Although the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping occurred just outside Hopewell in 1932 and the ensuing “Trial of the Century” of the accused kidnapper was conducted in the Hunterdon County Court House in Flemington, the curators of the new exhibition on famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his writer wife, Anne Morrow — opening Friday, November 13, at Morven Museum and Garden in Princeton — were surprised by the lack of real information most people had on the subject.
Exhibition organizers Elizabeth Allan and Heather Smith then conducted an informal poll about the celebrated and controversial American hero — who in 1927 was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and then five years later saw his infant son murdered in a mystery-laden crime — with their 30-something friends. “People would ask, was he a Nazi? Or did he fly?” says Allan. “Our mothers’ generation was different,” Smith observes. “Most brought up the kidnapping, although few were aware of the outcome; and even fewer knew that the Lindberghs went on to have five more children. We felt it was our job to address this.”
Having heard enough to know that a Lindbergh exhibition was needed, they also wanted to bring something new to the table. They would not focus solely on Lindbergh’s famous flight or on the kidnapping and trial, but they would tell a fuller story, one that would relate the Lindbergh story against the backdrop of the 20th century: hence “Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age,” continuing at Morven through October 23, 2016.
The exhibition — suggested by collector and Morven exhibitions committee member Joseph Felcone — reflects what the Lindberghs’ youngest daughter, Reeve Lindbergh, writes in “No More Words: A Journal of My Mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh”: “My family was so intimately linked with both the best and the worst aspects of American culture, and of human nature, for most of a century.”
Accordingly the exhibition mixes the heroic with the darker moments of the couple’s lives, including Charles’s isolationist views regarding America’s involvement in World War II, his fascination with the Third Reich, and Anne’s attempts to explain her husband’s views.
It was a tall order, but Allan and Smith plunged in with enthusiasm, reading every book they could lay their hands on.
One of their first tasks was a fact-finding mission to consult with staff at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., which houses the plane Lindbergh flew, the Spirit of St. Louis, in a space that is currently undergoing a major renovation to be completed next year, which accounts for the “why now?”
“We knew quite quickly that the exhibition could not just be about Charles A. Lindbergh alone; it had to be about Anne and about the early days of aviation as well. We couldn’t limit it,” says Allan. The two curators constantly E-mailed and texted each other with their reactions to what they were discovering in such places as Princeton University’s Firestone Library, where Smith examined original manuscripts annotated by both Charles and Anne. The challenge, the curators realized, was to create context from the Roaring ’20s, through the Depression, the war years, the space age, and beyond. But first they would have to put visitors in the mindset that would allow them to appreciate the enormity of Lindbergh’s 1927 achievement.
As Lindbergh biographer A. Scott Berg — who will make a presentation on Saturday, November 21, at McCarter Theater — puts it, “Never before in the history of mankind had one man been off the ground for so long. Nobody had ever subjected himself to so extreme a test of human courage and capability as Lindbergh. Not even Columbus sailed alone.”
“Just think of it,” says Allan, “he was in the air traveling over the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean; in the 1920s, this was like space travel.”
“Remember too,” adds Smith, “that in order to rise to New York hotelier Raymond Orteig’s challenge, major advancements in engineering were needed to produce an engine that would keep going for 33 hours nonstop without overheating.”
In 1919 Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 (equivalent to well over $300,000 today) to the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic between New York and Paris in the next five years — then a near-unimaginable feat; no plane could cover this distance in a single flight. Orteig renewed his offer in 1924, and by 1927 advancements in engine design brought his challenge within reach. Seventeen fliers planned to try an Atlantic crossing that year. All were seasoned explorers or famous war aces from the First World War. At just 24, Lindbergh was the outsider; no one thought he and his single engine plane had a chance. And when visitors to Morven see the replica that has been built on Morven’s front lawn, they will see why. The plane appears tiny and fragile, a “flying gas tank.”
But Lindbergh’s slight figure and boyish looks belied the strong determination of his Swedish forebears. His grandfather Ola Mansson came to the United States in 1859 to settle in rural Minnesota. Lindbergh’s father, Charles August Lindbergh (1859-1924), served as congressman for Minnesota (1907-1917) and campaigned vigorously against America’s entry into World War I, a position his aviator son would echo when it came to World War II.
