Review: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(A slightly different version of this review appeared at on May 20, 2013.)

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin  (Delacorte,2013)

Ladybelle Fiske (Isabella Fiske McFarlin)

Melanie Benjamin makes it clear — on her website and within The Aviator’s Wife itself — that what she is presenting about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, aviatrix, explorer, and remarkably poetic writer, is fiction. She also reminds the reader that historical fiction can lead one to an interest in the history that lies behind the story she has chosen to tell. On this, I can certainly agree with her.

I (guiltily) enjoyed The Aviator’s Wife — the first fiction of this kind I have read in a very long time — but even in full acceptance that fiction and nonfiction are not the same, it troubled me. I admire its ambition: to try to reproduce the voice and tone of a writer known and loved by thousands of people (and hated by just as many). Yet, problems remain when a writer presents historical fiction as a lure to real history. Some of the readers who have not yet read Mrs. Lindbergh’s books, when they do read them, may be disappointed ” by the real woman’s more literate and, at times, far less forthcoming, tone.

AML, as she often referred to herself, wrote lyrically and, at least in the beginning of her relationship with Charles Lindbergh, cautiously, as she says in her first volume of diaries and letters, Bring Me a Unicorn. Lindbergh’s passion for privacy — something he would know very little of from the moment his wheels touched down on May 21, 1927 in Paris, France, after his historic solo flight from New York City — kept Anne from expressing herself in the way she normally did. So, The Aviator’s Wife will surely seem to offer the reader more of the “real Anne” than Anne Lindbergh actually could, at least at that time.

She was a wonderful writer. I can’t help but admire her, in spite of everything that came later in her life, including the terrible book Wave of the Future (1940), which seemed to say that dictatorships were unavoidable and we might as well get used to them (AML later expressed her regret over the book and her wish that she had never written it).

Anne’s loyalty to Charles Lindbergh’s apparent anti-Semitic attitude and his stance against America’s involvement in World War II caused her much personal pain. Her brother-in-law, sister, and mother were all passionately in favor of helping the British. Her teacher, Mina Curtiss, and friends of hers were Jewish.  Lindbergh’s famous speech in Des Moines on September 11, 1940, which blamed “the British, the Jews (whom he personified as a “race”), and the Roosevelt Administration”  for promoting the US’s entry into World War II, permanently smeared both Lindberghs as Nazis. (Roosevelt believed that Charles Lindbergh was a Nazi– and it is possible that he was. He  also may simply have been stubborn and uncaring.)  Anne opposed  the speech and tried (without success) to get Lindbergh to leave out any reference to the Jews.  His unbending position permanently damaged her reputation as a human being and as a  writer. I believe she is not seen, even today, as the fine, remarkably visionary author she was.  She might have been,  if Lindbergh had listened to her– or if she had, as she considered doing, left him after Des Moines.

In spite of all this, even though I am the granddaughter of Jews on my father’s side, I still consider Anne Lindbergh one of the greatest of American writers. She never joined “America First,” the isolationist organization in which Lindbergh became a star, and she wrote to her Jewish friends in embarrassment, calling Lindbergh a “moderate.”

It is a problem. When one loves a writers’ work, yet loathes their political affiliation, what is the proper course– not to read that writer, or to accept that everyone has certain flaws? Anne’s seems to have been an inability to disagree–at least in public– with her husband. Of course, as Melanie Benjamin points out, the Lindbergh diaries and letters we have seen have been “heavily edited.” No one can really know what the position of the Lindberghs toward the Jews was until all their papers have been made available to the public, or to scholars of the era.  Even then, the papers may not tell the whole story.  How can we know exactly what any person thought in a time when Anti-Semitism was common, unless they clearly stated their position? Anne and Charles moved, in the end, to Darien, Connecticut– a town associated with the “Gentlemen’s Agreement”– a restriction against Jews.

My admiration for Mrs. Lindbergh’s work cannot help but be based on what she calls “intermittency,” in her vastly loved bestseller Gift from the Sea (1955). She is a complex person. She writes supporting Lindbergh; she also writes about the transcendent quality of the sea, the sky and the stars. Her friendship with Edward Sheldon, a blind and paralyzed playwright who helped other playwrights and writers to meet their personal best was a part of her life I’d have loved to know more about.

One of my favorite pieces of writing by AML is an article she wrote for “Reader’s Digest” about Sheldon. She shows him as a kind of modern American Zen master–and an easygoing, encouraging friend. The brief piece is so remarkably evocative that one almost knows exactly what it was to have been with such a person.

Early on, she loved, really loved — there is no other word for it — the great flyer and writer Antoine de St. Exupery, who crashed while flying against the Nazis for France. Yet, not long after, she accepted Lindbergh’s rejection and abandonment of France and Britain, (both of which countries had taken them in after the kidnapping and the destructive media tsunami they experienced in the United States in the mid-Thirties).  The Lindberghs let both countries (though their brother-in-law, Aubrey Morgan, was Welsh) fall to Hitler.

