ANNE MORROW LINDBERGH
By Susan Hertog
Doubleday. 561 pp. $30
Reviewed by Susan Isaacs
No wonder author Susan Hertog was drawn to her subject: The first part of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's life is like a fairy tale -- not quite "Cinderella" because there were no ashes. This pampered daughter of an American financier and diplomat wrote pretty poems at Miss Chapin's and Smith. Still, she was the little brown sparrow to her older sister's fair swan. She was not the belle of any ball; rather, she was bookish and sensitive. She won prizes for her poetry (though some might assess her work as more typical of the darling of the high school literary magazine than of a mature artist). But most of all, Anne Morrow came into the public eye and stayed there as its fairy tale princess because she won the heart of Charles Lindbergh, the handsome young aviator whose daring, brilliantly publicized solo flight from Long Island to Paris made him prince of all the world.
If all Mrs. Lindbergh had done was live happily ever after and fly as her husband's copilot, she would not have attracted the attention of a biographer as ambitious as Hertog. However, she became a published writer as well -- putting her diaries and letters between covers, cataloguing her travels with Charles, expounding her personal philosophy. Yet even that accomplishment would not have merited her so much if it had not been for the darkness that descended on this golden couple after their 1929 wedding.
The very celebrity Charles Lindbergh sought in order to promote air travel and commerce put the couple and their infant son, Charles Jr., in a light that attracted all the creeps and crawlers drawn to public luminaries. Hertog writes:
"The baby was the object of so much public interest that Anne's anxiety about his safety was becoming ever more intense. . . . The exact location, the amount of acreage, along with the dimensions of the [Lindbergh] house, were printed in newspapers around the country. Reporters had even tracked them to their rented farmhouse. And the more the public learned, the more insatiable it grew. Strangers would call them at home in Princeton and demand to see the baby. One woman said `she must see that baby -- life or death.' "
Anne Morrow Lindbergh had to bear not only the kidnapping and murder of 20-month-old Charlie but also having to testify at the trial of Bruno Hauptmann. To escape from the nightmare of relentless public notice at home, the couple fled to England and France.
Their arrival in Europe coincided with the rise of fascism. It was not long before the couple was being received warmly by members of the Nazi ruling class, such as Goering. By the time they returned to America in 1939, Charles was the leading spokesman not merely for the America First isolationist movement but also for the sort of racism -- "We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only as long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races" -- that today is mostly consigned to white supremacist Web sites. And Anne Morrow Lindbergh echoed his thoughts in her own published work. Hertog observes about her subject, "Hitler isn't evil, she wrote, or at least no more evil than the rest of us. He is the `embittered spirit of a strong and humiliated people.' Russia, not Germany, is the real threat. Its weak and spiritless `hordes,' mindlessly tied to a false vision of equality that breeds decadence and mediocrity, will destroy not only Germany but all the people of Europe. Let the natural process of war among nations smother the weak. Why destroy everything we value in Western civilization for a democratic principle that has proven itself flawed?"
The question is not merely how well has first-time author Susan Hertog captured her subject but whether it is worth a reader's time to once again examine Anne Morrow Lindbergh's life. A. Scott Berg's masterfully written and authoritative Lindbergh not only captures Mister but does a fine job on the Missus as well. Reeve Lindbergh, the couple's youngest child, offers a poignant, personal and surprisingly tough-minded assessment in her memoir Under a Wing. Earlier in the decade, Dorothy Herrmann came out with Anne Morrow Lindbergh: A Gift for Life. There was also a first-rate TV biography on PBS's "The American Experience." And finally, there is the work of Anne Morrow Lindbergh herself: her accounts of her flights and explorations with her husband; her diaries and letters as in Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, her personal writings from 1929 to 1932; as well as her views on feminism, marriage and nature in such later books as Gift From the Sea (1950).
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, like its subject, is sometimes praiseworthy and sometimes muddled. Hertog's account of Anne and Charles's courtship is a lovely balance of the personal and public aspects of their romance. Her description of their embrace of pseudo-scientific racist doctrine is chilling. She also does well at depicting Anne Morrow Lindbergh's egregious self-effacement and her willingness to stand by her man despite what her own intellect, honor and sense told her; these qualities are well-evoked and well-documented.
Nevertheless, many parts of the biography do not hold a reader's interest. Unless someone has never come across the basic outline of the Lindbergh kidnapping, Hertog's summary of the crime and trial offers both too much and too little. It turns into a tedious mini-documentary. No character, not even the most minor, seems to be left out. Thus, the book loses its focus, and the reader loses out on the anguish and valor (and occasional bizarre perkiness) that Anne Lindbergh allowed the world to see in her letters and diaries. Further, although the author provides an explanation of the psychodynamics of the relationship between Anne and Charles and Anne and her children, her book is more Tell than Show. The texture, the what-was-it-actually-like? nature of these connections, is missing.
This biography, then, will appeal mainly to those who cannot get enough of the Lindbergh life and legend. For the rest of us, there is his writing (The Spirit of St. Louis), hers, and -- more objective -- A. Scott Berg's classic Lindbergh.
Susan Isaacs's most recent works are the novel "Red, White and Blue" and "Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen."