So having established that I had little interest in the rise of American aviation, but that wrapped around an interesting and controversial life I could be tempted, I embarked on The Flight of the Century - Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of American Aviation by Thomas Kessner (published today by Oxford University Press) with an open mind and a huge and vacant vault in the old knowledge bank ready to be filled.
In which case I couldn't have chosen a better and more balanced account because Thomas Kessner prioritises his material carefully assigning a mere three pages to the event that could have spun the book out to a thousand pages, the kidnap and subsequent murder of Charles and Anne Lindbergh's son Charles Junior, thus bringing the book home in a very readable and completely fascinating 340 pages, and a read that got me out of any clearing up/ housework/ ironing for the three days that I was reading it...sorry, he's just taken off, can't hang about.
Any voyeuristic notions into the digging of the dirt were confounded but ultimately not disappointed as throughout the book Thomas Kessner offers rational and well-argued evidence for the rise and fall of this great American hero.
The fall from grace came with the education-poor but experience-rich Charles Lindbergh's increasingly Fascist leanings which toppled into outright support for Hitler during the Second World War, and even I could sense the distress that this must have caused the American nation, who having lionised him then had to somehow distance themselves from their hero. Thomas Kessner admirably charts the rise of this astonishing young man, hoisted somewhat unwillingly onto the pedestal following an epic feat of endurance so in keeping with his character traits that, on reflection it comes as little surprise that Lindbergh made that solo first airborne crossing from America to Paris on May 20th 1927.
The book held me completely in its thrall apart from a couple of interludes, when the aviation industry detail lost my interest very briefly which was more than compensated for by the Lindbergh content, as the barnstorming aerial stuntman who had diverted his energies into helping to organise a fledgling airmail post service across the US, set his sights on the greatest challenge.The attrition rate was high for the postal aviators, of forty or so pilots over thirty were killed flying poorly maintained and obsolete planes.
Diversion from flight path ::
It all reminded me of the last-minute package holiday to Yugoslavia that a student-nursing friend and I had bought for £48 in 1973 from someone who couldn't go.
We were flying from Luton Airport with that thankfully now obsolete company Court Line and, as we climbed the steps into our bright pink aeroplane to be greeted by a flight attendant clad in Mary Quant designer uniform, were quite (verging on very) distressed to see the words Royal Mail clearly visible beneath the plane's luminous new livery, whilst happy (sort of) to find ourselves seated next to four trainee Catholic priests headed for the same holiday as us (another story best left untold).
Back on flight path :: Raised in a dysfunctional family and torn between unreconciled parents, Charles Lindbergh seemed to take limited emotional coping strategies into adulthood but countless other practical skills that would serve him well for the immediate task in hand. When the $20,000 prize was offered for the first flight from New York to Paris it was inevitable it would eventually be chocks away for Spirit of St Louis and this self-reliant, obsessive and reserved young man.
The competition was fierce, aviation still very much in its infancy, fraught with danger and with an embryonic misunderstanding of the technical know-how required to get a heavy lump of machinery airborne.
The French airmen Nungesser and Coli, immortalised on a commemorative stamp (yes, one in my old stamp album) had died in their attempt to fly from Paris to New York in early May 1927 and unsurprisingly Lindbergh's main US competition for the prize failed to make it off the runway, thanks in no small part to the fitted kitchen and luxury sofas installed on the aircraft to make the Atlantic crossing that little bit more bearable.
Lindbergh, in contrast,
'changed the competition from a tawdry contest over money and personal pride into something nobler'
shaving every extra ounce of weight from his plane and its contents,even trimming the edges off his charts and probably taking laxatives the night before the flight.
Sorry I made that bit up, but it seems likely given that he sat perched in his flying fuel tank halfway across the Atlantic (and you're right he couldn't see out of the front) anguishing over the weight of a lump of mud that had become attached to the fuselage during take off.
The account of the build up to the departure and then the flight itself is surprisingly moving and had me reading late into the night, spell-binding Boy's Own stuff that gripped the entire world at a time when the only heroes available were those forged in the crucible of battle. Charles Lindbergh emerged in that deeply scarred post-Great War period when the futility of the Jazz Age was at its height and the search for something more meaningful was becoming increasingly urgent, the world needed a new kind of peace-time hero and Charles Lindbergh was to be the one.
Mobbed by a crowd of 100,000 when he arrived at Le Bourget airport in Paris on the night of May 21st 1927, after his mammoth 33hrs 30mins 29.8secs flight, and with bits of Spirit of St Louis pulled off for souvenirs (wonder where those are now) things were apparently even worse when Lindbergh headed to the UK a few days later to be met with even more adulation. Croydon Airport had never seen the like before or since apparently.
Arriving in Paris Lindbergh was famously offered a chair to sit on which he politely declined having been doing little else for almost a day and a half.
What followed was the birth of celebrity almost as we know it. Plagued by the press, every move, every word followed and analysed and the denouement entirely predictable for a young man (Lindbergh just 25yrs old) whose single-mindedness had suited him admirably for feats of endurance but left him inflexible and ill-equipped to cope with the immediate demands of fame and adulation, and when it came to marriage and children... oh dear.
So there you have it, and I've barely scraped the surface of the book with this account but am now a burgeoning expert on all things aeronautical and Lindberghian and what an astonishing reading experience this has been, and I have also spent some pleasurable time reading this Lindbergh website, and this page in particular for fascinating Lindbergh encounters.
I am now very intrigued by the seemingly acquiescent figure (in Thomas Kessner's account) of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and have snapped up the five volumes of her diaries and letters (thank you for the recommend in comments last week) as well as some of her other writing (said to be sentimental but I'm keen to read) and a biography to find out more.
Meanwhile, as aeronautical mania raged across the US, Charles Lindbergh devoted much time and energy to promoting the cause, flying Spirit of St Louis around every state and eating sixty nine formal dinners along the way; the hero-worship grew to immense proportions and one can only be worried for the babies given the strange names as a result.
I wonder how little Aerogene fared in her later life.