The Celebrity of Charles Lindbergh

By Shapiro, Stanley | Air Power History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Celebrity of Charles Lindbergh

Shapiro, Stanley, Air Power History


From 1957 until his death in 1974, Charles Lindbergh led a secret life crammed with three extramarital affairs and seven unacknowledged children. What that revelation may mean for him as a figure in our popular imagination is not yet clear, but it certainly undermines his standing as a heroic character of "indubitable purity." Whatever his flaws or tragedies, Lindbergh has always been depicted as open, honest, and incorruptible. In fact, he was a complex and manipulative man. He could be touching and tender in a masculine way; he could also be self-righteous and self-absorbed. And he believed deeply in his superiority. But he managed a public image and an enduring celebrity that obscured those characteristics. It is not too much to say that Lindbergh spent his life consciously creating a personal narrative, turning his life into a continuous autobiographical effort. By and large, he succeeded because his persona was grounded in a set of truthful, if not always accurate elements; it was--for him as well as the public--a credible rather than a realistic representation. (1) The recent exposure of his hidden side, however, prompts us to look again at Lindbergh as both a hero and a collaborator in his own celebrity.

Lindbergh grew up on a farm on the banks of the upper Mississippi near Little Falls, Minnesota. By all accounts it was an idyllic childhood. "I spent hours lying on my back in high timothy and redtop," Lindbergh reminisced almost half a century later, "hidden from passersby, watching white cumulus clouds drift overhead, staring into the sky." (2) This was the natural habitat of a hero, bucolic but not uneventful. In 1905, when Charles was only three, the Lindbergh homestead burned to the ground. Three years later his parents separated; Charles never again lived with his father. Although both events were fixed in Lindbergh's memory, the only one he could ever face was the fire. Perhaps it served as a surrogate for the more frightful collapse of family harmony and security. In any case, Lindbergh adopted a policy of deliberate reticence in his writings about the marital discord, ironically echoed by his biographers, who make little more than rhetorical use of it. (3) "Lindholm," as his mother fancied it, was rebuilt, but the boy spent most of his youth elsewhere, either in Washington, D.C., where he met the Presidents and visited Congress--his father served in the House from 1907 to 1917, or in the maternal home of his Detroit grandparents. Charles may have been happier in, or reminiscing about the pastoral landscape of Minnesota; the fact is that nearly three-quarters of his childhood occurred in major cities.

As for Lindbergh's family, he recalled his parents "continued to care for each other although they were seldom together." (4) Again his selective memory was at work. The marriage was anything but affectionate. His father was a stern man, imbued with a righteous populism. He taught Charles to be honest, thrifty, self-sufficient, and loyal; above all he stressed integrity regardless of circumstances and the virtues of stoic fortitude. Evangeline Lindbergh was, like her husband, intensely private. But she was not so self-contained. Emotions sometimes escaped her control. She lavished attention on Charles, leaving little room in his adolescent life for anyone else. When Charles went off to the University of Wisconsin, Evangeline followed. The parental expectations placed upon young Lindbergh were severe. Most important was strict control of his emotions. Anger was forbidden. So the guilty feelings of the only son in a splintered family were channeled into persistent demonstrations of virtue. Anger and guilt turned inward; their dialectical power may explain his puzzling adult behavior. Every observer has noted the paradoxes: Lindbergh's desire for recognition and demand for privacy; his preservation of integrity even at the cost of being misunderstood; his unassuming public style and inner sense of superiority. …

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