his solo attempt. The plane was named the Spirit of St. Louis.
On the morning of May 20, 1927, Lindbergh took off alone from Long Island to Paris, carrying five sandwiches, water, maps and charts, and a limited number of other items he deemed absolutely necessary. He decided against carrying a parachute and radio in favor of more gasoline. On May 21st, 33½ hours later, Lindbergh set the Spirit of St. Louis down at Le Bourget Field near Paris. He had flown over 3,600 miles and became the first to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic.
Overnight, at just 25 years of age, Lindbergh became an international hero—probably the most famous and most admired man in the world. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the first-ever Distinguished Flying Cross by the US government, and received high honors from many other countries. He and the Spirit of St. Louis were summoned home to the US by President Coolidge aboard a navy cruiser. After a ticker-tape parade and other initial accolades, Lindbergh made an 82-city US tour in the Spirit of St. Louis to promote the commercialization of aviation.
Late in 1927, Lindbergh flew to a number of Latin American countries as a goodwill ambassador for the US government. While in Mexico, he met Anne Spencer Morrow, daughter of the American ambassador. The two were married in 1929 at the Morrow estate in New Jersey.
Constantly pursued by the media, the couple could only find privacy in the air. In 1930 Lindbergh taught Anne to fly. She became the first woman in America to earn a glider pilot’s license and later that year she earned her pilot’s license. During the next few years, Anne was not only his wife, but his co-pilot, radio operator, and navigator.
Although he was nicknamed “Slim” by his original flying buddies, he despised all subsequent nicknames such as “Lucky Lindy” and “The Lone Eagle,” which were conferred upon him by the media which he came to despise. His wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “He never wanted to be regarded as a hero or leader, and he never had political ambitions.”
An intensely private man when it came to his family, Charles Lindbergh became exasperated by the unrelenting press and public attention focused on them in the wake of the 1932 kidnapping of his first son, Charles Jr., and the trial of the kidnapper and murderer Bruno Hauptmann. Particularly concerned for the physical safety of their then three-year-old second son, Jon, by late 1935, the Lindberghs secretly came to the decision to go into voluntary exile in England, and later, in France.
From the mid-30s, Lindbergh worked at New York’s Rockefeller Institute with noted vascular surgeon and organ transplant researcher Dr. Alexis Carrel on the development of the “perfusion pump,” which allowed living organs to exist outside the body during surgery. It was, in fact, named the “Model T Pump,” in obvious reference to Henry Ford’s game-changing automobile. The advance is said to have been a crucial step in the development of open-heart surgery and organ transplants, and to have laid the groundwork for the artificial heart, which became a reality decades later.
Carrel and Lindbergh co-authored a book called The Culture of Organs in 1938, and both Carrel and Lindbergh appeared on the cover of Time magazine that same year. For much of his life, Carrel and his wife spent their summers on the Ile Saint-Gildas, which they owned. After the Lindberghs moved to Europe, Carrel persuaded Lindbergh to buy a neighboring island, Ile Illiec, where the Lindberghs often resided in the late 1930s.
During the 1930s, Lindbergh inspected the status of aviation in European countries. At the request of Truman Smith, the US Berlin military attaché (and later, personal adviser to General George C. Marshall), beginning in 1936 Lindbergh made five inspection trips to the German aircraft industry and the Luftwaffe. Senior Luftwaffe officers discussed air tactics and operations with Lindbergh; he was even allowed to fly a Messerschmidt Bf-109. The trips produced valuable intelligence, but were misinterpreted by the American media.
Lindbergh’s public opposition to Roosevelt’s war policies, among other things, fueled suspicions that he was a Nazi sympathizer and disloyal to his country. Nothing was further from the truth. Accepting a medal from Hermann Göring (even though the gesture had been arranged by the US State Department) only added fuel to the fire. Ann Lindbergh sagely called the medal “that Albatross.” Truman Smith always maintained that Lindbergh’s visits provided valuable intelligence and warned the US government of Germany’s air power so the US could strengthen its air capability, which it did. But Smith was rumored to be a defeatist and was disregarded.
At this point, Lindbergh opposed the voluntary entry of the US into the European war. He would have preferred that the Nazis and Soviets be left to duke it out between themselves. As a member of the America First organization, he tried using his fame to campaign against US involvement. But it backfired. Like a lot of Americans at the time, he was also an eugenicist, and he was therefore unfairly labelled a fascist and anti-Semite by the media. Criticism of his position led to his resigning his commission in the Army Air Corps Reserve. He gave up public speaking.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh went to work with Henry Ford on bomber production, and also served as a technical adviser and test pilot for United Aircraft (now United Technologies). Early in the war, he carried out high-altitude and lowered-body temperature experiments at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN in preparation for wartime service as a high-altitude test pilot.
