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Let us not allow this incident to blind us to the great qualities of Charles Lindbergh; he is, and always will be, not merely a school-boy hero, but also a school boy

In September 1938, Charles Lindbergh betrayed not only Harold Nicolson personally but Britain too. Not quite two months after the outbreak of war in Europe, Nicolson wrote this piece about him in the Spectator, 20 October 1939, page 15.

COLONEL CHARLES LINDBERGH has again been broadcasting to the American people. He urged them (as he had every right to do) not to repeal the Neutrality Acts; but he also abused Canada for entering the war on the ground that “as an American country” she should have remained neutral. This extension of the Monroe doctrine has caused surprise in the United States and rage in Canada. Even in this country there are those who contend that the respect which all classes showed for his privacy might have tempted him to prolong that privacy until the crisis in our national existence had been surmounted. I do not agree with this criticism. I have myself enjoyed much hospitality in Germany and in Italy, but do not feel precluded thereby from expressing my views upon the foreign policy of Herr Hitler or Count Ciano. I see no need to excuse Colonel Lindbergh; I want to explain him.

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His grandfather emigrated from Sweden; and on reaching the United States changed his name from Manson to Lindbergh. His father was a gentle, conscientious, almost fanatical Democrat. He represented Minnesota in Congress, and belonged to a small group of insurgents who fought the governing classes and Wall Street with might and main. As a child in Washington young Lindbergh spent much time listening to Victor Murdoch and other fiery radicals from the Middle West denouncing the whole political system of the United States and the “decadent Europeanism” of the Atlantic seaboard. Congressman Lindbergh died, and young Charles returned with his mother to the bleak farm in Minnesota and to the rigours of an impoverished boyhood. This tough existence was scarcely mitigated by the three terms which he spent in the engineering school at Wisconsin University. He entered the flying corps and became a pilot upon the St. Louis-Chicago route. At 10 p.m. on May 21st, 1927, he landed at Le Bourget, having flown the Atlantic alone.

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He returned to the United States in a blaze of glory. The American public had been deeply disappointed that the war had produced no romantic figure, and they seized upon their “lone eagle” as the embodiment of all that American youth should be. His charm, his boyishness and his modesty were everywhere acclaimed. He drove in triumph through New York; he was the guest of the President at the White House; he visited every State in the Union and was accorded the freedom of seventy-eight cities. He found himself a national, even a world-hero, at the age of twenty-five. His head was not turned by this apotheosis; it merely became completely stiff. He remained from then onwards the lad from Minnesota, the slim pilot upon the Chicago-St. Louis trail. The ideas which he had acquired from his father, or at the University of Wisconsin, were no whit changed by contact with men of great experience of or wide outlook upon world affairs; when wealth came to him, and with it the contact with gentler and more sensitive minds, he retained unaltered his simple habits of life; he never drank or smoked; his life was completely ascetic; he continued to prefer corned beef to terrapin; he continued to believe that virility was the highest human virtue and that anything which might sap that virility (such as art, literature or music) must be something un-American, some “poisonous honey stolen from France.” To this day he remains the fine boy from the Middle West.

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The strain was terrific. How was this young man to maintain his own simplicity, his own few clear-cut convictions, against the adulation of a whole continent? It was almost with ferocity that he struggled to remain himself. And in the process of that arduous struggle his simplicity became muscle-bound; his virility-ideal became, not merely inflexible, but actually rigid; his self-confidence thickened into arrogance; and his convictions hardened into granite. He became impervious to anything outside his own legend – the legend of the lad from Minnesota whose head could not be turned. Then came the murder of his child. The suffering which that dreadful crime entailed upon himself and those he loved did pierce the armour and enforce a change. He emerged from that ordeal with a loathing of publicity which was almost pathological. He identified the outrage to his private life, first with the popular Press, and then, by inevitable associations, with freedom of speech and then, almost, with freedom. He began to loathe democracy.

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We cannot blame him. The life which he and his were forced to lead became abnormal. He is not possessed of any sense of humour and was unable to add that lovely lubricant to the harsh grating of his machine. He could not buy a stick of chocolate without being mobbed in the drug-store; when he visited a theatre both he and Mrs. Lindbergh were forced to assume disguise. I remember him telling me a story which explained much. He told me that when his child had been kidnapped he received a clue which seemed at the time hopeful. He leapt into his car to follow it up. As he left Princeton he found four Press cars following in his wake. He stopped and addressed the leading car. “Yes, boys,” he said, “I have got a clue. But unless I am left alone to follow it up, there is no chance of success. I beg you as human beings not to follow me.” The younger newspaper men were embarrassed by this appeal. An older one answered for them. “Sorry, Colonel,” he said, “but business is business.” Lindbergh turned his car back to Princeton and drove home in white anger. “So you see,” he said to me, “I have cause to hate the Press.”

