Monday, July 11, 2005

Review: Lindbergh (Finally!)

For being such a great biography, it really took me a long time to get through it. So long in fact, that I renewed it too many times, had to return it to the library, then checked it out again. And then I still had to renew it once. I think the problem was that I had several reserves come through at the same time, and they had definite time constraints because other people had requested them as well. Lindbergh was not in high demand so it got a lower priority.

At any rate, I decided to read this book after reading Kate Remembered, A. Scott Berg's memoir about his relationship with Katharine Hepburn that he published after her death. I liked his writing style and was intrigued by the high praise he had received for his other biographies of Max Perkins and Samuel Goldwyn. I also wanted to read about Lindbergh because I had read somewhere that the Hepburn/Tracy film "Keeper of the Flame" was loosely based on him because of his controversial involvement in an isolationist movement called America First at the beginning of WW II. He was accused of being a pro-Nazi fascist with aspirations to creating his own dictatorship -- and he was too naive to deign to address these aspersions directly.

There is a breathtaking level of detail in the book, the culmination of nine years of research. Berg was the first author given complete access to the diaries, letters and other documents of Lindbergh himself, his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, their children, and any other associates that might have had a bearing on creating this portrait of the enigmatic flyer. The density of facts is a bit overwhelming and necessitates a kind of focus that makes it impossible to read bits and pieces here and there as I was trying to do. It clocks in at over 600 pages and comes with several sections of photographs, some of which are from the private Lindbergh collections, and are great illustrations of the people and places described in the pages.

Overall, it was a fascinating picture of a man that even his family did not know well. Linbergh comes across as distant, willful and motivated by an unbending need to control everything around him. His flight to Paris was attempted not to bring him the fame that haunted him for the rest of his life, but to prove that the challenge could be met. This unwilling international hero tried to keep some things for himself and his family, but the press was relentless in their pursuit in a way that echoes the current paparazzi scourge. After the kidnapping death of their first child and the subsequent media circus, the Lindberghs were forced to emigrate to Europe to retrieve some measure of a "normal" life. The chapter on the "Trial of the Century" is a real page-turner, even if it does cast doubt on the idea that the perpetrator was able to pull off this astonishing atrocity by himself. Lindbergh's level of fame seems astonishing now, in an age where such "heroes" are manufacturing on a weekly, if not daily, basis and left behind just as quickly.

Interestingly enough, all of this fame and glory was tarnished by his unabashed admiration for the technological advances of Nazi Germany and his apparent refusal to explicitly state his aversion to the attempted genocide of the Holocaust. To be fair, although he did advocate that the US stay out of the "European" war, he was the first to try and reenlist in the armed forces once Pearl Harbor happened. Unfortunately he had put himself on the wrong side of FDR and had to find other ways to serve -- including acting as a guinea pig for aeronautics companies that were working through the technical problems of creating pressurized flight decks. Eventually he was able to find his way into the service as a "technical rep" and unofficially flew 50 bombing missions in the Pacific. His recommendations on increasing power and fuel efficiency expanded the attack radius of the fleets in the Pacific and brought a much-needed element of surprise to US battle plans there.

To be sure, it was not all sunshine and roses, particularly where his marriage was concerned. However, I think that those interested in the great man and his rise, fall and subsequent redemption through his conservation efforts will find this book a valuable resource. I knew that he was buried at Hana when I visited Maui six years ago, but if I had read this book before going there, I would not have stopped short of making it to his gravesite.

I was impressed enough to contemplate reading Berg's two other biographies; however, I think I will take my time in getting to them.

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