As I write this, it’s been a year since Felix Baumgartner of Austria stepped out onto a platform on the edge of space and jumped. He had no advisors persuasive enough to convince him that it was a bad idea, no official sanction save his corporate sponsor, the makers of that stuff frat boys mix with Jagermeister to make sure they’re awake when they throw up on their girlfriends’ shoes. He jumped with only a parachute to prevent him from becoming the world’s most famous puddle of goo. The man jumped from space, hurtling toward the planet fast enough to break the sound barrier, and we let him do it.
Maybe Baumgartner didn’t get the memo that we’re just not the sort of people who do things like that anymore, that our enthusiasm for pitching our bodies into the void died after Neil Armstrong. Since then our missions in the air and beyond have become blurbs on the nightly news—another shuttle mission to fix a glitchy satellite or add another module to the space station we mistake for an especially bright star in the sky. We spill more ink and Internet chatter about Beyonce’s performance at the Super Bowl than about the fact that they’re building a spaceport in Oklahoma, talking again about sending people to Mars, conceiving a starship at DARPA. We no longer want to be astronauts when we grow up.
In 1927, Charles Augustus Lindbergh took off from Long Island in an airplane made from little more than sticks and cloth and flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean, landing 36 hours later in Paris. He left the ground an anonymous mail pilot and returned to it as the most famous man in the world. Afterward, he could not go anywhere without the press at his heels. He received medals and honors and accolades from every country that would give them. The Lindy Hop was named for him, and he couldn’t dance. In the last age of heroes, Lindbergh was the hero.
Lindbergh had his pick of prizes and a world full of women clamoring to be Mrs. Lucky Lindy, eager to feather the Lone Eagle’s nest. Thus, it was a shock when Lindbergh chose as his mate Anne Morrow, second and far less-favored daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Anne was shy, reserved, bookish, a Smith girl and aspiring poet, hardly the odds-on choice for someone like Lindbergh. What Charles saw in Anne, however, was a seriousness and inner courage that matched his own. He chose her as someone who would, and could, follow him anywhere, and she did, through more turbulence than either of them could have imagined.
Melanie Benjamin chronicles the Lindberghs’ marriage through Anne’s eyes in her new novel The Aviator’s Wife (Random House, 2013), and the result is remarkable. Beginning with their first meeting in 1927 through Charles’ death from leukemia in 1974, Benjamin tracks Anne’s journey from starry-eyed girl to woman of the world and of her own mind, a life of changes in the shadow of a larger-than-life husband who fought change and diminution with every fiber of his being. In public they were a storybook romance, the First Couple of the Air. In private they were anything but, and Benjamin tells this story with grace and insight and rare skill.
Life with Lindbergh was to be, by definition, an adventure, and Anne’s oft-ignored part in it is detailed here: flying and navigating with Charles as they charted air routes all over the globe, becoming an accomplished pilot herself before anyone had heard of Amelia Earhart and the world’s first female glider pilot, all while dodging the hordes of the press eager for any piece of the Lindberghs they could get. The same qualities that drove Charles in his exploits, however, guided him as a husband and a man: coldly logical and inflexible, a maker of lists and plans and rigid schedules, a man who needed everything just so and would not be persuaded otherwise. While Benjamin takes pains not to portray Charles as a villain of any sort, he was someone who resisted emotion or empathy, a man it took Anne considerable effort to love.
And then there is the Lindbergh baby, Charles and Anne’s first child, kidnapped in 1932 in what was called then the Crime of the Century. Benjamin follows Anne through every heartbreaking incident of the investigation and its tragic end and shows us the wedge driven between the Lindberghs forever. Even though they had five more children, Charles Jr.’s ghost becomes a virtual character in the novel, a shade as powerful as Charles’ fame and Anne’s growing discontent.
As the 20th century marches on and Charles finds himself more alienated, both by the pre-WWII anti-Semitic stance he took in the name of isolationism and in his fading relevance in the age of jets and rockets, Anne finds her own inner voice of discontent rising. It is here that Benjamin really shines in capturing an authentic voice for Anne as she begins to find herself, both as the writer of the classic Gift from the Sea (among many others) and as a woman finally deciding what she wants—and what she doesn’t. As Anne begins to accumulate secrets and discovers that Charles has a devastating secret of his own, Benjamin’s novel is at its best once the Lindberghs exit the spotlight and the only history they make is their own.
The Aviator’s Wife is an amazing book, not just as novel or fictional biography but as an authentic-feeling look into the inner lives of the kind of heroes we just don’t have anymore, and the cost of being them.
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