Feature - November 18, 1998

Berg Does Lindbergh
Biographer A. Scott Berg '71 confronts the remarkable -- and still controversial -- flier, "a great lens for observing the American century"

By J.I. Merritt '66

Writer A. Scott Berg '71 admires Charles Lindbergh, the subject of the most recent of his three biographies of major 20th-century Americans, as a man who "blazed his own trail, went his own way, followed his own stars," and "packed seven or eight lives into one lifetime."

  • Excerpts from Scott Berg's Lindbergh

    Published in September by G.P. Putnam's, the 640-page Lindbergh is the first authorized biography of the famous aviator, whose now 93-year-old widow, the author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, granted Berg access to all her husband's papers and to hers as well, telling him, "You can't write about Charles without writing about me." Supplemented by interviews with family members and others whose lives transected Lindbergh's, this wealth of material -- contained in some 2,000 boxes, mostly at Yale -- enabled Berg to write with greater detail and accuracy than any of Lindbergh's previous biographers.

    Berg, who has also chronicled the careers of book editor Maxwell Perkins and film mogul Samuel Goldwyn, says he enjoys "painting on big canvases." He needed one for a life so full and at times controversial.

    In 1927, Lindbergh won instant fame as the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. In the 1930s, as a consultant to Pan American and TWA, he pioneered routes for the fledgling airline industry. He suffered the kidnapping and death of his first child and the media circus that surrounded the ensuing "Trial of the Century." As the chief spokesman for the America First Committee, he campaigned to keep the United States out of World War II and was branded an antisemite for statements he made on behalf of that cause. After the U.S. entered the war, as a civilian working for the aircraft industry, he trained U.S. pilots in the South Pacific and flew with them on 50 combat missions. He devoted the last decade of his life to conservation, criss-crossing the globe as a spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund and declaring, "If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes."

    Lindbergh also dabbled in medical technology, inventing a pump that paved the way for organ transplants. And he wrote six books, including The Spirit of St. Louis, a Pulitzer-prize-winning account of his history-making flight.

    Berg portrays Lindbergh as a man of vision and purpose who was also deeply flawed. He supported ideas about eugenics and racial purity and in the 1930s professed admiration for Nazi Germany, a position he never quite repudiated.

    Charles and Anne had five more children after the death of Charles, Jr. But as a husband and father, says Berg, Lindbergh more often than not was "physically and emotionally absent." A perfectionist, he held his wife and children to dauntingly high standards of achievement. He made lists of tasks for everyone, then grilled them on what they had done or left undone. His compulsive nature and discipline were key to his many accomplishments as a pilot, but on the domestic front, writes Berg, they made for "a home with much love but little affection."

    Berg himself benefited from his subject's mania for detail and control. Lindbergh catalogued his papers, which Berg found "in a miraculous order." He saved copies of every letter he wrote and every scrap of correspondence from others, including total strangers. He annotated previous books about him, typing lists of errors and corrections that sometimes ran to 75 single-spaced pages. Anticipating research by future biographers, he left notes in the margins of letters such as "Do not believe this man. What this letter says is not true. Please see my diaries or Anne's diaries." As Berg told Vanity Fair magazine, his qualifications were sometimes "less than flattering to him, but they were always the truth. It was done with a cold, objective sense of himself."

    Today there are many people who still haven't forgiven Lindbergh for what is perceived as his pro-Nazi, anti-Jewish stand during the prewar era. In the 1930s, following several official tours of Germany, Lindbergh provided the U.S. Army Air Corps with valuable intelligence on the growing strength of the Luftwaffe. On one visit to Germany he accepted a medal from Hitler's second-in-command, Air Marshal Herman Goering. It returned to haunt him weeks later, when Nazi bully boys rampaged against Jews in the infamous Kristallnacht -- the "night of broken glass" -- and Lindbergh refused to return the medal. He also made public statements about the invincibility of the Nazis and their value as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, which he regarded as by far the greater evil.

    Lindbergh stirred up more controversy when he took up the cause of nonintervention as a member of the America First Committee. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941 -- three months before Pearl Harbor -- he condemned what he saw as Jewish efforts to drag America into the war. He stereotyped Jews as a "race" with undue influence in the media, warning that the "passions and prejudices" of such "other peoples" would lead the country to ruin.

