"...living in dreams of yesterday, we find ourselves still dreaming of impossible future conquests..."
For more than a day the world held its breath...and then the small plane was sighted over Ireland.
Twenty-seven hours after he had left Roosevelt Field in New York—alone, in the Spirit of St. Louis—word quickly spread from continent to continent that Charles A. Lindbergh had survived the most perilous leg of his journey—the fifteen-hour crossing of the Atlantic. He had to endure but a few more hours before reaching his destination, Paris. Anxiety yielded to anticipation.
The American Ambassador to France, Myron T. Herrick, went to St. Cloud after lunch that Saturday to watch the Franco-American team-tennis matches. When he took his seat in the front row, five thousand fans cheered. During the course of the afternoon, people in the stands heard newsboys shouting the headlines of their éditions spéciales, announcing Lindbergh's expected arrival that night. In the middle of the match, Herrick received a telegram—confirmation that Lindbergh had passed over Valencia in Ireland. All eyes were on the Ambassador as he hastily left courtside, convincing most of the spectators that their prayers were being answered. Before the match had ended, the stands began to empty.
Herrick rushed back to his residence in Paris, ate a quick dinner at 6:30, then left for the airfield at Le Bourget, to the northeast of the city. "It was a good thing we did not delay another quarter of an hour," Herrick recalled, "for crowds were already collecting along the road and in a short time passage was almost impossible."
The boulevards were jammed with cars ten abreast. Passengers poked their heads through the sliding roof panels of the Parisian taxis, greeting each other in jubilation. "Everyone had acquired a bottle of something and, inasmuch as the traffic moved very slowly," one reveler recalled of that night in 1927, "bottles were passed from cab to cab celebrating the earthshaking achievement." A mile from the airfield, the flow of traffic came to a standstill.
Once the radio announced that Lindbergh had flown over southern England, mobs formed in the heart of Paris. Thirty thousand people flocked toward the Place de l'Opéra, where illuminated advertising signs flashed news bulletins. Over the next few hours, the crowds spilled into the Boulevard Poissonière—until it became unpassable—where they expected to find the most reliable accounts of Lindbergh's progress posted in front of the Paris Matin offices. "Not since the armistice of 1918," observed one reporter, "has Paris witnessed a downright demonstration of popular enthusiasm and excitement equal to that displayed by the throngs flocking to the boulevards for news of the American flier, whose personality has captured the hearts of the Parisian multitude."
Between updates, people waited in anxious silence. Two French fliers—Nungesser and Coli—had not been heard from in the two weeks since their attempt to fly nonstop from Paris to New York; and their disappearance weighed heavily on the Parisians' minds. Many muttered about the impossibility of accomplishing a nonstop transatlantic crossing, especially alone. Periodically, whispers rustled through the crowd, rumors that Lindbergh had been forced down. After a long silence, a Frenchwoman, dressed in mourning and sitting in a big limousine, wiped away tears of worry. Another woman, selling newspapers, approached her, fighting back her own tears. "You're right to feel so, madame," she said. "In such things there is no nationality—he's some mother's son."
Close to nine o'clock, letters four feet tall flashed onto one of the advertising boards. "The crowds grew still, the waiters frozen in place between the café tables," one witness remembered. "All were watching. Traffic stopped. Then came the cheering message 'Lindbergh sighted over Cherbourg and the coast of Normandy.' " The crowd burst into bravos. Strangers patted each other on the back and shook hands. Moments later, Paris Matin posted a bulletin in front of its building, confirming the sighting; and bystanders chanted "Vive Lindbergh!" and "Vive I'Américain!" The next hour brought more good news from Deauville, and then Louviers. New arrivals onto the scene all asked the same question: "Est-il arrivé?"
Fifteen thousand others gravitated toward the Étoile, filling the city block that surrounded a hotel because they assumed Lindbergh would be spending the night there. Many too impatient to stand around in town suddenly decided to witness the arrival. Students from the Sorbonne jammed into buses and subways. Thousands more grabbed whatever conveyance remained available, until more than ten thousand cars filled the roads between the city and Le Bourget. Before long, 150,000 people had gathered at the airfield.
