In the Shadow of a Hero: Anne Morrow Lindbergh
What happens to the darlings of the world once they have fallen from grace? It is 1947 and the Lindberghs are in crisis: their reputations have been ruined and the marriage is in trouble. Charles Lindbergh, one of the greatest heroes America has ever known, famous for winning the New York to Paris air race in a 30-hour solo flight of extraordinary courage and stamina, has been condemned as a Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semite. His wife Anne, a writer and his co-pilot since their marriage, has miscarried their seventh child and is suffering from bouts of depression. In the reviews for her most recent book, The Wave of the Future, written in support of her husband’s political and philosophical views, she has been derided as Satan’s ‘little wife.’ Now ill and exhausted, she fears she will go mad and wants to die, convinced she will never write again and that Charles’s reputation has suffered irreparable harm.
The hostility of the general public is a miserable echo of the inner conflict Anne is suffering, the insecurity she feels about her motives and intentions. Torn between domesticity and creativity, she confides in her diary: ‘To write, I have decided, is to be possessed by the Demon lover the ballads talk of… You don’t love your children or your husband at all.’ Introverted and timid, Anne has drifted in the slipstream of pioneering Charles, calling him ‘the last of the gods,’ finding his ideas ‘beautiful and strong.’ But a series of traumatic events have forced her to see him in a different, less favourable light. Now she is ‘sick of being this “handmaid to the Lord.”’ Despite her guilt and sense of disloyalty she wants to emerge from Charles’s shadow. But when she asks herself in her diary ‘where is the real me?’ she has only the sad answer: ‘It is completely buried.’
Out of this crisis would come Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s most enduringly popular and successful book, the gently philosophical, proto-feminist Gift From The Sea. It shot to the top of the bestseller list on publication and remained there for another 80 weeks. In its 50th edition, it has now sold more than 7 million copies worldwide. But in 1947 Anne was still far from the wisdom that book would contain. The serene, insightful perspective Anne would eventually find had to be spun from a marriage that was supremely tested.
On the eve of her graduation, Anne had confessed to her headmistress, ‘I want to marry a hero,’ but the reality showed up an awkward disparity in their characters. In one of their early conversations recorded in her diary, Charles said to her, ‘You want to write! I want to do the things other people write about!’ At the time she had been excited, and wrote that Charles had landed like a ‘bomb’ in the middle of her ‘college-bred, forever-book-reading, introspective family.’ But the appeal of his difference was equally a threat to the quiet intellectual life she believed she wanted. Still, he dazzled her and she found she loved to fly. She put her doubts aside, and wrote with uncanny foresight to a friend, ‘Don’t wish me happiness… Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humour – I will need them all.’
Lindbergh spent the early part of his career trying to evade his adoring public and failing. From the moment he had landed in Paris on May 21st 1927, Lindy was public property, his life a matter of ‘public record.’ The media mania that surrounded him was so fierce and intense that from the start, admiration took the form of merciless intrusion. While they were dating, Anne remarked that she felt ‘like a deer, hunted by smiling, smirking, sure of themselves relentless hunters.’ After the Lindberghs managed to wed in secret, the papers were outraged. ‘We made him,’ the reporters of the Saturday Evening Post complained. ‘Why won’t he play ball with us?’ Eventually they tracked the couple down on their sailing honeymoon, and hundreds of boats filled with journalists and sightseers pursued them up the New England coast.
The birth of their first child was front-page news across the world. The hype and the frenzy that surrounded the Lindberghs seemed bound to end in catastrophe sooner or later, and it turned out to be sooner. During the evening of March 1st 1932, the Lindbergh baby was stolen from his cot while his parents were both in the house, an almost illiterate note left in the nursery demanding $50,000 for his safe return. This was the darkest year of the Depression. Kidnapping – or the ‘snatch racket’ – had become big business, and the wealthy, famous Lindberghs were prime targets.