Later, as a civilian adviser in the Pacific theater, he developed means to conserve fuel and increase the range of fighter planes, thus saving many lives, and actually flew 50 combat missions. In 1954, Lindbergh was re-commissioned in the Air Force Reserve and appointed a brigadier general by President Eisenhower.
Throughout much of his life, Lindbergh was involved in commercial and military aviation. He also championed the early rocket research of Robert Goddard, securing support for his experiments from the Guggenheim family. Lindbergh also chaired the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was a predecessor to NASA.
A prolific writer, Lindbergh authored seven books including Autobiography of Values, which was published posthumously. He is best known for the 1954 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Spirit of St. Louis.
Lindbergh’s roots in the Upper Mississippi country of northern Minnesota led to his passion for aviation when, as a young boy, he first heard an airplane fly over their home. But those many rural years also ignited the ember of environmental preservation.
By the early 1960s, Lindbergh’s concern for the preservation of the environment became greater than his desire for privacy. In the early 1960s, he began working to help primitive Philippine and African tribes, campaigned to protect endangered species like humpback and blue whales, and supported the establishment of a national park. His speeches and writings later in life emphasized his love of technology and nature. His philosophy was that the survival and progress of mankind depends on a balance between technological advancement and preservation of both the natural and human environment. He said that “all the achievements of mankind have value only to the extent that they preserve and improve the quality of life.”
In August 2003, almost three decades after his death of cancer on August 26, 1974 at his Maui HI home, three German siblings, Dyrk, Astrid, and David Hesshaimer made a startling announcement at a press conference in Munich: Charles Lindbergh was their father. Their mother was hat maker Brigitte Hesshaimer, who had lived in the small Bavarian town of Geretsried just south of Munich.
What’s more, they noted in a book they co-authored with a German journalist the following year, Lindbergh had also engaged in long-term relationships with two other German women with whom he had fathered four other children. Those women were Brigitte Hesshaimer’s sister, Mariette, a painter living in Grimisuat in the Swiss canton Valais with whom he had two children, and Valeska, an East Prussian aristocrat who was his private secretary in Europe and lived in Baden-Baden with whom he had two more children, a son born in 1959 and a daughter in 1961. All seven children had been born between 1958 and 1967.
As evidence, the three Hesshaimers, then ranging in age from 36 to 45, disclosed more than 100 love letters that the aviator had sent to their mother from the late 1950s until his death in 1974. A DNA test taken a few months later confirmed their assertion. This revelation turned out to be just one of many secrets that Lindbergh had kept from the world.
Ten days before he died, Lindbergh wrote letters from his hospital bed to each of his three European mistresses, imploring them to maintain the “utmost secrecy” about their relationships after his death. The three women (none of whom ever married) all managed to keep their affairs secret even from their children, who during his lifetime (and for almost a decade after), did not know the true identity of their father whom they had only known by the alias “Careu Kent” and seen only when he visited for a few days once or twice per year.
Astrid publicly disclosed who her brothers and her father were only after both Brigitte Hesshaimer and Anne Morrow Lindbergh had died.
In April 2008, Reeve Lindbergh, his youngest child with his wife Anne Lindbergh, published Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures, a book of essays that includes her learning the truth about her father’s secret European families and writing in her personal journal, “This story reflects absolutely Byzantine layers of deception on the part of our shared father. These children did not even know who he was! He used a pseudonym with them (To protect them, perhaps? To protect himself, absolutely!)” A year later, she traveled to Europe to meet all seven of her half siblings and understand an expanded meaning of family.
As much as I admire the man, I will not attempt to justify the deception. I will, however, say that Lindbergh was a man ahead of his time. Early last month, I read an article on “polyamory,” which seems to be a growing practice, thanks in large part to the looser sexual mores of the millennial generation. But for a man of Lindbergh’s generation, about the kindest thing a person can say about him is “complicated.”
It gives the nickname “Lucky Lindy” new meaning.
The image above is a 1927 trading card that was included in a collection that was given to us by reader Bill King for sale to benefit the King Brothers Trust (no relation). We are still trying to locate a buyer for the full collection, which features sports figures, movie stars, and other celebrities of the era. You can click on the image and view it larger.
If you are interested in buying this card—it is valued at $200—please contact me via the comment function of this website. If your contribution exceeds this amount, the trading card would make a great premium for making a tax-deductible contribution!
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