A U.S. mail pilot flying between St. Louis and Chicago, Lindbergh was no reckless novice. He had chalked up hundreds of hours as a barnstorming stunt performer and graduated at the top of his class from a one-year Army Reserve course. He had flown in all sorts of weather but would not take off unless he was sure of his equipment. “What may seem like luck was careful planning on his part,” says Allan, who like “America One Summer, 1927” author Bill Bryson, calls Lindbergh “the greatest pilot of the 20th century.” “Not only that, he got the plane built and got financial backing for the project,” she says.
To participate in the race, Lindbergh put up $2,000 of his own money and another $13,000 from nine St. Louis businessmen. Ryan Airlines of San Diego, on the verge of bankruptcy, promised to build it in 60 days; its 35 employees, led by aeronautical engineer Donald Hall, working round the clock.
Lindbergh made his first test flight two months to the day after placing his order and tested it 22 times over the next 10 days. As far as Lindbergh was concerned luck had little to do with success. Instead, it was skill coupled with tried and tested technology. He hated being called “Lucky Lindy.”
Both curators were charmed by an anecdote about Hall and Lindbergh working on the plane’s design: They wanted to know how much weight the plane could handle and how much gasoline would be needed. For that, they needed to know the distance between New York and Paris, but with no quick resources like Google Maps, they visited the local library, where they stretched a length of string around a globe to estimate the distance. Then it was back on to the next problem, how to navigate over water. Over land a pilot had landmarks like railway lines to guide him, but this was different. Typical of Lindbergh, he worked it out for himself.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh. When it came to Anne, the curators had a wealth of books and diaries to explore. They discovered that she truly loved to fly. “Her letters and journals are full of fantastic descriptions, and she was also very competent. She set a new long-distance wireless communications record of 3,000 miles, for which she was awarded the Veteran Wireless Operators Association Gold Medal — the first woman to receive the honor,” Allan says. “While many recall her as a shy, literary, even fragile figure, she was also, without a doubt, a steely adventurer and a determined pioneer in the era of celestial navigation.”
Anne’s parents were Dwight Whitney Morrow (1873-1931), a partner at J.P. Morgan & Co., and poet Elizabeth Cutter Morrow (1873-1955), the first woman to head Smith College. Her father was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and was hosting Lindbergh on a goodwill tour of that country, when Anne first met the husband she would later describe as her “stubborn Swede.”
“When she said yes to (Lindbergh’s marriage proposal), Anne said yes to a lot,” observes Allan. “They crash landed when they were engaged, and they traveled rough; she even flew across country when she was suffering from morning sickness.” Seven months pregnant with her first child in 1930, Anne broke the transcontinental speed record by three hours, flying as co-pilot and radio-operator with Charles from Los Angeles to New York in 14 hours and 45 minutes. She became an award-winning aviator in her own right. “And she was a young mother at the time,” notes Allan, who is expecting her first child this December. Allan has been fascinated and a little appalled to learn that Anne had babies and then went off with Lindbergh for extended periods of time, as copilot on flights totaling 40,000 miles and spanning five continents.
But it was as an award-winning writer that Anne would find fame with 13 books including the bestsellers “North to the Orient,” “Listen! The Wind,” and “Gift from the Sea,” as well as “The Steep Ascent,” “The Unicorn and Other Poems,” “Earth Shine,” “Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead,” and “The Flower and the Nettle.”
Paparazzi. One aspect of the Lindbergh story that definitely strikes a modern chord is the couple’s treatment by the paparazzi. To the curators, they were the first celebrity couple to be hounded in ways that recall Princess Diana. Lindbergh was the most photographed man alive, and he very soon became disaffected with the press. Allan explains: “He’d given his rights to the story of his transatlantic flight to the New York Times but was appalled to see the article that ran after his arrival in Paris. It was full of inaccuracies. What really hurt was that it portrayed him as an ‘Aw Shucks, Ma’m,’ Midwestern farm boy, who arrived in Paris and asked for a glass of milk. After that, he’d had it with the press.”
Even so, there was a grain of truth to this portrayal, Allan says. “Lindbergh naively thought he’d arrive in France and then take in the sights like a tourist. He even worried that he might get into trouble for not having a passport and for flying a plane without the correct lights. He had no spare clothes with him; he even assumed he’d be flying back to the U.S. Instead, a U.S. battleship was sent for him.”
