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Flight From Celebrity

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 1998; Page B1


    DESCRIPTION OF PHOTO Reeve Lindbergh tells about her family's life in her new memoir, "Under a Wing." (By Adam Pike Riesner for The Washington Post)

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt.—First you checked all the tires, the daughter explains, and all the gauges, and you got in, and your father sat in the passenger seat. This was suburban Connecticut, in 1961, and it was time for you to learn how to drive.

Next you took off the emergency brake about 20 times.

"I would just go, UUUNH," she says now, mimicking the sound of a teenager's impatient yank. "And he would say, 'No, no, that's not how you handle a machine.'" He wanted smooth but not jerky; accurate but not abrupt. She knew she would be there until she got it right.

They got through the lessons, as fathers and daughters do, though she did dent the left front fender on a stone wall. She finished growing up, left home, started driving cars of her own. Then, years later, not long after her father died, Reeve Lindbergh encountered the family Volkswagen again.

It was in Little Falls, Minn., at the Lindbergh Home and Historical Site. Charles Lindbergh had donated the car to the shrine his boyhood home had become, thinking it might be of some use around the place. Instead, as his daughter writes in her new memoir, "Under a Wing," the Minnesota Historical Society had placed the Lindberghs' old Beetle on display, carefully arranging her father's travel gear ("sleeping bag, air mattress, plastic water jug and sardine cans") around its drab interior. The idea, presumably, was to show star-struck visitors the peculiar way this American icon – who achieved immortality in 1927 by traversing the Atlantic alone in a custom-designed, single-engine monoplane – chose to move around the country when he wasn't airborne.

She noticed that the Volkswagen's fender was still dented.

You don't mess with history, after all.

Messing with history, though, is what Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh's youngest child has been doing all her life. She has no choice: So much of her own occurred before she was born.

"Read my book," her father would say when his children inquired about that astonishing solo flight from New York to Paris. "It's all in there." His feat, elegantly chronicled in "The Spirit of St. Louis," helped define the 20th century, not to mention the Lindbergh family. But he wouldn't talk about it.

He didn't talk about Reeve's lost brother, either, the first of six Lindbergh children, snatched from his crib and killed in 1932. "The crime of the century," the kidnapping was called. The boy's mother would sometimes speak of him, but Charles never did.

Nor did he talk to his daughter about his futile campaign to keep America out of World War II, a campaign that got him branded, deservedly or not, as a German sympathizer and an antisemite.

As a child, she did follow her mother's writing career, accepting the huge success of her 1955 book, "Gift From the Sea," "as a natural thing, no more than her due," and gnashing her teeth when "The Power of Positive Thinking" overtook it on the bestseller list. But Reeve, who came into the world in 1945, could never really know the shy, literary Smith graduate who was swept up in a life of adventure and international celebrity in the late 1920s, or the shell-shocked young mother she sees on film footage from her parents' most vulnerable moment.

They are "telling the reporters what their child eats for breakfast, in case somebody finds him," she wrote in her barely fictionalized 1992 novel, "The Names of the Mountains," which served as a kind of trial run for her memoir. "They are younger by far than I am now. I have never met this young couple, but I can almost feel his flesh and smell her perfume, I know them so well. And yet they are forever inside the projected image and I am forever outside of it."

The Lindbergh saga has been projected onto the American psyche for more than 70 years now. Charles Lindbergh didn't just help open the world to long-distance aviation, he became "the first modern media superstar," in the words of A. Scott Berg, his authorized biographer, whose book will also be published this month. His life changed utterly, in ways neither he nor anyone else could ever have imagined, when he landed in Paris on May 21, 1927.

Celebrity elevated him, assaulted him, threatened to destroy him. He would spend the rest of his days in a fierce struggle with his projected image, and he would win that struggle, at least in his jealously guarded private life. Yet for his children, as for the rest of the world, image and reality could easily blur.

Sitting in Radio City Music Hall one day, watching Jimmy Stewart re-create her father's flight onscreen, Reeve found herself terrified. She turned to her mother.