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It is not true to say that Colonel Lindbergh was ungrateful to the British Press and people for the reserve with which they treated him when he was living over here. He came to me one day in London and asked whether he could help in any way. “I’d like,” he said, with his shy smile, “to do something in return.” I introduced him to two Cabinet Ministers. Little came of his suggestion. He went to Germany. Like most aviators, Colonel Lindbergh is certain that any modern war will be settled in the air. He was shown all the more modern types of German aeroplanes and given full facilities to observe their pilots practising. He became convinced that both in men and pilots the Germans possessed the mightiest air-force in the world. There were other things that he admired. He liked their grim efficiency, he liked the mechanisation of the State, he was not at all deterred by the suppression of free thought and free discussion; he admired the conditioning of a whole generation to the ideals of harsh self-sacrifice; the rush and rattle of it all impressed him immensely.

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He would return to the little Kentish village where he lived. Slowly the smoke of burning weeds would rise against the autumn woods, and lazily the apples would drop in the orchard. His mind had been sharpened by fame and tragedy until it had become as hard, as metallic, and as narrow as a chisel. The slow, organic will-power of Britain eluded his observation; he regarded our indifference to the mechanical as a proof that we, as they say in Minnesota, were “incurably effete.” He liked England; he had no desire to see her murdered; he hoped that we should run away before Marshal Goering could catch us.

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Let us not allow this incident to blind us to the great qualities of Charles Lindbergh; he is, and always will be, not merely a school-boy hero, but also a school boy.

 

spectator_article_19oct1939

March: Belatedly, I’ve decided to add, as a comparison piece, Lindbergh’s reflections on England.

Sticklers will point out that the following paragraphs are highly unreliable. And they will be right. All autobiographies and journals, if they are published on the basis of their historical or literary merits, will be subject to judicious editing: but in most cases (especially where diaries and journals are concerned) the aim is to remove or compress much that is trivial or self-indulgent or quotidian or just downright dull.

Lindbergh’s autobiography, published two years after he died, was by its very nature the product of a more exotic editorial process.

In the weeks before Lindbergh died, he told his publisher, William Jovanovich, that he had begun a memoir, but had not finished it. The likelihood now was that he would run out of time. Would Jovanovich care to look over the manuscript and related papers?

Indeed he would. The draft, he discovered, was good but negligible. Of even more interest were the notes, sketches, earlier abandoned drafts, a fitfully maintained journal, scraps of philosophy and a memorandum of intent as to what he, Lindbergh, hoped a completed memoir would achieve. In other words, its design, its architecture.

So, soon after Lindbergh died in August 1974, Jovanovich set to work. He co-opted one helper: Judith Schiff, curator of the Lindbergh archive at Yale University. Another was thrust upon him: Charles’s widow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

Anne’s involvement complicated matters considerably: because of course Anne was keen to remove or amend anything that might compound the ambiguous nature of the Lindbergh legacy.

But in truth, even without Anne’s involvement, it would have been a task of Byzantine complexity. Beginning right back in the late 1920s, Lindbergh was continually rewriting his own history and recasting his opinions. The material was riddled with all sorts of contradictions and inconsistencies.

Students of the autobiographical genre will be familiar with this notion – and it’s a fascinating one in and of itself. The history of modern autobiography since Wordsworth’s The Prelude illustrates, if nothing else, the contingency of consciousness.

(Not, you understand, that I am offering the same sort of houseroom to Charles Lindbergh and William Wordsworth.)

But here’s the thing: most autobiographers, be they ever so unreliable on their own account, are usually able to affirm their own revisions.

Great swathes of Lindbergh’s testament were effectively written by Jovanovich or Schiff or Anne, sometimes using ingenious circumlocutions and editorial sleights of hand to weave together different accounts, often written decades apart, of the same events; sometimes paraphrasing as they saw fit.

The following is a case in point.

“The year and a half I spent in England left me with no desire to return for other than visits. I was impressed by the great traditions of the British and by their stability and laws and their sense of justice. The family summers at Long Barn were among the most wonderful summers of my life. I valued highly the friendships I made within a people who through commerce, Christianity and conquest had established the greatest empire ever to exist on earth. But there was a sense of heaviness of life in England that pressed like a London fog. It was as though the Englishman’s accomplishments, century after century, had become a cumulative burden on his shoulders until his traditions, his possessions and his pride over-weighed his buoyancy of spirit. I felt that England, aged, saw not her greatness year by year. She was satisfied with her empire and a legal status quo enforced by her warships’ guns. It was as though her desires blocked out the knowledge of her mind that life is not stabilised long by conquest, and that wings fly over land and sea and gun batteries.”