For ten painful weeks, Charles Lindbergh headed the search for his son. He sprang into action as any hero might, or as any desperate father would. He was willing to work alongside dubious contacts claiming access to the criminal underworld. He paid the ransom in full. Twice he found himself on wild goose chases, trying to track down boats on which the baby was supposed to be hidden. The police sometimes deplored his methods but it was common practice for families to negotiate with kidnappers. Anne distanced herself from the search, staying in her room with her mother and sister, trying to maintain the bubble of hope in which her son would be returned safely. She abhorred the publicity, believing the newspapers were responsible for preventing the kidnappers from getting in touch, but Charles hoped that they might provide a vital lead. Some radio stations were broadcasting bulletins day and night, and the story had knocked all other news off the front page.
The decomposing body of their child was finally discovered, by chance, in a shallow grave only a few miles from their property. The baby had probably been killed only hours after he had been taken. In the ‘crime of the century,’ there were no boundaries for decency: a cunning news photographer conned his way into the mortuary and a few days later pictures of the dead baby were circulating on the street and in speakeasies. This final, gruesome invasion of privacy was almost too much for Charles, who felt humiliated and horrified by his inability to protect his son, alive or dead.
The Lindberghs emerged from this tragedy with devastating wounds. Anne blamed the papers, she blamed the publicity, she blamed Charles for his emotional restraint which he insisted she should share; he disapproved of her tears and her sorrow and would refer to the loss of their son for the rest of his life as ‘that business in New Jersey.’ For Anne, the kidnapping and murder was a trauma from which she would never really recover. ‘I’ll never believe in anything again,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘faith and goodness and security in life.’ The diary was where Anne poured out her pain, but the subtler ramifications of the tragedy, the retrospective sense of how fragile and tenuous her happiness had been, was best caught in her haunting poem, ‘Within The Wave’:
Within the hollow wave there lies a world,
Gleaming glass-perfect, rising to be hurled
Into a thousand fragments on the sand,
Driven by tide’s inexorable hand…
Smooth mirror of the present, poised between
The crest’s “becoming” and the foam’s “has been” –
How luminous the landscape seen across
The crystal lens of an impending loss!
Charles had tucked away into the inner sanctum of his brain a deep and abiding hatred towards not just the media, but also the lower reaches of American society, exemplified by the unemployed immigrant carpenter, Richard Hauptmann, who had been sent to the electric chair for the murder of their son. Before the kidnapping, Lindbergh had begun work with Dr Alexis Carrel, a Nobel-prize winning surgeon and biologist. At first they were working on designs for revolutionary medical equipment, but Carrel was growing ever more interested in eugenics and Lindbergh would prove a willing convert. Carrel wrote that ‘Humanity is in the process of deterioration and the very future of civilization is in grave and mortal danger.’ Lindbergh probably could not have better expressed his fear of the moral degeneration he believed he was witnessing in the crime against their child, the excesses of the free press and the continual intrusions on their privacy, often threatening, by a troubled section of the public. Anne was due to give birth and already anonymous death threats had started against her unborn child.
The Lindberghs stuck it out in America until 1935 when their son, Jon, was three. One morning on their way to school, their car was driven off the road by reporters who then pulled open the door in order to take the child’s photograph. This indignity prompted the family to move to Europe, an act of self-exile which the papers deemed an ‘outrage.’ The Lindberghs were invited to Germany to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics, and they were struck by the order and efficiency of Germany, the atmosphere of optimism and progress. Inspecting their military aircraft facilities, Hermann Göring, then Nazi Commissioner of Aviation and very close to Hitler, fed Charles exaggerated statistics about aircraft production, and Charles saw enough that was impressive to make him gullible. From this point onwards he was convinced a war with Germany would end in disaster; he believed the nation was too strong to be beaten. Harold Nicholson, who knew the family well, commented later that Charles was easily duped ‘because he naturally believes the Nazi ideology, all tied up with his hatred of democracy as represented by the Free Press and the American public.’
