The very first flight across the Atlantic – Newfoundland to Ireland, by John Alcock and Arthur Brown – took place in 1919. Almost no one took note of it.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that a $25,000 reward, the Orteig Prize, was offered for a specific route that excitement rose. Fly from New York to Paris, non-stop, and you could claim the cash.
Most people today still remember who won the prize. Charles Lindbergh, a seemingly buttoned down descendant of Swedish immigrants from Minnesota, flew the Spirit of St. Louis. When he touched down, a crowd of thousands nearly tore the plane apart in its madness for souveniers.
The other pilots who competed for the prize in the years running up to the big event are almost forgotten, but all the would-be crossers of the Atlantic were odd, tragic, or both. But none were as odd as the man who won.
While several teams suffered lethal crashes of expensive aircraft, or simply disappeared like French air ace Charles Nungesser, Lindbergh had the smallest, cheapest plane in the contest, built for $10,580 ponied up by its backers. He flew it from its builder’s workshop in California to New York, which broke several aviation records just getting him to the starting line. Then – in a plane which had no forward view at all – he crossed the Atlantic by dead reckoning.
And then he turned out to be one of the biggest, weirdest celebrities in history.
Lindbergh was swarmed by fans and in demand everywhere as a speaker, but he barely said a word. At 25, he had never been on a date, and seemingly lacked a conventional sense of humour.
He suffered tragedy when his first child was kidnapped and murdered, the case the crime of the century.
Then came the anti-Semitism, and kind words by Lindbergh for Nazi Germany. He was one of the leading voices trying to keep the U.S. out of the war.
In the early 2000s, it was revealed that in the 1950s Lindbergh kept three mistresses in Germany and Switzerland, fathered numerous children, and never told his offspring his real name.
We pick our heroes for what they do. But expertise and skill in one area are only rarely linked to wisdom, charisma, or even kindness. Lindbergh was a slightly odd man who was bathed in the harsh light of celebrity, melting into something even stranger.