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Charles Lindbergh
Hero, victim, villain

A. Scott Berg reveals the spirit of Lindbergh

Web posted on: Friday, September 25, 1998 4:24:17 PMEDT

By CNN Interactive Writer
Jamie Allen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- When the O.J. Simpson trial held the nation's attention in 1995, A. Scott Berg found himself ingesting a healthy dose of perspective.

The award-winning author was in Los Angeles, working on his latest biography, and media figures blaring from his TV were throwing about phrases like "Crime of the Century" to describe the murder of Simpson's ex-wife and her friend, and "Trial of the Century" to convey the scope of Simpson's months spent in court.

Berg, who grew up in Brentwood where Simpson later owned a mansion, knew that the Simpson saga was far from being the crime or trial of the last 100 years. In fact, at that moment Berg was recreating for his encompassing biography on Charles Lindbergh the true Crime and Trial of the Century -- the kidnapping and murder of Baby Lindbergh, and the trial and execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann.

"First of all, it was this beloved little baby," Berg says. "The Lindbergh baby was the most famous baby in the world, the son of the most beloved man on earth."

Still, Berg -- ever the student of 20th century history -- could not help but realize the astounding parallels between the trial he was putting on the printed page and the one filling the television screens.

"I was struck every day by all the uncanny resemblances," Berg says. "Everything that happened at the O.J. trial -- cameras in the courtroom, lawyers giving interviews at lunch trying to influence the media -- they had that at the Lindbergh trial. Everything we saw and thought in O.J. happened at the Lindbergh trial."

"He's the most celebrated living person ever to walk the earth. He was the first pop star, in a way."

-- A. Scott Berg, author of 'Lindbergh'

It almost goes without saying that the life of Charles Lindbergh was always steps -- at times leaps -- ahead of those around him. If he was not the first to do or be something, he was certainly at the forefront of each movement he chose to join.

Lingbergh and his plane, "The Spirit of St. Louis"

His most famous accomplishment -- the mythic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 -- was a feat so mind-bending to the general masses that Berg says there's nothing to compare it to today.

"It's almost as if Neil Armstrong decided to go to the moon ... decided to go by himself, just built his rocket ship and did it," says Berg. "It's hard to imagine something like that happening today."

When Lindbergh landed in Paris 33 hours after he left American shores, the world bowed at his feet, and he found himself engaged in another first.

"He really did become the first modern media superstar," Berg says. "He's the most celebrated living person ever to walk the earth. He was the first pop star, in a way."

And since he was the first to reach such status in the public's eye, he became the first modern celebrant to be ultimately stung by tragedy. The murder of Lindbergh's 20-month-old boy touched off a circus -- both by the media and by average citizens -- that has not been seen since.

Those two events -- the flight into glory, and the murder of his child -- are the encyclopedic entries by which most Americans define Lindbergh. But there was much more to Lindbergh's existence, and certainly his wasn't always the life of a hero.

Berg has been writing biographies for his entire adult life. At 48, he has never known another post-college job. He began his first biography as a senior thesis at Princeton. That paper evolved into "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius" -- the National Book Award winner.

Berg has also turned out the highly-praised chronicle on the life of movie-maker Samuel Goldwyn.

Berg's subjects are 20th century figures by no coincidence. The writer is fascinated by the people who defined the era that is passing.

"The great similarity is that they are 20th-century cultural figures through whose lives I can tell a bigger story," Berg says. "They can be the focal point of the books, but you can pull back and see what's going on in the world during their lives."

It seems that Lindbergh's life was formatted for the biography -- distinguished by a major event (the flight) that not only transforms him to the stratum of fable, but allows the introduction for all other events in his life to be caused by, measured by and reflected upon.

But Berg felt the need to tell the whole story, beyond the suffocating and overwhelming fame, beyond the "fascinating marriage" to Anne Morrow, beyond the fairy-tale of Lindbergh's flight and the nightmare of his son's murder.

"He was the great hero of the century, and then the great victim, and then he became the great villain."

-- A. Scott Berg

"People didn't have a clue what happened to Lindbergh after the kidnapping," Berg says. "We knew about every step he took, and then suddenly he disappears."

Berg's biography, "Lindbergh" -- while focusing on the two life-altering moments of Lindbergh's life -- also sheds light on the telling years before and after.

"I think people generally do not know the breadth and depth of his mind," Berg says. "They don't know about his medical research, or his role in the American rocket and space program, or his work in archeology, or anthropology. They don't know about the conservation work he did the last 20 years of his life."

And perhaps they've forgotten that Lindbergh, as his sister-in-law once said, "went from Jesus to Judas in the span of 15 years," crashing from popularity when he vented his isolationist stance as America readied for World War II, and some say he revealed in one particular speech his true nature as an anti-Semitic recipient of Hitler's Service Cross of the German Eagle.

"He was the great hero of the century, and then the great victim, and then he became the great villain," Berg says.

"Lindbergh" reminds readers of every detail. Perhaps the defining work on the subject, "Lindbergh" is receiving praise across the board. Steven Spielberg has already bought the movie rights.

The work is a result of Berg's careful research, masterful writing and the fact that he scored a biographer's coup: Lindbergh's widow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, now 92, allowed Berg to be the first writer given total access to Lindbergh's personal papers, letters, history -- an estimated 2,000 boxes worth of information.

"Then she called me and said, 'You can't do this without access to my life, too,'" Berg says. "She held back nothing."


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