Anne was slower to be won over, and not just because she had been systematically ignored on their trip. When one of their hosts, Kay Smith, the wife of America’s military attaché Trumann Smith in Berlin, told Göring that Mrs Lindbergh had been her husband’s radio operator on many of his pioneering flights, he broke down in laughter. ‘That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard,’ he said. ‘How could such a shy and fragile woman be capable of such a thing?’ She had proved more than capable, but Anne’s strength was bound up with her belief in Charles. He had encouraged her to exceptional achievement, but he was the one person she lacked the confidence to stand against. Time after time she submitted to his way of seeing things, convinced it was her duty as a wife and mother. And her own dark and often difficult emotions pushed her towards an inauthenticity she found reassuring: ‘I make myself someone else and I’m calm and collected!’ she wrote in her diary as she struggled to embrace Charles’s politics.
But just as Anne had felt an unbearable difference in the way they mourned the loss of their son, so Lindbergh’s commitment to the America First movement on their return to the States in 1939 pushed his views to an extreme that she could not condone. Anne buckled under the implications of their conflict. ‘All the Edens and Halls are right,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘I can’t bear it.’ Anne had wanted to marry a hero. Now she was married to one, and he had heroically tried to defend their family and, as he thought, their country, and both events had ruined her idealisation of him. She did not know how to be non-compliant and independent from her husband, yet she deplored this point he had brought them to. She did not know how to tolerate her marriage and yet she could not leave it. And Charles continued as he always did, strong, proud and utterly impervious to the feelings of others. The widespread condemnation of his views that swept the country seemed not to affect him at all, though Anne was mortified. But from this point on, Lindbergh disappeared from the public spotlight, and for once, the media were happy to let him go.
By 1950, the Lindberghs had lived almost a decade out of the limelight. The blessing of being able to live like private people had brought with it the space for an emotional reaction. The peace they longed for had given rise not to the serenity Anne had imagined, but to anxiety, illness and misery; the strain on their relationship had been intense. Anne had turned to psychotherapy after her crisis of 1947, and Charles had been sullen and resentful, convinced he was losing his authority over her. When she was well enough to travel, she went alone to the island of Captiva off the Florida coast. Anne had been once before with Charles in 1940, but this time she sought the solitude that made her feel less vulnerable, and the independence that her psychotherapist, Dr John Rosen, had indeed recommended she foster. The beauty and simplicity of the island were immensely soothing. Anne wrote in the mornings and walked the beaches in the afternoon.
‘I collected shells,’ she wrote. ‘There was nothing else to do on an island like that, and everyone else seemed to be doing it. I recognised how wonderful the freedom was of not having to do things every day and being able to go into a room and just write what one felt… One sees through the writing. You sink into a more authentic place inside yourself.’
Authenticity was suddenly a lodestar for a woman who in the past had been proud of how far she could suppress her own emotions. The painful fractures that had opened up in her relationship with Charles turned out to be useful; without them, she might never have realised how much he bent her out of shape. On Captiva she felt inspired. She began reading Greek, Christian and Indian philosophy, the works of Freud and Jung. The following year she returned to the island taking her sister and sister-in-law, and the three of them discussed the lives they were leading, and the constant search for some sort of balance between their own desires and those of their family. Charles had often taken Anne to task for not writing more, incapable of understanding how five children and his own frequent and lengthy absences for work might make it awkward. ‘He was baffled by my difficulty in changing from one role to another,’ Anne said. But she was well placed to understand how women could lose themselves in the relentless demands of others.
Gift from the Sea was finished in 1953. Anne had managed to distil from her extraordinary experience a vision of life that would touch millions of women. She wrote primarily about women’s need for simplicity and solitude, as a means of enriching their lives and relationships. Anne saw that the ‘normal’ life of the women around her was one of ceaseless effort, directed towards matching an image of perfection imposed by others. What women needed, she felt, was a way of getting properly in touch with themselves and their creativity:
The answer is not in the feverish pursuit of centrifugal activities which only lead in the end to fragmentation. Woman’s life today is tending more and more towards the state William James describes so well in the German word “Zerissenheit, torn-to-pieces-hood.” She cannot live perpetually in “Zerissenheit.” She will be shattered into a thousand pieces. On the contrary, she must consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today. Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work. It can be physical or intellectual or artistic, any creative life proceeding from oneself. It need not be an enormous project or a great work. But it should be something of one’s own…. What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive.
