By A. Scott Berg
640 pp., $30
Nothing in Charles A. Lindbergh's early life marked him as special. Born in Detroit, he spent most of his youth shuttling between Minnesota and Washington D.C., where his father was a congressman. He made no lasting friends in high school and did not show much academic promise. In fact, he flunked out of the University of Wisconsin.
In 1922, he enrolled in a flight-training program at the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation in hopes of landing a job that would pay $500 a month. Five years later, after making the first solo flight from New York to Paris, he was the most famous man in the world.
A. Scott Berg, who has previously chronicled the lives of Maxwell Perkins and Samuel Goldwyn, has written a superb biography of Lindbergh's extraordinary life. While other biographies have been written about "The Lone Eagle," this is the most complete account, since Berg was the first author to be given unrestricted access to the papers of Charles and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Both kept extensive diaries and records - roughly 2,000 boxes worth of raw material in various libraries. Ultimately, it took Berg eight years to finish the book.
Aside from the voluminous materials, this was a long project because Lindbergh packed so much into his life. He is an icon, of course, because of the stunning personal bravery and mechanical skill that carried him across the Atlantic.
A few years later, he and his wife were seared into the public consciousness following the kidnapping and murder of their young son. The two events made Lindbergh the world's first media superstar. Eventually, the media attention became unbearable - one photographer pried open their son's casket for a picture - and they fled the country.
But Lindbergh's life was rich and accomplished in many other ways. In archeology, for example, he located and photographed a number of Mayan ruins in the Yucatan peninsula that were previously unknown. He was instrumental in the development of commercial aviation - indeed, so compelling was his name that, for many years, Trans World Airline billed itself as "The Lindbergh Line."
In medicine, he developed a device that made it possible for a human organ to live outside the body. In science, he secured funding for an obscure scientist named Robert Goddard to experiment with rockets. He flew 50 missions as a fighter pilot in the World War II and shot down a Japanese warplane.
Later in life, he became an ardent environmentalist and lent his name to many conservation causes around the globe. In his spare time, Lindbergh wrote several books, one of which, the story of his famous flight, won the Pulitzer Prize.
Less successfully, Lindbergh dabbled in international politics. He supported the America First Movement, which sought to keep the United States out of World War II and was suspected of having pro-Nazi sympathies.
At the same time, his comments led to charges of anti-Semitism. The record is complex, but Berg concludes that while Lindbergh was not a sympathizer, his own views about Jews were probably consistent with the anti-Semitic attitudes held by many Americans at that point in history.
Nor was Lindbergh's marriage a storybook romance. While Anne and Charles enjoyed periods of great happiness, he was emotionally distant, personally rigid, and peripatetic. Anne had an extramarital affair that lasted several years and considered ending the marriage. Berg suggests that Charles also had an affair. Eventually, they spent long periods of time apart.
If there is a constant theme that runs through Lindbergh's life, it is the emotional distance he maintained from family and friends alike.
While willing to go anywhere or do anything to advance the causes he championed, Lindbergh seems to have been incapable of becoming emotionally close to another human being.
Anne noted in her diaries that she never saw him cry - even after their son's kidnapping. In short, "The Lone Eagle" was an appropriate nickname for multiple reasons.
This is, quite simply, a wonderful book. Berg admires Lindbergh but is scrupulously evenhanded in his assessment. Thoroughly researched and superbly written, the book is detailed, but it never seems too long. Indeed, the reader is drawn forward by the prose. Few biographies have a "couldn't put it down quality," but this one does.
There is an even more compelling reason to read "Lindbergh." In our media obsessed age, the distinction between true heroism and mere celebrity is easily blurred. Berg's careful biography makes clear that, while he had some personal failings, Charles Lindbergh was the real thing.
* Terry W. Hartle is a senior vice president of the American Council on Education and lives in Alexandria, Va.