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Films >> Lindbergh Kidnapping Case, The (1976) >>

3600 Miles, 39 Years of Pursuit: Lindbergh's Flight from the American Press

By Eileen Smith Zulli and Jeannine Capecci

[1] It was August 26, 1974, when the first man to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic died of cancer in his home in Maui. He was 72 years old and had lived long enough to be worshipped and reviled by the American public. During the 18 months between the death of Lindbergh and the 1976 television production of The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case, the U.S. had endured some culture crises that were certain to challenge the self-image of "The American." Early in 1974 Patricia Hearst, publishing heiress, was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army only to resurface as Tanya, a gun-toting member of the gang of thugs. The public acknowledged the United State's involvement in Vietnam at large as a debacle of unparalleled proportion. Following close on the heels of Vice-President Spiro Agnew's ignoble encounter with the law, President Richard Milhouse Nixon was forced to resign from office. Even the unconquerable Babe Ruth suffered a defeat as his home run record fell to Hank Aaron. The fact that Aaron was one of the good guys is unprotested, but it still marked the passing of an era. It seemed that none of the titans were left standing. The nation was in a maelstrom of change, which left many with a sense of loss of direction and purpose. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that a cropped and bloodless version of Charles Lindbergh should appear on television, a medium that was swiftly becoming a changeling for reality. America had had enough of real people. She was casting about for an icon, an inspiration, and a hero. It was a time for artifice and selective historical memory.

[2] So precisely where does the film enlighten and where does it mislead? The very opening segment gives us a glimpse of the excitement and unmitigated adulation heaped upon Charles Lindbergh with the completion of his successful transatlantic flight. That Lindbergh's success was as much a matter of luck and favorable winds as it was planning and talent is well known among historians. While the crowds roared their approval, experienced navigators were astounded that the daring young man had crossed the Atlantic with little more than a compass and a favorable wind. The few-filmed moments of crowds and tickertape parades only suggest the magnitude of the celebrity that was incurred by Lindbergh and the enduring quality of hero worship that he experienced. (We 124-27). What complemented the picture was that Lindbergh was a tall, handsome bachelor with a beguiling smile and unmistakable modesty (Berg 129). There was an element of lunacy attached to the public's notion of Charles Lindbergh. One woman insisted upon renting the hotel room he had so she could bathe in the same tub. Lindbergh was never prepared for the catapult of instant renown (We 315).

[3] And what of that renown? The American press was hounding him before The Spirit of St. Louis even left the ground. The swarming seas of Parisians he met as he landed were only the beginning of the onslaught Lindbergh would experience. The press liked him because he was a solitary man. Perhaps they felt the need to break him or to be let in to the sepulcher of his personality. Nevertheless, upon his return to the States, no less than 4,000 lines of verse were dedicated to him, along with several popular songs. Even the dancehalls of the day were infiltrated by hordes of flappers doing "The Lindy." Three and a half million letters were sent to him, and, not unlike Olympic athletes of the late 20th century, several promotional deals were flung at his feet, promising revenue beyond his wildest dreams. The crowds believed he belonged to them, and the press delivered him unto the crowd (Lindbergh: The Shocking and Turbulent). Lindbergh's defense against a relentless press was to never give a straight answer. He resented their intrusive questions and retaliated in the only way he knew, with evasiveness.

[4] When Lindbergh married Anne Morrow, he probably brought into his life the only person who ever really knew him. The film portrays Anne as lifeless as it portrays Lindbergh, however the real woman gives us more. In the documentary Lindbergh: The Shocking and Turbulent Life of America's Lone Eagle, we talk to Anne after her husband's death. We are not presented with a shrinking flower, eclipsed by her husband's notoriety. Instead we see a very strong woman who without doubt understood every motive behind every action her husband made, and makes no excuses for them. We are forced to feel her frustration with the press when she recounts the story of her honeymoon. The press followed them out on a cruise and threw bottles at their boat in order to bring them out on deck. We cannot help but be reminded of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, casualties of the British press who are often dubbed the most intrusive in the world. On their honeymoon voyage, speedboats trying to catch a glimpse of the new Princess of Wales in her bikini constantly pursued them. And although privately we may disdain those reporters, the proof of public curiosity lies in the flight of tabloids from the shelves.

