Candace Fleming is the author of more than 40 books for children and young adults and has covered many larger-than-life Americans including the Lincolns, Amelia Earhart, and Eleanor Roosevelt. However, the subject of her most recent book, The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, is an enigmatic historical figure she can’t quite pin down. PW spoke with Fleming about her new biography, Lindbergh’s dramatic life and career, and the many controversies that surround him still.
What inspired you to choose Charles Lindbergh as a subject?
I always think that in a way my subject chooses me. After I finished The Family Romanov, I was searching for a new piece of history that young adults could relate to—and I started to research the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. But after a month or two of research and after reading his journals, I found I was fascinated with Lindbergh himself. Here was a man I couldn’t quite get a handle on. And then after the 2016 election, I kept noticing parallels between that past moment and the present.
Your book begins in 1941 with a heated scene of 30,000 America First rally-goers in Madison Square Garden who eventually all chant the name Lindbergh, waiting to hear him speak. What made you decide to start there?
The truth is I decided late. Originally the book had an entirely different prologue. And again, this one chose me as I started to see parallels between the political rallies we see now and the America First rallies then. It is astonishing how they are very much alike in terms of what the protestors say, the violence, and even the rallies themselves. As I was writing, I began to feel it was a fair place to start for the readers. It allows you to look at Lindbergh and to question whether or not he was a different kind of American hero and then also to ask, was he even a hero at all?
Why did you choose to structure your narrative into the two main sections—the rise and fall of this controversial American figure?
Again, I came to that late in the process. I struggled for a while with what to call this book, but when I arrived at the perfect title, The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, that solidified the structure. It helped me pin down who he was. He was this unbelievable celebrity—millions of Americans saw him on the book tour following his famous flight and the publication of The Spirit of St. Louis. Everybody loved him. He was the first international superstar. He had a presence and a platform. And what did he choose to do with that power?
In the introduction to your extensive bibliography, you state that you tried to let Charles and Anne Lindbergh speak for themselves as much as possible. How did you employ their diaries and their published and unpublished memoirs as you wrote this book?
The answer is, very carefully. I did not include any dialogue unless they wrote it themselves. They wrote so prolifically. And in many ways, Anne was really the surprise character that emerged. She had wonderful sections about their dates, their banter, and their phone calls. She was a gifted storyteller and she wrote my scenes for me in a way because she was so specific about how she felt in those passages. There was a bit of a problem when it came to Charles in [his book], The Spirit of St. Louis. He wrote that in first-person present, so it was very much in the now and sometimes difficult to drop into my text.
Anne’s point of view runs throughout the book and her memoirs and writings inform the details and story of their life together. How did you grapple with the ways she eventually came to question her sometimes blind faith in Lindbergh?
I never really know what I’m heading into and in the beginning I thought I knew Charles Lindbergh and I knew Anne was a big part of his life. But I didn’t really know what to expect from her. And she was a full-fledged person in her own right. She wrote so many diaries and other works, and given what she left us it was easy to get into her head. And as I wrote I felt a real kindship with her. I can imagine what it would be like to live with a man like this. She was this young, sheltered, introvert and she marries this big man—with a big personality, big confidence, and big celebrity. She was so young. And then the question is how does she grow. And she evolves and does indeed do her own thing. And I think her book Gift from the Sea really does show her coming into her own. When he hands her The Spirit of St. Louis manuscript the envy and fury is palpable in her diaries. And I get that, too. What she wants most to do is write and has ever since they met. And he laughs at that. He wants to do stuff and be someone people write about, not write himself. But then when he shows her his book it really feels to her as if it came at her expense and that what he learned about writing he learned from her. She’s extraordinary and she shows real capacity for change over the course of her life. Charles stays pretty static by comparison. But she evolves. I like her, can you tell?
With so many fascinating details to choose from, how did you narrow down your chronicle of Lindbergh’s stratospheric rise?
There was so much really good stuff and as I was writing I thought to myself this thing is getting really long. I self-edited carefully and when I sent it off to my editor Anne Schwartz she told me to fill in some of the gaps. So I got to write even more. There was a wealth of material with so many details and stories. But I always think of what I am trying to say to readers as I decide what needs to be in there and what needs to be set aside.
You portray Lindbergh’s incredible determination to learn to fly and to push boundaries in aviation. What seems most remarkable to you about his career in flight?