A little before ten o'clock, the excited crowd at Le Bourget heard an approaching engine and fell silent. A plane burst through the clouds and landed; but it turned out to be the London Express. Minutes later, as a cool wind blew the stars into view, another roar ripped the air, this time a plane from Strasbourg. Red and gold and green rockets flared overhead, while acetylene searchlights scanned the dark sky. The crowd became restless standing in the chill. Then, "suddenly unmistakably the sound of an aeroplane...and then to our left a white flash against the black night...and another flash (like a shark darting through water)," recalled Harry Crosby—the American expatriate publisher—who was among the enthusiastic onlookers. "Then nothing. No sound. Suspense. And again a sound, this time somewhere off towards the right. And is it some belated plane or is it Lindbergh? Then sharp swift in the gold glare of the searchlights a small white hawk of a plane swoops hawk-like down and across the field—C'est lui Lindbergh. LINDBERGH!"
On May 21, 1927, at 10:24 P.M., the Spirit of St. Louis landed—having flown 3,614 miles from New York, nonstop, in thirty-three hours, thirty minutes, and thirty seconds. And in that instant, everything changed—for both the pilot and the planet.
There was no holding the one hundred fifty thousand people back. Looking out the side of his plane and into the glare of lights, Lindbergh could see only that the entire field ahead was "covered with running figures!" With decades of hindsight, the woman Lindbergh would marry came to understand what that melee actually signified. "Fame—Opportunity—Wealth—and also tragedy & loneliness & frustration rushed at him in those running figures on the field at Le Bourget," she would later write. "And he is so innocent & unaware."
Lindbergh's arrival in Paris became the defining moment of his life, that event on which all his future actions hinged—as though they were but a predestined series of equal but opposite reactions, fraught with irony. Just as inevitable, every event in Lindbergh's first twenty-five years seemed to have conspired in propelling him to Paris that night. As the only child of woefully ill-matched parents, he had tuned out years of discord by withdrawing. He had emerged from his itinerant and isolated adolescence virtually friendless and self-absorbed. A scion of resourceful immigrants, he had grown up a practical dreamer, believing there was nothing he could not do. A distracted student, he had dropped out of college to learn to fly airplanes; and after indulging in the footloose life of barnstorming, he had been drawn to the military. The Army had not only improved his aviation skills but also brought precision to his thinking. He had left the air corps to fly one of the first airmail routes, subjecting himself to some of the roughest weather in the country. Restless, he had lusted for greater challenges, for adventure.
In the spring of 1927, Lindbergh had been too consumed by what he called "the single objective of landing my plane at Paris" to have considered its aftermath. "To plan beyond that had seemed an act of arrogance I could not afford," he would later write. Even if he had thought farther ahead, however, he could never have predicted the unprecedented global response to his arrival.
By that year, radio, telephones, radiographs, and the Bartlane Cable Process could transmit images and voices around the world within seconds. What was more, motion pictures had just mastered the synchronization of sound, allowing dramatic moments to be preserved in all their glory and distributed worldwide. For the first time all of civilization could share as one the sights and sounds of an event—almost instantaneously and simultaneously. And in this unusually good-looking, young aviator—of apparently impeccable character—the new technology found its first superstar.
The reception in Paris was only a harbinger of the unprecedented worship people would pay Lindbergh for years. Without either belittling or aggrandizing the importance of his flight, he considered it part of the continuum of human endeavor, and that he was, after all, only a man. The public saw more than that. Indeed, Harry Crosby felt that the stampede at Le Bourget that night represented nothing less than the start of a new religious movement—"as if all the hands in the world are...trying to touch the new Christ and that the new Cross is the Plane." Universally admired, Charles Lindbergh became the most celebrated living person ever to walk the earth.
For several years Lindbergh had lived according to one of the basic laws of aerodynamics—the need to maintain balance. And so, in those figures running toward him, Lindbergh immediately saw inevitable repercussions. At first he feared for his physical safety; over the next few months he worried about his soul. He instinctively knew that submitting himself to the idolatry of the public could strip him of his very identity; and the only preventive he could see was to maintain his privacy. That reluctance to offer himself to the public only increased its desire to possess him—the first of many paradoxes he would encounter in his lifelong effort to restore equilibrium to his world.
"No man before me had commanded such freedom of movement over earth," Lindbergh would write of his historic flight. Ironically, that freedom would be denied him thereafter on land. Both whetting and sating the public's appetite for every morsel about him, the press broke every rule of professional ethics in covering Lindbergh. They often ran with unverified stories, sometimes stories they had made up, transforming him into a character worthy of the Arabian Nights. Reporters stalked him constantly—almost fatally on several occasions—making him their first human quarry, stripping him of his rights to privacy as no public figure had ever been before. Over the century, others would reach this new stratum of celebrity.