“I love the young Lindbergh,” says Allan about her growing awareness of the individual, “but when it comes to the Berlin years, although he was 100 percent there working with the American government and doing his job, he had tunnel vision when it came to the Nazis.”
Smith cuts Lindbergh some slack, given the time period. “There’s no doubt he was egotistical, a tough and demanding parent, and not a generous-spirited person, but I like him despite his faults,” she says, adding that Anne was also not perfect. Having read 12 of her 14 published journals, Allan finds an enormous lack of confidence in Anne. “From my perspective as a woman in 2015, I find her an amalgam of strong and weak — she confides to her diaries but not to her husband.”
Over the years Lindbergh has had his fans and his detractors. President Franklin D. Roosevelt could not stand him, but Dwight D. Eisenhower made him a brigadier general. John F. Kennedy idolized the aviator since childhood and admired his antiwar stance with which he sympathized when he was a college student. Both, incidentally, won Pulitzer Prizes for biography: Lindbergh in 1954 for “The Spirit of St. Louis” and Kennedy in 1957 for “Profiles in Courage.”
Objects in the exhibition represent private and public collections. Examples of “Lindy” mania — cigar wrappers, a tortoiseshell and diamond woman’s makeup compact, perfume bottles, children’s toys, and board games — come from the collection of Hopewell-based historian James Davidson.
A map of the flight route with Lindbergh’s handwritten annotations was provided by Barbara Webb, Morven’s director of development. It was a gift to her father-in-law, James Webb, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the period of the Apollo space flights, from U.S. Air Force General James H. Doolittle and astronaut Neil Armstrong.
The Service Cross of the German Eagle — aka the “Nazi Medal” — awarded to Charles Lindbergh in 1935 by Nazi General Hermann Goering, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, is on loan from the Missouri History Museum. Other lenders include Bob Denby of Skillman, J. Richard Pierce of White House Station, the New Jersey State Police Museum in West Trenton, and the Historical Society of Princeton.
To create the exhibition Allan and Smith were joined by a team that includes intern Kimmy Kolvites — who researched, fact checked, and organized hundreds of images — and Brooklyn-based Isometric Studio designer Nicole Fischetti and founders Andy Chen and Waqas Jawaid, both graduates of Princeton University.
“Good clean design creates order, and it can bring clarity to this complex story,” says Allan. “These young designers understand that we are drawn to period details and want large-scale images showing the coats, shoes, and hats of the day. They use image clustering, multiple text types, quotations, film, and changing newspaper headlines in an amazing way that brings structure to this highly complex and many-leveled narrative.”
That includes attention to the trial. The Lindberghs had hoped to live a “normal happy life” away from the spotlight. The kidnapping and discovery of the body of their golden-haired toddler was devastating. The trial also took its toll. By the time it was over, the Lindberghs had had their fill of unscrupulous reporters and shameless demands for money and kidnapping threats against their second child.
In response to the ongoing question regarding accused kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann’s guilt — and his wife’s insistence of his innocence until her death in 1994 — the curators surmise that while he was certainly connected he may have been part of a gang. They dismiss the idea that Lindbergh himself was involved as speculated — his reputation as a prankster suggested that the kidnapping was a joke gone badly wrong.
Lindbergh was known as a practical joker who sometimes went too far as when he filled a friend’s water jug with kerosene and the friend ended up in the hospital. In the Army Air Service Reserve, he once turned a hose on in the bed of a sound sleeper, put shaving cream into the open mouth of a snorer, and doused a sergeant’s pillow with skunk “juice.”
The curators were amazed by the amount of commercialism and marketing occasioned by the trial and the number of New Yorkers who traveled to Flemington by train to attend, quite a coup to get in apparently. Female reporters had their clothes paid for by big department stores.
Finding a reference to a New York socialite wearing a miniature ladder as a necklace, the curators set out to track one down. The ladder necklace on display once belonged to Maurice Sendak, who as a young boy had been terrified by reports of the kidnapping. The actual ladder used in the kidnapping is in the New Jersey State Police Museum.
The next part of the exhibition focuses on Lindbergh family life in the small English village that provided respite for at time. “They were serving on no boards; they were simply writing and reading. He was studying biology when out of the blue a letter comes to Lindbergh from Truman Smith, military attache to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, asking for his expertise and inviting him to go to Berlin,” says Smith. According to Allan, Lindbergh’s experiences in Germany informed his isolationist views. “Having seen the strength of Germany, he wanted America to keep out of it.”