[5] It is not a surprise, if we really look at Lindbergh's personality, that he thought he would be able to live a normal life with his family. He seems to have had an undaunted trust of human nature. If we compare him to celebrities of today, perhaps Tom Cruise is not that far off. Cruise is a man whose private life is constantly the talk of the tabloids, and even winds its way into casual kitchen table conversation. When he recently filed for divorce from his actress wife, Nicole Kidman, speculation from her fidelity to his sexuality abounded. There are probably only two people living in the mountains of North Dakota who have not heard about his suspected homosexuality and his alleged gay lovers. Why do we care? Conversations here in the faraway-from-Hollywood Lehigh Valley have been overheard containing speculation on what would happen to their three adopted children now that Hollywood's dream marriage was at an end. This to some extent was what the Lindberghs were dealing with, although it can be argued that the press of the 21st century holds absolutely nothing sacred in the way of a public figure's private life. Probably the best example of this was the public airing of former President Clinton's actions with Monica Lewinsky. Actually printing in the newspaper and broadcasting on national television the sexual exploits of the Commander and Chief of the United States was a first. We were led to speculate "what if" the same had happened to such icons of public life like John F. Kennedy or Franklin D. Roosevelt. Would their stars have fallen as far if the true nature of their private lives had been exposed? Lindbergh's biggest misconception was that he could accomplish the unaccomplishable (the transatlantic flight) and go unnoticed.

[6] Tragedy, on the other hand, is the second most printable commodity in our civilization, next, of course, to scandal. When tragedy befalls a public figure, the world wants to be a part of it. It makes average people feel as though they are actually a part of that hero's life. During the Depression, the kidnapping and murder of Lindbergh's child could possibly be seen as the average person's escape from his or her own personal problems. "That poor family" was probably uttered at more tables that year if for nothing else than to put the reality of the Depression behind. For the first time, Lindbergh tried to use the press to his advantage, and he failed (Lindbergh: The Shocking and Turbulent). He thought that by appealing through the press he would bring about the return of his son. What actually ensued was a media circus.

[7] "American courts have consistently ruled that the public's right to know ‘newsworthy' information outweighs a public figure's right to privacy" ("Drawing the Line"). This was clearly the perception of the press from the moment the news of the kidnapping hit the wires. Before there was adequate time for law enforcement agencies to conduct a proper investigation, the press had converged upon the Hopewell residence (Davis 308) and tramped through the grounds (Key Passage 9:52) more eager for a story than concerned for the recovery of the child. Lindbergh chose the Hopewell site specifically to ensure the kind of privacy that he needed for the security of his family (Berg 219). There is more than a touch of irony that the isolation failed to protect his family then or now. The story fails to fade; it persists as dark images of a public event, part of the vernacular of American history (Lindbergh, R. 80-83).

[8] The film does not do the best job of portraying the fishbowl existence of the Lindberghs because it does not go far enough. There are a few moments, though, where we see the amount of pressure that was lofted on Lindbergh during the search and eventual discovery of the body of his son. There are scenes of onlookers and reporters crowding the shallow grave where the body was found, simply to get a closer look, without regard for the fact that a child has died. The ugliest image of all, which is portrayed in the film (49:56), is of Lindbergh at the mortuary identifying the remains of his son. The press could not even leave him alone for this most private and horrible moment. Reporters accosted him as he left the building, asking morbid and personal questions that the average man would not have been able to answer after viewing the body of his only son. However, Lindbergh, according to what the press made of him, was no ordinary man, and should have been able to give the public what it wanted. We believe that the director wants us to be sickened by this image, but if we are, it is only temporary, because it is a scene that has replayed itself time and time again in the pages and on the televisions of America. This scene perhaps has more poignancy than the actual trial scenes, which are presented in a very dry and documentary fashion, with few startling moments or revelations.