“I wondered whether the temperament of the English people was compatible with the rising tempo of other Western countries’ life. For it seemed more attuned to ship and sail than to wings and the speed of aircraft.”

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Charles Lindbergh’s clandestine role in the Munich crisis is not widely known. It may surprise many

Flying Over Ruins: a synopsis

Flying Over Ruins is a portrait of two of the most remarkable marriages of the 20th Century – and of the period in the late 1930s when their fortunes intertwined.

Charles Lindbergh, heroic aviator, the most famous human being on the planet, and his wife Anne, as sensitive as she is courageous, a first-rate writer in the making, seek a new life England in the aftermath of the murder of their first child.

They already know Harold Nicolson, who’d been a guest of the family in the States when he was writing a biography of Anne’s father. Now they’re destined to fall under the spell of Harold’s wife too: Vita Sackville-West.

Their arrival coincides with the revival of Harold’s ambitions as a statesman – and, for a while, his friendship with Charles is advantageous. But this proves a double-edged sword as Charles, naively, accepts invitations to visit Berlin and allows himself to be feted by Nazi Germany; and when he allies himself to the pro-Appeasement faction back in England, he helps throw Britain’s foreign policy into disarray.

As a result, Harold’s career soon lies in ruins. He can console himself that he’s been highly influential in Anne’s emergence as a writer of real talent; and he rediscovers his love, unlikely as this may seem to outsiders, for Vita. Anne and Charles, meanwhile, are drifting apart.

All the source material for Flying Over Ruins is already in the public domain; but no-one has put the material together in quite this way before – and there are genuinely new perspectives here. For instance, Lindbergh’s role in the Munich crisis will come as a surprise to many.

But as we see as our narrative unfolds, when Charles preaches about the invincibility of German air power, the nation listens… and his arguments are a major factor in emboldening the Cliveden Set. Similarly, Harold’s role in pre-war politics is almost always ignored: he’s far better known these days as Vita’s husband. But he’s a witty and colourful character in his own right – and Flying Over Ruins aims to show him at his compelling best.

At the outset of the book, the Lindberghs are installed in Harold and Vita’s Long Barn property; and the supremely well-connected Harold begins introducing Charles to all the people who matter, including royalty and the political elite. Along the way, he tries to co-opt him to the side of the foreign policy hawks warning of a growing German menace.

But Charles, much to his mentor’s chagrin, drifts towards allegiance with Nancy Astor – no friend of Harold’s. Coincidentally, despite several barnstorming speeches in The House, Harold’s star begins to wane.

Both men are damaged, professionally and personally, by events as they unfold – and have every reason to feel disillusioned. There’s a catalogue of failures here, some darkly comic (not least the Lindberghs’ Berlin trips), others poignant. Yet there’s resilience here too: Harold, outmanoeuvred, finds consolation in a new understanding with Vita; Charles, his naivety now cruelly exposed, heads back home, defeated in Europe but ready to meet turbulent new challenges in Washington.

As their story heads towards an elegiac conclusion, we begin to realise that history will eventually prove both men right, though in very different ways.

But Charles and Harold aren’t the whole story. Though they give the book much of its narrative structure, Anne is its beating heart. She was one of the most remarkable women of the age, celebrated for her role as co-pilot and navigator on Charles’s more sensational expeditions. Indeed, we’re party to one of these as they seek to fly over the ruins of all the world’s ancient civilisations (thus the book’s title) in one round trip before following Alexander’s route to India, where Charles meets one of his heroes, the mystic writer, Francis Younghusband.

In the opening chapter, Anne arrives on these shores still haunted by tragedy – the kidnap and murder of her first son in the so-called Crime of the Century. In England, she finds herself once more; and, encouraged by both Harold and Vita, begins to emerge as a writer of real talent.

In particular, we focus on the evolution of the acclaimed “Night Flight from Bathurst” chapters of Listen! – a book destined to become an instant bestseller.

More people should know about Anne Lindbergh – her story is an uplifting one.

In summary, Flying Over Ruins is a fictionalised account of a true story, as-yet-untold in this detail, about two marriages, four extraordinary people – and the ways in which they each see the world. Sensitively derived from the diaries and letters of the four main characters, it’s also a book very much about a time and a place, evoking Kent and London during a vividly intense period in Britain’s history.