“As Anne points out, Lindbergh didn’t go on his own accord but as a private citizen serving pro bono at the request of his government for a special report for the war department; he toured German factories and gave an excellent account of what he saw and warned of what the German government was doing,” says Smith, fresh from examining three boxes of fan mail sent to Lindbergh, in the collection of Firestone Library: letters from American mothers who didn’t want their sons to go into another war in Europe.
“The more we dug the more complicated the story became; we understand that isolationism and anti-Semitism are not one and the same. And isolationism was a popular stance in the U.S. at the time. And then Anne writes ‘The Wave of the Future’ and it makes matters worse,” says Allan.
Anne — back in the United States in 1940, living on Long Island, and expecting her fourth child — struggled to reconcile her husband’s isolationist views with those of her family and friends. In her 41-page book, she suggested that events in Europe signified a period of revolution. “Nazism seems to be scum which happens to be on the wave of the future,” she wrote. The book was widely regarded as defeatist, and Anne wrote in her diary: “I am now the bubonic plague among writers and C. [Charles] is the Antichrist!” She later regretted the book. Lindbergh, however, never wavered in his isolationist stance and his refusal afterwards to admit that he had been wrong damaged his reputation.
According to Lynne Olson, author of “Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941,” “The Lindberghs’ knowledge and understanding of Germany were, to put it mildly, superficial. They had no chance to observe what was really going on in the country; they saw what the Nazis wanted them to see. Neither spoke nor read German. Almost all their dealings were with German officials and military men. They didn’t mix with ordinary Germans, and they certainly were given no opportunity to witness firsthand the regime’s increasingly vicious persecution of the Jews.”
“And once Pearl Harbor happened,” says Allan, “Lindbergh was on board with the war.”
Were the Lindberghs naive? Neither curator thinks so. “Lindbergh operated on a different level,” says Smith. “We like to think of him as a normal man, but his upbringing was strange. When reporters went to his high school no one could remember much about him. He had no friends, moved a lot, and spent a lot of time with his mother and with his dog and in his grandfather’s laboratory. And the shock of the kidnapping took its toll.”
While the physical space of the Lindberghs may be close, the time and world is very different. Morven curator Allan is from Colts Neck, where she continues to live. Her mother, Mary Allan, is a clinical social worker and her father, William Allan, is a retired project manager. She has been with Morven for six years.
Project consultant Smith is the daughter of a British tutor mother and deceased tugboat captain father. Raised in Santa Barbara, she moved to New York City and worked as a photographer before entering museum work. She lives in Princeton with her investor husband and three children and curated the exhibition “Nine Blinks: Narrating the Human Body” at the West Windsor Arts Council in 2014.
Both have been living, breathing, eating, and sleeping with the Lindberghs on their minds for more than a year. “You asked us whether we liked him,” says Allan. “That’s a question I think about almost daily. It’s so complicated,” she says. Lindbergh’s treatment of Anne and the fact that he went on to have three other families that produced seven more children, diminishes him for Allan, who regards him as a fallen hero. “None of this came out during his lifetime, and while we address it briefly in the exhibition it is not a focus.”
While clearly having fun, the curators feel an enormous sense of responsibility. “Especially when I think about Reeve, whom I met last summer,” says Allan. “The media in the United States hasn’t paid as much attention to the other families as the media in Europe has, and we want to acknowledge the facts.”
“So many strange facts are associated with this exhibition,” says Smith. “One minute we’re looking up British royalty, then Kristallnacht, then trying to track down obscure facts such as Lindbergh meeting Queen Elizabeth as an infant during his European tour. It’s been a thorough education on 20th century history.”
The curators have learned to avoid the many “rabbit holes” that could potentially lead them off track. That includes: Did the Lindbergh baby survive (as some claim)? And how did Lindbergh’s belief in eugenics factor in to his beliefs and potential actions? And then there is Careu Kent.
Lindbergh’s Double Life. Here is what is known so far: after World War II, Lindbergh traveled frequently as a consultant to the U.S. Air Force and to Pan American World Airways. In 1957, at age 55, he began a long-term relationship with Brigitte Hesshaimer, a 31-year-old hat maker living in Munich, Germany. The affair, which lasted until his death in 1974, was kept secret, even from their children, Dyrk, Astrid, and David, whom he would visit several times a year, introducing himself as Mr. Careu Kent, on a secret mission that must never be talked about.
