From humble and inauspicious beginnings, Charles Lindbergh became America’s sweetheart and one of the world’s biggest stars by performing a feat of tremendous bravery and skill. Yet his complicated relationship with the public and the press, as well as his distinct sense of self and celebrity, made him quite different from the typical heroic figure.
Charles Augustus Lindbergh was born February 4, 1902, in Detroit. His father, Charles August Lindbergh, was a lawyer from Little Falls, MN, and Minnesota’s Sixth District Congressman from 1907 to 1917; and his mother, Evangeline Lodge Land, was a chemistry teacher from Detroit. They separated permanently soon after Charles’s birth, and he consequently moved often between Detroit, Washington, and the family farm in Little Falls. Charles was close to his mother, but his father, an unorthodox Republican who doggedly opposed both big business manipulation and World War I, taught his son stubbornness and independence of mind.
Charles was not a good student but finished high school early in 1918 in order to help with the family farm. He dreamed of being a fighter pilot, but both his parents opposed this. In 1920, Charles enrolled at University of Wisconsin, Madison to study mechanical engineering and, more importantly, to escape farming. There, he was a loner who did not engage with his studies; outside of class, he obsessively pursued his own daredevil adventures.
Despite his parents’ resistance, Charles was still determined to fly. He left school in April 1922 and signed up for lessons with the Nebraska Aircraft Company. By the next month he was ready to solo, but the company, in financial straits, sold the plane he was flying to a barnstorming pilot. Barnstorming, taking passengers on flights and doing exhibition stunts, appealed to the risk-taking Charles, and he persuaded the pilot to take him on the road as mechanic, wingwalker, and parachute jumper. At summer’s end, Charles returned to Little Falls. Although his father opposed flying, he wanted to support his son’s independent streak, and so in 1923, he secured a loan for Charles to buy a war surplus plane. It was in this plane that Charles first flew solo. He barnstormed all summer, and reveled in the rough, vagabond lifestyle. The following year, Charles Senior died of a brain tumor.
When fall came, Charles needed a steady job. He was interested in commercial aviation, but the brand new field had no jobs yet. Although he did not know if he wanted to be a fighter pilot, Charles decided to train with the Army Air Corps as he waited for commercial aviation to expand. He graduated at the top of his class and joined the reserve. In 1926, Charles joined the newly launched U.S. Post Office airmail service and was the first airmail pilot between St Louis and Chicago.
In 1926, Charles heard of the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 reward first offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig in 1919 for flying nonstop between New York and Paris. The competitors were skilled and experienced aviators, all designing their own planes especially for this trip. Lindbergh was a novice, but he believed that the other planes were too large for the trip and that a light solo aircraft with sufficient fuel was preferable. He obtained backing from a group of St. Louis businessmen and, after being denied the single-engine Wright/Bellanca plane by the Wright company, successfully petitioned the Ryan Company of San Diego to build him a similar plane. On February 25, he entered the Orteig Prize race.
Charles worked closely with designer Donald Hall both to reduce the plane’s weight and allow for a large fuel load. Their design moved the cockpit behind the fuel tank to protect Lindbergh if he crashed, leaving only small side windows out of which to see. The team also increased the wing span. Meanwhile, Charles’s competitors continued work on their own planes and launched both successful and unsuccessful—and sometimes fatal—test runs.
Charles flew his Ryan plane from California to St. Louis on May 10, 1927, and then to New York on May 12 (his first leg and transcontinental flight times set records). In New York, weather grounded the aviators for a week, and the press followed them rabidly. Charles hated the attention and despised his new nicknames “Lindy” and “Lucky Lindy.” He took off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island on May 20th, 1927. Two men, Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, had died the previous week attempting the same flight, and practically every paper and radio station in America—plus many worldwide—was following the race. Lindbergh barely slept the night before taking off and, operating on only adrenaline, occasionally dozed in flight. He took only five sandwiches, water, maps, charts, and a few other necessities; to bring the maximum amount of gas, he left behind both parachute and radio. All of his competitors, on the other hand, had multi-engine planes and at least one crew member.
Yet Charles the underdog prevailed. After 33.5 hours, he landed in Le Bourget Airfield, Paris, and became the first solo flyer across the Atlantic. In Paris and London, he received many awards, met important people, and was perpetually pursued by crowds. He sailed back to the U.S. on June 19 with his plane, where he reunited with his mother and received his prize money. He was also awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the first-ever Distinguished Flying Cross. He then did an 82-city tour to prove aviation’s safety and practicality, and crowds flocked to see him.
A private person, Charles never embraced the press, but reporters loved him and pursued him stubbornly. Not only was his accomplishment astounding, especially given his inexperience, but his unorthodox behavior and strange mix of resolve and youth also intrigued the public. His multi-faceted persona had broad appeal—the masses, disillusioned after the war, identified with the wholesome all-American boy, the rich and famous courted the worldwide celebrity, and women swooned over the handsome bachelor. Lindbergh, who was used to being alone, with his mother, or with other aviators, refused to talk about his private life, and he was quite antagonistic toward the press. Yet he would do things that drew their attention, such as air displays with the Army Air Corps flying team, and he publicly challenged the press instead of hiding away from them.
The attention of the press and public continued to burden Charles throughout his life. He married Anne Morrow, the daughter of the US Ambassador to Mexico, in 1929, and worked for airlines by flying, advising routes, and protecting their interests from the government. In March 1932, the couple’s first son, Charles, was kidnapped from their New Jersey home, and although they paid the $50,000 ransom, he was later found murdered. In 1935, a German immigrant was arrested, found guilty of the kidnapping, and put to death. Although the public and press showed great sympathy, the Lindberghs despised their intrusive curiosity during the whole affair, and they fled to England and later France to live quietly with their five children. While in Europe, Lindbergh toured the German aircraft industry and promoted both the country’s planes and National Socialist Movement. Back in America, he publicly opposed Roosevelt’s support of British and American involvement with the Second World War so adamantly that the government monitored him as a suspicious character. He also proposed an alliance of European people against Communists, particularly Asians, and criticized American Jews for their pro-war stance and influence. His popularity fell, even among those closest to him. The Air Corps would not hire him, and he found work at Henry Ford’s bomber plant; later, he entered WWII combat as a civilian adviser in the Pacific theater. After the war, Charles wrote about his flight in The Spirit of St. Louis, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1954, as well as six other books in his lifetime and one published posthumously. Eventually, Charles Lindbergh regained his heroic status, but his polemical stances forever changed his image. He died in 1974, at his home in Maui.