Candace Fleming Talks with Roger

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After writing about such American icons as Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Buffalo Bill, and Amelia Earhart, Candace Fleming takes a good close look at The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh. The details are creepier than you probably thought.

Roger Sutton: Do you think you could have researched and written The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh without leaving the house?

Candace Fleming: I don’t think I could have. I had to go to some of those places and see them for myself. Lindbergh’s boyhood home. Long Island. Connecticut. Martha’s Vineyard. They gave me a real sense of who he was. And there are a lot of museums and archives that I visited that of course are not open now. I’m working on a book about Leopold and Loeb, which takes place right here in Chicago, and I’m having a hard time getting what I need.

RS: I wonder what this “pause” is going to do to nonfiction.

CF: I’m trying to work around it, write around it for now. The problem with that, of course, is once you start to write, it’s then that you discover things that change the whole idea of a book. It’s what I call my vital idea — what I’m trying to say through this particular piece of history. I only learn that if I do enough research to figure it out.

RS: What would you say that was in The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh?

CF: What is a hero? Who are the heroes?

RS: I’m not sure Lindbergh was one, after reading your book!

CF: Yeah, really. How long do we give a hero a pass? Why do we listen to them? Why do we give them big platforms and let them talk about things they know absolutely nothing about — and then we believe them? What is it about celebrity and heroes? And is someone — in this case Lindbergh — still a hero? Now more than ever, in the twenty-first century, it’s time to start reconsidering people who have gotten the lion’s share of history’s spotlight — the typical white men, the guys who everybody talks about. I’ve been thinking about this more and more, and it’s really time for us to take a look. So, Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic and it was brave and amazing and I would never take that away from him. He was handsome and heroic and wholesome. But the rest of his life — what was that? Especially now, as we talk to kids. Why were we calling it the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award? What are our questions now about Dr. Seuss? Let’s take a look at Charles Lindbergh — he was known as one of America’s greatest heroes, but he was also all these other things.

RS: Which we even knew at the time, as you document. It wasn’t something that people weren’t talking about.

CF: No, we knew at the time, and we still gave him a pass later on. In the 1950s and ʼ60s he worked really hard at rehabilitating his reputation, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh continued doing that until the end of her life. He rehabilitated himself so well that history books will tell you he was an isolationist. He wasn’t an isolationist — he wasn’t about keeping the United States out of war. He was just keeping the United States out of a war in Europe against the Germans. He wanted to fight for the Germans, the white race. He was ready to go to war with Japan and defeat them.

RS: When writing for young readers, how do you decide which warts to reveal?

CF: Here’s the thing: if I was talking about Lindbergh to third graders, I would probably just tell them about the heroic Charles Lindbergh. But YA readers, teen readers, are certainly ready to discover who he really was and find out about his complicated life. I try not to tell them how to feel about him and his opinions, but they are smart enough to think about it in their own terms.

RS: As I was reading your book, I thought, “Candy, don’t you see what an a-hole this guy is?”

CF: I do, but I don’t think that’s my job. When I write YA, it’s not my job. I love the gray areas of history, and especially those morally ambiguous parts where teen readers are allowed to bring their own opinions, their own thoughts, and their own morality. He was this, but he was also this. I like to take readers to those places.

RS: How do you decide the level of emphasis you’re going to give something? I’m thinking of the depiction of the laboratory/chamber of horrors he worked in with Dr. Carrel at the Rockefeller Institute. The mouse house designed to prove “the survival of the fittest.” Brr!

CF: Yeah, the mousery really bothered me when I first learned about it. But it bothered me even more when I began to make connections — it’s right there in his wartime journals. In June of 1945 he went to a recently liberated concentration camp; he didn’t seem to make the connection between how he was describing the people there and how he described the mice in his mousery. The smell of the concentration camp was the same smell as at the mousery: fear and death and suffering. He notes it, but he doesn’t really connect. There he was in the 1930s, in that laboratory, and he really believed in social Darwinism — the superior mouse and the lesser mouse. He thought that was how mankind should work as well. But then he saw it firsthand — and he didn’t like what he saw. So he made excuses to try to get around the reality that it doesn’t work when it comes to people. The papers of the American Philosophical Society show — they have all the American Eugenics Society papers — he was actually on the board and still contributing money to the society until his death. By this point, eugenics had been pretty well shown to be a horrible belief and a crock of shit, but he’s still there. He was a man who did not seem to change his mind very much.

RS: Even from early on, he seems like a damaged person to me, from reading your book.