Women did hold a different role in their husband’s lives in those days than now– and a lesser one– but she could have taken a stand against Lindbergh’s cold rejection of “the Jews” and “the British.”  I suppose that my admiration for the woman, not just her writing, is focused on  intermittency.

I realize that space and the need for focus makes it impossible for all this to come to the fore in Ms. Benjamin’s novel. One cannot include everything in any book, but how I would have loved to read about more of the rarities in AML’s life, as opposed to all that we already know — the kidnapping of her first son, hiding from the press, leaving the flying life to raise her five living children.

Mrs. Lindbergh had a special quality that is missing from our life today, for the most part — a real literacy, and a true love of poetry. We hear it every day in things such as the present use of the word “lay” for “lie,” and “like” when used where “as if” is the proper usage. The person telling the story in The Aviator’s Wife could be anyone, even though it is made clear that she was the daughter of a J.P. Morgan partner, Dwight Morrow, the Ambassador to Mexico.

Perhaps this is something that matters to only a very few. But that certain persons lived a life of the mind that is oddly out of reach to many readers today is important. It ought to be brought forth like a vintage gem and shown to the reader, ineffably precious. Let us not lower ourselves to the understanding of the present, but try to lift the reader up to the knowledge of the past.

There are anomalies and oddities in the Benjamin book. Elisabeth Morrow, Anne’s sister — was she, as presented here, a lesbian? Did she truly have a relationship with Constance Chilton, her friend and co-educator?  If she were, I certainly wouldn’t think less of her; nor would most in this day. But in all the Lindbergh legends, I have never read anything about this. (Ms. Benjamin says that one biography mentions the possibility of such a relationship.)

Elisabeth’s marriage to Aubrey Morgan, however brief (she died of heart failure in 1934), seems to have been a happy and fulfilled one. It is not important whether she and Constance Chilton were lovers, but since we don’t know that they were, why create an image that seems oddly out-of-place and is unknown to those who have already written about the Lindberghs and Morrows?

I also feel that it is most unlikely that Anne ever knew that Charles Lindbergh had lovers (three, and seven children) in Germany.  All we know about this is the statement of a friend of hers– “She knew, but she didn’t know what she knew.” At the same time, Anne herself had a love affair — though apparently some have thought that it was platonic — with her doctor, Dana Atchley. Charles Lindbergh seems to have known about this relationship. At the end of the book, Lindbergh, dying, also admits to Anne that he did something to their baby “back in Thirty-two,” something that has constantly been present in the minds of Lindbergh kidnapping conspiracists, unlikely as it is.
Blame has fallen on CAL for killing Charles Lindbergh, Jr. while playing one of Lindbergh’s silly practical jokes — or even to get rid of  the child because there was “something wrong” with him. These ideas are almost certainly untrue.

Lindbergh was unduly rough with his children. He left Charles Jr., a baby, outside for an hour in a crib to “learn to take care of himself;” he spanked his other children (I wonder why Anne did not try to prevent this, since later on, in old age, her behavior made it clear that she did not agree with spanking children. She asked  her daughter Reeve to take her home — “they spank children here!”) — and scolded them, but he apparently loved them in his own way — and obviously wanted to have as many as he could.

My main objection, however, remains that so many people know Anne Lindbergh’s character. Her Smith College background, her writing style, and her sensitive, literate voice are so well-known that, for her readers, this book is almost impossible to accept as having come forth from to the same writer. Anyone with an interest in the Lindbergh family would like to know more about them — about the relationship between Anne and Charles, which was often difficult — Anne considered divorcing Charles in the 1950s — but which, in reality, never failed to the end. But we are more likely to learn of it if more Lindbergh family papers become available, and more histories written, than through fiction.

I appreciate the place of historical fiction, especially for younger readers, so long as they know that the tale enfolds more truths  than those presented in the story they are reading. Certainly books like Thomas B. Costain’s led me into the fascinating and entangled world of British history and the relationships of the royal family of the day. But it is taking a great chance on either losing the respect of the reader or leading them completely astray to write a book such as this.

It takes a person who lived through the 20th century and was a writer with a strong, vivid, known, and widely appreciated voice and presents her as, in essence, the same almost childlike character throughout the book. Anne Lindbergh, despite her position on help to Britain (while her own family stood staunchly by the Allies) during World War II, was a person who grew and changed and learned.  (While I am a pacifist, I cannot help but feel that there is no way America could have left the Allies to the hands of the Axis, never even offering them Lend-Lease, something Lindbergh opposed.)

I wish Ms. Benjamin well with this form of literature, especially if it leads the reader farther into the truth, but I wish that she had not tried to tell the story in a first-person voice. It is grating to those who know the true person’s voice, with all its beauty and all its errors, very well. Yet I hope people will read The Aviator’s Wife –– and let it lead them into a more profound understanding of this complex woman and her times.


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