Celebrity is so cheap and tawdry these days that it is difficult to appreciate the adulation accorded Charles Lindbergh in 1927.
Upon returning to the United States from his daring solo flight to Paris, Lindbergh enjoyed the largest ticker-tape parade in American history, and embarked on an 80-city, 48-state tour. It was estimated that one in four Americans saw him in person.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had any parallels — maybe the Beatles in 1964 — but we’re talking about a national hero,” said Brian Horrigan, a Minnesota Historical Society curator who is writing a book on Lindbergh and American cultural history. “I can’t overstate it. Everyone wanted a piece of this guy.”
When Lindbergh’s 2-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered in 1932, coverage of the event reached to every corner of the nation and much of the world. Radio came of age as a news source. Newspaperman H.L Mencken called the crime “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”
The tragedy, the circus and the subsequent trial that convicted Bruno Richard Hauptmann in 1936 are the subject of “Baby Case,” a musical by composer Michael Ogborn that opens Saturday at the History Theatre in St. Paul. The subject matter sounds fairly dark — maybe something Kander and Ebb might have tackled — but director Ron Peluso is not deterred.
“We’ve had a lot of patrons say, ‘Really? A musical about a kidnapping?’ ” Peluso said. “But you look at the subjects of ‘Chicago,’ ‘Rent,’ ‘Les Miz’ — those are serious pieces. Michael’s take is stirring and compelling and fascinating.”
A dazzling icon
Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight and the kidnapping took place while he was still universally idolized. His pronouncements on “the white race,” the discovery of children and lovers he kept secret in Europe and his admiration for Nazi Germany would later tarnish a once-gleaming hero.
Plus, books and media in the past 30 years have challenged Hauptmann’s guilt and suggested conspiracies that implicate Lindbergh and his relatives of complicity in the crime.
For these reasons, the farmboy from Little Falls, Minn., who imagined he might become a mechanic working on planes, has not weathered history well.
“Baby Case” deals not with Lindbergh’s legacy. It is focused on the four-year ordeal that fixed America’s attention on its fair-haired hero and the ghastly crime.
Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. was taken from his crib on the night of March 1, 1932. Within hours, police and media had descended on the New Jersey home. The famed aviator took personal control of the investigation.
“His ego was enormous,” said Horrigan. “He would have said, ‘I’m Charles Lindbergh, and I’ll tell you what to do.’ ”
His involvement and susceptibility to scams that were perpetrated did not serve him well. At one point, he delivered a huge ransom to a sketchy character who promised the child was alive. Lindbergh had to admit later that he had been fooled. On May 12, the 20-month-old child was found dead.
Hauptmann was not arrested until 1934, and the media caught its second breath in sensationalizing the case.
“The coverage was so out of proportion to anything that had gone before,” said Horrigan. “Radio coverage and the idea of breaking news is a phenomenon that is tied directly to the kidnapping and trial.”
Hauptmann, a German immigrant living in Brooklyn, was convicted largely because ransom money was found in his garage and boards from his attic matched those used to build a crude ladder allegedly used in the kidnapping. He professed his innocence even to his demise in the electric chair.
Horrigan believes Hauptmann was probably guilty, but he did not receive a fair trial and did not act alone.
Playing the media circus
Peluso heard of “Baby Case” in 2003 and inquired about the rights. He lost interest when he heard there were 24 actors in the play. A trimmed version was presented at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2012 and received mostly positive reviews. Ogborn’s music and lyrics and director Jeremy Dobrish won festival awards and the production was named “Best of the Fest.”
The play is as much about the media and the criminal case as it is about Lindbergh. “It is wickedly satirical about how the media treat crime,” Peluso said. “William Randolph Hearst put up the money for the defense and he owned 28 papers at the time.”
Peluso’s cast includes Peter Middlecamp, who plays both Lindbergh and Hauptmann. Kendall Anne Thompson plays Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Anna Hauptmann. Jon Hegge is the famous radio broadcaster Walter Winchell, who is presented as the ringmaster for the circus.
Minnesota innocence lost
The Lindberghs withdrew to Europe after the kidnapping to escape the public hysteria, and returned to the United States in 1939. Despite the retreat, Horrigan said, Lindbergh was able to surmount the tragedy almost immediately.
“He and Anne went on one of the world tours, and he got on with his life,” Horrigan said. “From 1930 on, he wrote about his life and his thoughts and there is almost no scrap of writing that is about the kidnapping.”
If Lindbergh was deeply affected, Horrigan said, it was in his attitudes about the media.
“He went to his grave blaming the media for the death of his son,” Horrigan said.
Lindbergh was a complex individual — although many of the contradictions and unsavory proclamations stemmed from his inability to fully understand early in his life the implications of being a media star.
Horrigan, who curated the exhibit at the Lindbergh historic site in Little Falls, said Charles wanted to be a mechanic, something that was not possible once he achieved a fame he could not possibly have foreseen.
The Little Falls center, which includes Lindbergh’s childhood home, has an elegiac quality when a visitor considers the life that awaited a lanky kid who woke up every morning with the Mississippi River in his back yard, and who was more comfortable with machines than he was with people. Lindbergh made one of his last public appearances at the dedication in 1971.
“Reeve [Lindbergh’s daughter] has said it is that home on the river that helps her to understand her father better than any other place,” said Horrigan. “That was the only time in his life that he had that innocence.”