CF: I wrote about his childhood later — I had to go back and write the childhood. Lindbergh himself paints sort of this wholesome, Mark Twain type of childhood — a letter of his that was published was called “Boyhood on the Upper Mississippi” — but his childhood was odd and difficult and compartmentalized. I think he might have been a bit on the spectrum, or maybe a lot on the spectrum. He came from a decidedly odd family. You could see who he was even as a child, sort of single-minded, very mechanical. Didn’t change his mind at all. He had a real belief in his own superiority, and a lot of self-confidence that stems from that. His childhood really formed who he was. He’s emotionally cold. He doesn’t like to be physical at all.

RS: He won’t kiss his mother for the camera.

CF: Neither of them will kiss — his mother says “we don’t do that.” When she tucked him in, they shook hands.

RS: Do you think he was a virgin when he married Anne?

CF: I do believe he was.

RS: He had a checklist of things that he’s looking for in a wife. There’s no passion, there’s no heat. It’s hard to imagine them Doing It, to tell you the truth.

CF: I know. And yet there must have been some heat, because she was just head over heels and totally in love, and continued to be easily dominated and cowed by him, ready to do pretty much anything he wanted, including leaving her children, when she didn’t want to do so. Especially the second boy, after what happened to Charles Jr. She still goes off. And then writing that fascist tract, The Wave of the Future, 1940…

RS: Did you read it?

CF: I did — it’s hard to find.

RS: I know. I was looking for it. You made me curious.

CF: The Lindbergh Foundation is really, really particular about the Lindbergh image they’re still putting out. I got my copy through interlibrary loan. I’m old-school. It came from a university library. It took a couple weeks, but I got it.

RS: My whole introduction to Lindbergh as a kid was through Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Her diaries were published when I was in high school, and they were the hot thing. Bring Me a Unicorn was the first volume, and she meets Charles at the end of it. All I knew was he had flown the Atlantic nonstop — that was kind of it. You really brought these people crashing down for me, to tell you the truth.

CF: Oh, I’m sorry. I have a tendency to do that. People wrote to me after my Romanovs book — “You’ve ruined the Romanovs for me.” I ruined them for myself too.

RS: What’s different about the way you view Lindbergh now versus before you started the project?

CF: I’d just thought of him as the guy who flew across the Atlantic, and that didn’t really interest me much (though, yes, I knew it was a big deal, a big piece of history). And I knew about the kidnapping — in fact, it was the kidnapping that I was sort of sniffing around for new ideas. Frankly, I’m always writing this stuff that I was fascinated with when I was a teenager. I, too, read those diaries of Anne’s, and the one when the baby was taken and she is completely broken apart — I thought, “This is what I want to write about—the kidnapping, and all the crazy theories surrounding it.” When I started that research, I hadn’t really thought about Charles as much of a player. But I discovered he had this dominant personality. The first time I really started to dig deeper into his role was when I learned the New Jersey state troopers just kind of gave him the okay to oversee the investigation. “Charles Lindbergh’s in charge.” And I’m thinking, Why the hell would they give him all that responsibility? Why would they give over their agency to him when they’re the policemen? What’s going on here? That’s when I started to delve into his personality. He was completely overwhelming. I would find something, and I’d be like, what?! And then I’d have to look a little bit deeper, and then I’d find something else that I found completely mystifying. I remember calling my editor Anne Schwartz. I’d been working on this book about seven months, and I had to call her and say, “I can’t do the kidnapping. I’ve got to do the whole Lindbergh thing.” And then after we fell into the whole 2016 election — I just kept seeing parallels.

RS: Oh, yeah. Your opening scene of an America First rally could be contemporary.

CF: The whole rally thing just freaked me out. And then we had that election — Trump was using the slogan “America First,” and I was losing my mind. I’d stomp around in my house going, “Doesn’t he know what America First — of course he doesn’t know.” So all of it felt timely to me. It felt like Lindbergh’s whole story needed to be told. The kidnapping might be what readers may be more interested in, but it’s the least important aspect of his life, really. That’s how I began to see it.

RS: I was a little confused — the maid who killed herself, but then later it was determined she had nothing to do with it — why did she kill herself?

CF: We’re not sure. At the time, investigators really felt that there had to have been some inside help, that someone had to have told Bruno Richard Hauptmann when the family was or wasn’t there. They’re pretty much out in the woods; there’s absolutely no security. When they’re at the Morrow estate in New Jersey, they’ve got a fence, they’ve got security, they’ve got a lot of people around. But in this case it’s pretty much Charles, Anne, the baby, the nurse, and a couple of house people. They really believed that there was some inside help, and they just never found it. Part of the reason they never found it was that Lindbergh refused to let the help really be questioned, which is why the police had to do it behind his back, basically had to lie to him, do it when he wasn’t looking. He totally believed that since he had chosen the help and trusted the help —

RS: What could go wrong?

