Lucky Lindy and his ties to Detroit

Image“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

On May 20, 1927, a tiny monoplane arose from the mist hanging over a Long Island, N.Y., airfield and headed east out over the Altantic. By the time it landed near Paris more than 33 hours later, Chester Augustus Lindbergh had assured himself of a world-wide fame that would be nearly as difficult for him to deal with as the tragedy that accompanied it.

The world went wild with emotion and turned the Detroit-born Minnesota farm boy into a national hero. The airplane he designed is still, 70 years later, one of the most popular attractions in the Smithsonian Institution. Much is known about Lindbergh’s flight but few are aware of his connections to Detroit.

Charles Lindbergh’s father migrated from Sweden to Minnesota, “The Glorious New Scandinavia,” with his parents. His mother, Evangeline Land Lindbergh, was born in Detroit in 1876 on the site where the David Whitney Building now stands.

Schooled at the prestigious Liggett Academy, she graduated from the University of Michigan in 1899. Fellow classmates remembered her as the “prettiest girl on campus.” Evangeline, who had her mind on a career in science, later received a Master of Science degree from Columbia University.

The Lands were a family of science. Her father, dentist Dr. Charles H. Land, invented the porcelain crown and later expanded his inventiveness beyond dentistry to the development of gas and oil burners for furnaces.

Evangeline was a niece of John C. Lodge, a Detroit city councilman and mayor in the 1920s, and for whom the Lodge Freeway is named.

In 1901, Evangeline married widower Charles A. Lindbergh and settled in Little Falls, Minn. When it came time to give birth to her son, Charles, she returned to Detroit to be under the care of her grandfather, Dr. Edwin Lodge, a respected physician. Charles was born Feb. 4, 1902, in his uncle Edwin’s three story brownstone at 1220 West Forest.

As an adult, Charles Lindbergh would refer to himself as a Minnesota native. When questioned by friends about his birthplace being Detroit, Lindbergh replied, “but that’s not important. What’s important is that I got started in Minnesota.”

Lindy spent most of his boyhood in Little Falls, but he attended Central High School in Detroit for a year. Although his parents never formally divorced, Charles Sr. and Evangeline lived apart for most of their marriage.

ImageLindberg’s birthplace, 1120 Forest Ave. West.

In 1922, Evangeline began a teaching career at Cass Technical High School that lasted 20 years. Despite his mother’s love of education, she supported Charles’ decision to drop out of college and pursue a career in aviation.

Lindbergh detested the nickname ‘Lucky,’ saying luck had nothing to do with his well-planned trip and carefully designed airplane. However during his days as a flying cadet he survived a mid-air collision and as an airmail pilot he made four emergency jumps. These feats earned Lindbergh early membership into the parachuters’ Caterpillar Club and a new nickname, “The Flying Fool.”

His mother, in her home at 178 Ashland, listened while her son was crossing England and the French coast that momentous Saturday. She followed her son’s flight from hour to hour over a special telephone line kept open by the The Detroit News. Later, after her son’s successful landing, Mrs. Lindbergh gave Detroit News reporter Martin Klaver her first interview, discussing her son’s boyhood and youth.

“I have tried not to interfere with him in any way. He was always permitted to make his own decisions. We made the facts clear to him and we taught him that he must take the consequences if he made the wrong decision… As for aviation, I think it is the finest profession in the world for a very definite type. Charles is a born aviator.”

Following the historic transatlantic flight, Capt. Lindbergh received an offer from Henry Ford to manage Ford’s growing aircraft holdings. Ford said “Lindberg is a student, a doer, and a gentleman….He is a splendid, clean character and a man it is good to know.” Lindbergh declined the offer.

He was offered $1 million to appear in a movie; $1 million for a vaudeville agreement, and $2.5 million to fly around the world. He was offered the presidency of several manufacturing companies, new homes, and $50,000 to endorse a cigarette. (He never smoked or drank.)

The offers totaled more than $11 million — about $100 million in today’s dollars. Lindbergh refused all ventures except those related to aviation. “He was very upset,” said Harry Bruno, a public relations adviser, “that people would offer him something for nothing.”

