A Public Family's Private Moments

THE 1929 marriage of Anne Morrow, the shy, sensitive daughter of a prominent American family, to Charles Lindbergh, the all-American hero who made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, had all the ingredients of a modern-day fairy tale. With the kidnapping and killing of their first child barely three years later, the fairy tale became a nightmare.

The world shared the Lindberghs' outrage and grief. Some members of the press, however, overstepped the bounds of privacy, turning the hero and his wife against the media. The problem was later compounded when Lindbergh's pro-German views made him and his always-supportive wife figures of controversy. It was, perhaps, an all-too-typical American tale, in which the public instantly elevated a man to the status of hero only to recoil upon finding him to be merely human.

It's not surprising that the story of this legendary couple - and the problems facing intensely private people caught in the public limelight - should furnish the inspiration for three new books, each offering a distinctly different perspective.

Two are conventional biographies. Dorothy Herrmann's "Anne Morrow Lindbergh: A Gift for Life" is the first biography of this talented woman, who not only filled the roles of wife, mother, companion, and copilot, but also developed a successful career as a writer. Her writings captured the joy and fear of flying and the difficult grace of daily living. Somewhat like May Sarton in her sensitivity, seriousness, and mildly irritating naivete, Mrs. Lindbergh also made use of a rich variety of forms - essays, poetry, fiction, and diaries - in her ongoing self-exploration. The results ranged from critically acclaimed works like "A Gift From the Sea" and "Bring Me a Unicorn" to strained and awkward attempts to justify her husband's political views.

Herrmann sympathetically portrays the inner tensions and conflicts faced by this gentle yet courageous woman. Relying on the impressions of those who came to know Mrs. Lindbergh, Herrmann deftly conveys her quiet charm and spirit. She also provides a thoughtful discussion of Mrs. Lindbergh's considerable literary output, separating the wheat from the chaff.

"Loss of Eden: A Biography of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh," by Joyce Milton, is a longer, more complete book. The narrative reads more like reportage - brisk, detailed, and fascinating - but it lacks the subtler perceptions of Herrmann's study. Milton, coauthor of a book on the Rosenberg spy case, devotes special attention to the kidnapping of Charles Jr. in 1932. She does a reasonably good job of combing through the evidence, but reaches no definite new conclusions. She does, however, conclude he r book with the rather unsubstantiated assertion that more people now remember the Lindbergh kidnapping than know who Charles Lindbergh was!

The third book, by Reeve Lindbergh, Charles and Anne's youngest child, is a novel that tells what it feels like to grow up on the inside of a legend. "Cressida Linley," who narrates "The Names of the Mountains" keenly perceives the paradox of her celebrated parents, "Cal and Alicia," who "on the one hand struggled to keep their lives unusually private, and on the other must have considered their lives to be of such public significance that they saved every scrap of evidence that would reveal, eventually,

all that they tried to keep secret."

Lindbergh, the author of several children's books and two previous novels, gently but firmly asserts that it is, indeed, fiction: Some of its characters and events are inventions.

Yet, at the same time, she says that writing it has been her way of responding to the nonfiction representations of her parents produced by journalists, historians, and biographers. Because much of what has been written "from the `outside' and presented as `non-fiction' " strikes her as "unrecognizable," Ms. Lindbergh has chosen to get at the truth by "working from the inside ... in fiction."

Is she being a tad disingenuous in writing so directly of and from her own very special experiences while claiming it to be "fiction?" Or is she merely being scrupulous in warning the reader that, however close and convincing a Lindbergh family portrait this may seem, the author has taken some artistic liberties with her material? Perhaps a little of each.

Whatever the rationale, her approach to telling this story bears solid fruit. "The Names of the Mountains" is, at once, a touching yet clear-sighted look at the dynamics of family relationships and a thoughtful meditation on the factors that made this particular family feel "set apart."

The novel is organized around the device of a family crisis, which may well be fictional, but, one somehow feels, may well have some basis in truth. Cressida Linley and her four siblings, now adults, gather at the home of their still alert and impressive widowed mother to try to determine how serious a problem is posed by the memory lapses she has recently been experiencing.

Alicia Linley has had a complete physical checkup and been told there is nothing wrong with her. But her children - the two daughters in particular - are distressed to find their usually sharp-witted mother sometimes forgetting the names of her grandchildren - or confusing them with the names of their pets. The woman who once knew the names of the stars and mountains from the days and nights when she and her pilot-husband once navigated uncharted terrain now turns to ask her daughter to tell her the name

of a once-familiar New England peak.

Yet, in a curious way, Alicia's memory lapses remind Cressida of her mother's long-established habit of escaping into her own thoughts in the midst of a conversation: "I suspect that she began to be elusive ... early on in her marriage as a way of protecting herself from the relentless eloquence of her husband, my father, Calvin Linley, the most exhausting talker I have ever known."

Was this, Cressida wonders, a writer's way of finding the mental space to do her work, or a wife's way of escaping from the blustering personality of a domineering mate? Cal Linley, like Charles Lindbergh, is an American hero who falls from grace, embarrassing himself and his family by his vociferous role in the isolationist campaign to keep America from fighting Nazi Germany. Was his wife's ability to withdraw into herself a trait that enabled her to stay married to a man whose opinions sometimes made h er shudder?

This, then, is not a simple "problem-of-the-week" novel about a family confronting their matriarch's memory loss. It is a subtly perceptive, gracefully interwoven exploration of a whole matrix of themes: the complex joys, sorrows, changes, continuities, and sheer puzzlements of family life.

And insofar as it is an essentially truthful portrait, from the "inside," of how it feels to be the child of Anne and Charles Lindbergh, the book has the additional virtue of providing the kind of subjective, personal material that no study written by an "outsider" could possibly be expected to supply.

Most children, as the narrator notes, venture out from the privacy of their parents' home into the bracing air of "the world." But what happens when your parents are so celebrated, so much a part of that outside world that distinctions between public and private become blurred? Reeve Lindbergh's novel addresses such questions with courage, modesty, insight, and wisdom.

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