    Editorial writers and politicians of all stripes condemned him in what Berg describes as "a niagara of invective. Few men in American history," he writes, "had ever been so reviled." Lindbergh, who counted at least one Jew -- the philanthropist Harry Guggenheim -- as among his closest friends, never understood the reaction. To his dying day he denied being an antisemite.

    Berg, who is Jewish, tried to approach this aspect of Lindbergh with an open mind. Of his antisemitism, he says, "I found less and more than I expected. Less in the sense that he was not an overt Jew-hater as I'd been raised to believe. His was a kind of genteel antisemitism. But in his Des Moines speech he segregated Jews, suggesting they were different from other Americans, and that's what done him in." At the same time, adds Berg, "He stereotyped all groups, in large measure because as an aviator he was so detached from the earth. Literally and metaphorically, he had an aerial perspective on countries and peoples, which he saw as masses of population."

    For some of his material on America First, Berg relied on interviews with Robert Stuart '37, who as the young chairman of the organization came to know Lindbergh well. Stuart was at Yale Law School when he founded America First with fellow students Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver, and Kingman Brewster, among others. "That was one of the interesting surprises to me," says Berg. "I had long thought of America First as just a bunch of middle-aged, midwestern Republicans who opposed FDR, not as something started by students at Yale."

    Other alumni Berg interviewed included Oren Root '33, a stepson of one of the Lindberghs' friends and a frequent weekend guest at their home in Hopewell, New Jersey, before the kidnapping; and actor Jimmy Stewart '32, a lifelong admirer of Lindbergh who lobbied to play the flier in the 1957 film version of The Spirit of St. Louis.

    While living in Hopewell in the early 1930s, Lindbergh conducted some of his medical research in one of the university's laboratories. He later left Princeton a sealed crate of personal papers from that part of his life. "It was sort of a mystery box in Firestone Library," says Berg. "Lindbergh intended it to remain sealed until 50 years after his or his wife's death, but Anne gave me permission to open it. Their daughter Reeve was with me when I did so, I think in 1993. It contained some miscellaneous correspondence that was useful, but otherwise I didn't find much of importance."

    The only child of what Berg describes as "woefully ill-matched parents," Lindbergh grew up in rural Minnesota and in Washington, D.C., where his father, a populist Republican who opposed U.S. entry into World War I, served five terms in Congress. Shy by nature, shunted between a mother and father who lived apart, and seldom attending the same school for more than a year, he emerged from childhood, writes Berg, "virtually friendless and self-absorbed."

    The Lindbergh portrayed by Berg was from early age a self-reliant loner, more comfortable with machines than people. He was driving a car by 11, and by 22 (after flunking out of the University of Wisconsin) he had learned to fly in a creaky war-surplus biplane. He became a barnstorming stunt pilot, then a pilot for the new airmail service. Based in St. Louis, where his daredevil flying skills had made him a local celebrity, he convinced some of the city's businessmen to back his attempt to win a $25,000 prize for the first person to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. On May 20-21, 1927, fighting fog, ice, and sleep, Lindbergh made the 3,614-mile flight in 33 hours and 30 minutes while the world held its breath, tracking his course from sightings over Newfoundland, Ireland, England, and the coast of France.

    "Lindbergh's arrival in Paris," writes Berg, "became the defining moment of his life, that event on which all his future actions hinged." He was woefully unprepared for the public hysteria that began with 150,000 Frenchmen breaking through barriers to storm the Spirit of St. Louis as it taxied to a stop at LeBourget Field. Years later, in one of her diaries, Anne Morrow Lindbergh reflected on that moment when her husband, "so innocent & unaware," saw rushing at him "Fame -- Opportunity -- Wealth -- and also tragedy & loneliness."

    More prosaically, Berg comments on the many quotations attributed to Lindbergh upon his arrival in Paris -- such statements as, "I'm Charles Lindbergh," and "Well, I made it" -- which he always denied saying. Writes Berg, "In truth, all he said was, 'Are there any mechanics here?'"

    Lindbergh's youthful reticence and movie-star looks added to the mystique that made him, says Berg, "the first modern media superstar" -- and the first to be stalked by the press. He came to loathe most reporters and photographers, and their incessant hounding eventually forced him and his family to seek refuge abroad.

