In the spring or 1927 something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan who seemed to have nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams . . ."
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., called Slim, an air mail pilot (he flew the St. Louis-Chicago run), stunt flyer and a captain in the Missouri National Guard,
decided to try for the $25,000 prize put up by hotel man Raymond Orteig for the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. He got the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and some local businessmen to stake him. When he reached New York, the papers were full of stories about two much more celebrated fliers (Navy Commander Richard E. Byrd and Clarence Chamberlain) preparing to make their own bids for the eight-year-old Orteig prize.
Byrd and Chamberlain were still poring over the Atlantic weather charts and fussing with their planes when the impatient kid went out to Roosevelt Field on Long Island before dawn on May 20. There was a sleet storm upstairs but the lanky upstart figured his little gray-and-white monoplane could fly through it. He took on 451 gallons of gas (and some coffee and sandwiches) and pointed for France at 7:52 A.M.
The groundmen were surprised that he could get off with such a load, but he had no trouble. Nor did a thousand miles of snow and sleet bother him over the lonely ocean as he neared Paris. He put The Spirit of St. Louis down at Le Bourget, on the other side, thirty-three hours and twenty-nine minutes later"I am Charles A. Lindbergh," he saidand found 100,000 Frenchmen waiting in a chill and nasty wind.
He was carried around the arc-lit field on the mob's shoulders for half an hour, losing his cap and getting mussed up in the process. Paris staged the wildest demonstration since the Armistice, but it was nothing compared to what lay ahead for the twenty-three-year-old flier.
Back in the States, editorial writers were hailing him in extravagant terms. The New York Evening World wondered whether his 3,610-mile flight shouldn't be classified as "the greatest feat of a solitary man in the records of the human race." The song writers said it with music. George M. Cohan tapped out When Lindy Comes Home. There was even a new dance just for him, the Lindy Hop.
When Lindbergh got to New York, 1,800 tons of ticker tape and shredded newspapers and phone books showered down in welcome as he was driven up lower Broadway to Fifth Avenue. The crowds were so dense that Trudy Ederle, who had her own parade the year before, couldn't get past the police lines for a glimpse of America's new hero.
It cost the city $16,000 to clean up when the big street party was over. For Lindbergh, the party was just beginning.
He got 14,000 gifts, and marriage proposals by the hundreds. He got 3,500,000 letters (and there was $100,000 in return postage in them). He got 100,000 wires and 7,000 separate job offers. A group of promoters offered him $2,500,000 for a round-the-world flight.
Lindbergh shook everyone off and went on the payroll of the Guggenheim Foundation for a series of good-will tours through the Americas for $2,500 a week. On the side, the ex-air-mail pilot took pieces of TWA and Pan-American World Airways. He would never know need again but he might not know contentment either. The future held heartbreak and tragedy, bitterness, self-exile, disillusion, massive wrong guesses on World War II, and severe political troubles.
The tragedy came first. Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., born to the flier and Anne Morrow in 1930, the year after their marriage, was kidnapped from their New Jersey estate on March 1, 1932.
The Lindberghs paid $50,000 in ransom, but the baby was found dead in the woods near their home in Hopewell. It took two years to trace the ransom money to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, and another year to convict the Bronx carpenter and put him in the electric chair. When their long ordeal was over, the Lindberghs slipped aboard a boat for England with their second son, Jon.
In 1936, Lindbergh went to Germany to see the New Order for himself as a guest of Hermann Goering. He accepted military decorations from the Hitler Government and as World War II approached he warned Britain's Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that the German Air Force was unconquerable. When America went in on the Allied side, President Roosevelt's Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, turned down Lindbergh's offer to serve. The flying hero had been made a Colonel in the Air Force years before, but official Washington, bitter over his political activities on the Far Right, made him wait quite a while to don uniform. When he did, he served with distinction in the Pacific in a non-combat role.