ImageAugust 1927: Capt. Lindbergh with Henry Ford and Ford Motor Co. flying ace Harry Brooks (in cockpit).

    In August of 1927, Lindy returned to the city of his birth and a hero’s welcome. Cermonies were held at his birthplace on West Forest. Later he would speak at a huge open field in Detroit. According to reports in the News “30,000 squirming, shreiking, madcap children in a crowd of 60,000 spectators in holiday delirium, greeted Lindbergh at Northwestern Field. Never before had Northwestern been the scene of such pandemonium.”

During the motorcade to the Book Cadillac for a luncheon, reported the News, “All of Detroit’s girlhood, rich and poor, turned out in its very best dress, to see America’s most eligible bachelor. Girls stood for hours along the route waiting for a glimpse of the hero. Some of them pulled $25 hats at a better angle and determinedly powdered their noses.”

ImageCapt. Lindbergh addresses crowd of 60,000 Aug. 10, 1927 at Northwestern Field during daylong celebrations honoring the city’s native son.

    Earlier that morning Capt. Lindbergh flew his ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ to the Ford Airport in Dearborn, where he was greeted by Ford and his staff pilot, local aviation ace, Harry Brooks. Although Ford had been a pioneer in aviation manufacturing he had never been up in an airplane. At the invitation of Lindbergh he took his first plane ride.

In spite of the fact that he had the world at his feet, Lindbergh remained a considerate and caring person, visiting his mother and Detroit relatives whenever possible. On May 10, 1928, during one of these visits, Mayor John C. Lodge took his first plane ride in a three-engine plane piloted by his nephew. Although Lindbergh shunned the limelight, the ‘Lone Eagle’ had a close knit group of friends whose companionship he treasured.

The romance between Lindbergh and Anne Spencer Morrow enraptured the nation. In 1929, the dashing bachelor with his movie star good looks, acute blue eyes, and a smile that lit up the front pages, married the beautiful and talented Anne Spencer Morrow. Anne wrote of their courtship, “In order to be alone we had to fly. We just lived in planes.”

ImageJohn C. Lodge and his niece ,Evangeline Lindbergh ,during August 10, 1927 ceremonies honoring the returning hero.

    Their many well wishers rejoiced the following year when their son, Charles, was born. The son of the “Lone Eagle” became popularly known as the “Eaglet.” But the happiness was short-lived–on March 1, 1931 their baby was kidnaped. Eleven days later his body was found in a shallow grave less than five miles from the Lindbergh residence.

After a six week trial Bruno Hauptmann, a German born carpenter, was convicted and sentenced to be executed in the electric chair. The investigation into the kidnaping and murder of the child was headed by Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Persian Gulf War commander.

The pain and suffering over the child’s death and the circus atmosphere of the trial forced Lindbergh to seek isolation from the press and privacy for his family. A few months before Hauptmann’s execution, The Lindberghs sailed secretly to England where they remained in voluntary exile from 1935 until 1939.

During this period Charles turned to other scientic projects. He helped develop a heart perfusion pump that later led to heart bypass surgery. He accomplished this work with French physician Alexis Carrell. His interest arose from the debilitating and incurable heart problems of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth. From the beginning of their association, he impressed Currell with his self-taught scientific knowledge and brilliance.

ImageBruno Hauptmann

Lindbergh continued his research in aviation during the early war years. He was an early pioneer in rocketry and religiously promoted space exploration. Years later when NASA sought the perfect candidate type for their astronaut program they created a profile based on Lindbergh, coining the phrase “the right stuff”.

Lindbergh’s stand against American involvement in the war with Nazi Germany received support from a number of prominent Americans ,including Henry Ford. As war loomed, he argued, “We came here to escape Europe’s ceaseless wars. Why should we now go back in?” To which the poet, Carl Sandberg characterized him as “…the famous flier who has quit flying and taken to talking, who is proud that he has ice instead of blood in his veins.”

As a leader of the America First Committee, an organization opposed to U.S. participation in the war, he criticized American foreign policy, testified before Congressional committees in opposition to British aid bills and advocated a negotiated peace.