CF: His gut instinct was always right, so what could go wrong? Why the maid killed herself — I don’t know. Was it guilt? She just couldn’t take it anymore? Was it because she had behaved in a way that was sort of scandalous for 1932? You tell me.

RS: Did you read Sarah Miller’s book about the Dionne quintuplets? It’s so interesting to me how she also kind of took a signal event from the same era, the birth of the quints, and went at it in a different way. Your whole book, to me, presents Lindbergh within the world he came into as well as the world he shaped. Whereas Miller’s book about the quintuplets stayed with the quintuplets the whole time. It was almost as if the book was from their point of view. To me, it’s such an interesting way of contrasting how we look at history.

CF: I think about this all the time. There’s the insider’s view and the outsider’s view. It is an interesting way to look at history. I think the reason I didn’t take a more insider’s view on Lindbergh is simply because I kept finding so many parallels between our moment in time and his moment in time.

RS: And he wasn’t a baby in a nursery. He was out affecting world events.

CF: Yeah, he was moving around a lot.

RS: Did you watch The Plot Against America?

CF: I did. Salon actually asked me to write a piece to go along with it. I thought it was creepier on the screen. Did you watch it?

RS: I haven’t read the book, but Richard had, and that’s why we watched it. I thought it was so creepy.

CF: I think Lindbergh’s life is terrifying — I’m horrified at times by his life. I did watch it, and I kept saying stuff like, “Oh, for god’s sake, Anne Morrow would never have been that sophisticated and smooth, or that glamorous.”

RS: She was a bluestocking.

CF: She definitely was. And he had too much hair. His hair looked way too good. And they also showed him at one point with a champagne glass at the White House, and he didn’t drink. He hated drinking. He wouldn’t even drink coffee because it might make him jittery. Except of course when he met those three women in Europe, and then he became a different man. Suddenly he took up smoking. And there’s a picture of him — I couldn’t get it into the book — wearing a beret.

RS: Ooh la la!

CF: He talks about how he was really enjoying a cigarette. Said he was smoking with the Europeans. I’m like, “Who is this man?” But as somebody else noted, he was a man who was unbelievably compartmentalized. This part of his life, this part of his life. And he carried very few people through from beginning to end. His mother, Anne, his children, when he paid attention to them. But otherwise, no friends really followed him from place to place, from parts of his life to parts of his life. How quickly he got rid of Dr. Carrel when they didn’t really need him anymore.

RS: You have to tell Eric [Rohmann, Fleming's partner] I thank him for the nightmares I know I’m going to have from that diagram he drew of the Spirit of St. Louis. I hadn’t known that Lindbergh couldn’t see where he was going when he was flying across the Atlantic!

CF: Can you imagine? He figured it out. To think that he would have to lean out his window to actually see is insane, but as he said, what did he need to see? He wasn’t going to run into anything out there.

RS: Not then, true.

CF: I can’t even imagine taking off and landing, can’t see anything. But it worked for him. He flew across the Atlantic in a kite with a bunch of fuel. It’s kind of amazing. I’m going to give him that.

RS: Yeah, I think you have to. I think what you’re saying is true, that he did do something brave and heroic and that did change history in terms of opening up to new technologies, etc.

CF: It really is the rise and then the fall. Maybe someone can build a really great hotel or a casino, but he might not be such a good president.

RS: Can I keep that in?

CF: That's fine. Everyone knows my opinion.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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Emily Schneider

Ms. Fleming, your reference to Dr. Seuss is somewhat surprising. It seems that you are suggesting that, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, his undeniable racism qualifies him to be removed from the canon, as opposed to putting him in the context of his time. You must know that Geisel was one of the most outspoken critics of Lindbergh and the America First movement. In fact, some of his most famous cartoons for PM mocked Lindbergh's xenophobia and antisemitism. Over the course of his long career, Dr. Seuss's ideas evolved and he made lasting contributions to literature for all children. The same cannot be said of Lindbergh. The comparison seems misplaced.

Posted : Jul 05, 2020 11:39

Alice Cauble

Well, now I know which book I need to read next! I was completely taken by surprise by the “I didn’t know that!” information about Charles Lindbergh in this conversation. And the parallels to today are astounding as well as frightening. Thank you to the author for filling in some big holes in my “hero” knowledge.

Posted : Jun 26, 2020 01:02



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