At the same time, Lindbergh was also in long-term relationships with Hesshaimer’s sister, Marietta, and Valeska, his German translator and private secretary. He had two children with each of these women.
Ten days before his death in 1974, he wrote a letter to each of his mistresses asking them to maintain “utmost secrecy.” It seems that they did, until Astrid confronted her mother in the 1990s. Upon learning the truth of her father’s identity, Astrid was sworn to secrecy until her mother’s death in 2001. In 2003 the three Hesshaimer children broke their silence and had DNA testing. They made no claim to Lindbergh’s estate but published a book, “Das Doppelleben des Charles A. Lindbergh” (The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh), in Germany in 2005. The other two families have continued their silence and have given no interviews.
“People seem to know something about it, but not much,” says Smith. “Even in what has been written there doesn’t seem to be very much to go on. I read that one of the sisters had a disability of some sort and speculations can quickly spiral into talk of his interest in eugenics.” Allan, who continues to struggle with her feelings on Lindbergh, would like to think he was in love. She’s almost come to like him and then, this comes out, “not just one other family, not just two, but three; two sisters and his personal secretary.” She finds it hard to swallow from someone who thought of himself as so moral, which is similar to the reaction of Lindbergh’s American children.
Reeve Lindbergh connected with her European brothers and sisters and in an essay published in 2009, “Forward from Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures,” she wrote: “I have the feeling that he was the only person involved with all these families who knew the full truth, and I keep thinking that by the time he died in 1974, my father had made his life so complicated that he had to keep each part separate from the other parts . . . I don’t know why he lived this way, and I don’t think I ever will know, but what it means to me is that every intimate human connection my father had during his later years was fractured by secrecy.”
The Exhibition. Having a year and a half of lead time for this complex and multi-faceted exhibition has been crucial for the curators. “Without that we may not have come to the conclusion that we had to include Anne,” says Smith, adding that Anne, in all modesty, told biographer Berg that he could not possibly write about Lindbergh without including her. In his will, Lindbergh stipulated that Anne and all of their children had to agree on a biographer.
“Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age” succeeds in showing the full arc of their complex lives. American aviation exploded after the Spirit of St. Louis, and Lindbergh played a leading role in the process that ultimately launched the space program. He championed the work of the American rocket scientist Robert Hutchings Goddard and helped him get funding from Harry Guggenheim, whom Berg describes as “perhaps the most important but least known figure in the development of American aviation.”
Through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Lindbergh was a special adviser to the U.S. Air Force and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, working on rocketry, missiles, and ultimately the space program. He continued to be a prime mover in the aviation industry as a consultant and director of Pan American Airways.
While the curators often wished for more gallery space (five galleries plus a trunk room and hallway), they acknowledge the value of having space constraints. “It means we have to be very selective about what we include and how it is presented.” Their mantra has been “We are not putting a book on the wall.”
After working on this material for the better part of a year and a half and being privy to the Lindberghs’ 45-year marriage through Anne’s diaries, has the experience affected them? Do they take away any insights that apply to their own marriages or relationships?
“Not really,” says Allan. “Their marriage represents a model from an earlier period, and I don’t find that it relates to my own life. It’s important also to remember that at the age of 27, Lindbergh had acquired millions of dollars and Anne grew up with privilege, moving among the wealthiest families in America; in her youth her family took luxury cruises to Europe; their trunks were Louis Vuitton; they went to dinners at the White House.”
But in Anne’s role as a mother, the curators find common ground. Early on, Anne’s leaving her children behind to fly with Charles around the world was hard to swallow. “But it wasn’t unusual for the time,” says Allan. “And Anne wasn’t just following Lindbergh, she had her own love and need for adventure; and she was absolutely a loving mother, eager to get back to her kids after these trips.”
“Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age” at Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton, opening reception for members only, Thursday, November 12, 5:30 p.m. The exhibit is on view November 13 through October 23, 2016, Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., $5 to $6.
Lindbergh biographer A. Scott Berg will deliver a lecture on his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography at McCarter Theater Saturday, November 21, at 4 p.m. $40. For more information, visit www.morven.org or call 609-924-8144.
Freelance writer Linda Arntzenius specializes in history and is the author of “Images of America: Institute for Advanced Study” (Arcadia Publishing, 2011).