Gift from the Sea uses the shells Anne found on the beach to represent the revelations she had about women’s lives. Shells are the abandoned homes of tender creatures, and their empty forms spoke to her about the form of her own life. The channelled whelk with its perfect spiral towards an apex represented that hub of the wheel she had been so struck by, the complicated spokes of life circling outwards reminded her of the need to simplify, if there were to be any hope of serenity. The moonshell spoke of the need for replenishing solitude and privacy; the double-sunrise shell of the first, romantic stage of marriage, when two halves of a couple mirrored each other perfectly; the ugly oyster shell of the messiness of middle age ‘encrusted with accumulations…firmly embedded on its rock.’ Anne’s hopes for herself in years ahead were represented by the argonaut, a creature that was not fastened to its shell but cradled it in its arms, until her eggs hatched and she was free to move on to another life. Liberation and renewal, these were the qualities Anne now sought, in a life lived in full awareness of what made it valuable:
The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was in nostalgia nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now, within their limits… islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, continually visited and abandoned by the tides.
The book gave Anne – and millions of her readers – a perspective upon the dramas and upheavals of life that made them tolerable, and which embodied a hope for a utopian future: one in which the trials and tragedies of the past might be transformed into wisdom and a better plan for living. The grace and limpidity of Anne’s prose combined with the beauty of her insights made it a gentle masterpiece. But it was also a message to Charles about the way they might move forward together and autonomous. It was a glorious vision. But Anne did not see that the beauty of the shells she exalted was because of their emptiness, their form only visible once the tender, vulnerable creature that inhabited them had gone.
Anne, meanwhile, was left behind with growing children whose adolescent antics left her at a loss. Her writing career stalled. The first book she published after Gift from the Sea was her collected poems, a volume that received generally poor reviews and was viciously panned by the editor of Saturday Review, who described it as an ‘offensively bad book – inept, jingling, slovenly, illiterate even, and puffed up with the foolish afflatus of a stereotyped high-seriousness.’ The editor in question, John Ciardi, was nursing a political dislike for Charles, which might have been enough to account for the tone of the review, but Anne took his words personally and was devastated, fearing for a long time that she would never write again. Three years later, encouraged by her publishers, Kurt and Helen Wolff, she began a highly autobiographical novel about her troubled marriage. Fiction, however, was not a natural realm for Anne, whose writings, her biographer Susan Hertzog suggests, were always ‘disguised sermons.’ Anne’s inclination was to find beauty, form and ideal within the world around her, but writing about a marriage gone sour defied these noble qualities. It took her five years to write the novel, which, although it sold well, met once again with no critical success.
The critical reaction to her work had stung Anne. Fiction and poetry were now closed realms to her, and she no longer had the strength or desire to do the travelling that had produced her early non-fiction. Her writing had always drawn deeply on her experiences, in a way that steadied and settled her. Finally she settled on the diaries she had kept all her life and began to work them up for publication, hoping it would help make sense of her life and untangle its patterns. It was also something she could do with Charles, who fell ill and was slowly dying as the diaries began to come out in print. When he was gone, her publisher’s wife worked alongside Anne, helping her produce the final two volumes. After that she never wrote again. Her courage, which had always grown out of her love for Charles, died with him. She was involved subsequently with memorialising his life, was active on the board of Smith College, and visited her children, and though she spoke occasionally about writing a book on widowhood, she never did. She lived another twenty years, the last decade in increasingly poor health, described by her employees as ‘the loneliest woman in the world.’
It was only after Anne’s death that Charles’s final secrets came to light, when a young woman read a magazine article about Lindbergh and discovered photographs and letters from him to her mother, Brigitte Hesshaimer. DNA tests proved that Lindbergh had fathered all three of Brigitte’s three children. He had also had two children with her sister, Marietta, and another two with his private secretary in Europe, an East Prussian aristocrat called Valeska. For all the loneliness and heartache that Anne Lindbergh suffered in her later years, it is a blessing that she never knew the extent of Charles’s deception. She would have struggled to find a shell to represent it.
Victoria Best is a writer and critic; she taught French literature for ten years at Cambridge University and blogs at Tales From The Reading Room.