A Pulitzer Biography

April 23, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The biography award this year went to A. Scott Berg for his book about Charles A. Lindbergh. It begins with Lindbergh’s 1927 non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. “For more than a day the world held its breath,” Berg writes, and then he unfolds, in a work of 628 pages, the story of Lindbergh in all his triumph and tragedy. Scott Berg has also written biographies of the editor, Max Perkins, and Hollywood’s Samuel Goldwyn. Thank you for being with us and congratulations.

A. SCOTT BERG, Pulitzer Prize, Biography: Thank you very much. A pleasure to be here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After Perkins and Goldwyn, why Lindbergh?

A. SCOTT BERG: I felt it was one of the great untold stories of the 20th century, and also it was about as far as I could get from Sam Goldwyn, I think. I’ve tried to find something different with each book, try to explore a different aspect of 20th century American culture with each biography, and Lindbergh, I thought, was a great window onto the 20th century, the great American century.

The great untold story.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why great untold story? I would have thought it’s one of the most told stories.

A. SCOTT BERG: Well, I think it has been told a lot, but I think it’s been told wrong, and that’s largely because Lindbergh, himself, left hundreds — literally thousands of boxes of papers that he asked be locked up for some 50 years after his wife’s death, and she is still around. She’s alive and well, thank you very much. And so I think the story had never been told really accurately, and basically all of the books that had been written about Lindbergh heretofore were really based on press clippings or just stories, just legends. And I wanted to pin down the facts, and —

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you had access to those papers, right?

A. SCOTT BERG: I had access to Mrs. Lindbergh and their five children and the papers, and much of the other — rest of the family — Lindbergh family friends, and that, I thought, enabled me to flesh out the details and really get the story straight.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Let’s go through the story. I was struck with your description of Lindbergh’s grace under pressure in his earliest flying days. In fact, we have a picture from the book of those days — the barnstorming days — when he was really one of the earliest pioneers of aviation. Tell us something about that.

A. SCOTT BERG: Well, he was, and look at these airplanes. I mean, these planes were put together with spit, really. The early commercial aviation days — the fliers were flying World War I surplus planes, some which were outdated by the end of the war, in fact. So it was a great adventure. It was really pretty thrilling stuff. There was a great camaraderie in the skies. Lindbergh, himself, these were the happiest days of flying for him, because it’s before the planes were enclosed, and the pilots really felt they were at one with the air, and this was most thrilling for Lindbergh. In fact, as time went on and as airplanes got more sophisticated, aviation interested him less and less.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you write that the instant when he landed in Paris, after his solo flight across the Atlantic, “Everything changed for both the pilot and the planet.” Explain that.

A. SCOTT BERG: Well, it’s true, because it was an amazing intersection of two revolutions actually — this moment when Lindbergh landed in Paris in May of 1927 was not only a great moment in the revolution in transportation — I mean, here was an airplane that for the first time could connect the two major cities of Europe and North America — but also there was a great revolution going on in the world of communications. This was a moment when radio was everywhere in the civilized world, when newspaper syndicates could spread the word everywhere, when cable processes could send photographs around the world in a matter of minutes, and, indeed, for the first time, sound was being attached to motion pictures, so it’s really the first time that the entire civilized world could share a single event instantaneously and simultaneously. And, there at the center of it is this 25 year old boy, the all American boy, looking 19 years old — looking like a movie star.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And of course he became the first world celebrity, in a way, very, very wealthy, and this affected forever his relationship with his wife, Ann Morrow Lindbergh, a writer, somebody of fame in her own right but who had trouble finding her way in his shadow.

A. SCOTT BERG: Yes. I think that’s true. When they met, Ann Morrow, an ambassador’s daughter, was still in college; she was still attending Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Lindbergh was the most eligible bachelor on earth, the handsome aviator. They had three or four dates quite secretly; they really had to go to great lengths to escape the press. And miraculously on the fourth date Charles Lindbergh proposed marriage and even more miraculously she accepted. And it was an interesting marriage. It was one of great contrast in some ways but some great similarities in others. I think they were both extremely modest and shy people, and I think that drew them to each other, and at the same time, Lindbergh had a great impact on Ann Morrow Lindbergh. I think it was he who really forged her into becoming a feminist.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And of course his — I’m sorry for interrupting — his fame and wealth cost them their firstborn child.