He was criticised for accepting a medal from Hitler’s regime. Lindbergh later told a Senate committee that on one of his pre-war trips to Germany he was invited to the American Embassy where “Marshall Hermann Goering handed me this decoration.” It was the Distringuished Service Cross of the German Eagle, the highest decoration given by Germany to foreigners.

In a Chicago speaking engagement in April of 1941, he expressed the opinion that “this war was lost by England and France even before it was declared.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, annoyed by his speeches, classed the flier with Civil War Copperheads, (northerners who sympathized with the South).

Lindbergh, disturbed at implications made “concerning my loyalty to my country” resigned his commission as colonel in the Army Air Corps Reserve. Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh volunteered his services to the Air Corps but was refused permission to regain his commission.

“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 attitudes in the past.”

Rejected by the Army Air Corps, Lindbergh attempted to partner with private companies involved in the war effort, but was rejected over fears the government would pull their national defense contracts.

Henry Ford, who himself had been labeled anti-Semitic and pro-German, contacted Lindbergh and invited him to work at his Willow Run B-24 bomber factory. This time the aviator accepted Ford’s offer. The B-24 was being refitted for mass production. Lindbergh worked on the redesign of the nose and the gun mount.

ImageLindbergh and Col. Norman Schwarzkopf, head of New Jersey State Police, and father of Persian Gulf Commander ‘Stormin Norman’ Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf headed the investigation into the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

While working at the plant he was impressed by the high quality of work produced by the women workers and their high moral character, compared to some of the male employees. At its peak in 1943, the plant had 42,331 workers and by 1944, 650 B-24 bombers were rolling off the line every month.

During this time Lindbergh’s wife and children joined him in Michigan, living on the Cranbrook campus in Bloomfield Hills.

Of his tenure at Willow Run, Lindbergh later wrote, “I would have viewed the Willow Run bomber production line as a marvelous feat of engineering. I would have felt proud of even the small part I had in bringing it into being. Now, it seemed a terrible giant’s womb, growling, clanging, giving birth to robots which were killing people by the thousands each day as they destroyed the culture of Europe….This was a temple of the god of science at which we moderns worshiped….Here I watched a steel door lift and an airplane roll outside; while, in reality, the walls of a cathedral fell and children died.”

After the war the Lindbergh family continued to visit grandmother Evangeline at her Grosse Pointe residence. In 1954, Evangeline Land Lindbergh died. Brig. Gen. Charles Lindbergh returned for a final family reunion in Detroit. Services were held at the Orchard Lake Community Church,where Evangeline’s grandfather often preached.

In 1977, Wayne County Commissioner George Hart led a campaign to rename Willow Run Airport the Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Airport. Disowning Hart’s hyperbole, Willow Run defenders argued that Willow Run is a “powerful symbol of the American war effort, a name hallowed to aviation buffs around the world as the’Arsenal of Democracy.”

Detroit News Assistant Managing Editor George Bullard, who at the time wrote a column for the News called ‘Flight Lines,’ thought Commissioner Hart off base. Bullard pointed out Lindy’s youthful Minnesota ties and his relationship with the city of St. Louis. “Detroit thought so little of Lindy,” Bullard concluded, “that it had the house he was born in torn down for urban renewal in 1973.”

On August 26, 1974 Lindbergh died of lymphatic cancer at the age of 72. He spent his last years in quiet seclusion in a small cottage on the tranquil island of Maui. Following his request, he was buried in his work clothing: his favorite plaid shirt, khaki pants, and a Hudson’s Bay blanket he had once brought from Canada for his mother. Private services were held in the Palapala Ho’omau church.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin headlined his departure “EAGLE’S FINAL FLIGHT IN PRIVACY”.

ImageLindbergh’s plane, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” has long been one of the most popular exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution. A replica of the plane used in the Hollywood movie about Lindbergh starring Jimmy Stewart is at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

   Bibliographic Notes:

The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh, T. Willard Hunter, 1993, Madison Books.

War Within and Without; Diaries and Letters, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1980, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News