[9] In general, one may say that the film, The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case, reconstructs the events of the case without embellishment or intrigue. Yet there were forces at work during the investigation that this particular movie manages to mask with a kind of civility, which stretches its credibility. In the film, Lindbergh alludes to the interagency rivalry that was inescapable given the nature of the crime and the principals involved. Charles Lindbergh had been a celebrity for five years, an agent who promoted aviation and became a poster boy for success amidst the tides of the Great Depression. When the kidnapping was reported, the borders from New Jersey to New York and Pennsylvania were effectively shut down ("Lindbergh's Transatlantic Flight"). Vehicles, homes, orphanages were searched, and the police forces of Philadelphia and New York City were all activated in a frantic search ("Charles Lindbergh"). The press coverage of the hunt was boundless. INS, AP, and UPI sent out 50,000 words within 24 hours of the crime and 10,000 words per day over the wires when there was no progress to report (Davis 308-9). The FBI, the New Jersey State Police (a new and semi-military organization not equipped to handle police investigations), and the New York City police all scrambled for jurisdiction and credit. There was enormous pressure on these agencies to find the child ("Charles Lindbergh") and then to find the perpetrator of this heinous crime. Like a stone skipping across the water, director Buzz Kulick gives us only hint of the forces that drove this high profile investigation. For example, his version of Schwarzkopf as the NJ State Police officer in charge is one of a gentle and concerned friend of the Lindberghs instead of history's version of the hard-edged investigator on the hunt for a killer. It is hard for us to believe that he stays around and helps the Lindberghs pack for their move to Englewood as is suggested in the film. Nowhere in the historical record is Schwarzkopf seen as this overly familiar character.

[10] There is an episode in this history where the truth is more bizarre than anything a novelist or filmmaker could imagine is. John Condon, a.k.a. Jafsie, a retired teacher who happened to live in the same borough as Hauptmann, offered $1000 of his own money, a considerable amount during the Depression, to assist the police in reuniting the child with his family. The cemetery scene in which the transfer of ransom money takes place provides us with the historical record of events. Condon meets "John" and convinces him to take $20,000 less than originally asked as ransom. Since both the Morrow family and Lindbergh himself were wealthy and well connected, negotiating the price of one's only child seems callous and inappropriately thrifty. The director does cast doubt upon the motives and involvement of Condon, but he is quick to let him off the hook. The police and the public considered him a suspect. Whether Condon was a self-promoting megalomaniac or a man deeply and genuinely awed by Lindbergh is a question that neither history nor this film has answered.

[11] Condon's character, however, provides us with another look at the press and its role in the Lindbergh kidnapping. As much as Lindbergh detests the public adoration and invasion, Condon is portrayed as thriving on it. Even when the press is accusing him of being the kidnapper, he courts them with enthusiasm. And when they turn in his favor and extol him as a hero, Condon responds. In the film, Condon arrives at the courthouse and walks in as if a red carpet were spread beneath him. For him, the press was his escape from his ordinary life. He captured a part of what Lindbergh had when he returned from Paris and was reluctant to let it go. At the end of the film, when Lindbergh has declared that he is leaving the country for the supposed safety of England, we see Condon holding a press conference. He says that it is a shame that this American hero has been forced to leave the Great United States because of the danger to the welfare of his family. Not once does Condon lob that blame on the press or their over-exposing coverage. For us to look at Lindbergh's "escape," we can justify and condone it. We saw Jackie Kennedy re-marry and leave the United States for the same reason, even though during her era she came under criticism for doing so. Also today many Hollywood stars opt to raise their families outside of the movie industry in order to escape the close watch of the press.