"Does he make it?" she asked.

Stalked From the Rooftops
We're used to it now, if not quite resigned: the hounding of princesses, the strip-searching of politicians, the endless public spectacle made of celebrated lives. But when it happened to Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, it was new enough to shock.

The assault started even before the Paris flight, with reporters bursting into the young aviator's New York hotel room unannounced and grilling his mother about his chances of being killed. Photographers obstructed his landing after one practice flight, and he broke his tail skid avoiding them. The papers implied that he'd caused the accident himself.

But all this was nothing compared to what followed success.

At Le Bourget airport, tens of thousands of people broke down fences and mobbed the newly minted hero: "For nearly half an hour," he wrote, "I was unable to touch the ground." He'd hoped to stay in Europe for a while, but President Coolidge sent a Navy cruiser to fetch him home.

He did his best to use his fame to promote aviation. He turned down motion picture contracts and insisted on writing the story of his flight himself. But by the time he'd met and fallen in love with Anne Morrow, daughter of a J.P. Morgan & Co. partner who was ambassador to Mexico, it was quite clear that no one associated with "Lucky Lindy" or "the Lone Eagle" (he hated the nicknames) would ever lead a normal life.

The press stalked the couple from rooftops; Anne quickly learned to fear "that cannibalistic gleam in the photographer's eye." At her family's New Jersey home, she wrote in "Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead," "servants were offered bribes, letters were stolen, telegrams often leaked out, reporters talked to unsuspecting guests or friends and printed distorted anecdotes or, if they ran short of material, they simply invented stories."

Most troubling to a young woman for whom an experience wasn't real unless written down or shared, Anne's new husband advised her to "never say anything you wouldn't want shouted from the housetops, and never write anything you would mind seeing on the front page of a newspaper."

Yet all this was nothing compared to the horror of March 1, 1932.

The basic facts of the Lindbergh kidnapping are imprinted on the national memory: How 18-month-old Charles Jr. was taken from his bedroom in Hopewell, N.J., and a ransom note left on the windowsill; how weeks of frantic effort ended with the discovery of the body in the woods nearby; and how a German immigrant named Bruno Richard Haupt mann was charged with the crime and eventually executed, despite doubts that he could have acted alone.

Before the boy's body was discovered, the Lindberghs' home became a chaotic command post for the investigation, with a dozen or so state policemen sleeping on the floor, 21 phones ringing night and day and Anne perpetually on call. "There was one city official, acting as self-appointed investigator," she wrote, "who woke me in the middle of the night and asked me to re-enact his theory of the crime, which ended with the imaginary throwing of a baby into the furnace."

After Charles Jr. was found, photographers talked their way into the Trenton funeral home to which his body had been taken. The coffin shots were too gruesome for the newspapers, but they sold on the streets for $5 apiece.

Anne was pregnant at the time of the kidnapping, and on Aug. 16, Jon Lindbergh was born. Three years later, with Hauptmann's case dragging on and the press still obsessed with the crime, a car carrying Jon home from nursery school was forced off the road by photographers, who snapped away at the frightened boy. The Lindberghs fled to England, and then to a tiny island off the coast of Brittany, where they briefly found peace and security until the threat of war drove them back to America.

By 1945, when Reeve was born, she had two more brothers and a sister. Her parents bought an old stone house on Long Island Sound, a kind of sheltered paradise for a child to grow up in. Throughout her childhood, her parents struggled to take back the story of their lives – Anne in the voluminous diaries and letters she was preparing for publication, Charles in "The Spirit of St. Louis," his Pulitzer Prize-winning effort to, as he put it, "set the rec ord straight." But the struggle wasn't something they wanted their children to share.

There was a "feeling of constraint caused by our parents' silence," Reeve writes in "Under a Wing." The immensity of their fame, as she'd put it earlier, was like "a shimmering skeleton hidden away in every closet in our family."

'Without a Clue'
"I try to be very respectful of it," the daughter is saying, "especially for people from the old times, for whom my father and mother meant so much. But I'm also completely without a clue."

