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THE HERO WHO FELL TO EARTH

LINDBERGH
By A. Scott Berg
Putnam's 628pp $30

When A. Scott Berg began work on his biography of Charles A. Lindbergh 10 years ago, he could not have anticipated the murder trial of O.J. Simpson or the equally sensationalized death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But Berg is fortunate indeed that the O.J. and Princess Di media circuses preceded the publication of his book. For the resulting debate about the celebrification of our culture makes newly relevant what would otherwise be a tired story of a fallen idol whose signal achievement came 71 years ago. Lindbergh is not without faults, but it is likely to stand as the definitive account of the paradoxical figure who was the world's first media megastar.

In 1927, Lindbergh lifted himself from obscurity to global celebrity by making the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris aboard his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. The 25-year-old Minnesotan was hardly alone in braving the dangers of early air travel. Teams of pilots already had flown farther in multi-engine planes. What set Lindbergh, ''The Lone Eagle,'' heroically apart was that he flew solo over a vast expanse of water: one pilot, one engine, zero margin for error. It did not hurt that Lindbergh was more mediagenic than most movie stars.

In Berg's view, Lindbergh was driven not by a desire for wealth or fame but a love of flying and a visionary belief in aviation's future. At first, the young aviator made uncommonly constructive use of the celebrity his daring flight afforded him. Deluged with dubious get-rich-quick offers, the shy, chaste Lindbergh rebuffed them all and played a seminal role in helping to establish the aviation industry, as an adviser to Pan American, TWA, and other fledgling airlines. He tested and helped design new planes and surveyed cross-country and transoceanic routes.

The doors that fame opened enabled Lindbergh to indulge his intellectual restlessness to surprisingly prophetic effect. Within a few years of landing in Paris, this college dropout was pondering the possibilities of space travel and sponsoring early research in rocketry. He pioneered the use of airplanes in archaeology and teamed with the French polymath Alexis Carrel to create a forerunner of the artificial heart.

Increasingly discomfited by the relentless intrusions of the press, Lindbergh was plunged neck-deep into celebrity's dark side in 1932, when his infant son was kidnapped and killed. Lindbergh took the stand to testify against Bruno Richard Hauptmann in what was hyped as the ''Trial of the Century.'' The trial was every bit as publicity-addled as O.J. Simpson's, but to opposite effect: Hauptmann was convicted and executed. Despite doubts that linger to this day, Berg concludes that Hauptmann was indeed the kidnapper, citing ''a veritable mountain of undisputed evidence.''

The first writer granted full access to Lindbergh's archives and to the equally voluminous papers of his widow, 91-year-old Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Berg for the most part makes artful use of his treasure trove. Only occasionally does he lapse into travelogue mode--no small achievement in itself considering how peripatetic Lindbergh remained throughout his life--and Berg's richly detailed accounts of the flight of the Spirit of St. Louis and the equally harrowing search for ''the Lindbergh baby'' are riveting.

But the reader would have been better served if Berg had interrupted his compelling narrative from time to time to allow for more trenchant analysis of his often confounding subject. It would have been helpful, for example, had the author not waited until page 192 to make a first, cursory stab at explaining why it was that Lindbergh showed absolutely no interest in the opposite sex until he was 27 years old. But the lightness of Berg's touch is especially problematic in his account of the aviator's behavior in the years leading up to America's entry into World War II.

Lindbergh was hardly alone in vehemently opposing U.S. entry into Europe's war, nor in underestimating Adolf Hitler's capacity for barbarity. But in his many speeches and broadcasts, Lindbergh came across as altogether too admiring of German air power and too forgiving of Nazi aggression on the one hand, and essentially indifferent to the horrific plight of Europe's Jews on the other. He also complained that the leaders of ''the Jewish race'' were conspiring to push America into the war and declared that the ''greatest danger'' the Jews posed ''lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.''

Berg is persuasive in arguing that the resulting vilification of Lindbergh as an Axis sympathizer and traitor went much too far. Indeed, when the Roosevelt Administration blocked his attempts at enlisting in the Air Force after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh arranged a posting as an Air Force test pilot in the South Pacific, where he unofficially flew 50 combat missions. But the book suffers in the end from Berg's failure to confront Lindbergh's anti-Semitism head-on, or to explain why it was that he ''buried his head in the sand when confronted with the crimes of inhumanity that repelled so many others.'' The impression one comes away with is that Lindbergh's views were rooted not in hatred but in ignorance and a lack of human empathy--that he was, in short, a celebrity hopelessly out of his depth.

BY ANTHONY BIANCO



RELATED ITEMS

PHOTO: Cover, ``Lindbergh''

BOOK EXCERPT: Chapter One of ``Lindbergh''


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