    Two years after his famous flight, Lindbergh married Anne Morrow, the daughter of the American ambassador to Mexico. Berg limns a relationship that was far from the storybook romance the public assumed. Anne's best-selling books, such as North to the Orient (1935) and Gift From the Sea (1955), made her a star in her own right, but she had none of her husband's self-confidence. Not until fairly late in life did she emerge from the shadow of his domineering personality. Berg reveals that she considered divorce and in her 50s entered into an affair with her physician, who provided her with the emotional support her husband never could.

    The marriage survived that and worse; Berg tells of instances when Charles behaved with an insensitivity bordering on mental cruelty. During the long ordeal surrounding their son's kidnapping -- it was nearly three years between the crime and the capture and conviction of the kidnapper, Bruno Richard Hauptmann -- he refused to let her weep in his presence. At one point during the trial, writes Berg, "Charles snapped. Before leaving for the start of summations in court, he lost his temper and dumped years of frustration on his wife. He told Anne she had been living too much within herself and was controlled by her feelings. He showed no mercy for her fragile state of mind." He chastised her for neglecting work on a book she was writing and rebuked her as a "failure." Charles himself dealt with the tragedy by keeping busy with details of the crime; Anne said she never saw her husband cry over the death of their son.

    Lindbergh retained to the end his need for control. In 1974, at age 72, while dying of lymphatic cancer at his home in a remote part of Hawaii, he specified every aspect of his funeral and memorial service. He dictated the exact dimensions and construction of the grave ("Father was obsessed about drainage," his son Jon told Berg) and the design of the coffin (flat-sided, with no curves, and hewn by hand from native wood). He wanted his body wrapped in all-cotton sheets, but when they couldn't be found in the local store he settled on a cotton-polyester blend. Lindbergh also insisted on a "natural burial" -- he was not to be embalmed.

    As Lindbergh lay on his death bed, his son Land "instinctively wanted to hold his father, but he knew how much he disliked being touched," writes Berg. "And so, with his mother at one end of the bed, he sat at the other, putting his hand on his father's foot. For more than ten minutes they sat there as the room became increasingly still. 'And then,' recalled Land, 'he just went.'"

    Scott Berg admits to sharing certain characteristics with his famous subject: "We have the same work ethic, and we both get off on detail. We're both practical dreamers, with our head in the clouds but our feet on the ground. But I like to think I have more humor -- Lindbergh and his father both judged a joke by how much laughter they suppressed. And I can't imagine Charles Lindbergh ever being in a Triangle Show."

    Berg also exhibits more than a little of Lindbergh's obsessiveness. His first great obsession -- and the reason he came to Princeton -- was F. Scott Fitzgerald '17. As a 15-year-old high-school student in Pacific Palisades, California, he was assigned in English class to write about an American author. "I chose Fitzgerald," he recalls, "mostly at the urging of my mother, who revealed to me that I'd been named for him because she'd been reading his novels when she was pregnant with me. I developed a mania for Fitzgerald -- by the time I'd graduated from high school I'd read everything he'd written. I started with The Great Gatsby and moved on to Tender Is the Night, which just swept me away. Then I read This Side of Paradise, his novel about Princeton -- I literally slept with that book under my pillow for two years. I became hell-bent on going to Princeton, and I could draw a map of the campus before I ever set foot on it."

    At Princeton he joined Fitzgerald's eating club (Cottage), and like his hero he wrote and acted in Triangle. He wrote a junior paper on Fitzgerald, and for the topic of his senior thesis he chose Maxwell Perkins, the Scribner's editor who nurtured the careers of Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway. Berg's adviser was Hemingway's biographer, the late Carlos Baker *40.

    "Carlos Baker changed my life," says Berg. "There was a moment after my junior year when I almost dropped out of school to become an actor. The Triangle Show played at Lincoln Center, and I got a standing ovation. When I returned backstage, three agents were waiting. They told me that if I signed with them I could go to work tomorrow. I was all set, until I discussed it with Baker and he asked, 'What about that Max Perkins thesis you wanted to write? Why don't you graduate, so at least you'll be an actor with a college degree?' I think I was just looking for somebody to give me that advice. Without it, today I'd probably be doing Man of La Mancha in summer stock in Columbus."

    His thesis on Perkins ran to 250 pages -- he needed special dispensation from the English department to make it so long. He received an A-plus, and it won the department's thesis prize. Encouraged by Baker and others, Berg spent the next six years expanding it into a full-blown biography. Published in 1979, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius became a bestseller and won a National Book Award.