She's sitting in the living room of her modest Vermont house, a glass of lemonade in hand, a 9-year-old's Legos on a table nearby: a small, cheerful woman with faded blond hair and an unconstrained smile. Nothing much seems hidden here, save maybe the house itself, which has peeling paint and porchful of flowers and sits at the end of the kind of dirt road you need help from the neighbors to find.

"Most people look at the Lindbergh story and want to know, 'What's the intimate detail?' I come from the intimate detail and I want to know, 'What's the Lindbergh story?' Because I never really got it. I was inside it. I never really knew what that meant!"

Her memoir resonates with intimate detail, though not the kind that slides easily into a gossip column: Her father's diatribes against "punk design," for example, a generalized modern shoddiness exemplified by cylindrical flashlights that rolled away when you set them down, or the oppressive lists he'd pull out, when he returned from his travels, for the purpose of grilling his children. Entries ranged from "rake left out in rain" to the dread "Freedom and Responsibility." To gauge the severity of the impending lecture, Reeve learned to read his handwriting upside down.

She writes of the odd atmospheric change in the household that came with her father's returns: "Suddenly we felt all our feelings much more acutely: happiness, excitement, nervousness, and dread." And she writes of the way, when he'd gone off again – he remained a compulsive, solitary traveler all his life – the household would let out its collective breath, and her mother's friends "would come to keep her company, one by one."

With one such friend, writes biographer Berg – who was given access to their correspondence – Anne Lindbergh fell in love. He was her doctor; the revelation came as no surprise to Reeve. "God bless them both," she says.

Yet when she writes or talks of her experience of her parents' fame, her puzzlement is often evident. It bothered her when her father was recognized in public – "He would shrink into himself," she says, "and pull his hat down and very quickly we'd have to leave" – and she worried about the feelings of the person who had approached him. When people come up to her now and say, in breathy voices, "I can't believe that I'm talking to you," she tries to be respectful. But she can't help thinking: Huh?

And when, as happens with some regularity, she encounters pop-culture references to her brother's death, she feels "a kind of numb bewilderment." In "The Fisher King," for example, Robin Williams "vamped across a theater stage in a woman's pink dress and a feather boa, and wailed, 'I'm Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Where's my baaaaby?'" What was that about? She doesn't know, and suspects she never will.

Not that she hasn't been struggling to understand. In her family novel, which makes no attempt whatever to disguise its real-life origins, the Reeve character goes to the library and reads, "printed in black-and-white before my eyes," that her grandmother's coldness had "made it impossible for [her father] to 'relate to' other people. He had been taught to maintain a physical distance even from those closest to him." She knew he could be intimidating, that he hated any kind of public emotional display. Still, the picture was hard to reconcile with the Charles Lindbergh who played tickling games with his children at bedtime and used to stomp around with a shrieking, delighted daughter on his shoulders while chanting a favorite nonsense rhyme: "The EL-e-PHANT should NEV-er SNEEZE, it SHAKES the GROUND, and ALL the TREES!"

But the hardest projected image to reconcile with the father she knew is the Charles Lindbergh who gave a deeply troubling speech in Des Moines on Sept. 11, 1941.

Before Pearl Harbor, the issue of whether to join the European war could scarcely have been more highly charged, though hindsight makes the decision seem inevitable today. Convinced that intervention would be disastrous, Lindbergh leased his hero's image to the "America First" movement, and his tremendous celebrity ensured that his views would be widely heard. It also ensured that his opponents – who took him seriously as a political threat – would try to discredit him by labeling him a Nazi sympathizer.

Yet in Iowa, he went over a line in a way his daughter still can't forgive.

"The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war," he told his listeners in a national broadcast from an America First rally, "are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration." Noting that "no person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution the Jewish race suffered in Germany" (the extreme form of which was not yet fully known), he nevertheless contended that intervention would be disastrous for the country, and cited Jewish influence on American media and government as a grave danger.

