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Lindbergh Lands in New Haven
Charles Lindbergh was America’s first superstar. He was strikingly handsome and genuinely courageous, and every major event in his life—from his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 and his glamorous marriage to an ambassador’s daughter, to the murder of their first-born son—caused crowds to swarm and flashbulbs to pop.
Despite the millions of words written about Lindbergh, however, the writer A. Scott Berg suspected something was missing. “I felt that he was the greatest untold story of the 20th century,” says Berg, the author of the 1978 biography of Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins. “He was the greatest hero, who became the greatest victim, who became the greatest villain, and finally the greatest enigma. And then there was the love story.”
When Berg learned that Yale University had the principal—and as yet un-mined—collection of Lindbergh papers, the writer knew where he could get the rest of the tale. And after prolonged negotiations with Lindbergh’s widow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, to use the papers, Berg, in 1990, drove to New Haven to see what he'd gotten himself into.
Berg was escorted to the basement of Sterling Memorial Library, where the papers were stored in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. After viewing the 605 linear feet of material, Berg recalls, he staggered out of the library, “and I literally sat on a bench and cried.”
The aviator, to put it mildly, was a packrat. “Lindbergh kept literally everything,” Berg says. “He made a carbon of every letter he ever sent, and got his wife to do the same. He also kept his hand-written notes to her, laundry lists, grocery receipts. I mean, I found a notebook with an entry for six cents spent on Christmas tree tinsel.”
While the prospect of sifting through hundreds of cartons of papers, letters, diaries, journals, and photographs was daunting, Berg, a 1971 Princeton graduate, says the two years he spent at Yale were well worth it. “The archives were beyond my imagining in both volume and content,” he says. “There were so many wonderful things in there. It really provided the bones, flesh, and even the soul of the man. It’s all there.”
And the best of it will go on display in Sterling from April 5 to May 21 to mark the 100th anniversary of the aviator’s birth, and the 75th anniversary of his epochal flight.
The person responsible for overseeing the archive on which both Berg’s Pulitzer Prize—winning book, Lindbergh, and the Sterling show are based is Judith Ann Schiff, chief research archivist at Sterling (and the author of this Magazine’s regular “Old Yale” column). Far from just serving as the guardian of the papers, Schiff worked closely with Lindbergh himself for more than a decade as he made regular visits to Yale to drop off more and more material.
Today, sitting behind a large oak desk strewn with books by and about the aviator, Schiff recalls the time she spent with Lindbergh. “It was unusual in that with most archives, you don’t get to develop a direct relationship with the donor,” she says. “Often the papers are donated posthumously, but in Lindbergh’s case, it was an opportunity to live history.” Schiff says this exposure to such a seminal historical figure helped her decide to become a historian. “I would definitely say that he inspired me,” she says.
Schiff, who grew up in New Haven, got her BA from Barnard College in 1959. Soon after graduation, she accepted a job in the Manuscripts and Archives department at Sterling Library. In 1964, she earned her master’s degree in history from Columbia University. When she returned to Yale, she resumed her work at the library and completed a degree in library science at Southern Connecticut State College. Schiff is also a fellow of Timothy Dwight College and an adviser to the history department. She occasionally teaches courses at Yale, including one called “The Lindbergh Experience.”
Her own Lindbergh experience has evolved into something of a second career. She lectures extensively on the pilot and is on the board of the Lindbergh Foundation, which awards money to developers of environmentally friendly innovations. She co-edited Lindbergh’s Autobiography of Values, and co-authored a short biography, Charles Lindbergh: An American Life.
The Sterling exhibit, which Schiff curated, will include many of the documents in the Yale collection, as well as such artifacts as the necktie Lindbergh wore on the Paris flight and a piece of fabric from the Spirit of St. Louis.
