Monday, July 26, 2010

Thomas Kessner's "The Flight of the Century"

Thomas Kessner is Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of many books, including Capital City: New York City and the Men Behind America's Rise to Dominance, 1860-1900, and Fiorello H. LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York, which was a New York Times Notable Book.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Flight of the Century: Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of American Aviation, and reported the following:
Page 99:
When news began filtering through that the Spirit of St. Louis had been seen over Ireland, thirty thousand people crowded the Place de l’Opera and Square du Havre to follow the latest bulletins. Not since the Armistice had Paris buzzed with such joy and excitement. Le Matin’s posting of a sighting over Cherbourg set off choruses of “Vive Lindbergh! Vive l’Américain!” on the streets. “Every one in Paris who had a car, or could get one,” commented Edwin James, the New York Times Paris bureau chief, “conceived the bright idea of going out to Le Bourget ... [to] shake hands” with Lindbergh. Raymond Orteig too rushed to Paris, from the south of France, only to miss the landing by about fifteen minutes because of the traffic. His words of praise for “the modesty of this hero, who in silence prepared for his magnificent effort,” were delivered hours after the landing, later that night. 1

Lindbergh’s landing awakened sympathies submerged by years of bickering. Even the most nationalist of the French papers, Liberté, was caught up in the fever of excitement: “Paris, always impassioned by courage; Paris, which has not forgotten its emotion of joy, when in 1917, it saw the first American regiments in the streets, will unite this evening in one fervent thought, the names of Lindbergh, Nungesser and Coli.” Minister of War Paul Painleve, calling Lindbergh “this daring human bird,” celebrated the flight as a “magnificent human triumph ... a stimulant for invention.” News of his landing touched off the “mightiest pro-American demonstration seen in France since the days of the war.”2

Beyond trying to delay it, the American Embassy had given little thought to the flight. On the chance that Lindbergh might be successful the staff had prepared a small reception, inviting a few French officials and prominent figures from the American colony in Paris. Ambassador Myron T. Herrick, however, was worried that a severely overtired Lindbergh might say something that could exacerbate the already tense relationship between the two countries. Prudent diplomats do not leave such possibilities to chance. Elegant, discreet, and above all extremely careful, Herrick was a fine example of old school diplomacy. In his autobiography he wrote that he did not go to Le Bourget with any notion of taking Lindbergh under his wing: “But ... when I looked at this boy and realized all at once what he had done and what he had been through, it naturally came into my head to take him home with me.” It was a stroke of diplomatic genius. And it was not as unplanned as Herrick let on. 3

vive lindbergh! vive l’américain! 99
Page 99 is early into a chapter describing reaction to Lindbergh’s historic flight and the little known role of the diplomat who molded the unlettered Lindbergh into a 20th century icon.

Lindbergh (whose father was a congressman) was the child of a broken home who flunked out of college and looked forward to an unpromising future before realizing that he had a special gift for piloting the primitive airships of the time. He toured with barnstormers, did some wingwalking, and delivered the air mail before entering the competition for a $25,000 purse promised to the first plane to fly nonstop between New York and Paris.

Six other fliers, far more experienced than the 25 year old Lindbergh, had taken off in massive multiple- engine machines and either perished or vanished. So unorthodox was Lindbergh’s plan for the 3600 mile crossing that top line manufacturers refused to sell him a plane, fearful of being associated with certain disaster. The fact that of all the competitors he insisted on doing it alone made it seem even more lunatic.

Finally an obscure West Coast company agreed to build him the plane he wanted: a silver tone, single-engine aircraft stripped to its bare essentials (lacking even a radio), and in the early dawn of May 20th 1927 Lindbergh took off. More than 33 perilous hours later he arrived over Paris’ Le Bourget airport. Airfields were lonely places then and when he glimpsed the huge crowd gathered there, Lindbergh was certain that he had lost his way. But this was indeed Le Bourget and the crowd of 100,000 that soon trampled police barriers in a frenzied charge to “touch the new Christ,” was there to witness the dawn of a new air age.

Why did this sporting stunt so capture the imagination of the world and turn Lindbergh into the most celebrated individual in history? And in an era when fame spoiled sooner than warm milk why did his endure, propelling the U.S. into aviation leadership; until it curdled into a loathing for democracy and a disastrous flirtation with Nazism? These questions shape the succeeding pages of the book.
Learn more about The Flight of the Century at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue