An American Tragedy

Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1929-1932

by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 340 pp., $7.95

For me and for others of my generation born in the early Thirties, the Lindbergh name sounded not heroic notes, but a dark tone. In the years preceding World War II, there were those frightening words which I did not quite understand but which were all of a piece: Lindbergh, Hauptmann, Germany, the Bund, kidnapping, the electric chair, America Firsters meeting in Yorkville. In my mind, they all came together in one malevolent force which had as its purpose the destruction of the innocents—or more specifically, me.

For our parents, who had become aware of him in his years of triumph and acclaim, I imagine there was irony in what happened to Lindbergh. This solitary stubborn man, while demanding absolute privacy in his personal life, continually catapulted himself into public view, remaining for years the popular hero of his time, only to be brought low by exactly that exalted position. The first-born son of this famous man, taken from the nursery on the isolated Lindbergh estate, Hope-well, was kidnapped and murdered.

For me, however, the Lindbergh story was a tale of demons and changelings, of goblins who stole away babies sleeping by the fireside—proof that such things did take place. Children, of course, have never felt entirely safe in their beds. Who knows exactly what is under the bed, behind the closet door? But there, outside the nursery window, had been a real murderer. Nurses and mothers worried too—for kidnapping had become a fear shared by both children and parents of my generation. Because Charles Lindbergh’s son had been spirited away, it could happen to anyone.

Even now there are people my age who have not lost their preoccupations with the Lindbergh story. Yesterday, a mimeographed letter came in the mail, the writer proclaiming that if we would only believe such evidence as could be found in the Times crossword puzzle and on the Jean Shepherd radio show, we would understand what he and the Lindberghs already knew—that he is really the lost Lindbergh son. And, oddly, the day before, I had been talking to a friend who was reading Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s letters and diaries from the early years of her marriage. We spoke of how the Lindbergh kidnapping had hung like a faint cloud over our childhood memories. “Even now,” this friend said, “I sometimes imagine myself going mad and showing up at Anne Lindbergh’s door saying, ‘It was all a mistake. I am your son.’ ”

Sufficiently horrifying in itself, the Lindbergh kidnapping became the American tragedy of the Thirties. Then as now, children have been kidnapped, some found dead, some never found. But those events are finite. Recently, for example, a baby was kidnapped from its mother, a black woman on welfare. The press treated the case briefly as a bizarre and unfortunate but transient episode. Yet, forty years after the Lindbergh kidnapping, that story remains close to the surface of mass consciousness. It stays with us because it is…

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