But the warm association that developed between Lindbergh and Yale was by no means preordained. Neither he, nor anyone in has family, had attended the University. Still, from the moment he set foot on campus, he and Yale enjoyed a rapport that grew stronger over time. Lindbergh first visited Yale in October of 1940 at the invitation of the Yale chapter of the America First Committee, whose chief organizer was Kingman Brewster, later Yale’s 17th President. Articulating his anti-interventionist views on World War II, Lindbergh told the group, “We must either keep out of European wars entirely, or participate in European politics permanently. Personally, I believe that if democracy is to be saved, it will not be by the forceful imposition of our ideals abroad, but by the example of their successful operation at home.”
Soon after his visit, Lindbergh sent a signed copy of the speech to Yale. When asked if he had any related correspondence the University might include in its War Collection, Lindbergh sent some public-opinion mail, along with other papers. Over the next 30 years the collection would swell into one of the largest and most valuable in the Sterling archives. In addition to his own voluminous store of papers, the collection includes those of Lindbergh’s mother and wife, both inveterate scribes and savers in their own right. There are also thousands of photographs, a postcard collection, musical scores, a library of books Lindbergh either wrote or contributed to, and 60 crates of not-yet-processed mail.
Besides its enormity and completeness, what makes the collection exceptional, says Schiff, is the direct role Lindbergh played in maintaining it. “His mother and grandfather were both scientists, and from them he developed a deep respect for meticulous record-keeping,” she says.
This hands-on involvement resulted in Lindbergh becoming a semiregular visitor to Yale from the late 1950s until his death on August 26, 1974. Older faculty members might have stolen knowing glances at the tall, loose-limbed man with the clear blue eyes and cleft-chin striding down the sidewalk. But even the students would likely have taken note of this unusual figure, looking somewhat professorial in a suit and tie, but toting a pair of old-fashioned wicker suitcases that resembled picnic baskets into Sterling Library through the shipping entrance.
“He was informal, surprisingly so,” Schiff recalls. “He'd always call ahead to make sure he wasn’t inconveniencing us. He drove an old station wagon, parked on the street, and ate at a local luncheonette. He wasn’t in any way conspicuous.”
But that casual air didn’t extend to the maintenance of his archive. When it came to his papers, he was as exacting and meticulous as a NASA engineer. Employing what he called the “brown paper and package policy,” he sorted the papers into manila envelopes which he labeled with brief descriptions and organized according to importance. Lindbergh used only top-quality paper and insisted on special, rustproof paper clips imported from Sweden. “I found the system a little baffling at first,” admits Berg, “but the more I got into it, the more brilliant I realized it was.”
One might wonder whether part of Lindbergh’s insistence on tight control over the archive reflected a wish to cleanse it of anything that would embarrass him or his family. “I found so many things that put him, as well as Anne, in a bad light, that I don’t think they sanitized it,” Berg says. “They were pretty good that way, about keeping it honest.”
For example, there are references to Anne’s infatuation with another man, and the intimidating effect Lindbergh sometimes had on his five children. He also resisted any temptation to airbrush his public record. Pilloried for his alleged anti-Semitism, Lindbergh must have known how history would view this journal entry from a 1939 sea voyage: “The steward tells me that most of the Jewish passengers are sick. Imagine the United States taking these Jews in in addition to those we already have. There are too many in places like New York already. A few Jews add strength and character to a country. Too many create chaos. And we are getting too many.”
Readers of the archival material quickly discover that the way Lindbergh produced, collected, and maintained his papers was merely an extension of the way he lived his life. After the flight, Lindbergh received many sobriquets, including “The Lone Eagle” and “The Viking of the Sky,” but the one he disliked the most, and the one that was probably most inaccurate, according to Schiff, was “Lucky Lindy.”
“He was the most careful planner,” says Schiff. “‘Lucky’ didn’t apply to him. He couldn’t understand how someone renting a car would just get in and drive off. He would check out the car from top to bottom and get another one if it wasn’t up to his standards. He left nothing to chance.”