[12] F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Give me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." The American press and public seem to be in full concordance on the topic of tragedy and constantly in search of that next great story. Although we threw off the yoke of royalty more than 200 years ago, citizens of this nation have been in search of their own homegrown brand of majesty. We worship and revere the rich and famous. They live lives that most cannot imagine under the unmitigating scrutiny of the press that fills the public troughs with fact, fiction, and idle speculation. Charles Augustus Lindbergh had lived long enough in the eye of the media to tarnish his image as an American icon. He was a man whom the public wanted to raise to the status of hero, but he was in the end just a man, sometimes noble and daring, sometimes foolish and fallible. His daughter, Reeve, comments that her father knew only one way to deal with pain and hardship, and that was to go flying, ironically the one thing that brought him into the public eye (Lindbergh: The Shocking and Turbulent).

[13] In later years, after the kidnapping was a memory for most, and the looming devastation of world war hung over the country, Lindbergh would again be brought into the spotlight, if only for a moment. His anti-war and anti-Semitic speeches would catch the attention of the press, but not for long. Soon he was again a hero, taking it upon himself to go to the Pacific theatre of war and fly for the country that loved him well. It is easy to say that the press of today would not have let him get away so easily. In fact, we believe that he would have been served up cold to the public considering the views he harbored and his fascination with the German political machine. However, and maybe thankfully, today's press was not there, and, for the most part, Lindbergh's reputation was kept intact. His anti-Semitic beliefs are only a footnote in his biography and, in fact, totally left out of some of the documentation of his life. Even his wife Anne neither defends nor condemns his speeches but rather says she warned him not to make them once and then dropped the subject. A man of his status today would have been ruined completely by the press for making such speeches. Some may say that it was what he would have deserved, however, in the annals of American History, it is unlikely that Lindbergh's name will become synonymous with white supremacy. It is the nature of the beast, and we can say with certainty that if a person decides to be extraordinary, then that person must come to terms with the scrutiny and the fickle love of the public and the press.

[14] One final thought on the range -- or perhaps the limitations -- of the film, which was our starting point. Charles Augustus Lindbergh, at the moment of his death, is remembered as we choose to remember so many noteworthy men and women of our past. They are a part of us not because of the their flaws but because of their contributions to the tapestry of history. They lived as we do with our dark and nobler natures in a state of cosmic tension. The frenzy of the moment gives way to a more balanced perspective that comes with passage of time. If we choose to celebrate the victories of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Oppenheimer, Richard M. Nixon, or even William Jefferson Clinton, it is because history gives us our heritage. Marilyn and Monica and Watergate are footnotes in history. Corruption of the individual cannot be the model we present to our children. The failures of our forebearers teach us valuable lessons: caution, discretion, humility, even compassion. But they do not teach us to reach, to dream, and to aspire because for that you need heroes. The study of our past is more than an exercise in the acquisition of facts. It is the search for values and for a cultural ethic. The dark and the light side each have a place in the study of a nation's past. Let us not forget the purposes of each. It would indeed be a bleak landscape if we waited for the flawless hero. Most of us have relegated that measure of a man to the fantasy and fairy tales of our childhood. Those people of accomplishment are people nonetheless. Any civilization that is not prepared to forgive frailty and move on is doomed to be disappointed.

Berg, A. Scott. Lindbergh. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1998.

Charles Lindbergh.

Davis, Kenneth S. The Hero: Charles L. Lindbergh and the American Dream. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1959.

"Drawing the Line on Privacy Vexes the Media." Christian Science Monitor 4 September 1997. [Archived]

The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case. Videocassette. Dir. Buzz Kulik. Columbia. 1976. 150 Minutes.

Lindbergh's Transatlantic Flight: New York to Paris.

Lindbergh, Charles A. We. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1927.

Lindbergh, Reeve. Under a Wing: A Memoir. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Lindbergh: The Shocking and Turbulent Life of America's Lone Eagle. Dir.Stephen Ives. WGHB. 1990. 60 minutes.