    He spent another eight years writing his next book, the authorized Goldwyn: A Biography (1989). The founder of MGM was a natural subject for Berg, who grew up in the film business (his father produced made-for-TV movies), and who today makes his home in Los Angeles. Steven Spielberg has optioned his biography of Lindbergh, and Berg expects to have an advisory role on the film when shooting starts, probably next fall.

    Of his three biographical subjects, Berg says, "All are 20th-century American cultural figures through whose lives I could tell a bigger story. With Max Perkins the story was 30 years of American literature, and with Sam Goldwyn it was 60 years of motion pictures. Charles Lindbergh is a window onto the whole world -- a great lens for observing the American century. When I talked with Spielberg he compared him to Forrest Gump: at any historic moment, there he is in the middle of it -- with Robert Goddard making rockets, or with Goering or Calvin Coolidge or Douglas MacArthur. He just keeps popping up. Of course, half the time history was popping up around him -- he was the focal point."

    Lindbergh is also the subject who intrigues Berg the most: "He had the greatest breadth and depth in his thinking. I would have enjoyed spending time with him, but I certainly wouldn't have wanted him to be my father. He was a very cold customer."

    J.I. Merritt '66 is PAW's editor.

    Excerpts from Scott Berg's Lindbergh

    Lindbergh's family history:

    "For all his fascination with detail, Lindbergh never examined his family history closely enough to see that it included financial malfeasance, flight from justice, bigamy, illegitimacy, melancholia, manic-depression, alcoholism, grievous generational conflicts, and wanton abandonment of families. But these undercurrents were always there. And so this third-generation Lindbergh was born with a deeply private nature and bred according to the principles of self-reliance -- nonconformity and the innate understanding that greatness came at the inevitable price of being misunderstood."

    In 1925, Lindbergh graduates first in his class from Army flying school:

    "That night the new lieutenants enjoyed a farewell dinner in San Antonio, assembling for the last time. 'The gang' decided to remain in contact by circulating a round-robin letter, to which Lindbergh would contribute over the years. Except for rare chance encounters over his lifetime of travels, however, he would only see one or two Army classmates ever again. Lindbergh was already leading a compartmentalized existence, always packing light, carrying few people from one episode of his life to the next."

    Following his New York-to-Paris flight, Lindbergh embarks on a three-month tour in the Spirit of St. Louis to promote aviation. After landing his plane in a Utah desert to spend the night, he has an epiphany:

    "He realized he had been sentenced to a life as a public figure on a scale to which no man before him had ever been subjected. Feeling overexposed, overextended, and overexalted, he wished to 'combine two seemingly contradictory objectives, to be part of the civilization of my time but not to be bound by its conventional superfluity.'"

    Lindbergh and Dr. Alexis Carrel, his Nobel Prize-winning colleague at the Rockefeller Institute, discuss eugenics:

    "Lindbergh spent every available minute with his mentor; and for months his mind was Carrel's to mold. Sitting in the doctor's high-walled garden or by the fireplace late into the night, the two men discussed improving qualities within the human species and the population at large, through diet and reproduction. 'Eugenics,' Carrel wrote in Man, the Unknown, 'is indispensable for the perpetuation of the strong. A great race must propagate its best elements.' He and Lindbergh carried on such discussions over the course of the summer, delving into the subject of 'race betterment.' Unfortunately, similar discussions were raging throughout the Third Reich, a coincidence that would not be lost on future detractors of either Carrel or Lindbergh."

    Lindbergh admires Nazi Germany:

    "As late as April 1939 -- after Germany overtook Czechoslovakia -- Lindbergh was willing to make excuses for Hitler. 'Much as I disapprove of many things Hitler had done,' he wrote in his diary of April 2, 1939, 'I believe she [Germany] has pursued the only consistent policy in Europe in recent years. I cannot support her broken promises, but she has only moved a little faster than other nations ... in breaking promises. The question of right and wrong is one thing by law and another thing by history."

    The effect of his efforts on behalf of America First on Lindbergh's reputation:

    "Other debates in American history would later be recalled with at least an appreciation for the high-mindedness of their ideas; and other members of America First would bear no stigma for having been allied with that particular cause. But America First swiftly entered the annals of public discourse tainted; and Charles Lindbergh would thenceforth be contaminated, considered by many wrong-headed at best traitorous at worst."