Rudolf Schröck | The Atlantic Monthly | June 2005
Charles Lindbergh is the most legendary aviator of the United States. With his nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris in May 1927, he became an American national hero overnight – seen as a modern-day Christopher Columbus. The “Lone Eagle” in his one-engine “Spirit of St. Louis” became the first media star of the 20th century. And he took many secrets with him to his grave.
When 72-year-old Charles Lindbergh died of cancer in Hawaii on August 26, 1974, he had planned every detail of his death. His three sons Jon, Land and Scott had his grave placed as he wished with a view of the sea. His daughters Anne and Reeve arranged the funeral service according to his meticulous plans. Only his wife, Anne Morrow, was allowed to sit at his deathbed when Lindbergh exhaled his last breath, and then kiss him. But only afterwards.
Lindbergh died like he had lived, obsessed with planning and organization, even in the intimate circle of his family. He was puritanical, God-fearing, disciplined. At least this is how every American biographer of Lindbergh – there are about 15 of them – has described him. Then came along the eminent biographer A. Scott Berg, who received the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for his book on Lindbergh about the “idol of the 20th century.”
American biographers have long had nightmares over documenting his life because the aviator took his secrets to his grave. But now, more than 30 years after his death, the truth has finally come forward.
The true history of Lindbergh took place outside the U.S. It consists of a perfectly concealed double life in Europe. For nearly two decades, Lindbergh had three clandestine families in Germany and Switzerland, fathering seven in total.
This new, other Lindbergh story began in spring of the year 1957 in Munich. Lindbergh, officially director of Pan American Airways and traveling undercover as a special consultant to American President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the United States military, met the two sisters Brigitte and Mariette Hesshaimer in an apartment in Schwabing during a visit to Bavaria.
One sister was 24 years younger, the other 22 years younger than the tall, blond man in his mid-50s, whose American marriage with bestseller author Anne Morrow (“Gift from the Sea”) was in crisis after Anne’s secret affair with her family doctor.
Brigitte was a milliner, her sister Marietta, a painter. Both women were pretty and single, but physically disabled since childhood as a result of a tuberculosis infection. And both of them fell in love with the handsome American, who was a national hero and brigadier general in the United States with a family and five children. (A sixth child, the first-born Charles Lindbergh Junior, was kidnapped as a baby and murdered.)
Lindbergh returned the sisters’ love, first with the younger sister, Brigitte. When the two of them stood before the stone lions of Munich’s Feldherrenhalle during a secret rendezvous in March 1957, Charles said to Brigitte: “Why aren’t the lions roaring? I was told that those in love can hear them roaring.” Brigitte hugged and kissed him, and for the first time took him to her apartment in Agnesstrasse in Munich-Schwabing.
Thus began a love story that lasted for 17 years, with consequences. Brigitte gave birth to three Lindbergh children: Dyrk (born in 1958), Astrid (born in 1960) and David (born in 1967). From then on, Lindbergh visited his family in Munich several times a year, but always only for a few days. The children recall a tender father, who always arrived in a Volkswagen beetle wearing a beret, and who drove with them to Isartal, wandered with them in the mountains and explained nature to them. The mother told the children that their father was a famous writer from the United States with the name “Careu Kent.” He had been trusted with a secret mission, and therefore the children should never talk about their father, not in the daycare center, not in school, not with their friends. Their birth certificates declare: “father unknown.”
Only much later (in the mid-1980s), when Dyrk, Astrid, and David had long come of age and their mysterious father had long since passed away, did they learn the truth about their true identity. But they were sworn to absolute secrecy by their mother. Charles Lindbergh would have wanted it that way. He had given her his life’s motto: “Life will work it out!”
And life did work it out. Astrid discovered about 150 airmail letters from “C.” (as each letter was signed) to Brigitte Hesshaimer, secretly stowed away in a garbage bag. These letters are the secret love letters from Lindbergh to Astrid’s mother, a correspondence that lasted for nearly 20 years. The last letter to Brigitte is dated 10 days before his death. With a shaky hand, Lindbergh wrote to his secret German lover from his New York hospital that his end was near and that he had set up a bank account in Switzerland for her and the children to secure their lives in the future. Then comes the final sentence – like Lindbergh’s legacy to the double life he kept so secret: “Hold the utmost secrecy!”
Secrecy is the recurrent theme of Lindbergh’s letters, which reveal the nearly incredible existence of the Atlantic aviator’s second life in postwar Europe. Lindbergh didn’t only love Brigitte and have three children with her.
At the same time he had a sexual relationship with Brigitte’s sister Marietta, who bore two sons – Vago and Christoph. A second Lindbergh-Hesshaimer family was founded, for whom he had a beautiful house built according to his own design in a vineyard in Grimisuat in the Swiss canton Valais. Here the deeply reclusive Mariette lives today.
And a third lover, whom Lindbergh also swore to secrecy, is still alive, an 80-year-old living in Baden-Baden on the outskirts of the Black Forest. His former private secretary, Valeska, the descendent of an old Prussian military aristocracy, bore Lindbergh two more children – a son and a daughter. Altogether, Lindbergh had three lovers who bore him seven children, most of them born between 1958 and 1967.