It’s The Spirit of St. Louis—no question. No one can ever take that [accomplishment] away from him. It’s the most incredible thing that he did. It’s interesting though—later on in his life he begins to question the technology of flight and the science behind it. It’s important, too, to remember that during World War II he saves pilots’ lives by risking his own. In the end of his life, he starts to question whether or not technology is man’s problem rather than its salvation. That is one of the most astonishing threads in the whole book—the vital idea that he is grappling with his own mortality and that his firm belief in technology starts to unravel in the end. Never entirely but it started to. And again I saw parallels in the 21st century there, too, when you look at things like the internet.
The infamous kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby was a national story and a personal devastation for Charles and Anne. At the time, Lindbergh was working at the lab of Nobel Laureate and experimental surgeon Dr. Alexis Carrel on employing science to extend life. How do you think the loss of their son contributed to his later obsession with people living forever?
There is no question that the kidnapping of Charles Jr., or Charlie, changed him forever. There’s a great historical record of this. And afterwards, he was eager to go back into the lab with Dr. Carrel and get back to work. There were a lot of reasons for this, but a huge one was his lifelong goal to beat death and make man immortal. It was a pivotal moment.
To what extent do you think the notoriety of his most famous flight and the kidnapping affected Lindbergh?
He comes to believe that he needs to leave the United States. He blames America and its newspapers for that tragedy. A lot of that is displaced and he really blames himself. It made him rigid and distrusting, and brought out his overt feelings of superiority. He starts to admire “strong” leaders like Hitler and Mussolini who can keep control of their press and the people. And that all shows how out of control and dangerous fame was for him and his family.
In the later half of his life, Lindbergh became a Nazi sympathizer. You include his quote, “Hitler, I am beginning to feel, is... a visionary who really wants the best for his country.” What were the challenges of writing about a character who had an affinity for Hitler? What was your process in figuring out how to address that dark strain of his personality and history in the book?
It was done very carefully. This is for young adults, so I thought let’s just tell the truth. I love the gray areas of history where we don’t know what to do with it. Think about Benjamin Franklin and how he was a slave owner, and that’s so hard for us and we don’t like to talk about it. And similarly Lindbergh believed in eugenics, he was a white nationalist and a Nazi sympathizer, at the very least. Frankly, I was more uncomfortable telling about Anne’s admiration for Hitler and Germany. It was more of a challenge because she was led by him. But I want the readers to make their own decision about how they feel about all of this.
What are some of the other parallels that you see between then and now?
There are a lot of parallels in the current moment and the past. America First echoes some of the ‘go it alone’ policy we see now. And there is a lot about immigrants, people of color, the idea of a dilution by foreign races and an inferior blood line that sounds familiar. Lindbergh became the face of isolation and he was worried about diluting white Protestant America, which he saw as the true America.
In one of your final chapters, called “Sorrows and Secrets,” you reveal that Lindbergh had three other families and seven children in Europe. What made you decide not to include that information earlier? And did knowing about his double life color how you wrote about the parts of his life that ran concurrently?
I tried to keep it where it worked more chronologically and at a time in his life where we drop in on his family at home, drop in on his marriage, and then also drop in on his other families. It is jarring and that is intentional. Here is a guy who sets himself up as having perfect American values and being super moral. He never drinks, he doesn’t like to be touched, and he doesn’t even drink coffee because it makes him nervous. He is so clean. And suddenly you discover this secret life. And it shows how compartmentalized he really was. And how difficult to know.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope that they are fascinated and think it’s a great read. I hope it reads like a novel. It looks like a novel and that is intentional. But I think readers get to decide what they think about these big questions. What are the parallels to our current time? What is celebrity? What is a hero?
Congratulations on your other March publication—Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera. What inspired you to write this picture book?
It’s funny that I have two flying books coming out at the same time. Eric [Rohmann] and I wanted to do a companion piece to our book Giant Squid. In that book we looked at a creature so big that no one ever sees and doesn’t know anything about; and in this book we focus on a creature so small that everyone sees and thinks they already know. It was a really fun challenge. Our editor Neal Porter thought we should focus on the plight of the bee, and then we realized that if our audience was second graders we needed them to care about the bee in order to care about the science. So we follow the life of the bee in her 32-day life span and then we include the facts and details about helping bees.
What are you working on now?
I am just finishing a book about Howard Carter and King Tut. It looks at questions about cultural appropriation and about who owns what. It includes the mummy’s curse and a little bit of fake news that gets planted by one person and grows and grows and grows. These issues about who owns our history remain with us today. I was just at the British Museum and there is an issue over the Elgin Marbles. It was a really fun book to write.
I also am working on another story no one wants to talk about and that is a gray area of our history with eugenics. Cary Buck was a teenage girl sterilized against her will who challenged that action. And her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously declared “three generations of imbeciles is enough.”
The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh by Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade, $18.99 Feb. 11 ISBN 978-0-525-64654-9