Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book Review: The Aviator's Wife

Have you ever envied the spouse of your favorite celebrity crush and wish you could trade places with her (or him)? Well, don't. At least not until you've read The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin. 

This book is about the life of Anne Morrow--a name which may not mean much to the public today, but Morrow was married to Charles Lindbergh, the world-famous pilot who made history when he became the first person to fly across the Atlantic ocean from New York to Paris. 

The narrator of The Aviator's Wife is the subject of the title herself. You could say that the book is an effective mash-up of fiction and non-fiction. Virtually all of the events as described actually took place; Benjamin did extensive research into Morrow and Lindbergh's lives but imagined the conversations they must have had throughout their marriage, which spanned from 1929 until Lindbergh's death in 1974. 

The result is a fascinating pseudo-autobiography made human--teaching me way more about the Lindberghs that my history classes ever mentioned. Most notably, I learned a lot of Anne Morrow herself, a remarkable woman who deserves her own chapter in the history books. 

After Lucky Lindy's fateful trip across the Atlantic--in 1927--Lindbergh became even more famous than today's biggest Hollywood A-lister actors. A massive 5th Avenue parade was held in his honor, songs were written about him, and applications for pilot's licenses tripled. 

Morrow's background wasn't anything to sneeze at. She was the daughter of Dwight Morrow, a partner of J.P. Morgan & Co. as well as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and eventually a U.S. Senator. But the 21 year-old college senior was a little intimidated by the introverted Lindbergh when her family invited him to stay at their Mexican residence. She was also surprised to receive an invitation to go for a ride with him in his airplane. Self-concsious about her looks and social skills around men, Morrow assumed that Lindbergh was taken with her taller, blonder, more flirtatious sister, Elizabeth. 

And thus began a partnership that made the Lindberghs one of the most recognizable couples of the 1930s. A relationship it is, but not exactly a romance. Morrow soon learns--after a brief period of barely any courtship before marrying Lindbergh in 1929--that her new husband is controlling, demanding, and unable to express his emotions. The public and the press follow them everywhere, forcing the couple to don disguises on occasion. 

Morrow was more than just a supportive wife; she learned how to fly and became Lindbergh's navigator (learning her positioning by the stars, no less) and aviation co-pilot, accompanying him on several flying excursions all around the globe. She was even the first American woman to pilot a glider. Yet at public appearances she didn't always get the proper credit, instead having to stand in the shadow of her husband's spotlight. 

Then there was the horrific tragedy of 1932, when the Lindbergh's first and only child, Charles Jr., was kidnapped and found dead a few months later. The crime was a media sensation and brought all kinds of crazed fans out of the woodwork; if you think today's social media heavy society is celebrity obsessed, it pales in comparison to what the Lindberghs endured at the time. Years later, Morrow continued to receive letters from strangers claiming that they were her grown son. 

Benjamin gives minimal attention to the arrest and trial of Bruno Hauptmann (who some believe was innocent) for the baby's kidnapping and murder and instead focuses on the emotional trauma Morrow had to endure. I had tears in my eyes during the part of the book when Morrow learns about her baby's fate. As a way of dealing with his loss, Lindbergh scolded his wife for shedding tears and kept the first-born a secret from their subsequent children, who later learned about their murdered sibling in school.

Needless to say, The Aviator's Wife doesn't gloss over any of Lindbergh's negative traits, which includes his implied anti-Semitism. Once an American hero, his vocal political views and close friendships with the Germans compromised his aviation career for a while after WWII. He also kept a secret from his wife...a secret that may have remained that way if it weren't for the interception of Lindbergh's nurse during the last few weeks of his life. 

Benjamin's book reminded me an awful lot of Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, about the love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick. Both reveal how being involved with a famous man is not always what it's cracked up to be and how every hero has his flaws. I highly recommend it for any history buff or anyone curious to learn more about the stronger half of the Lindbergh marriage. 

3 comments:

  1. Pam,

    I enjoyed this piece. No question, Anne Morrow was an interesting woman, an also a pretty good writer. Her own reputation got tarnished a bit when Lindberg got involved with the Nazis and the America First movement. I think end the end famous people are like the rest of us in that they have quirks like anyone else does. I just finished reading Neil Armstrong's biography. His first wife Janet had a rough time of it, having to put up with the press during the Apollo 11 mission, and Neil himself was often more interested in working on aerodynamics rather than their marriage. She eventually left him.

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  2. Throughout my younger years, I devoured biographies. What makes a person tick? What happened in their past - and how did it impact their future? Biographies that are well written answer these important questions.

    This sounds like a great book - thanks, Pam!

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  3. Thanks for your comments, Jeff and Cherdo. I like biographies, too. This was a great book and I highly recommend it. The Neil Armstrong one sounds just as interesting.

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