A. SCOTT BERG: Well, I think it did.


A. SCOTT BERG:I think in many ways. She, in fact, grew up with a great deal of money, Ann Morrow Lindbergh. Charles Lindbergh, himself, made about a million dollars after his flight — this is in 1927 when you really could keep all of it and it really bought you a lot. And, indeed, the money and the fame, the fact that the Lindberghs’ new dream house, photographs were being published in the newspapers, maps how to get there were published; they became a really easy target. So I think — I know Lindbergh always blamed his fame, always blamed the press to a great degree for the kidnapping and subsequent killing of his child.

Anti-Semitism, neat and clean.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Much of your book is about Lindbergh’s relationship with Germany, pre-war Germany. We have a picture actually of him with Hitler’s number 2 man, Hermann Goering, from the book. Tell us a little bit about his relationship with Germany in that period and what led to his — his being such a spokesman for what was called the America First Movement, which was a movement to stay out of war with Germany.

A. SCOTT BERG: Yes. I think this is the most interesting aspect of Lindbergh’s life, and, indeed, of the book. The Lindberghs, after the kidnapping and the trial, there was so much hysteria surrounding them, they just had to leave America, especially when they began to receive death threats against their second child, and they traveled all over Europe. They lived in England on a little island off the coast of France, they traveled around Czechoslovakia and Russia, they went as far as India, and everywhere the world was falling apart. It was the depths of this great economic and indeed emotional depression around the world, and then Lindbergh arrived in Germany, where everything seemed to work, where they were — industrialization was up, unemployment was down — they were building this fabulous new air force, the Luftwaffe. What most people didn’t realize at the time and which many people don’t realize to this day is that Lindbergh was actually there at the invitation of the American embassy.

The US embassy in Berlin was so anxious about this growing Luftwaffe, but we had very few details. And they had a great idea. They thought, “I’ll bet if we bring somebody like Charles Lindbergh over here, the Germans would be so eager to show off what they have, Lindbergh, or whomever, could really send back detailed reports.” And that’s exactly what Lindbergh did. He paid six visits to Germany between 1936 and 1939, and during that time, he was able to inspect not just the aircraft, but the factories themselves, and send very detailed reports back to Washington on the strength, on the power, of the Luftwaffe.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You include many quotes in your book from Lindbergh that leave little doubt that he was, it seems to me, anti-Semitic. He talks about a “western wall of race and arms–” speaks of inferior blood. He refers to Jews as — American Jews — as having interests different from “ours.” Did you end up with the belief that he was anti-Semitic?

A. SCOTT BERG: Well, I do believe he was anti-Semitic in ways that even he didn’t realize he was anti-Semitic. I ask a lot of Jewish friends and a lot of my own family what their definition of an anti-Semite is, and some of them just very readily say “Somebody who hates Jews.” And I say “if that’s your definition, I don’t believe Charles Lindbergh was an anti-Semite.” I don’t believe he hated Jews. Indeed, he did help some Jews get out of Nazi Germany, and indeed he did have some Jewish friends. At the same time, I think he was guilty of that other, more genteel kind of anti-Semitism, which is in some ways more insidious, because it is covert. And Lindbergh really was one of those who didn’t realize he was anti-Semitic, but he did believe they were different from the rest of Americans. He believed they controlled the media and the government in this country. He believed they had their own agenda that was different from the American agenda. And that’s just — that’s just anti-Semitism, neat and clean.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Berg, the rest of your book– I wish we had time to discuss it all– but you go through his rehabilitation after the war, the way that he won people’s respect during the war, and as an environmentalist, one of the world’s leading environmentalists before he died. In the end, I was very conflicted about him. I found that I was very drawn to him in some ways, and that I disliked him intensely in other ways. And I figure that must be because that’s the way you felt yourself, and I picked that up. Is that true?

A. SCOTT BERG:I think that’s entirely accurate. I think one has to be conflicted about him. Heretofore, I think most people have felt he was either this great god, or he was the devil. I think he’s something in-between. I think he was a very flawed human being, who, at the same time, lived an utterly unique, fascinating life. I don’t know of a soul who packed more living into 72 years than Charles Lindbergh did. I mean, he really spanned so many interests and so many movements in this country, across the century.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mr. Berg, thank you so very much for being with us, and congratulations again.

A. SCOTT BERG: Thanks.