by Melanie Benjamin.
I came across this book a couple of months ago and have been meaning to write a review of it. Other events got in the way, and only now have I felt free to turn my attention to this very good piece of literature. One caveat: I didn't read the book in hardcover; I listened to a Random House audio book version of it, claimed to be complete and unabridged, read very nicely by American actress Lorna Raver. This audio book version is excellent if you prefer your literature that way. Which I do, from time to time. However, I have no doubt the hardback paper version will be just as satisfying. The book was written by noted American historical romance author Melanie Benjamin, and was published in 2013.
It is the semi-fictionalised story of the marriage of Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow, told in the first person by Anne. As any aviation tragic will know, US aviator Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly non-stop and solo across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris, in 1927. The feat instantly made him famous and an international celebrity. He met Anne Morrow only a year or two later. She had scarcely finished university, was a daughter of the US ambassador to Mexico (she had several siblings), and was well connected to the East Coast moneyed and political Establishment.
She wanted to marry a hero. He wanted someone to share his aviation adventures. Under his tutelage, Morrow learned to fly and to navigate. She was his crew on a number of pioneering long-distance flights made by Lindbergh in the years before World War II. Morrow was also an accomplished writer. She wrote well-received books about their adventures together and kept an extensive diary. She also wrote philosophical works, at least one of which was a bestseller in the 1950s. So, she was no intellectual slouch.
Of course, when a novelist puts herself in the shoes of a real-life person, purporting to reveal the hopes, fears, and philosophy of that person, questions may be asked about how accurate the novelist's version of reality is. Benjamin has clearly researched Morrow extensively. Benjamin is also a clear and convincing writer. The version of the Lindbergh marriage, espoused by her through the lips of Morrow, is not a flattering one.
The marriage probably never recovered from the single event for which it is most famous: the kidnapping, attempted ransom, and murder of their first child, baby Charles Jr, in 1932. Dubbed "the crime of the century", even though the kidnapper was ultimately convicted and executed, the disaster placed a strain on the Lindbergh union from which it arguably never fully recovered. Anne wished to be allowed to express her grief openly and often; her husband frowned on this as displaying weakness: only strength and resoluteness would get them through the crisis. This fundamental difference in temperaments drove a wedge between Charles and Anne for the rest of their married life.
Lindbergh was revealed as a control freak. Although he never physically abused Anne, he tried to control everything she did, or to make sure it rebounded to his credit rather than hers. So, while he encouraged and welcomed her flying, navigational, and writing abilities, they all had to be harnessed to his benefit, his glory. If she resisted, he would give her the distant cold shoulder, till she bent to his will. Sometimes, he insisted she use her talents to favour projects he supported, but which she either opposed or was doubtful about.
The best example of this was Lindbergh's involvement in the "America First" movement in the years immediately before Pearl Harbor. America First wanted America to remain neutral and not enter World War II. Aspects of its propaganda were considered pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish. Lindbergh lent his famous name to the organisation and campaigned publicly on its behalf. Though his wife was doubtful about the whole enterprise, she acquiesced when he pressed her to write material supportive of America First. The whole episode ruined both their reputations for a while, and directly led to Lindbergh being rejected by the government when he volunteered to join the armed forces after Pearl Harbor.
Lindbergh only salvaged some of his reputation by working for civilian aircraft manufacturers during the war, flight testing their aircraft and advising their pilots under actual combat conditions in the South Pacific. He flew many combat missions, as a civilian, against the Japanese. He is credited with shooting down at least one Japanese aircraft. This war service, though not in uniform, greatly rehabilitated his position in the American public eye.
These experiences – the 1932 kidnapping, the America First disaster and Lindbergh's long absence in the South Pacific – inevitably helped the cooling of relations between he and Anne. By the early post-war years, their marriage, though formally intact, was a very strained affair. Both parties had affairs with others: Anne with a medical doctor and Charles with a succession of mistresses abroad. Post-war, he did extensive business as a consultant for various airlines, and his travels took him overseas many times, particularly to Germany.
In Benjamin's fictionalised version of the marriage, Lindbergh never suspected his wife's infidelity. However, in the Benjamin version of events, Anne finds out about her husband's affairs towards the end of his life. In real life, it is unclear whether Anne ever found out about her husband's betrayals.
As betrayals, it now seems they were massive. Not only did Lindbergh have affairs with several women in Germany over many years in the 1950s and 1960s, he had children by one or two of them. This is on top of the five further children he had with Anne during their marriage. He was certainly a busy boy. It is reported that Lindbergh's sexual adventures in Germany have been confirmed by DNA tests on several of his German progeny.
Lindbergh died in Hawaii in 1974. Anne survived him by many years, not dying until 2001. It is perhaps a sign of her ultimate disillusionment with her husband that he is buried in Hawaii while she was cremated in Vermont and her ashes scattered.
Why did Anne put up with Lindbergh's remoteness towards her for so many years? This is probably the central mystery of Melanie Benjamin's semi-fictionalised version of the Lindbergh marriage. In the Benjamin account, it seems to have been a mixture of Anne's traditional view of marriage and her lasting admiration for the hero that was Charles Augustus Lindbergh: he was famous, he had chosen her for his wife, and she was thrilled by this. Thrilled enough to outlast all the subsequent disappointments over so many years.
In some respects, Melanie Benjamin's book is a classic example of high-quality chick lit. It is a story of a dubious marriage, told from the woman's point of view, through the eyes of a woman novelist. But it is also a portrait of a famous, if flawed, aviator. For the aviation buff, this is a fascinating book. Benjamin's talents as a writer are obvious. Her command of language is excellent, her ability to inhabit her lead character, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, is undoubted, and her accounts of life among the American moneyed a elite in the 1920s and 30s, to which the Lindberghs always belonged, are fascinating. Whether you are a lover of chick lit or a serious follower of aviation history, you will find much in this book to enthral you. I couldn't put it down.
My star rating, out of five: * * * * 1/4