As Berg wrote in Lindbergh, after taking the Spirit of St. Louis up for six short test flights, “Lindbergh kept revising his lists of every item that would accompany him—from the breeches he would wear to the paper cups into which he would urinate.”
But it’s not just the records kept by Lindbergh that make the Yale archive a Pompeii of archival discoveries. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s papers are just as revealing, if not more so. If Lindbergh described the bricks and mortar of their lives, his wife sketched the interior landscape. “Anne was far more emotionally forthcoming than her husband,” Berg says. “With her, no thought or emotion went untold, which made her diaries so revealing and a pleasant surprise for me.”
So it is from Anne, not Charles, that one gets this clear-eyed insight into what it truly meant for the 25-year-old pioneer to land in Paris on May 21, 1927, and to be mobbed by fans. “Fame—Opportunity—Wealth—and also tragedy & loneliness & frustration rushed at him in those running figures on the field at Le Bourget,” she wrote. “And he is so innocent and unaware.”
Anne’s papers also enhance our understanding of another defining moment in Lindbergh’s life: the kidnapping and murder of the couple’s first-born son, Charles Jr. After the baby’s body was found and identified, Anne wrote that over the agonizing three-month period during which the child was missing, she had never once seen her husband cry.
Another anecdote offers a glimpse of how fiercely the Lindberghs sheltered their children from their father’s celebrity and the attendant public and media harassment. When the family went to Radio City to see The Spirit of St. Louis starring James Stewart as Lindbergh, 11-year-old Reeve squeezed her mother’s arm during one of the pilot’s many white-knuckle moments and whispered, “He is going to get there, isn’t he?”
Lindbergh may have been an outspoken isolationist, but once Pearl Harbor was bombed and he saw that American involvement in the war was inevitable, he was quick to close ranks. After the attack, he issued this statement: “We have been stepping closer to war for many months. Now it has come, and we must meet it as united Americans regardless of our attitude . toward the policy our government has followed.”
Lindbergh’s words were more than just conciliatory rhetoric. He joined the war effort as a technical representative, going on reconnaissance patrols and rescue missions. Later in the war, the 42-year-old began flying “unofficial” combat missions. He flew 50 in all, including one in which he went nose-to-nose with a Japanese pilot. As described by Berg, the two planes bore down on each other, with guns blazing. Lindbergh pulled hard on the controls and banked to safety just in time to see the enemy plane crash into the sea.
After World War II, Lindbergh, the most instantly recognizable man on the planet, all but disappeared from the public eye. “That’s one of the things that drew me to this project,” Berg says. “I wanted to solve the mystery: What happened to him?” Again, the archives hold the answer—he remained characteristically active and productive, first working for the airline industry and serving as a military consultant, and later focusing his energy on conservation and saving endangered species. Toward the end of his life, his love affair with technology was supplanted by a devotion to nature. “I realized,” he wrote, “that if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.”
Lindbergh was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1970s. His papers show that, true to his take-charge nature, he handled his impending death the same way he conducted his life. He planned every detail, from where he would die (Maui, Hawaii), and the choice of a coffin (“swamp mahogany” with a biodegradable lining), to the music that would be played at his funeral (Hawaiian hymns). Shortly before the end, he turned to an old friend who came for a final visit and asked, “Do you think I’m dying well?”
After poring over the archive, Berg says what emerges is a man more admirable than likable. “I wouldn’t want to have been his son, but what kept winning me over was that he could have made his flight, retired, and lived off his celebrity for the rest of his life. But instead he chose to constantly challenge himself,” he says.
Schiff has the added advantage of having known Lindbergh personally. She says that even if he hadn’t boarded that little single-engine “tail-dragger"and settled his 6' 3” frame into the wicker porch chair to fly 33 hours straight without sleep, parachute, or ground support, he would still be an extraordinary man. “People said he was aloof and withdrawn. I saw him as just the opposite. He took constant joy in learning from people and books and believed that nothing was worth ignoring—except maybe crowds.”
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