Thursday, March 1, 2012

Winter Reading: Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I had not intended to become an Anne Morrow Lindbergh scholar.  It all began innocently enough last September when I was packing for a few days in Maine.  I should have gone to the library, I thought.  I browsed my bookshelves and said to myself, what could be more appropriate than re-reading Gift from the Sea while at the ocean?
I had read the book a few times, finding something new in it with each reading, but it had been at least seven or eight years since my last reading.  In Gift from the Sea, Anne studies relationships and compares them to shells she finds on the beach.  The pictures she paints as she describes the shells and her insights into marriage and other relationships are thoughtful and compelling.

While still in Maine, I googled her and decided that I wanted to know more about her life.  When I got home, I took out the biography, Anne Morrow Lindbergh by Susan Hertog, from the library. Raised as a daughter of the American Ambassador to Mexico, Anne grew up in a wealthy and privileged family with frequent travels to Europe and South America, eventually graduating from Smith College.  While in Mexico visiting her parents over a Christmas vacation, Charles Lindbergh joined the family as a guest of the Mexican government.  Anne developed an immediate crush, later claiming that life for her began when Charles came on the scene. 

I had seen Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" hanging in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., but I was not aware of what a celebrity he had been in his day.  Papparazzi followed him everywhere. The public was totally charmed and he walked comfortably amidst the throngs.  Anne knew that if she wanted to be part of Charles's life, she would not be able to maintain the privacy and solitude that she craved. 

But she loved to fly.  After her first ride with her sisters in Charles's airplane, Anne found an instructor back in her college town and began flying lessons.  The next year when Charles again came to Mexico, he let her fly his plane.  Imagine what flying was like in those days.  Just Anne and Charles in an open two-seater cockpit, cruising up the sides of mountains in Mexico and dashing down the next.  Anne sensed a huge freedom, had no fear in the plane, and relished time alone with Charles.  Flying gave them the opportunity to land on isolated beaches and meadows, far from the press.  

Marriage brought a new perspective on duty.  Devoted to duty and God, her parents had instilled in Anne the need to be of service to her community and family.  As Anne flew with Charles to different parts of the world, she shared her vision with an adoring public through books and articles.  I was surprised to learn that Anne Morrow Lindbergh had been a huge best-selling author in the 1930s and 40s. 

The tragic kidnapping of their first child, Charlie Jr., dramatically changed Anne's and Charles's lives. After a frantic three-month search for the baby with Charles convinced he would eventually bring Charlie home alive to Anne, the baby's body was found a mile from their home, killed within the first day or two of the kidnapping.  Anne responded by blaming herself--the baby was stolen right out of his bedroom while she was in the house.  Previously convinced of the basic goodness of man, she now had to confront evil, a major crisis of faith.  Charles blamed the press and a chaotic democratic society.

I was interested to learn that kidnappings were more common during the Great Depression of the 1930s than at any other time in history.  Perpetrators thought they could make big money quickly.  The kidnapper of Charlie Jr. apparently intended to hold the him for ransom, but was so terrified by the hoards of policeman and press, who descended on the area in droves, that he killed the baby and hid the body.  A year went by before the kidnapper was caught. From hereon, Anne and Charles saw the press as a threat to their existence.

More than ever, Anne wished for a peaceful life away from the public eye.  In time she and Charles had five more children, but the media attention persisted.  To escape, they lived in ten different parts of the world over a fifteen year period.  At the same time, Charles became more adamant than ever that Anne should accompany him on his flying missions.  While she loved flying and writing about these adventures, she was torn between the duty she felt towards Charles and her love and duty to her children.  During this period Charles came to value Anne's writing; he became her most intuitive reader and editor.

As I read the biography, I couldn't help sharing some of it with friends.  While at the Co-op one day, I mentioned my reading.  A few people said, "I love Anne Morrow Lindbergh!"  My friend, Lynn, said, "I've read a few of her books. They have meant a lot to me."  Another woman told me, "For years, my husband and I gave Gift From The Sea as a part of our wedding gifts to each of our friends."  Lynn became interested in reading the biography; we even held a book club meeting at the Old Chatham Country Store! 

Since much of the biography focused on Anne's writing, I decided that I should read two of her best-selling books, one, Listen!The Wind, about flying with Charles, and the other, Dearly Beloved, her only work of fiction. 

Listen! The Wind describes ten days out her six-month journey across the North and South Atlantic with Charles.  They had been commissioned to map routes and winds for possible future commercial air travel.  How incredibly exotic this book must have seemed to her readers.  Landing on islands with native people, gauging the winds--first too much, then too little--and Anne's complete fearlessness in the air over thousands of miles of ocean.

Anne didn't just write while traveling.  She also had work to do.  By hanging an antenna out of a hole in the bottom of their tiny plane, Anne was responsible for reading and sending coded messages to and from land.  She enjoyed the camaraderie with people on the ground who connected to her in the air.  Once she made radio contact with a ship on the ocean.  Charles dove down close to the ship, waved to the sailors, and then flew steeply back up to the clouds.  Anne's other job was to fly the plane for periods while Charles monitored readings and maps. As I thought about flying in 1933, I could understand the public's fascination with Anne's books.  Nothing as surreal as flying across oceans had been done before.  In addition, Anne and Charles were an attractive couple that made them darlings of this new frontier.

Since I had now read three books by and about Anne, I knew her novel, Dearly Beloved, would be a change of pace. The story is a spin-off of Anne's startling discovery that Charles no longer belonged on the pedestal where she had held him for fifteen years.

Charles's fascination with Nazi Germany, when he was invited to inspect the Luftwaffe, did not seem problematic.  He was justifiably awed by the German engineering and precision of their air force. What upset Anne and the American public was his position in the America First campaign, a white supremacist group with Nazi leanings. Scholars claim that his anti-democratic sentiment came from his reaction to the kidnapping of Charlie Jr.  He held overt American freedoms responsible for allowing heinous crimes.  As his anti-semitic speeches grew louder, Anne faced a dilemma.  At first she stuck by her wifely duty and wrote articles politically similar to Charles's speeches, despite her convictions that he was wrong.  Eventually she had to break away to keep her voice and sense of truth. During this tumultuous period, she and Charles both had affairs.

Anne retreated to a house in Connecticut and began writing about her own marriage and marriage in general. What came out was Dearly Beloved, a story in which a young couple stands at the front of the church to get married. The narrator describes the thoughts of the different friends and family who are watching the ceremony, each character viewing the wedding vows from his own life experience.  Anne's fictional exploration resolves into a positive endorsement of communication, oneness, and endurance through marriage.

I thought I had finished my study of the Lindberghs and reported this back at the Co-op.  Lynn said, "Did you read Bring Me a Unicorn?  That was my favorite.  I give it as a gift regularly."  Should I bypass Lynn's favorite book?  I requested it from the library.

 Bring Me A Unicorn brought me full circle back to the young shy introverted woman with a fierce need to express herself through writing. My picture of Charles came full circle, too, from the confident young aviator to an older reflective man, who would visit the Smithsonian just to watch the tourists' expressions as they gazed at his planes hanging there.  Bring Me A Unicorn, a compilation of Anne's letters and journal entries completed my Lindbergh study.

As she grew older, Anne found time for solitude, a love of nature, and more time to nurture her writing.  She and Charles continued to live in the Connecticut house where they had regular visits from family.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh outlived Charles by 27 years and died in 2001 at age 94.

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