"He doesn't understand what that means to people!" Reeve thought furiously when – shocked to hear college friends call her father a "fascist" – she first read these words. Her mother, she learned, had told him the same thing in advance. "No one minds his naming the British or the Administration," Anne Lindbergh wrote in her diary afterward, "but to name 'Jew' is un-American – even if it is done without hate or bitterness or even criticism." Her husband had refused to see that he was "setting the ground for anti-Semitism."

"That was what made me so angry," Reeve says. "I thought, how could he not know?"

For the most part, though, she leaves the judging to others.

She's not writing biography, and she's content to let a biographer fill out the story: Her father's wartime service in the Pacific, the strains on her parents' marriage after the war and how they overcame them, the conservation work he threw himself into in later years. The daughter wrote her book as a "living witness," as someone who could – by writing what she knew directly – restore the humanity behind the fame. "If you're a witness, you are not a judge."

More than that, she wrote it for her brothers, and her sister, and herself.

Anne Spencer Lindbergh – who like Reeve became an author of children's books and lived in Vermont – died in 1993 of cancer, too soon after a happy remarriage. The shared experience of growing up Lindberghs helped create the sisters' bond, but this is only a small part of what Reeve – who started the memoir three weeks after her death – has to say about her. In fact, the chapter in which she describes Anne's illness, along with their mother's long, difficult passage into old age, may be the strongest and most moving in the book.

The experiences captured are universal. They have nothing to do with celebrity at all.

But when you're a Lindbergh, the dividing lines aren't usually so clear.

In 1985, Reeve lost an infant son to encephalitis. He died in the night, of a seizure, in her mother's house, and after the emergency squad had been called and the police notified, her mother insisted that "the most important thing to do now was to go and sit in the room with the baby, just sit there quietly with him, and not to do anything else" until he was taken away.

"I never saw my child's body," she told her grieving daughter. "I never sat with my son this way."

Family Values
Anne Morrow Lindbergh is 92 now, and her memory is largely gone. Sometimes she'll ask Reeve, "Was I married?"

Last June, on her birthday, her surviving children gathered in Vermont. Jon Lindbergh and his wife were there, and Land Lindbergh; Scott Lindbergh and his son had come from Brazil. Reeve's three children were there, as well as her sister's children and Reeve's husband, Nathaniel Tripp, a writer, TV producer and part-time farmer who is himself the author of an exceptional memoir, "Father, Soldier, Son." They read the Berg biography, Reeve says, and they read her book, "and we sat around and talked about that. And we sat with my mother, and we sang some of the songs we sang as children."

They sang cowboy songs, she says, and "Sloop John B," and one song in particular that her parents had brought back from a trip to Nassau. It was a good night song. "Each of us had a name – my father was Old Man River and I was Sugar. It started with me because I had to go to bed first."

Lay down little Sugar, lay down and take your rest.
Lay your head upon your savior's breast.
For I love you, but Jesus loves you best.
Bid you good night, good night, good night.

They sang all the verses, she says, inserting one name after another. On about the fourth verse, "my mother joined in on the chorus – which she doesn't do – and had my brother Land crying. Her little voice came in and all of a sudden – big guy, big old cowboy, tears running down his cheeks."

Her brothers are proud of her, she says, though they still don't talk to the press themselves. Once in a while they'll plead with her to slow down: "Just don't do anything! Just for a little while!"

But this is who she is: the most public Lindbergh, the one who's working to shed the family heritage of constraint. Since 1927, the Lindberghs have borne the weight of a dehumanizing cultural obsession. "I think it becomes too heavy a burden for generation after generation to worry about," she says. "It's really time for our family to be released."

And yet: She can still see clearly, despite the extent to which her parents protected her from it, why it was such an enormous burden to slough off.

Charles Lindbergh died peacefully in Hawaii in 1974, at a house he loved, after checking himself out of the hospital and flying west against his doctor's advice. "I am so proud of him for not changing," Reeve wrote in her diary at the time, "for getting away clean, and being himself the whole time." She was referring to the manner of his death, of course, but also to something more.

"If anything is heroic about this man," she says now, "it is the way that he survived his own life. . . . I'm prouder of that than the flight or anything."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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