When she died in 2001, Lindbergh’s wife Anne Morrow never even suspected that her husband led a double life in Europe. The letters his three lovers sent him in the United States were addressed to post-office boxes that he changed on a regular basis. Not one single love letter written by the three women to Lindbergh has been found, whereas his entire love correspondence to Brigitte has been preserved.
But the question remains: What drove this meticulous American pilot, who led a model marriage in the United States and had an exemplary family of many children, to set up and lead a polygamous existence after the Second World War with three clandestine families in Europe until the end of his life?
Certainly one major reason was that Lindbergh had never fully shook off the aftermath of his legendary Atlantic flight. Lindbergh, the anti-intellectual mechanical whiz and simple farmer’s boy from the Midwest, became an American national hero after his unprecedented pioneer accomplishment. He belonged to the American public. Overnight he became the most photographed American of that period. It put Lindbergh in a situation that he hated and exposed him to what he perceived as the potentially threatening forces of the mass media.
Lindbergh felt himself to be constantly persecuted and humiliated. When his 20-month-old son was kidnapped and murdered in 1932, there were always two perpetrators in his eyes: the kidnapper and the press. He was convinced that his son would never have been kidnapped without the “Lindbergh hype” created by the media. In postwar Europe, where Lindbergh could travel around unrecognized, he could fulfill his dream of happiness and emotionality. As a monopolized national hero, he could not live out this dream in the United States.
But this only partly explains the phenomenon of Lindbergh and his double life. Most of his American biographers have steered well clear of the fact that Charles Lindbergh was a staunch eugenicist, someone who believes in the improvement of the human species through the control of hereditary factors in mating. He believed in natural selection and in the existence of good genes. Heavily influenced by his friend Dr. Alexis Carrel, a race theorist and Nobel prizewinner in medicine, Lindberg was convinced that his genetic code (which he called “life flow”) ought to be passed on – even outside his marriage.
That he fathered five children with two disabled sisters may surprise an advocate of eugenics. Lindbergh, however, was not a racist ideologue, but a pragmatist. The rules he advanced in his books (such as “Autobiography of Values”), did not apply to him, only to others.
In the core of his being, he was an adventurer, an aviator, a pioneer, who anarchistically put himself above the conventions of American society and its puritanical morals. He was an adherent of the nonconformist writer Henry David Thoreau (“On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”), whose commitment to the individualism of primitive man against the normative dictatorship of bourgeois civilization fascinated him.
Still unanswered in America today is the controversial question: Was Lindbergh a Nazi, or a Hitler sympathizer? The basis for this allegation was Lindbergh’s acceptance of the Nazi medal of honor, the “Meritorious Order of the German Eagle,” from Hermann Göring. Without advance notice, the Eagle medal was given to the “Lone Eagle” in the American Embassy in Berlin while visiting Germany on a secret service mission for the U.S. government. He slipped the medal into his pocket, much to the delight of U.S. Ambassador Hugh Wilson, who declared that a refusal to accept the decoration would have been a “diplomatic catastrophe.” The more so since Lindbergh had been assigned to spy on German aircraft weapons.
Lindbergh’s problems started when he returned to the United States and joined the isolationist anti-war movement “America First.” Earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had offered him a cabinet post as secretary of aviation if he would renounce his isolationism. But the obstinate farmer’s boy from the Midwest remained true to his convictions and opposed the war. This was a strategic blunder, and a death sentence to his career in politics.
Lindbergh, the former national hero, became a persona non grata and from then on was regarded as a “Nazi sympathizer.” It was
a political character assassination – even if in part self-inflicted as he politically shot himself in the foot. He was not talented politically and uncompromising.
The American best-selling author and leftwing intellectual Gore Vidal proposed in his Lindbergh essay, “Lindbergh: The Eagle Is Grounded,” that the whole American fuss about Lindbergh and the Nazis be set aside and that the daring Atlantic aviator replace the antiquated Uncle Sam as the American symbolic figure: “Meanwhile, it might be a pleasant gift to the new century and the new millennium to replace the pejorative 1812 caricature of a sly treacherous Uncle Sam with that of Lindbergh, the best that we are ever apt to produce in the hero line, American style.”
And the Lindbergh family? Exactly one year ago, Reeve Morrow Lindbergh, the youngest “legal” daughter of Charles Lindbergh and president of the “Charles A. Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation,” visited her seven European siblings in Germany and Switzerland without any press and media fanfare. Reeve met with Astrid, Dyrk and David (Brigitte Hesshaimer’s children), with Vago and Christoph (Marietta Hesshaimer’s children), and with Valeska’s two Lindbergh children.
Thirty years after the death of the “Lone Eagle,” his children on both sides of the Atlantic embraced – in love for their father, the first human in the world to cross that very ocean in a solo flight 77 years ago. Even Hollywood could not have dreamt up a more touching finale: The struggle for truth within a family became a happy ending for a German-American love story.
- Rudolf Schröck (55) is a screenplay writer and publicist in Munich. He is the author of the biography “Das Doppelleben des Charles A. Lindbergh (the double life of Charles A. Lindbergh),” Heyne Verlag/Random House.