The unwanted fame all but guaranteed an isolated adulthood. And, indeed, Lindbergh spent the rest of his life in flight, searching for islands of tranquility. Early on, he was was lucky enough to meet Anne Morrow, Ambassador Dwight Morrow's shy daughter, who craved solitude as much as he did. They fell in love and married. Their "storybook romance," as the press always presented it, was, in fact, a complex case history of control and repression, filled with joy and passion and grief and rage. He scourged his wife into becoming an independent woman; and, in so doing, he helped create an important feminist voice—a popular diarist who also wrote one of the most beloved volumes of the century, and another that was one of the most despised.
The Lindberghs' love story had a tragic second act. His fame and wealth cost them their firstborn child. Under melodramatic conditions, Lindbergh authorized payment of a large ransom to a mysterious man in a graveyard; but he did not get his son in return. The subsequent investigation of the kidnapping uncovered only circumstantial evidence; and the man accused of killing "the Lindbergh Baby" never confessed—thus condemning the "Crime of the Century" to eternal debate. Because the victim's father was so celebrated, the case entered the annals of history, and laws were changed in Lindbergh's name. The media circus that accompanied what veteran courtwatchers still refer to as the "Trial of the Century" forever affected trial coverage in the United States. The subsequent flood of sympathy for Lindbergh only enhanced his public profile, making him further prey for the media as well as other criminals and maniacs. In fear and disgust, he moved to Europe, where for a time he became one of America's most effective unofficial ambassadors. Several visits to Germany in the 1930s—during which he inspected the Luftwaffe and also received a medal from Hitler—called his politics into question. He returned to the United States to warn the nation of Germany's insuperable strength in the impending European war, then to spearhead the American isolationist movement. As the leading spokesman for the controversial organization known as America First, he preached his beliefs with messianic fervor, incurring the wrath of many, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. By December 7, 1941, many Americans considered him nothing short of satanic—not just a defeatist but an anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi traitor.
Lindbergh had spent most of his adult life establishing the role of aviation in war and peace, proving himself one of the prime movers in the aviation industry. But because of his noninterventionist stance, Roosevelt refused to allow Lindbergh to fly after Pearl Harbor with the very air force he had helped modernize. He found other ways to serve. As a test pilot in private industry, he developed techniques that increased both the altitude and range of several planes in America's fleet, saving countless lives. The military looked the other way as Lindbergh insisted on engaging in combat missions in the South Pacific; but his failure to condemn Nazi Germany before World War II haunted his reputation for the rest of his life.
One of his greatest services to his country proved to be in helping launch the space program. As the first American airman to exhibit "the right stuff," Lindbergh inspired his country's first astronauts by sheer example. But more than that, he was—unknown to the public—the man most responsible for securing the funding that underwrote the research of Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the inventor of the modern rocket. A friend of the first man to fly an airplane, Lindbergh lived long enough in a fast-moving world to befriend the first man to walk on the moon.
In time, Lindbergh came to believe the long-range effects of his flight to Paris were more harmful than beneficial. As civilization encroached upon wilderness in the world he helped shrink, he turned his back on aviation and fought to protect the environment. He rededicated his life to rescuing nearly extinct animals and to preserving wilderness areas. For years this college dropout advanced other sciences as well, performing medical research that would help make organ transplants possible. He made extraordinary archaeological and anthropological discoveries as well. A foundation would later be established in Lindbergh's name that offers grants of $10,580—the cost of the Spirit of St. Louis—for projects that further his vision of "balance between technological advancement and preservation of our human and natural environment."
Lindbergh believed all the elements of the earth and heavens are connected, through space and time. The configurations of molecules in each moment help create the next. Thus he considered his defining moment just another step in the development of aviation and exploration—a summit built on all those that preceded it and a springboard to all those that would follow. Only by looking back, Lindbergh believed, could mankind move forward. "In some future incarnation from our life stream," he wrote in later years, "we may understand the reason for our existence in forms of earthly life."
In few people were the souls of one's forbears so apparent as they were in Charles Lindbergh. As a result of this transmigration, Lindbergh believed the flight that ended at Le Bourget one night in May 1927 originated much farther back than thirty-three and a half hours prior at Roosevelt Field. It started with some Norsemen—infused with Viking spirit—generations long before that.