By Corinna Wu
A Life Under the Radar
When aviator Charles Lindbergh died of lymphoma in 1974, even his own family barely knew him; over the years, new treatments for his cancer have really taken off
By Corinna Wu
People called Charles A. Lindbergh by many names: Lucky Lindy, Slim, the Lone Eagle. A pioneering aviator, he sealed his place in history when he landed his plane in Paris on May 21, 1927, becoming the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. His youth, good looks and “apparently impeccable character” made him a media celebrity—a superstar—writes A. Scott Berg in his biography of Lindbergh: “Universally admired, Charles Lindbergh became the most celebrated living person ever to walk the earth.”
But Lindbergh’s accomplishments as an aviator formed just one aspect of his complex, and sometimes controversial, life. In 1932, his 20-month-old son was kidnapped for ransom and later found dead. The “Lindbergh Baby” crime led to a sensational court case dubbed “the Trial of the Century.” A decade later, in the early 1940s, Lindbergh’s speeches against U.S. intervention in the war in Europe caused him to be branded a Nazi sympathizer and an anti-Semite.
“One columnist stated that the Lone Eagle had plummeted from ‘Public Hero No. 1’ to ‘Public Enemy No. 1,’ ” writes Berg. The most celebrated person on earth had become the most reviled.
All of this attention, good and bad, spurred Lindbergh to spend most of the rest of his life away from the glare of the public eye. He moved to Connecticut and had five more children with his wife, Anne Morrow.
He became an author, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Spirit of St. Louis, which was named after the plane in which he made his historic flight. He traveled almost constantly for work as a consultant for airline companies and the government. He worked for the cause of conservation, raising money for the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund. He also pursued a lifelong interest in engineering and medicine. (Earlier in his life, before the war, he had in fact collaborated with surgeon Alexis Carrel to build an artificial heart pump.)
All this time, Lindbergh led a secret life, too, one that no one knew about until nearly three decades after his death. In 2003, the press reported that Lindbergh had three secret families in Europe—seven additional children born to three women in Germany and Switzerland. His long absences and taciturn nature made the secrecy possible. “I have the feeling that he was the only person involved with all these families who knew the full truth,” writes Lindbergh’s daughter Reeve in her book, Forward From Here. “I don’t know why he lived this way, and I don’t think I ever will know, but what it means to me is that every intimate human connection my father had during his later years was fractured by secrecy. He could not be completely open with anybody who loved him anywhere on earth.”
In October 1972, a routine physical exam led to a diagnosis of lymphoma for the aviator. A few months later, Lindbergh was treated with three days of radiation, leaving him weak and tired. He began chemotherapy in 1974 and received regular blood transfusions, which gave him some energy, but the only trips he took were to Maui, where he had built a house a few years earlier. By May of that year, he had flown there four times to recuperate.