Review

The Aviator's Wife

by Melanie Benjamin

A few years ago, MTV had a documentary show called “Diary,” which would delve into the hidden personal life of a celebrity. Viewers were enticed with the tagline “You think you know, but you have no idea.” The same could be said of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. When her name comes up, the first things that usually come to mind are her famous aviator husband, and the notorious kidnapping/murder of her first child, which was dubbed the “Crime of the Century.” But there is so much more to Anne than meets the eye. And luckily, we have Melanie Benjamin’s keen talents to illuminate the private life of this very public woman.

At age 21, Anne Morrow was an ambassador’s daughter and a senior at Smith College, wondering what life held in store for her. Her older sister, Elisabeth, was the beauty; her brother, Dwight, was her father’s pride and joy, and the only boy in the family; and her younger sister, Con, was the charming one. Anne had resigned herself to be the “shy one, the strange one.”

"As she did in her two previous novels, ALICE I HAVE BEEN and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB, Melanie Benjamin shows us the indispensable woman behind the legendary man. Through the prism of the Lindberghs’ often blustery marriage, a portrait emerges of a truly extraordinary woman --- one who soared to great heights and descended into unimaginable depths, emerging stronger for the journey."

Over a school holiday, her father invited famed aviator Colonel Charles Lindbergh to join them at their temporary home at the American embassy in Mexico City. Convinced that her mother was attempting a match between Elisabeth and the aviator, Anne tried to disappear into the background. Despite her best efforts, Charles sought out her company, and before the night was over, he invited her to fly with him in his plane. He explained to the shy co-ed why he was more comfortable in the air: “Flying is perfectly safe. Up there on the currents, like the birds --- it’s a holy thing. Nothing has ever made me feel so --- so in control of my own destiny. So above all the petty strife and cares of the world. It’s down here where the danger is, you know --- not up there.” Soon the young Anne was literally swept off her feet by this somewhat shy but very famous figure, and in the spring of 1929, they were wed.

Very quickly Anne was given a crash course in being married to a celebrity. Paparazzi and reporters followed their every move. Her new husband advised her, “Don’t let them make you cry. Never let them win.” “I didn’t know we were at war,” the new bride lamented. But this was just one of the many aspects of her very public marriage that she would have to endure. A second challenge was learning and understanding her husband’s explicit orders on how their house should be run, down to the amount of starch in his shirts --- hardly tasks her Smith education prepared her for. Another was his high expectations of her. Anne not only expected to obtain her own pilot’s license, but also to accompany him on his many missions as his co-pilot, which she did with aplomb, even setting some records herself: “I had passed my test --- not just my solo test but the first test of our marriage. He led, I followed, and that meant I had to keep up with him. Now I had proved that I could.”

Anne reveled in the excitement of being with her husband on these journeys, but after their first child was born, she found herself wanting to nest with young Charlie at their new home in rural New Jersey, where they could live out of the prying eye of the public. But their idyllic life was shattered when the baby was kidnapped and subsequently found dead in a shallow grave months later. (Benjamin chooses to include the kidnapping but doesn’t delve into too much detail of the case, focusing more on how it was a defining moment in Anne’s life and her marriage.) This horrific event clearly defined the end of their honeymoon period and the beginning of the rest of their turbulent marriage.

In time, Anne was pregnant again and the family welcomed son Jon. She would soon increase her brood with two more sons and two daughters. With the arrival of the children, a new phase in Anne’s life began, and despite her husband’s urging, she could no longer accompany him on his many jaunts around the world. After breaking multiple records, Charles started consulting for large aviation companies, such as Pan Am, and this work took him all over the world, for months at a time. Anne was content to keep house and look after the children. Both spouses kept very busy, and the few occasions they were together under the same roof could sometimes be an awkward process of getting reacquainted, no longer the close flying partners of their early years: “In the air we were partners…but on land, we were always separated...”

During the time leading up to and including World War II, more difficulties arose for Charles after vocally expressing his political support for Germany and how he hoped the U.S. would ally themselves with Hitler. Anne, ever supportive of her husband, even penned an essay backing up his sentiments, an act she greatly regretted later. The Pentagon and the U.S. government began to distance themselves from the couple, so they decided to move abroad for a time, in the hopes that things would change for the better after the war.

Despite his many old-fashioned expectations of women, Charles did encourage his wife to pursue writing, which she started in the 1930s, penning books about their travels. But it was 1955’s GIFT FROM THE SEA that was her crowning glory, and still credited to this day as being one of the first books supporting the fledgling environmental movement.

As she did in her two previous novels, ALICE I HAVE BEEN and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB, Melanie Benjamin shows us the indispensable woman behind the legendary man. Through the prism of the Lindberghs’ often blustery marriage, a portrait emerges of a truly extraordinary woman --- one who soared to great heights and descended into unimaginable depths, emerging stronger for the journey.

Despite her many accomplishments, Anne never forgot her role as partner to the greatest aviator of the 20th century: “I’ll never forget what he taught me. I’ll never be rid of his legacy; for the rest of my life…I will take my duties seriously, just as seriously as I once navigated his crew. I will be the bridge between who Charles was, and who he was assumed to be. The keeper of the flame. The guardian of his reputation, for much of it deserves to be remembered. And it’s up to me, as the aviator’s wife who was once an ambassador’s daughter, to decide how much.”

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 17, 2013

The Aviator's Wife
by Melanie Benjamin

  • Publication Date: January 15, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press
  • ISBN-10: 0345528670
  • ISBN-13: 9780345528674